Today I had my very last seminary class EVER! It was definitely bittersweet, but I have to say that I couldn’t have asked for a better one to end on. This class was on the book of Acts, so we spent a large portion of the time reflecting on what we’d learned about Acts throughout the semester. At the end of the class, however, as my professor made his final remarks and drew things to a close, he revealed to us that all semester long he has been teaching us in a manner that runs against the grain of our culture. He explained it to us as follows:
“We are a culture afflicted by clichés and soundbites and modes of communication that work against patient wrestling with the profoundest and deepest matters that we know of. T.V. and internet, by their modes of communication, tend to erase the possibility of dwelling with a question or with a text. And the more you expose yourself to these modes of communication, the more you begin to communicate in these modes. As a result, our capacity to wrestle with a text that doesn’t communicate in clichés and soundbites becomes contracted. And when our modes of communication run counter to the way the text is written, then we inhibit the text itself.”
I think my professor hit the nail on the head with this observation. Just a couple months ago I had the opportunity to hear a Catholic theologian named Richard John Neuhaus give a meditation on love, and it was so moving that I wept at the end. Afterwards, I asked a friend what he thought of the meditation, and he indignantly replied, “I didn’t like it. I mean, where was the take-away? What was I supposed to get out of it?”
The “take-away”–isn’t that what we’re always looking for when we listen to a sermon, read a book, or study Scripture? We want something here and now, a catchy phrase that’s easy to remember and might fit well on a bumper sticker, like, “Let go and let God” or “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” That kind of faith doesn’t require a whole lot of thought or work, but it’s symptomatic of the the consumer culture we live in. Our culture demands its product right away in an easily consumable size, so we’ve domesticated Scripture to that standard. As a result, soundbites and cliches have become our preferred mode for approaching Scripture and all other things spiritual.
The problem is, Scripture wasn’t designed that way. Sure, isolated verses can certainly encourage us when they’re taped to our steering wheel or bathroom mirror. But oftentimes when we take a verse out of its Scriptural context, we do violence to it, because it was meant to be interpreted as part of a larger whole, not standing alone. What’s more, we are often reading Scripture in a way that it was not intended to be read. For instance, Jesus spoke in parables, not easy to digest soundbites, so in order to comprehend what he is talking about, and I mean *really* understand (not come up with a quick answer and move on) we must read the parable over and over and over again, and we must read the Old Testament passages Jesus was alluding to through it, and we must refer back to Jesus’ other sayings that shed light on this one. We must dwell in the Scripture, meditate on it, let it shape us every day. And only then, after it begins to mold our minds into conformity with Christ, do we even *begin* to understand what he was talking about.
But most of us are not patient enough for this. We want to know the answer now. We want the take-away message now. We’re too busy to invest that kind of time. But as a result of this mentality we have missed something. We have missed the reality that we are not the ones who get to consume Scripture–Scripture is to consume us. Scripture is not to submit to our schedule, or convenience, or opinions; we submit to Scripture. And it is only by living in Scripture, dwelling in one passage, studying its cultural context, its relationship to the whole of Scripture, its perspectives on Man, Christ, sin, love, and the world–only then will we begin to approach the tip of the iceberg of its meaning. The depths of Scripture have yet to be measured, and its wisdom is inexhaustible, so we deceive ourselves if we think we can dumb it down to cliches. One cannot plumb the depths of the ocean with a dixie cup.
So while there is indeed a time and a place for practical application and tangible lessons, shake things up a bit by resisting the urge to find an obvious take-away when you read Scripture. If we insist on approaching Scripture superficially, then we will only be superficially formed by Scripture, so we must be patient, and we must wait for it to form us, slowly yet steadily and entirely. The layers of Scripture are llike an infinite onion–the more you peel away, the more you will find, and the treasure is infinitely better than any bumper sticker I have ever seen. So pick a passage, and commit to it for an extended period of time. Memorize it, meditate on it, study it, and internalize it. The longer you do this, the more that it will unfold, and what still amazes me most is that the unfolding will never EVER end. Scripture presents us with an unending journey, so rather than resting contently as you drink from your spiritual sippy cup, it’s time to start acting like a big kid by taking in some solid, meaty theology. It takes some work, but only the meat will leave you feeling truly satisfied.