Eugene Peterson has correctly written, “The Christian community is as concerned with how we read the Bible as that we read it. It is not sufficient to place a Bible in a person’s hands with the command, ‘Read it.’ That is quite as foolish as putting a set of car keys in an adolescent’s hands, giving him a Honda, and saying, ‘Drive it.’ And just as dangerous.”1
The Scriptures are not hesitant to emphasize the importance of knowing God’s will. However, this emphasis has too often been reduced to an intellectual pursuit instead of a practice that includes the whole human being. Reading, when better understood as a spiritual discipline, should be considered a tool for shaping self and community.
The Novelty of Modern Reading
As much as the Bible speaks of knowing Scripture, reading in the sense that we commonly think of it is fairly modern. First, the average person in the ancient world was not necessarily literate. Even if they were literate, there is no guarantee that they had access to the rare and precious scrolls of the Scriptures. The fact that you can pull out a Bible and curl up in a chair in your own home is a truly modern development, even more recent than the printing press due to the economics that have finally made books truly affordable to the average American.
Second, those people that did read in the ancient world did not typically read “in their head.” Up through the medieval period, essentially all reading was done out loud, even when a reader was alone. Alberto Manguel explains that finding someone who read silently, like the example below of Ambrose (340-397 AD), was a rare occasion:
Ambrose was an extraordinary reader. “When he read,” said Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” … To Augustine, however, such reading manners seemed sufficiently strange for him to note them in his Confessions. The implication is that this method of reading, this silent perusing of the page, was in his time something out of the ordinary, and that normal reading was performed out loud. Even though instances of silent reading can be traced to earlier dates, not until the tenth century does this manner of reading become usual in the West.2
In a world of reading out loud, listening and reading were part of the same process. In our modern world, the silent reader is actually missing half of the discipline of reading, and I suspect we are worse off for it.
Listening As Reading
If the average person in the ancient world was not curled up on the couch with a good book, how did they read? Often, reading was done together as a group.
In this sense, our modern trick of listening to Scripture on our mp3 players or smartphones is more like ancient reading than we might have guessed. It is potentially a very powerful tool and should not be considered secondary to ordinary “book reading.” Christopher Hall describes his own experience of listening to the Sermon on the Mount each morning and evening on his iPod: “As I repeatedly listen to the text, I’m using my ears to ‘read’ the text rather than my eyes. As I reflect on the dynamics of my listening, the ‘to seep’ again comes to mind. Jesus’ sermon is settling ever more deeply into me, filtering through my mind into my heart; his teaching is addressing both my intellect and my affections. Christ’s words are percolating within me, much like the bubbling of hot water up through coffee grains. The water seeps through the grains, flows back to the bottom of the coffee pot, and then bubbles up through the grains again.”3
However, I would not suggest that technology can ultimately replace true community. There is something special about sharing Scripture out loud with a group. Paul writes to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). We tend to emphasize exhortation and teaching in our public assemblies and Bible classes, but I would point you toward the first term in that list: public reading. Do we emphasize it as we should? Do we share in reading together? What are we missing when we do not read together?
Let me encourage you to read Scripture, but also to try new methods of reading. Break the silence and read aloud. Listen to others read. Let the Word do its work. Scripture was intended to come off the page and take life in the vibrations of human breath. Do not silence it.
Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 81. ↩
Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York: Viking, 1996). ↩
Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis, Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 142-143. ↩