There are times when surely like me, you have caught yourself doing or thinking so deeply wrongly- when just minutes before, you were reading Holy Scripture. And of course, we’ve seen this happen so often in others- that’s always so much easier to see. There’s a split between Bible study, and the real issues of life. And it’s that split I’d like to explore, and suggest why it exists, and what we might practically do about it.
This split between Bible study and practice is often observable in the way that speakers or pastoral figures will give expositions of Scripture which leave it to the audience to draw the practical lessons. The speaker or leader somehow balks at that crucial point of overflow between the theoretical and the practical. This has bred the fair enough observation by the cynical that ‘I get nothing out of church, it’s all just academic, mere ideas, nothing practical’. One reaction against this has been the talk on a purely practical, ‘life’ level, which has no Biblical underpinning. One man’s ideas about ‘what we ought to be doing’ can be as good as any other man’s. It matters what Biblical texts mean, but we need to be asking the right questions in order to connect them to life in practice. Unless we do, we enter into the crisis of so many believers- whereby the Bible becomes sterile and remote from them; the shining path of the new life becomes a rut. And yet we rightly proclaim the Bible as God’s word to be the basis of our lives, and to be a living word.
Left Brain, Right Brain
This basic division between theory and practice is actually perfectly natural. It’s how we are structured. The human brain is divided into two parts- the right and left ‘hemispheres’, connected by a bunch of fibres. In cases of severe trauma to the head, the brain can flood with blood and death then follows. Brain surgeons began separating the two hemispheres in cases of such trauma in order to preserve life. As the patient learnt to function again afterwards, it became clear that the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body [and vice versa]. The left hemisphere was found to control speech, naming things, grammar, abstract thinking, the intellect. The right hemisphere was observed to be controlling meaning-in-context, emotion, perception of size, colour etc. The split between right and left hemispheres is in fact very similar to the split we observe between our Bible study on the one hand, and our practical application and feeling of it on the other. So my first point is not to despair at the existence of the split. It’s part of our being. The challenge of being a whole person in Christ is to synthesize the two sides. It therefore shouldn’t surprise us at all that in spiritually immature individuals and systems, the most profound, gripping exposition of Scripture can be listened to with riveted attention and every approval- and yet produce absolutely no practical outcome in the lives of the listeners.
The integration of the Biblical text with human life in practice thus becomes one of the keys in spiritual life, and is a technique which needs to be acquired as soon as possible on our spiritual journey. The problem is that if we fail in this, as the actual text of Scripture becomes more familiar to us over years of reading and hearing it discussed, it becomes the harder to find a second naivete, to really come to God’s word and His Son ‘again for the first time’; to be as it were a born again virgin. All human creativity likely arises from the process of the left hand analyzing data, and the right interpreting it and reordering it into a coherent whole. If the right hand doesn’t do this, then the data as it stands can be seen as contradictory- and those cynics who revel in supposed ‘Bible contradictions’ have simply failed to come to the text with a mature mind and both parts of their brain. If left and right work together, we see synthesis and not mere words of text; both form and content at the same time. I wonder if this idea of left and right hemispheres is alluded to in Scripture. There are some verses which certainly seem possibly relevant- e.g. we read that we are to progress our spiritual warfare “with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Cor. 6:7). Our right eye can cause us to stumble (Mt. 5:29), the left hand is not to know what the right hand does (Mt. 6:3). “I will pray with the spirit [right hemisphere?] and I will pray also with the mind [the left?]” (1 Cor. 14:15).
We live in a society which on one hand favours left-brain thinking. Analysis, hard fact, selfishness, awareness that generosity means that we lose- these are all left brain attributes. And they are rewarded, whereas spirituality requires the free function of the right hemisphere. But some have reacted so far against what they perceive as cold intellectualism that they end up wanting only the fuzzy, feel good kind of spirituality which is based purely on sentiment and without any underpinning in Biblical truth.
How practically, then, can we come to the Bible in a holistic manner, as the whole person? How can we engage more meaningfully and practically with the text we read? We often find answers in things we are so familiar with that we have ceased to give them their true weight. If we accept that the Bible really is Divinely inspired, then we are called to attention by its every word. This is no mere textbook, novel or history book. These words are God speaking to us personally. Seeing this is God speaking to us as mere men, let us not assume that we understand the text before reading it. For example, as I approach Luke 15 my temptation is to skim read the text and think: ‘The lost coin- ah, yeah, the woman is Jesus, the coins were all she owned, same feeling for Jesus when He loses us… then, the lost sheep… ah yes, balancing a story about a woman with one about a man… He calls the neighbours to rejoice and brings the confused animal into His house, that is an element of unreality, just shows how happy Jesus is if we come back… then the prodigal, yeah, that’s an extension of the other two, old men didn’t run in the East, had to walk sedately, so he ran to save his son shame at the hands of the villagers, we should save the sinner from shame too… I remember reading that book about all that, Through Peasant Eyes, that’s a really good book, the one with orange letters on the spine almost at the far end of the middle shelf of the bookcase by the window’. And time and again as I read the chapter- that can be where I remain. The same old thoughts, good and helpful in themselves, but not really registering deep within me because they are so familiar. And I emerge from Luke 15 not much better in practice. But it’s more comfortable to treat Scripture like this, because we have profound anxiety at the prospect of the unknown. It’s far cosier to just assume that we are on familiar ground.
We need to pray for the ability to come to God’s word fresh. To meet Jesus again for the first time, as it were. If we sense more deeply the Divine inspiration of the words and our own desperate frailty and limitation of understanding the Divine, we will approach the text as terra incognita, unknown and even frightening in its possible demands upon us. For who dare assume that they fully understand the words of God in every dimension? If I were to feel that more deeply, then I would not start reading Luke 15 with the attitude that ‘Ah Luke 15, yeah I know all about this’. The fact we may know something about the text doesn’t mean that we know all about it. And this is an oft observed feature of the Bible- that we can study it multiple times and still something new comes out of the page at us. Our mental map of e.g. Luke 15 is not all that there is in Luke 15. The map is not the territory. And the more we perceive our own limitations of understanding, the more we will sense that the territory is still largely unknown to us. Our mental map of that chapter is indeed something, but it is almost nothing compared to the vastness of the territory.
Openness to Change
God’s Spirit operates in many ways, but one of them is undoubtedly through His word. One reason the text doesn’t change us may simply be because we don’t want to be changed. One could be forgiven for thinking that a lot of people go to church exactly because they don’t like the change they see around them- their own ageing process, the change of society further and further away from the safe environment [as they perceive it] which they recall from their childhood. And institutionalized religion is very often a safe place, with an atmosphere and smell which is at least 20 years behind the present. And we who are in some way involved with such organizations… lament our personal lack of change in response to the dynamism of God’s word? Could the fault not be within us? One form this takes is our way of assuming we understand the text. Because we consider we ‘have the Truth’ in terms of having a valid relationship with the Lord Jesus and hope of eternity, we can too easily assume that therefore we fully understand every word in the Bible. But that doesn’t follow. And yet that impression is probably behind a phrase I hear too often in Biblical discussion, when someone asks a question about the meaning of a verse: ‘Ah but doesn’t it simply mean that…’ , and then some moral platitude or well agreed doctrinal truth is stated. This is reductionism, bringing the text down to a simplistic interpretation of what it ‘simply means’. The same left brain approach can be seen in a desire to interpret the elements of the tabernacle or parables in a simplistic ‘this equals that’ approach. The idea is very much ‘Now write that interpretation in your margin next to that verse, and go on to the next verse- and do the same’. And so the live, wild tiger dynamism of God’s Spirit as it is in His word is tamed down to some simplistic and trite form of words- human words.
Read the Text for Yourself
That might sound obvious. But increasingly, people are reading not so much the Bible text, but about the Bible, ever enthusing about the latest ‘absolutely awesome’ book they bought from Amazon [at an equally ‘awesome’ special discount this month]. The ultimately awesome book is the Bible, not some nicely wordsmithed book about the Bible. If you ‘get nothing out of’ the Bible text, re-read it, pray for understanding, re-read it… and the most amazing things will come out of it to you. And as Harry Tennant used to say about Bible study, no jewel shines so brightly as the one you find yourself. One of those ‘finds’ can last a lifetime; whereas what you read in those ‘awesome’ [yes, the use of the word does rather bug me] Amazon books will likely be forgotten by you… next week, and surely by next month. God forbid that our relationship with Him should boil down to reading one of those awesome Amazon books about spirituality or about His word… whilst His own word remains unopened, our engagement with whatever we read about it dependent upon our dimming memories of the Bible text we read years ago. You may like to read the text in another language, if you know another one. Or in other versions. Or copy it out, making a summary of it. Read it out loud. Ask questions of the text. These are all things I have tried and can commend, but mere technique alone will not compensate for the correct attitudes to God’s word.
Related to this- don’t over elevate platform speaking, assuming that your religious duty is fulfilled by going to church and hearing a speaker expound the Bible to you. This again is not reading the text for yourself. As we sit there listening to the speaker, it’s generally a very left brain experience. In response to the teaching we tend to make a yes / no, I agree / disagree, kind of answer within us. But there is no opportunity to engage with the speaker over every issue. A point is made, we assent or not, and then, on to the next point, same process, next point, and the next… and possibly a few minutes of discussion at the end which you may or may not have a chance to get slightly involved with. There has been no engagement much with the text, rather with the ideas of a speaker in monologue, which you have said yes or no to. Likewise, if there is any spiritual discussion afterwards amongst the congregation it will likely focus around whether or not, in a binary sense, we liked / agreed with the speaker or not. Again, we ourselves have not been directly engaged with the text of Scripture by the whole experience.
Asking the right questions is perhaps the most important thing in practice. Our pre-understanding can stop us asking them because we fear going out of our comfort zone, we fear new interpretations, and the whole idea of asking questions suggests that we do not in fact know the absolute truth about all of God’s word. We know the truth of Christ, and by grace have sure hope of the Kingdom. But that isn’t the same as holding the definitive interpretation of every Bible verse. Indeed, Bible verses may have several equally valid interpretations. Psalm 2 is quoted multiple times in the New Testament, each time with a different interpretation. Or take the parables. Left brain thinking wants to assign a direct, clear meaning to each element of the story. Right brain thinking takes them in wider context. We could say that parables have many hooks on them, which engage with us in different ways at different times. We may see elements of ourselves, e.g., in each of the various types of ground in the sower parable. And each time we read them, we see something new and are challenged in new areas. Somehow we need to de-familiarize ourselves with the story line of the parables, and come to them afresh each time. And this, it seems to me, is the key to reading all the Bible.