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Reading for the Inner Life

October 17, 2011

I’d like to apologize. You see, I’ve posted articles over the last three weeks that have explained Ecclesiastes and examined the Greek word “kephale”. I’m preparing an article on Job (Ecclesiastes and Job – apparently I hate myself) and it’s high time that I apologized for all that explaining.

It’s not that explaining is a bad thing. I’m not disowning any of the articles I’ve just mentioned. However, I’m a bit worried that I’ve given the wrong impression. When I sit down and write an article explaining what I think Ecclesiastes is about or how the conflicting ideas of monarchy held by Saul and David explain why Saul is a bad king and David is a good one I may be accidentally betraying the Bible.

Some time ago I wrote an article entitled “Scripture is Beautiful”. I absolutely stand by that statement. But I worry that I haven’t worked out a hermeneutic of the beautiful here. It’s time I fixed that.

All of us live in two worlds. We move back and forth between them constantly, like dolphins porpoising through the waves, first above the water, then below, and then back above again. On one side is the outer world, the world of interacting, speaking, and doing. On the other is the inner life, the place where we are and where we change who we are for the better or worse. I am increasingly convinced that God acts on us primarily on this side of things. God wants to make us new people. He’s not primarily out to change how we act or speak but how we are and the totality of our character. This, of course, makes us act and speak differently but the action didn’t come from that end. God didn’t make us say something a bit nicer when we were irritated, He made us the sort of person who is nicer when irritated.

The problem is that most of our world pretends that the inner life doesn’t exist. Companies don’t measure the growth of character, they measure output statistics, production and sales. The government doesn’t ask what kind of people its citizens are, it measures GDP and how content people are with the interactions they have, or think they should have, with the government. We look at what people say, what they do, and how they act towards us. We can’t measure how they feel or what they think except by proxy. Even churches, where the inner life of the soul should be a given, cannot measure much more than Bible study attendance, annual giving, and how many people come to the pastors for counseling. Hopefully your church is also dutifully suspicious of summing up its congregation by what is neatly measurable, but our world is tilted towards these clear statistics of the outer life.

I pick the imagery of dolphins leaping through the waves for a reason. Imagine a group of dolphins who were convinced that water was unreal or unimportant and that real value lay in the air. Perhaps someone has told them that if they only strive hard enough, leap high enough, they can exit the atmosphere entirely and become (cue cheesy music) dolphins in space. Imagine these poor saps leaping perpetually skywards, only to crash back into the water again and again. They’re dolphins, aquatic animals. Like us they are tied to two worlds – the water where they swim (the inner life) and the air which they breathe (the outer world). Like us they have the ability to go very far one direction but not the other. Unfortunately, these dolphins haven’t been told to explore the depths but rather to hurl themselves towards the distant, and unreachable, clouds.

I’m worried that I’m playing into all of this. If I explain, say, Isaiah 6 what have I done? Well, it’s possible that I’ve told you how Isaiah 6 is and that, hearing this, you’ll acquire that as another datum for the outer life. This is what Isaiah 6 is about. No need to read it, no need to meditate on it, no need to let it soak in. But Isaiah 6 is beautiful (and terrifying – “And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste” – but sometimes those are quite similar). It’s poetry. It’s a vision. It’s a bit of a biased selection – I could have picked Leviticus 6 if I wanted something drier – but Scripture is beautiful. It has something to say to who we are and not just what we do and who we know. Like God to Elijah on Horeb (1 Kings 19) it has something to say in the stillness.

When Scripture is explained it risks becoming a collection of data, not artwork, and certainly not an invitation. The counter to this is to make sure that we don’t just explain Scripture. If I explained a movie to you and said, “It’s really good,” you probably wouldn’t say, “Yes, but since you’ve explained it to me I don’t need to see it.” If I explain Picasso’s Guernica you may gain information about it. You may be able to see the painting more clearly in way – imagine that you had no idea that the painting concerned real and terrible events. However, you won’t see that as a substitute for seeing the painting.

I should be clear here that I’m in favor of explaining, done properly. There’s a place for explanation. In fact, there’s a strong and necessary place for it. If you’ve been told that Ecclesiastes is a happy book about how Jesus loves you then you will be, at best, confused. The book won’t be able to speak to you at all because you’ll be hearing it all wrong. It will be like reading a document in Portuguese all the while thinking that it is simply English transcribed with a terribly heavy accent. The outer life can’t be abandoned. We all live in a world where we speak, do, and interact. These things seep inward. If we act in a way inconsistent with who we want to be, sooner or later we’ll be the sort of people who naturally do those things. If we think crazy things then those things will also shape who we are. The inner life is where all these disparate fragments of our outer life come together, where what we think is connected to what we do and what we feel, where our attitudes towards our friends connect to our politics and our anger at people who take fifteen minutes to pay for groceries connects to how we love the Lord. It’s impossible for all these paths to intersect here without consequence to that inner self and so it’s necessary to clear away the crud in the outer life as well. However, it’s equally important to remember that the outer life isn’t everything, or even the central thing.

If we read the Bible and don’t understand it because we think it’s saying something it isn’t that’s a problem. But if we read the Bible and think that it’s talking only to the person who can be summed up by their political allegiances, friends, job, marital status, and IQ score we’re going to miss all the deep things the Bible has to say. The point of explaining the Bible is to clear the path towards hearing those deeper things. If explaining becomes, instead, the sum of the Bible, then the explanations have failed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    October 17, 2011 11:17 am

    duly noted.

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