Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Quiet Time

I have maintained a habit of silently reading Scripture and praying each morning (more or less) for several years. I say this here to make it clear at the outset that what follows is not meant to be an attack on this practice (as I myself practice it) but some thoughts about how we might most helpfully think about that practice in a broader understanding of the place of Scripture reading in the life of the individual Christian and the Christian community. In particular, I want to say that while having "my quiet time" every morning is an immensely helpful and rewarding thing to do, it is best understood as secondary and supplementary to the corporate hearing of Scripture.

As I understand the prevailing historical scholarship (I'm a theologian, not a historian), reading in the ancient Mediterranean world was entirely an out-loud affair. People just didn't read silently. Even when reading privately, as in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, people would read out loud so that Philip was able to hear the Ethiopian reading Isaiah in his chariot. That then means not only that "quiet time" as a reading practice would have been a foreign concept, but also that the privacy we associate with this practice ("my quiet time") would have been equally foreign. Philip could hear the Ethiopian and even butt in. Can you imagine sitting in your comfy chair reading the Bible out loud to yourself? Even if you knew no one was around to overhear you it would be weird, but I do my reading in my office at my desk with other people close by - that would just be way too awkward. But this just reinforces how privately we conceive of the spiritual practice of reading Scripture.

At a seminar I attended yesterday, a specialist in early Christian literature claimed that the Scriptures were not even intended primarily to be read but memorized and recited in public performance. He claimed that reading was just too mentally taxing to be thought of as something people would do regularly and for extended periods. That is true even in our culture where we have a language with clean type, word spacing, commas, periods and both an upper and lower case. The Greek and Hebrew languages Scripture was written in had none of these things. It was written in all caps with no spaces between words or punctuation of any kind. Hebrew didn't even have vowels - ppl wld rcgnz th wrds jst frm th cnsnnts nd cntxt. That kind of reading is hard to do, so often scholars would have someone read texts out loud to them, leaving their mind free from the duty of translating the visual text into spoken words and able to concentrate on the meaning of the words. That sounds awesome to me, thinking back to high school and how much I hated when it was my turn to read; I could understand what was going on fine when someone else was reading and I could just scan along, but when I had to read it out loud I had a much harder time both making the sounds and understanding their meaning. All of that to say that the original authors and recipients of Scripture didn't have in mind our notion of private quiet time - their alone time would have been for praying, as Jesus often does and tells his followers to do in Matthew 6:6, though I still doubt all of that was done quietly.

Why does any of this matter? Well, I think it matters for how we think about God and about the way Scripture reading is meant to form our thinking about God.

The second commandment says not to make an image to represent God, that is, an idol. John Calvin seized on the implications of this for how we conceive of God - He is inherently invisible and is to be thought of in entirely non-visual terms. Similarly, Martin Luther, pressing the point that we know God through his Word, told his congregation that if they wanted to see God they should put their eyes in their ears. We are to know God not through what we see, but through what we hear, through hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word that was with God and was God from the beginning.

As God made himself known in this way to Israel, Jewish culture developed in a very aural way, having their children commit huge portions of the Torah if not the whole thing to memory. The Bible came to be within that primarily aural way of thinking. I mean haven't you ever wondered why none of the Gospel writers says a single thing about how Jesus looked? However, we live in a very visual culture, quite like the Greco-Roman culture into which the Gospel went out from its Jewish roots. We are visual thinkers in ways we don't even really realize. We say things like "see what I mean?" or "look at it this way", framing conceptual communication in visual categories. We hear with our eyes. For us, seeing, rather than hearing, is believing.

Thus, reading for us is primarily visual. We think of the act of reading as going from seeing letters to thinking the thoughts that they signify. We take the thoughts from the page into our minds with our eyes. For the ancients, the visible function of letters was not to communicate directly but to preserve a record of what is otherwise a totally oral and aural affair. The visible letters were to be translated into sounds before they could serve the function of communicating events and concepts. I think the transition of the Christian faith and its engagement with Scripture from a primarily aural culture to a primarily visual culture may be behind much of modern the controversies surrounding Scripture. We have gone from understanding its aural content as the Word of God to conceiving of the visible letters of the "original autographs" as the Word (Letters?) of God.

One reason for that is control. When we think of reading the Bible in visual terms, we put ourselves in a position of control, making our own decisions about what to read, underlining what we find important (again not disparaging any of this, just wanting to set it in context). This corresponds to control we have over our vision in general, choosing where to point our eyes, what to focus on, even having eyelids that can shield us from things we don't want to see. Hearing is different. We don't have earlids. Sound comes to us and demands our attention in a different way than vision does. When we hear Scripture being read to us, we have far less control over it. It comes to us and determines our hearing. We can of course choose to tune out and ignore it, but we can't choose to skip what is being said when we don't like it and go to a passage we prefer. This better corresponds to our actual situation before God. God comes to us in his Gospel and calls us to respond. We can choose to listen or not to, but we can't make him what we want him to be.

So, what I am suggesting is certainly not that we abandon the long established and demonstrably fruitful practice of private silent Scripture reading, but that we think of it as supplementing our communal hearing of the Word. Our primary approach to Scripture ought to center around its public reading in community which we hear together as the Word of God addressing us and evoking our response of worship. Our private reading then helps fill in our knowledge of the broader sweep of the biblical story and its rich diversity of literature so that when we hear a passage in group Bible study or in Sunday morning worship we know what is going on. It also functions as a way we live our private lives in organic connection to our corporate worship, being in private who we are at church on Sundays. The point is that in this understanding, the corporate reading is primary and our private reading is a secondary extension from it.

Approaching Scripture like this helps us to think about God in a way appropriate to his invisible nature by building into us habits of thought that make room for conceiving of him through what we hear in his Word rather than what we see. God has come to us and made himself knowable to us not through the controlled private silence of visible text but by his Word in public and noisy proclamation.


  1. Brilliant. After years personally reading through the Bible annually primarily under the assumption that this was its best (only? purest?) intended mode of its interaction with life, I put it off for a few years for a variety of reasons, not all of them (but some of them) good. One of the good reasons was that I wanted to receive and hear the Word of God from and with God's people and not just keep "taking it to them". This had some rich benefits for me that I won't go into here. However, I've recently begun to read it alone again, this time as a supplement and in service of God's larger action and speech. I'm not sure I've come to a place where this feels as important to me as it should, because I'm sure it is. Like it or not a lot of water has gone under the bridge since they used to just read this aloud to each other. We do need to be visually familiar with this text ourselves, not for our own sake, but because we are parts of the body and the body needs members that are, well, paying attention.

    Anyway, those are my personal ramblings in response. Mostly just saying yeah man.

  2. Fascinating and thought provoking. I also believe (since it's a pet peeve of mine) that it comments on the drift from community participatory worship to performance/audience services. Isn't it true that the Hebrew way was to have a rabbi to study and help with the interpretation, but the service was the (admittedly just men) of the community reading the Torah aloud to everyone.
    On the other hand, we also I think have to be wary of falling into the "1st century" or "chosen of God" trap of locking in practices that were from a distant past. In both the periods you speak of, silence and solitude were easy to come by, and almost the norm. Now, it takes effort to block out the world of man--before you had to go find it. So carving out a time to concentrate on God and the things of God I think is more important than ever. (Spoken as someone who is as spotty at that as it is possible to be.)
    Also, we live in probably the noisiest environment man has ever found himself in. Someone reading aloud may have trouble being heard.
    And thirdly, I'm glad you make the point that it is the heart attitude and concentration, rather than the method that is important. Because I've found just as much trouble with my mind wandering while someone droned on reading something aloud.
    All in all though, thanks for raising an issue that I think is going to become more and more important--how do we seperate ourselves from the world?

  3. Jon - Point well taken that we ought to be familiar with the text not merely for our own sake but for the sake of the body.

    Steve - You're definitely right that we shouldn't lock onto 1st century practices in their external formality (as I think is a temptation especially present in more Pentecostal and Charismatic churches), but I also don't think we should take an arbitrary and relativistic approach to Hebrew culture. Particularly on this point, its aural orientation was intentionally built into its fabric by God through his long history with them, constantly teaching them to reject the images of their neighbors and think of him according to his inherent invisibility. Christianity's retention of the Old Testament certainly privileges something about Hebrew culture, and I think this is a big part of it.

    Regarding the contemporary cultural implications, when I speak of the noisiness of the Gospel, I certainly don't mean to condone noisiness in general or a particularly sensory overloading approach to preaching, but just the plain audible character of preaching. Of course, I'm also subtly implying that the preacher ought to focus less on "practical application" and more on simply rehearsing the content of whatever biblical passage is being addressed. It ought to be read, I think somewhat formally, and commented on according to its inner logic. All that to say, of course you're right that the surrounding culture of the early church was more prone to silence and solitude (at least in the country - we have to remember the Gospels and Epistles were largely written and read in bustling metropolitan cities) and in our context anyone spending half an hour to sit down and quietly read their Bible is far better than the hours they are more likely to spend with meaningless noise blasting in their ears. I just meant to speak to the more communal and thus necessarily auditory dimension of what we ought to see as Scripture's primary home, the church's communal reading as it seeks to hear God address it in the Bible. The ability to have our own Bible's we can study silently to ourselves is a gift of technology, but one that ought to supplement rather than usurp that primary spot.

    All of that was just me further developing my thought - not meant as an argumentative reply. Thanks for the engagement.

  4. well put Adam. It makes me think of the value that something like the Anglican book of common prayer has in one's formation. As a daily practice, it is also communal and as people become more familiar with it, completely aural and oral. But of coursee, as Steve says, this too can and all too often is mostly droning on and on while our minds wander.

    It'd be interesting to reflect on the spiritual practice (habit) of wandering.... We can do it whether something is visual or aural. In the one we tend to choose where our attention rests (the parts of scripture i like), while in the other we just struggle (or not) in paying attention as those who are actually being addressed. Perhaps the lacking skill for our time is the recognition of 'being-addressed-ness'. If i had that mindset when i sit down in my comfy chair more, i might do more praying and less wandering!

    by the way, love the Ben Hur pics!

  5. It seems to me that there are many ways of communicating and I am curious how the singing of hymns would fit into the Hebrew culture in the time before print was widely distributed? It is a little off the subject but I found I knew my Bible well because of (mostly) beautiful songs and remember several ladies from our study last year who did the same. Do you think the Hebrew culture would have embraced the ways of application we have at our fingertips?
    I agree that services should be more centered around the passages and not so focused on the applications to our already loud lives. It seems like a re-centering idea versus a return to a way of ingesting scripture.

  6. Good points, Adam!

    I too have been reading through the Bible, at least a couple of times a year for the last 14yrs --- it has transformed my life!

    I agree, that the communal aspect is highly important --- even central to "spiritual formation." The dilemma in "church culture" today, is that one is hard-pressed to actually find places of worship that actually engage in the kind of "reading" that you speak of (you know the kind's of circles I'm speaking of --- "Evangelical").

  7. On the mind wandering: Is this really as much a problem in a communal setting as in a private one?

  8. On the new topic (sorry Adam) of mind wandering--my biggest problem area is prayer, both personal and public, mainly because praying for someone gets me thinking about them instead of my communication to God about them. I'll be praying for,say, their health, and then think about something we did together and then something I need to get done and...what was I saying?
    Something else we need to always remember: We are not on neutral ground. We have a tireless enemy who wishes to break any communication with God by any means necessary.

  9. Is this really as much a problem in a communal setting as in a private one?
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