People from every era have testified that the Bible speaks powerfully; that the word of God can and does change lives. Many times I have felt that my own experiences with reading the Bible pales in comparison to this standard. However, the times I have spent with the Bible has yielded much value and interest as I learned facts about the names and places. Still sometimes I would like more than anything to hear God's voice; a yearning for a transformation of the heart.

But how? Fortunately we are inheritors of many helpful approaches. Writers from the past have left a great spiritual legacy that engages the heart, intellect, and will.

Divine Reading

The oldest and best known approach in the history of Christian spirituality and the reading of the Bible is called lectio divina Latin for "divine reading" or "spiritual reading." Dating back as far as the fourteenth century, the idea behind this practice comes from earlier antiquity. It has a four-step approach.
    First, read slowly. The reader is to pick a short passage of a biblical book. A few paragraphs or a short chapter and read them meditatively, prayerfully. Be open to a key phrase or word that jumps out or shows promises of a special meaning. Focus on the depth of what is being read and not so much as with the amount.

    Second, meditate. Christian meditation is not stream of consciousness or free association; nor is it Eastern transcendental meditation. Instead, it is allowing a special word or phrase of reading to sink into the reader’s heart. Biblical writers had this is mind when they spoke of "meditating" on the book of the law "day and night." (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2). For example Psalm 23 a reader may linger on the phrase, The Lord is my shepherd. and for reasons that may not be immediately clear, the word my stands out. The idea may strike the reader that God can be and wants to be a shepherd. This stage of lectio divina is comparable to walking around a statue and looking at it from many vantage points.

    Third, pray the text. After listening it is time to for the reader to respond. That is, to form a prayer that relates their response to the idea. The reader then prays it back to God. In the example of The Lord is my shepherd. It may be a prayer of gratitude or a lengthy recollection of the many ways God has been present over the years shepherding the reader through life.

    Fourth, contemplate. That is, rest. The purpose of divine reading is to eventually lead the reader to a place where they no longer work but let the text work itself within. There is no more straining for additional insights; simply savoring the encounter with God and his truth. There is a movement toward the moment when the reader opens to living out what has been experienced.

Ignatian Reading

This exercise is credited to Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and written about and by him in Spiritual Exercises. Like divine reading, the Ignatian method invites the reader to fully interact with the text.

This meditation works best with narratives from the Bible where actual characters are living out a story of faith. The reader is a careful observer; a fly on the wall if you will. Ignatius commended the use of the five senses in this kind of meditation. Occasionally the reader may become one of the characters, seeing the story as it unfolds from his or her viewpoint. The primary focus is to help the reader see the narrative from the viewpoint of Jesus and participate fully; mind, heart and work.

As an example, the reader might concentrate on John 18:1-11 spending five days focusing on the narrative. Every day the reader would imagine themselves as a different character. Judas, a soldier, Peter, the high priest’s servant, or Jesus. Entering each character vicariously the reader is encouraged to ask God to teach them how to live in greater fidelity and obedience—which is the ultimate purpose of the Ignatian method or scripture readings and of Ignatian spirituality in general.

Franciscan Reading

Although not a direct product of the teachings of Francis of Assisi, Franciscan reading contains qualities of Franciscan spirituality such as spontaneity, action, love, praise, beauty, and delight in creation. Similar to Ignatian reflections, Franciscan reading uses the same mental process of entering the text.

For practice, the reader could use Isaiah 53 in the Bible. To help the reader enter into the message and reflect on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, the Franciscan method tells the reader to take actions such as holding a model of the cross with Jesus on it and gaze upon the details of the crucified body. Look through the day’s newspaper and find places in the world where people are suffering. Perhaps compose a poem or paint a picture to capture the feelings and thoughts. Immerse oneself in the entire experience with prayer asking God to make the reader an instrument of peace in the lives of those who are suffering.

The reader is encouraged to make sure they don’t use up all of the options for formative reading and might want to use the fruit if the spirit , ( Galatians 5:22-23 )as a lens through which to read and to ask how a particular passage might deepen love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control into their life. Using what has come to be called the Fivefold Question:

  1. What does this passage say about God’s nature?
  2. What does it say about human nature?
  3. What does it say about how God relates to people?
  4. What does it say about how I might pray?
  5. What does it suggest about how I might act?
Hopefully other noders will add more write-ups about methods of Biblical readings to this node. The important part of any method is adopting an underlying attitude of openness and a seeking for the truth. By praying for a “spiritual mind” that is obedient, faithful to the historic Christian tradition, Christ centered and personal. Separated from these foundational commitments, any method becomes mere technique. With them and through them, methods of reading scripture can become a true means of grace.

Selected Source

The Spiritual Formation Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 1086-1089.

Critical reading: No doubt other noders will know more about the various technical approaches to this reading style than I do. The following is (in general) a modern technique, and is as well suited to an atheist reader as one who has a spiritual connection with the work. It's not exclusively modern though, and its roots can be traced back to Origen's observation (c. 220 CE) that the Letter to the Hebrews could not (for a variety of reasons) have been written by Paul.

Critical reading benefits from a little external research, but this is not essential by any means. The key is to consider who set down the text in question, and what they tried to say about God and life in doing so. For example, if we read John 2:1-11, the story of Jesus turning water into wine, it appears (perhaps) a little unclear. It's possible, of course, to treat this passage as a simple narrative, like a news report. But that doesn't then tell us anything, except that some people believed Jesus had turned water into wine. But if we look at John's use of language, here and elsewhere, it's clear that he wants us to look at Jesus' life (partly) in terms of the 'signs' he performed. In John's view of Jesus' life, the presence on earth of the Son of Man is naturally attended by miracles, which are not there solely for the benefit of the people healed, or given free wine, or fed, or saved from storms, but also as a direct sign of the presence of the Christ. The story of the wedding at Cana, with its commonplace setting and Jesus' remarkable actions, demonstrates the force of God's power bursting into the lives of those around Jesus and demonstrating to them, and subsequently to the whole world, that Jesus is the Messiah. This view is not nearly as strongly presented in the other gospels, which is part of why they are called 'synoptic' (same view) in contrast to John's. (The narrative content is another major issue.)

Narrative reading: People often make clever 'classical' allusions to various Bible stories which were once well-known, in the days when scripture knowledge was still a curriculum subject, but which now go unread. A narrative reading of scripture is simple; find a section of the Bible which tells a story, and read it from beginning to end. Judges 4 is a good self-contained feminist tale to be starting with. Books which are specially good for this kind of reading include the Gospels and Acts, Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Ruth 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and Jonah. There's no 'deep' objective in this style of reading, except to appreciate the Bible as literature and history. A structure can be developed by reading a chapter a day from a book each of the Old and New Testaments.

Literary reading: As well as the narrative style described above, it is also entirely appropriate to read the text for its compositional content. This approach is somewhat dependent on the translation, and this is one situation where a particularly expressive text has an advantage over a more linguistically precise one. The Authorized Version is ideal. Passages such as Isaiah 40 are justly famous for their rich use of language and vivid imagery. Poetic chapters such as the Psalms and Exodus 15 are also highly appropriate for such an approach. Other passages, like 1 Kings 22, yield up information about history and geography. A biblical atlas can be useful in finding places like Ramoth-Gilead, which is a disputed site at several different times in the Bible. And even sections of the Bible which seem to convey no story and make little sense to the casual reader, such as most of Revelation, can be studied for their poetic thrust and wide allusive range. Thanks to heyoka and SEF for prompting this addition to the WU.

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