When I was in college, I was connected to a recent DTS graduate who discipled young men. His thesis in seminary was an entire discipleship program built around providing tools to the laity for the in-depth study of scripture coupled with companision books and articles about who God is or how you can know more about him. There was also a “no dating” clause in the program, but I think he buried that in the fine print of our agreement — which was signed with a cup of coffee and a scone.
For an entire calendar year, we met every Saturday at the Irving Bible Church coffee shop, pouring through books and notebooks of resources and journals of notes I made after hours of studying a handful of verses from the books of John and Romans and Philippians.
During that year of intense discipleship, I distinctly remember many moments of sitting at the Starbucks off of 183 and MacArthur with my bible and journal spread out on the darkened coffee shop tables, looking up the Greek words in every verse I read, positioning conclusions about the questions I raised from my study, and being filled with excitement for the notes about God that filled pages and pages in my composition book.
There was this deepening sense that I could figure out this ancient book and that I could find all the answers I needed.
Until I couldn’t.
The more I studied and applied these tools, the deeper and deeper I got into the weeds. I would raise questions that I couldn’t neatly answer. In the struggle of trying to reduce the mystery of God into a digestible, discernible slogan, I wore myself out — such as the unsuspecting fly caught in the spider’s web.
My frustration with the unknown led to shame. The problem was with my intellect, my inability to reason my way to understanding. And the shame led to resignation, for the scriptures were inaccessible, so therefore I wouldn’t read them.
The tools I learned in this program were, and are, incredibly useful. We need to be able to dig into words and language; we need to understand how grammar and syntax elicit meaning; we need to know what certains words mean at certain times. As a former English teacher, I would be remiss to forsake this.
But, when this is the only way we approach the scriptures, knowledge about God transcends relationship with God, doctrine of God supersedes the story of God, and our ability to make sense of God supplants the Holy Spirit’s role in communicating the mystery of Him to us.
Yes, I still indulge in this method of studying the scriptures. We all should. But I have found myself more and more — since I have returned to the scriptures with trepidation after many years of avoiding them — sitting with, say, the book of Genesis as I did this morning, and when the chorus of questions anxiously arise around the historicity of certain events or the strange workings of God, I pause, take a breath, and ask a new set of questions:
What is amazing about this story? What elicits awe, wonder?
What is strange about this story? Interesting? Frightening?
What is beautiful about the language used (not how it is used, but the effect of it on my sensibilities)?
Where do I find myself in this story?
How does my understanding of who Jesus is inform my understanding of this story?
My answers to these questions still trip me up sometimes, and I get frustrated with my intellectual limitations or the very text itself. My hope and prayer, though, is by applying a new set of questions to my reading on occasion, I will be caught up in the magic of a narrative that is so much bigger than myself and to remember that while the textual questions are important, they don’t always draw me as participant into the story of a God who redeemed the world in Christ and is inviting me to join that very story through plot and beauty. Oftentimes, it means I must revel in the unknown, marvel in the oddities, and be awestruck by the gravity of God — even when I can’t define or explain it.
I wonder if it is only when we are wowed by a story, or even the beauty of language (not the machinations), we will actually find ourselves wanting to be a part of the story or a recipient of its beauty.
If that is true, it means we must put aside our shovels and pickaxes, crawl out of the hole of ideas and concepts we have dug, and open our eyes to the wonder of the Word that burns with beauty in plot and character, metaphor and rhythm, flesh and bones.