As regular readers know, I help lead a bible study at a local prison. The prison is about twenty minutes from home and because you can't take a cell phone into the prison I'm out of contact for about two and half hours while inside. So when I get out I call Jana and we talk as I make the drive home, catching up with what has gone on with her and boys while I've been at the study. And Jana will also ask about the study and how it went that night.
Well, a couple of weeks ago we had this conversation.
"So how'd the study go?" Jana asked.Outside of the prison, in the bible class I help lead at our church, I don't think people would sit still long enough to listen to a lot of the bible read aloud. And because of that I spend a lot of time adding things to the text, bringing in a lot of outside commentary, my own thoughts and observations, to make the text interesting or palatable. Outside the prison the biblical text is either too boring or too scandalous. Either way, the bible doesn't "fit."
"Good. I'm noticing something interesting."
"Well, for my part of the study I find myself reading the bible quite a bit. Reading aloud long passages."
"That doesn't sound so bad."
"No, it's not. But I'm doing it because I don't feel that I can add anything. The best thing that can be said is said by just reading the bible. I can't improve upon it. So I just read the text."
But inside the prison I experience just the opposite. I find my attempts to "spin" or "supplement" the biblical text to be ineffective and distracting. The text seems to work all by itself. It fits.
Why is this so? I'm not sure, but my initial hypothesis is that the bible really only makes sense out on the margins, where life is desperate, where the metal meets the bone.
Consider Psalm 56 (the psalm I mentioned yesterday). Listen to these words:
Psalm 56.1-7My sense is that a lot of Christians will struggle with this text. We don't often feel afraid because we are hounded by enemies who are slandering and boldly attacking us. We don't feel that enemies are plotting against us, spying on us, seeking to kill us.
O God, have mercy on me,
for people are hounding me.
My foes attack me all day long.
I am constantly hounded by those who slander me,
and many are boldly attacking me.
But when I am afraid,
I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
What can mere mortals do to me?
They are always twisting what I say;
they spend their days plotting to harm me.
They come together to spy on me—
watching my every step, eager to kill me.
Don’t let them get away with their wickedness;
in your anger, O God, bring them down.
And because of this, we don't get, in our liberal sensitivities, the last sentiment: "in your anger, O God, bring them down."
So what we end up doing on the outside with texts like these is to feel embarrassed or worried about that last bit. We don't want intolerant Christians running around using texts like these to bash people. So we add a lot of meta-level commentary to make the text "fit" our context.
But imagine reading Psalm 56 in a prison. Nothing needs to be added. The text fits that context perfectly. All I need to do is read it. Without embarrassment or commentary. More, the text is absolutely riveting! Every line is an explosion of recognition, a word directly aimed at the lived experience of the audience. It's like looking into a crystal ball or a mirror.
And I don't do a thing. I just read Psalm 56. The Word does the rest.
I'm reminded in all this about how William Stringfellow came to be completely dominated by the biblical text, reading it almost exclusively late in his life. The categories of the bible, the way the bible described the world, took on greater and greater relevance for him, the most truthful and accurate way of describing the world. I always considered that to be a curious detail about a theologian I greatly admired and didn't give much thought about why that happened to him. But more and more, though I'm still embarrassed by the text at times, I think I'm starting to see what he saw.