Today we continue our series of reflections on Rowan Williams’s book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. We move on to the second big theme of the practice of being Christian — hearing God speak through the Bible.
For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God. (p. 21)
Rowan Williams emphasizes that the key word in this discussion is “listening.” He reminds us that our modern view of a person sitting alone in a room reading the Bible is not the experience that the vast majority of Jews and Christians who have received the scriptures have had. It has only been for the past 500 years that most people have had access to a written copy of the entire Bible. Scripture has been something people have heard read and recited to them, usually in the context of corporate worship and catechism studies.
Now I say this not to deny the importance of all Christians having a Bible in their pocket with which they are familiar, but to point out that very often we make a set of assumptions about what is central and most important for Bible reading, which would have been quite strange in many parts of the Christian world for many centuries. And it still is strange to many of our fellow Christians today. (p. 23)
And so the practice has been to hear, to listen as the word is spoken. In my view, there is something advantageous in this. A book can be impersonal. It can lead us to think that our primary responsibility is to study, analyze, parse. On the other hand, the spoken word reinforces the I-Thou relationship inherent in conversation.
Furthermore, having my own Bible tends to prioritize personal interpretation over hearing the word in community. It can distance us from remembering that the scriptures came to us through the church and are part of a history and tradition of God’s people hearing God speak.
However, as Rowan Williams reminds us, the claim that God speaks through the Bible turns out to be a rather complicated matter. “[You] soon discover that what the Bible is not is a single sequence of instructions, beginning ‘God says to you …’” (p. 24). Rather, the scriptures are made up of a collection of “books” with an incredible diversity of literary genres and a complexity that resists any naive expectation of simple understanding of what God is saying.
The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made … Where are you in this?’ (p. 27)
This is the main question that opens us up to hear God speak — where am I, where are we in this story? And how do we faithfully play our part as the story is unfolding today?