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.