Words on repeat, or how I read the Bible lately

110315 Bible stack

Reading the same passage multiple times over a few days or weeks is becoming one of my favored ways of reading my Bible. I linger in the places where I have questions or find myself surprised, while giving myself permission to not know things. I’m trying to hold my assumptions loosely and wonder about them. As I do this, the words seem to come alive and defy my attempts to control them.

For my academic life, from elementary through grad school, I honed the art of skimming – rapidly breezing through books in search of key ideas for papers and exams and ignoring seemingly unimportant details. Skimming is time efficient.

This is also why I can read most fiction books within 2 to 3 hours; I gloss over parts where I’m bored. I don’t typically read every word.  I usually don’t have the attention span to do so, even if I were so inclined. I want to know what will happen more than I want the subtle nuances of scenery.

Skimming works well in helping me develop big picture story lines — seeing how the story line of the whole Bible points to Jesus and observing a central story of redemption running through all these hodgepodge books written by different authors and containing a variety of genres.

Skimming doesn’t help me saturate myself in Scripture. In skimming, I’m not giving myself time to marinate in a passage, to savor it, to let it soak into me. I miss details, sometimes really important ones. Skimming can reinforce faulty assumptions when I only pick up details that reinforce what I already think.

Extending my visit in a passage helps foster more curiosity in me. I ask more questions. See more subtleties. Observe nuances.

Initially, I think a passage will be predictable. I grew up in church. If the doors were open, we were there. I studied Bible and theology both for my undergraduate and masters studies. I’ve read the entirety of the Bible more than once. As a kiddo, I was the Bible trivia nerd who could rapidly memorize bible verses for prizes. And many of those verses still come back to me as a sort of living consciousness.

All these factors combined make it too easy for me to think, “Oh I’ve got this. I know what’s in there. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” But, as I slow myself down and dig into passages for an extended time, light bulbs go off in my brain.

I’m reminded of the scene from The Princess Bride as Vizzini keeps saying “Inconceivable!” and Inigo Montoya replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I start to realize the message is more complex or even completely different than I thought on my first read.

Other characters catch my attention. I notice feelings and explanations that are given for those feelings. I look for sensory details — what did people hear, see or touch. I note repetitions. I seek connections between passages — paying attention to context and narrative structure.

Sometimes I slow down further by writing out a passage, marking 040616 john 21words that catch my eye. Different details stand out to me this way.

As I drift through unhurried observations, my assumptions about what I knew or what I’ve read get shook up. Many times the words don’t mean what I initially assumed. I may have been partially correct, but I missed nuances. Sometimes I realize that what I’ve been taught previously about a passage was wrong altogether.

It’s a bit unnerving. And I like it. This is what continually reminds me the Bible is a living word. It shakes me, breaks me, and stitches me back together. Somehow Jesus shows up as I wrestle with questions; I don’t understand how or why, but he does.

The book is paradoxically familiar and unfamiliar while I engage it.

And that’s how reading John 21 (where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”) and Acts 9 (the story of Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus) feels this week. Familiar and foreign at the same time. Jesus continues to baffle, challenge and mend me all at the same time.

I know these stories. I’ve studied them academically, and in the case of Acts 9 — in both undergrad and grad school. And yet, this week the Spirit breathed new life into them and into me as I’ve been reading. Like life often does, it completely caught me by surprise. More on these passages to come on Friday.

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