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The Bible: The ideal foundation for building a reading culture

The Bible reveals the Word as the active principle of Creation (Gen.1). God said, “Let there be,” and there was. St. John identifies Jesus as the Word (Jn.1:1-2). The Bible chronicles the Word becoming flesh, in its ongoing engagement with the world (Jn.3:16).

The Bible: The ideal foundation for building a reading culture

By Rev. Dr. Valson Thampu
The Bible reveals the Word as the active principle of Creation (Gen.1). God said, “Let there be,” and there was. St. John identifies Jesus as the Word (Jn.1:1-2). The Bible chronicles the Word becoming flesh, in its ongoing engagement with the world (Jn.3:16).

This Word indwells the world as its light (Jn.9:5). It has two dimensions: the spoken and the written. The Word is spoken to be heard; it is written to be read, chewed, inwardly digested and to be lived by. The hallmark of such reading is the incarnation of the Word in its fruitfulness through us.

The function of the Word is to quicken the depth. In the words of the Psalmist, it is the deep calling the deep (Ps.42:7). Quickening the depth denotes the mystery of creativity. There is no creativity on the surface; except, perhaps, spurious creativity of the cosmetic kind.

‘Depth’ is distinctly a human category. Animals have no depth. That is to say, they are inwardly only what they are outwardly. A cow, after grazing, lies down and chews the cud. She may seem to ruminate. But she only seems to, but doesn’t. She cannot. To reflect, there has to be two worlds; the inner and the external. The uniqueness in the creation of man is the awaking of depth by God ‘breathing into’ Adam. Surfaces comprise the external world. The inner world, one of depth, is a domain of mystery.

Depth can be related to only as swimmers do. Swimming illustrates the dynamism of relating to the depth of life -a continual, dynamic communion between depth and surface. It is because of the depth that a swimmer can stay on the surface. It is impossible to swim on hard ground.

Reading is a sort of cognitive, imaginative swimming. The written world may ‘seem’ to be static. It is serene, not stagnant. The reader is to a book of depth what the angel was to the pool of Bethsaida (Jn.5:1ff). To read is to stir the depth, provided the text has depth.

The very function of the Word, according to Jesus, is to quicken the depth of life and to manifest its treasures. This insight is the core of the parable of the sowers (Mtt. 13.1ff). Shallowness is inhospitable to spiritual fruitfulness. To read the Bible and yet to have not the inner depth stirred in a rejuvenating, healing and enriching fashion is to have not read it at all.

The Word is food for the born-again child of God (Jn.3:3). Through our first birth we inherit everything, beginning with parents. In being born again, we are to ‘seek and find’ the fullness of the spiritual beings we are. In a spiritual sense, we have to ‘mother’ and feed ourselves. We are born again in the Spirit. The ministry of the Spirit is to lead us into all truth (Jn.16:13). The Spirit does not lead us under a leash. The Spirit leads us by enabling us to seek what is essential for fullness of life.

The word is powerful. But there are words and words. Not every word is of the same order, scope or purpose. There is the word of the surface, even as there is the Word of the depth. The word of the surface, at its best, may afford intellectual satisfaction, which need not be scorned. But the Word of the depth is the ultimate resource for humankind. The Bible identifies it as God’s Word that quickens life.

The lament that spans 20th century culture is the lament over the dwindling stature of man. For all our achievements, humankind is taking more and more after Zacchaeus. We are becoming, as T. S. Eliot, says, “Stuffed men, hollow men.” Hollowness results from a neglect of the inner sanctuary of life. Publishing industry has not withered away for all that. No, it is nearly flourishing. But, as the prophet says, there is a famine in the land! The famine of the Word.

It is not as though people have given up on reading. It is that most people have become consumers of the word. As of now, the spoken word supersedes the written world, which is understandable. Understandable, because it is easier to be a hearer than a reader, especially for those who prefer the ease of doing business with life. But what happens to you as you sit and watch, say, an hour of prime-time TV discussions? Is the depth in you quickened? Or, do you feel debilitated; almost, desecrated?

I too watch news and discussions on TV. I do so out of necessity; being into the business of writing what might be pretentiously called political commentary. So, I need to know what is on and what is off. But it takes a toll on me. And I to turn to the Bible. I read and read, as if to de-toxify myself. Each night I need to cleanse myself of the infection of this deafening, desecrating shallowness consumed nationally as prime-time enlightenment. ‘The nation,’ we are told, ‘wants to know’. I wish it were equally true, “The nation wants to read!”

How does the reading of the Bible help me? Well, it helps me to re-locate myself in the proximity of life. Borrowing the words of the Psalmist, I could say, “He leads me besides still waters” (Ps.23:2). To me, the Bible is the Living Word. It means that it revives and renews my being and calling. It also provides me with a yardstick to judge the fares of the world justly and fairly.

I don’t just ‘read’ the Bible. I read it seekingly and reflectively. The Bible is my primary resource for becoming who I need to be. No other priority compares to it. There is no need to worry about this or that issue or the choices I make. As St. Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please!”. Be, in Christ Jesus, what we are meant to be; everything else will take care of itself. That, I believe, is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.” (Mtt.6:33). The alternative is to be worldly wise and walk through life like in a minefield, watching each step in anxiety.

But I don’t read the Bible in a magical vein. Nor do I accept a discontinuity between the Word and the best that is thought and known in the world. So, my passion for the Word of God also makes me an avid reader of the words of men. Because of the Bible, I read an assort of books, covering an ensemble of subjects.

While doing so, it becomes clearer to me that the Bible has shaped and inspired some of the finest minds in the world, including creative geniuses. How could there be a Shakespeare or a Milton, a Dante or a Goethe, a Chaucer, a Donne, an Eliot, a Dostoevsky, a Tolstoy, a Hugo, a Kant, a Hegel, a Pascal or a Kierkegaard, without the Bible? And how can I exclude them from my tutelage under the Bible?

Going by my experience, to read the Bible deeply is to be stimulated in creativity. All my newspaper articles, numbering nearly a thousand, have the Bible as their hidden wellspring of insight. I deem myself a missionary in the print media. I entered it and endure it as a strategy to ‘preach to the nations’.

I began, a long time ago, by learning passages after passages from the Bible by heart. I did so for a reason. I was in love with the English language. But there was no opportunity for me to hear the language spoken even in its ‘Manglish’ version in those days! Yet, even before I could get a handle on the language, I began to intuit the beauty of style. The only way I could catch the music of biblical texts was by committing them to memory. And I used to recite them to myself every now and then. This enhanced my linguistic base and influenced my style of writing and speaking.

At this point a word of advice to those who care for it. Do not shroud the Word in superstition. There are those who believe that the Bible, being the inspired Word of God, should not be mixed up with secular scholarship. This does not square with my experience. It has happened to me on many occasions that flashes of insights into biblical texts dawned on me, even as I was poring over secular classics -history, philosophy, sociology, literature and, even, depth psychology.

Even more importantly, some of the deepest insights I have into the hidden treasures of the Word were born in the midst of the struggles of my life. I believe this happened because of God’s mercies and, also, because biblical texts were vibrant in my heart. In such contexts, as one struggles to be faithful to one’s calling, the Word sown as seeds in the soil of one’s life sprouts and, like the proverbial mustard seed (Mtt.13:34), sends its branches to the end of the world!

When that stage is reached, the Word you have read becomes also radiantly intelligible to those around you, without your having to ‘preach at’ them. Reading the Bible is radically different from reading any other book, though not incompatible with it. To read the Bible as it deserves to be read is to become the medium through which the Word becomes flesh and indwells the world as the light of life.

(Rev. Dr. Valson Thampu served on the faculty of St. Stephen's College, Delhi, for thirty years (1973-2003) before becoming its 12th principal (2007-2016). He served two terms as a member of the Delhi Minorities Commission. He contributes to the national print media on diverse current affairs issues.)

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