One afternoon around lunch one of my oldest and best friends walked up to my desk at work with a book. Without preamble, he handed it to me, already opened to page 8, and said, “I think you should read this.” I did. In the space of the next six pages, in about ten minutes or so, I met and made another friend for life. The book was Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner. The long passage my friend encouraged me to read takes a very short passage of Scripture (John 18:28-38) and imagines what Pilate’s day might have been like the morning he encountered Jesus.
Buechner is not pretending to add something to the Bible itself, but he is encouraging readers to think more about the real human beings described in the Bible. His writing is full of impossible anachronisms, conjecture, sensory details, inner dialog, and emotion: in short, a robust and honest expression of imagination. I had never seen a writer do what I was seeing Buechner do in response to the Bible, and it thrilled me. His writing sent me back to the Gospel of John, looking for this little moment leading up to the crucifixion that I had not paid much attention to before in my reading. What else was I missing? Buechner helped me begin to see how much we don’t get to see and hear in just the text of Scripture.
Finding Reading Companions
The Bible is a huge book, a layered and nuanced book, and an incredibly complex tapestry of history and poetry and philosophy and correspondence. It is a great deal more than this, even. Yet for all its richness and breadth, most of the people and events it contains are given only the barest of descriptions. When I found Buechner’s writing, I found a companion and a guide to help me begin to exercise my imagination in the spaces between the verses.
I was new to studying the Bible at that point in my life. I had joined a study group with a bunch of men who were all a lot older than I was. They were kind and helpful brothers to me while I was a part of their circle, but I have moved several times in the 12 years since, and I don’t keep up with them. For one reason or another, though, I dip back into one of Buechner’s books almost every month. The reading friendships we cultivate can have such a deep influence on us and how we read the Bible in part because we bring those friendships with us wherever we go.
Theologians as Reading Companions
The theologians you read (or may read, someday) can be very real companions on the long journey of living out our faith. For all kinds of reasons, it matters a great deal whose company we decide to keep. I have found theologians, men and women from around the world and across denominational lines, that have encouraged me in lonely times. They have often opened me to new ways of looking at or exploring the Bible.
One of the ways that I know I have found an author and a friend of deep significance is that returning to their writing continues to reward me with new insights and ways of understanding. The Bible is a living text, and part of the way I have experienced the aliveness of it is through the writing and life’s work of the theologians and artists that have tried to read and respond to the Bible as humbly and daringly as they could.
If you have already found theologians that help you read the Bible, how would you describe the ways they help you? Articulating these things for myself helps me appreciate them and their influence more, and that gratitude is nourishing, just as it is in my other relationships.
Do you see anything in common about your favorite influences? Most of mine have a particular kind of curiosity about the emotional interior and about the power of language itself. I think that God may help us to know ourselves and the unique ways we have been created when we explore the particulars of the writers we love and appreciate the most. That, in turn, may prompt us to wonder over, and know more deeply, the God who made us.
Finding a Theologian Companion
If you are new to reading the Bible, or don’t yet have any theologian companions for the journey yet, that’s OK! Reading theology can be daunting, especially in the beginning. Not all theologians write dense books of abstractions with dizzyingly complex sentences (though some do). One way to begin looking for good reading friends is by paying attention to places in your Bible reading where you feel particularly excited, or places where you might be curious but confused. No matter where you turn in Scripture, many, many brothers and sisters have gone there ahead of you, and many of them have written about their experience of trying to understand and respond to what they have read.
Ask some people you know and trust who they like to read and you will probably find, as so many of us have, that God enjoys custom-ordering your reading list through the relationships, conversations, and details of your life.
Meeting a New Friend
At one point, I realized I loved reading about food and eating in the Bible: the idea of The Feast and what it meant to share meals together was very exciting. I found out a member of my church was part of a unique and thoughtful catering business. I asked him after the service one day if he might recommend a good writer about faith and food.
“Oh yeah,” he said to me immediately. “You’re looking for Robert Farrar Capon. You should read The Supper of the Lamb.” I’m so glad I asked, and so grateful he knew just where to guide me. In the years since that brief conversation, I have several times been thrilled to hand a copy of that book, opened to the second chapter (which I call “The Onion Chapter”), to friends and encourage them to read for themselves.
We all need many kinds of friends for the journey of faith. The unique friendships we might cultivate with the many theologians and writers who have come before us can be some of the richest and longest-lasting relationships in our lives. And aren’t there few pleasures as wonderful as introducing one good friend to another good friend? “Here,” we say, “is someone you just need to meet.”
Are you interested in meeting a theologian to accompany you in your Bible Reading? Here are some more favorites you might enjoy meeting: N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy L. Sayers, David Bentley Hart, Fleming Rutledge, Robert Alter, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Augustine, and John Calvin. Who would you add to the list?
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