The Word

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.

"Good. I'm noticing something interesting."

"What's that?"

"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."
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."

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 56.1-7
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.
My 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.

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.

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15 thoughts on “The Word”

  1. Sounds pretty real, actually.  If people were conspiring against me, and plotting to kill me - and if I believed God loved me - I think I'd expect him to be angry, on my behalf!!

  2. William Blake (Songs of Innocence) set up stages of spiritual understanding: lamb, lion, shepherd. It might be worth checking out.

  3. MY context rather than that of the Word!  Profound. Thank you for this post, Richard.  You here bring a perspective on the subject of reading the Bible which I, on my own, might never have considered.  I think your discovery is insightful and clearly articulated.  It may also explain much about my own difficulty over the years in relating to the material.  My own stumbling block has been the "experts" who insist on parsing and interpreting for me every word and verse, including every minister and teacher I have ever met, along with all of my relatives.  Job security for them, but a hindrance for me.

  4. I'm having trouble forming the words to express how I feel about this and what it woke inside of me. I lived the first two decades of my life nowhere near the margins, where life wasn't really desperate, and I struggled to care about the books of the bible and the faith that my parents raised me in. It was only after, when I found myself flung outside the margins, as you put it, that the words seared themselves into the very fabric of my soul. The Spirit woke me heart and I came alive for the first time. In the handful of years since, I have had seasons where my bible remained untouched and dusty, and I have had seasons where I was pouring over the texts and gasping for breath as the Spirit steamrolled me. Reading your post this morning, I realized that when I ignore the marginalized, the dispossessed, the poor, the hurting, the oppressed in favor of living the life of a quiet, comfortable guy with his stuff and his loved ones, safely packed away far from any situation in which life is desperate... I'm dry. I'm unsettled. I'm empty. I'm a hollow, shallow shell of who I'm meant to be. I'm meant to be an agent of renewal, a bringer of the Kingdom. I'm meant to be a servant, serving where my King and Father directs. And when I do, my life may be chaotic, but it's bursting with joy and, well, life!

  5. I love the authenticity and sheer impact of the experiences you share from this group.  The Bible written for the powerless so often read these days by the powerful on whom its power is lost.  I include myself, of course.  Can I ask you to convey thanks to your study group for the understanding they have opened up for us.

  6. The only thing I'd add is that the more "real" I get with people who aren't in prison, the more I find that the two audiences aren't as different as one might think. Enemies, oppression, depression, struggle, hope, anger, lives that are at the margin--these are part of life for most people I know most of the time. I guess when people are locked up we're allowed to admit it!

  7. My favorite post so far. I have often felt that our relative comfort and security can and does act as a barrier to hearing the Word. That puts us in the difficult spot of needing to forsake comfort and security in order to seek Jesus. Paradoxically, the only true comfort and security is in Christ. It makes passages like "take up your cross" and "eat my body/ drink my blood" ring true even if they still don't sit well with us.

  8. Amazing observation! I agree that there are times when people seem "innoculated" to the Word so something more is needed. Other times people seem to drink it in. Your context here though adds so much depth to the experience. Great post.

  9. When I was a brand-new-Christian I remember one of the ministers at my Church confiding in me and saying,

    "As a preacher, the more words I say about a text, the more I detract from its original power and simplicity".

    Maybe less really is more?

  10. I feel so convicted when I read this... and almost helpless.  If the Word of God speaks by itself to prisoners, why do I need nuance, spin, interpretation, and higher criticism of the text? You have said something so profound with this post, and so humbling. If the Bible doesn't speak for itself to me, what is my problem? I think I may have a clue from Jesus and James. Jesus made a statement in John 9:41 "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." James 5:1-5 talks to the rich urging them to weep and mourn, and chastises them for living in luxury and selfishly in the last days. Is it possible that my wealth of options, my education, and my "rights" to satisfy as many of my desires as I can afford are blinding me to who and what I really am without Jesus Christ and compared to him? Is all of this blinding me to the simple power of the Word that those I consider less fortunate are able to hear? I am helpless, and for many of us reading here, this post is an act of God's mercy to wake us up. Unfortunately the hangover is hard to shake and always threatens to lull me back into blind sleep.

  11. I have heard a few missionaries in violent and war-torn areas say that Christians there pray for the spiritual oppression in America.  Where they need the Bible and prayer as if it were the air they breathe, almost all Americans, even non-Christian ones own Bibles.  The fact that we don't cling to it like a basic need is truly oppressing. 

  12. I think this makes perfect sense. For years my father could only bring himself to even enter a church on holidays. However the bible became so much more important to my father when he went to prison. The transformative power of the word became apparent as he read the bible everyday. Simple, earnest passages became the foundations of his life as opposed to the anger that used to fill his life.

  13. Reminds me of another one of your posts from years ago...

    Specifically this offering by Bonhoeffer: I often ask myself why a "Christian instinct" often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, but which I don't in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, "in brotherhood." While I'm often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people--because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it's particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)--to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.

  14. I that what you describe about us is the way it is because our lives today and so safe and sanitized. Even if someone we know does die (and it's often rare), we're protected from the reality and horror of it in many ways. The prison life is much more like the way people before us - throughout the history of the world, lived, and still live today in so many countries. An imprecatory psalm makes no sense in Disneyworld, but in those other places and times, everyone understands. When I read the Bible I try to ask myself, what would this mean in Soviet Russia? in the Chicago ghetto? in Calcutta? in Somalia? 1000 years ago? 3000 years ago? for a slave in the South? for an inner city orphan?, etc. No health and wealth confusion in those places - for instance, and if I'm thinking that way here and now (in Disneyworld), it's an effective corrective. When I went down to Zuccottii Park, among every kind of person - but including the poor, the homeless, the sick, the addicted, the deranged - I realized that my regular "answers" and my regular "gospel" didn't necessarily fit. And that wasn't bad. (Maybe it was at the time for those that turned to me for help, but they were gracious.) But for me, it was an encounter between faith and reality - and my faith has been different since then. It's not that we don't have needs here and now (in Disneyworld), we just don't necessarily recognize them or admit to them - and that's why the gospel is better received in Zuccotti Park than in many churches. We don't realize how utterly needy we are. In prison, I suppose, that's not a problem.

  15. I think there was a book or movement years ago that talked about the "two horizons." It's the Biblical horizon - the context that's there as the speaker and hearers look around, but also the present horizon, as we hear and look around at our context. Tricky but you gotta do both, and when you do, ... as you say, it's profound.

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