By James Goodmann
When emerging from the novitiate at Our Lady of the Valley monastery in Rhode Island in the mid-1940’s, Fr. Thomas Keating, founder of Contemplative Outreach, told his spiritual director that he would like nothing more than to delve into the study of the Gospel of John and St John of the Cross. Instead, his director asked him to begin reading the whole Old Testament. “So,” he relates, “I started with a heavy heart to read Genesis. That wasn’t too bad. There are some wonderful stories in it. Then I picked up Exodus. I said, ‘Do I have to read this word for word?’ I started reading it and all of a sudden a mysterious light appeared, so to speak, on the other side of the page; the words started jumping out at me, and I got very excited. I said, ‘This book is talking about my life; whoever wrote this book must have been my psychiatrist.’ Here I was reading about how the Israelites were murmuring against their leader and that is what I was doing. They were going though the Red Sea, struggling with the slavery of sin, and that was the story of my own conversion. A few words would set off huge vistas of meaning and understanding; it became one of the most exciting books I ever read.”
I relate this on the chance that some of you may have the same “heavy heart” when the Old Testament – or other parts of the Bible – is proposed as your daily reading material. Is there a chance that on some page a similar light may begin to glow for you, if not in Exodus maybe in the Song of Songs where we read, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Sg. of Sgs., 2:16)? This is the wager the Center for Biblical Studies has posed in The Bible Challenge.
The Bible Challenge offers an option not only for private study but also for congregations to explore together how this ancient and fundamentally informing text, so taken for granted, so often used for good and ill, still has power for Christians to renew their faith and inform their imagination. The Bible Challenge, which offers a year-long course of study for churches and individuals to daily engage the Old and New Testaments, has been an instrument not only for scriptural literacy but also for awakening the immense human hunger for “the abundant life.” This path offers an opportunity to see beyond scripture as a set of prescriptions for the human condition or propositions to be explored: to see into the reality of Scripture as a record of divine-human relationships and to see ourselves as invited inside this great mystery.
The Bible Challenge will offer an event in Sewanee this June under the sponsorship of the Beecken Center of the School of Theology at the University of the South. Rectors and their congregations, directors of Christian education, adult formation and catechumenal instruction, and anyone else looking to renew and enrich congregational life are invited to this two-day event at the DuBose Conference Center and to undertake this challenge in their churches.
You are invited to see how the continuous reading of scripture creates an identity stream whereby, sooner or later, you find yourself living inside the text, and “no longer as aliens and strangers” (Eph. 2:19), but fellow sojourners in the spiritual journey stretching across thousands of years. As schools of literary criticism will suggest, no longer are you just reading the text, the text is also reading you, and not in an unfriendly light.
As a part of this event, you will also receive the title book that is a week-by-week guide to reading the Bible within the course of a year. With contributions from homilists and scholars across the Anglican Communion, the Bible Challenge will prod you appreciation with stories and wonder questions that invite you to move further into a communion that will stretch you beyond just a personal I/Thou relationship but toward seeing all of the church and all of humanity as a part of that “thou.”
In an interview given to the Christian Century in 2002, Archbishop Rowan Williams remarked, “the only thing that’s going to break the liberal-conservative deadlock is the practice of reading and studying the Bible together…only through the practice of reading the Bible together can you come to appreciate how the other person relates to it; otherwise we talk past each other…” Whether that is the only imaginable divide in the church and in culture is a matter for discussion, but I think that Dr. Williams hit upon a practice that, along with our hearing of Scripture in the liturgy, could become a more common feature of our common life. Continuous “reading, marking and inwardly digesting of this holy Word,” will help to make this story the key to knowing who and whose we are.
James Goodmann is an associate director of the Beecken Center