YouTube has taught me a lot of things, most of which I probably should have asked a human being about: how to smoke a pipe, how to use a bucket of water to flush a toilet, how to use InDesign and Photoshop, how to peel garlic without using your hands, and so on. One thing I’ve never thought to ask YouTube to teach me, though, is something many of us do every day (or feel guilty about not doing): reading the Bible. In this essay, I thought I’d rectify that problem, illustrating five basic points about how to read the Bible by means of a few insights gained from those crazy Tubes.
Some of the good things in life have to be enjoyed at top speed, like running across those holes in the ground in Mario Brothers; those who shilly or shally won’t have enough speed to get over the gaps and will fall tragically into the void: the Harry Potter series, for example, The Edge of Tomorrow, or really any movie with Tom Cruise in it. By contrast, other good things have to be enjoyed slowly, if they are to be enjoyed at all: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” for instance, is almost unlistenable at full speed, but slowed down one thousand times, the listener is suddenly able to discover the meditative, primal character of the song; it’s so much better at that speed, in fact, that I suspect she may have composed it that way originally, and acquiesced to the faster version in a moment of weakness, which I’m sure she has had call to regret.
In any case, the Bible isn’t really in either of those camps, because it has a way of speaking to us at any speed. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a way to deepen your encounter with the Word of God, don’t just breeze through it, or even set yourself a goal of finishing a given book by a given date. Just slow down and let the text dictate its own pace to you; you might find that you spend half an hour praying about half a verse, or you might roam through a chapter or two before something grabs you. The point is to meet Christ, not to make tracks; start by reading a verse, a few verses, a chapter, and let yourself mull over what you see there, asking Christ to show himself to you.
What is there? What isn’t there?
Okay, so you’ve slowed down, and now you’re reading the text at a snail’s pace. So what do you do? The first step is so obvious that you might miss it: ask yourself what you see and what you don’t see. Think about the Transfiguration scene, as it appears in Luke 9:28-36. What’s there? Jesus’ face is altered, his clothes become dazzling white, Moses and Elijah show up, speaking of his coming exodus, the disciples see his glory, a cloud overshadows them, they hear God’s voice from heaven, then everything returns to normal. Okay. But what’s not there that should be there? Well, let’s just think about the cloud, which throughout the Bible is used to symbolize the presence of God, and particularly the presence of God in the Temple (see Ezekiel 8-11, Lk 1:9-10). But if the cloud points to the divine glory in the Temple, where’s the Temple? Suddenly it seems like the Temple is extremely present, exactly because it’s absent. The Temple, the one site of true worship for the Jewish people, is nowhere to be seen, but the presence of God is, in all his glory. The absence of the Temple leads us to an unexpected presence: Jesus is the New Temple, the site of true worship, and wherever he is found, there is the glory and grace of God ready to transform those who worship him into sharing in that same glory. Such discoveries of presence and absence are nearly infinite in the Scriptures; all they take is a patient eye and ear, willing to attend to the details of the scene before us.
Form and genre matter
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that the form and genre of a story can exert a profound influence on its meaning. The way a romantic comedy or a heartwarming family film communicate the power of human relationships is rather different from the way that same idea gets expressed in a horror movie, for example. Likewise with the Bible. The profound allegories of the Song of Songs reveal the face of the Divine Lover in a different way than we find in the prophet Hosea’s treatment of the same issue, which is different yet again from the marital imagery Christ introduces in the Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12). Attending to the different modes of presentation here allows us to see the complex richness of how God loves us more clearly and beautifully than if we gloss over the distinctions, or don’t notice them at all.
Be ready for anything
The Bible is full of surprises. If you grew up Christian, you might be tempted to think that the Bible is old hat, all too familiar and uninteresting. Kid’s stuff. But if you approach it with patience, receptive to the different ways that God makes himself known, striving to read and interpret the Bible “in the sacred spirit in which it was written,” you will find that the Scriptures are as perpetually new and life-giving as the Holy Spirit himself (Dei Verbum §12).
Commentators can be helpful
From time to time, of course, you will run across Scripture passages that are just too complex to grasp in a single go, or even after very many goes. When you get stuck, it can be helpful to turn to a trusted commentator, who can shed light on the spiritual drama of the passage, and maybe give some insight into its more cryptic elements. Someone who knows nothing about the Internet’s obsession with cats, the cosmic confusion of Nyan Cat, the horizons of tragi-comedy open to eHarmony videos, and the Gregory Brothers might find “Can’t Hug Every Cat” somewhat cryptic. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: an enlightening and spiritual commentary!
Above all, don’t give up! If a few simple YouTube videos can reveal key insights into approaching God’s revelation in Scripture, just imagine what you can learn from the way the Church prays those same Scriptures at Mass, in the Liturgy of the Hours, in her prayers and spiritual writings! The horizon is as infinite as the Holy Spirit.
Image: Holly Bible Book