Becoming Better Readers of the Bible Means Learning to Love the Life of our Mind
How to Read the Bible With Your Heart (And Not Lose Your Head)
Paul J. Pastor • January 24, 2020
Lev / Heart
Different cultures have different conceptions of the human heart, what it is and what it does, and the biblical authors are no exception. In this video we'll explore the ancient Hebrew words for "heart" as well as the different ideas of what our hearts represent. There is no biblical word that captures better the essence of human thought, feeling, and desire, than this rich and wonderful word.Video Details
Becoming better readers of the Bible means learning how to read with our whole selves. But learning this means we may have to break some deeply set habits of approaching Scripture. Our culture has quietly taught us to live as partial-persons, either emphasizing our emotive qualities or leaning into our rational side. It’s as if we’re asked to either embody the plot of a feel-good film from the ‘80s (“Trust your feelings!” “Just follow your heart!”) or become some sort of hyper-rational robot, running complex mental analytics and calling it “theology.”
The true call, of course, is to live and read our whole Bible as whole persons. As we’re entering a new year—many of us setting our intentions for going deeper into the Bible’s literature—there’s no better time to consider what it might mean to grow in this way.
Today, let’s consider what it means to deepen our mental habits of Scripture reading without sacrificing the emotive and heartfelt connection that the Bible intends to awaken in us.
The God of the Bible is a God who reveals. This revelation, in the biblical imagination, can be profoundly encountered everywhere. There is no portion of nature, no element of human activity, no place or people where the revelation of God is not active for “those with eyes to see.” One of my favorite descriptions of this comes from the biblical poetry of Psalm 19. Go look it up if you haven’t read it in a while! After a description of the glory of God revealed in the natural world, the poet writes:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes… (Psalm 19:7:8, NRSV)
In the “rhyming thoughts” of Hebrew poetry, the writer’s point becomes clear––God’s torah (instruction) is for all of the human person. In fact, so potent is this, that God’s revelation can bring wisdom-clarity to those who lack the sharpness of insight. It is spiritual “light” which allows us to “see.”
These images of improving insight speak to the best and most integrated of our mental capacities. While the revelation of God is certainly intended to prompt us to praise, rejoice, remember, and well up with a depth of genuine emotional response, it is also intended to sharpen our powers of thought and insight. We are not made more dull or thoughtless by deeply engaging our faith in the God of the Bible. Actually, we’re inspired to think better.
But how do we practically do this? Here are three simple things to try in your reading this year.
Expect Thoughtful Literature
Our expectations color everything. Many of us have encountered Scripture in heart-oriented traditions that asked us to consider what the Bible was saying to us personally or find the verse that spoke to our hearts. As a result, some of us don’t have a clear understanding of the deeply thoughtful literature that makes up the Bible.
So for many of us, the first step is to up our expectations. This book is more than a scrapbook of Instagram-worthy inspirational quotes. It’s not just meant to cheer you up on a bad day or give you some sanctified self-help pep talks. It is a book that has inspired and challenged many of the greatest minds of history, containing vast intellectual and imaginative depths for those willing to dive in.
These books of intricate poetry, carefully edited historical “highlight reels,” elegant logical treatises, and brilliantly suspenseful narratives didn’t just happen. It was the product of painstaking writing, editing, and arrangement. Its profound thoughtfulness is everywhere once you begin to see it.
Ask Tough Questions
When we approach the Bible with high expectations, we’ll quickly find that the questions we ask of it change—for the better.
Instead of asking closed questions that focus only on more obvious points of the reading, our questions open up and begin to dig beneath the surface. Why does Matthew say Jesus preached his most famous sermon on a mountain when Luke pretty much has the same words preached down on a plain? How can I get better at appreciating ancient poetry? Was the author of Ezekiel reading other parts of the Bible when that book was written? Why does the Hebrew Bible sometimes call an important mountain Sinai and sometimes Horeb? Why are many of the same stories told in Kings immediately retold in Chronicles?
No question is off limits. But the right questions, that honor the Bible’s intricate literature, intention of faith, and overarching story that points to Jesus, will unlock the book for reading after reading. I don’t guarantee you’ll understand it all (in fact, I guarantee you won’t), but I do suspect that you’ll become a bit addicted as the Bible reveals its treasures slowly, always hinting at something you haven’t yet discovered.
Cultivating these questions is the work of a lifetime. It requires a blend of vibrant curiosity and authentic humility to ask what am I missing here? While answers are important, it is the act of asking that wakes up our positive critical and curious faculties, drawing our heads closer to the holy book.
Share Real Perspective
The Bible’s literature was always intended to be read with other people. For us today, the community of those who can “read” it with us is incredibly vast. We have nearly two thousand years of global Christian literature (not even considering the profound Jewish contributions) to help ground us. Each of these voices was a previous student of this intricate book, a real person whose life, dreams, faith, and fears informed their reading. And what’s more? Wherever you live, you’re virtually guaranteed to be able to connect with other students of the Bible to compare notes, discuss tough sections, and fall in love with the book all over again when seeing it from a slightly different point of view.
This sharing of perspective takes work for sure. It sometimes asks us to reconsider our deeply felt assumptions in the face of a good point we’ve never thought through. It often requires us to consider the perspective of a person whose life experience is different than our own.
But this diversity is one of the great hidden treasures of being a “thinking” Bible reader. You will find yourself in the company of thoughtful people who are, like you, seeking truth. And that journey will encourage you to deeper levels of your own mental engagement with the Bible.
The best part of these three simple strategies? None of them, even remotely, demand that we ignore our heart or emotions. None of these strategies tend toward cold intellectualism or becoming a biblical “know-it-all.” Rather, they are inherently faith building. They awaken our analytic and thoughtful side while reaching out with genuine faith that the answers to our questions will require simplicity and humility—in addition to thought and learning.
If we approach the Bible this year ready to expect, ask, and share, what might happen? How might we learn to live more deeply as followers of Jesus and lovers of the thoughtful literature of the Bible? It will look different for each of us. But I like to imagine what it might feel like to find God’s revelation awakening new parts of my mind this year, bringing clarity and wisdom as I grow in my faith as a whole person in a whole world seeking a holy God.
This piece is from the Becoming Better Readers series, focusing on bridging rich ideas from the Bible with the realities of spirituality today.