There are many ways to read the Bible well. Sensible Shoes: A Story About the Spiritual Journey (InterVarsity Press, 2013) is a recent novel that introduces some of those methods in a creative and compelling way. The novel is mentioned in the feature “How to Read the Bible Well” in the Sept/Oct Faith Today. We invited Sharon Garlough Brown, author of Sensible Shoes, to take us deeper.
By Sharon Garlough Brown
During chapel service this week at the seminary where I teach, the preacher invited students and faculty to enter into the story of Jesus calling some fisherman to leave their nets behind. “Take your shoes off,” he said. “Feel the sand and the seaweed around your ankles. Now imagine Jesus looking at you and saying, ‘Follow me!’ How do you respond?”
Being well-trained in methods of Scripture exegesis, many of the students find such an imaginative approach to be…well, unsettling. Too intimate. Too personal. Too confrontational, perhaps. Place ourselves in the narrative? they ask, eyebrows raised quizzically. Are we allowed to do that?
My characters in Sensible Shoes ask similar questions as they participate in a retreat to explore ways of deepening their relationship with God. Some of them have only ever read the Bible like a textbook: skim for main ideas and apply what you learn. But this way of reading, the retreat leader explains, does not give adequate time and space for the Word to descend from our minds to our hearts where it can penetrate and transform us. “Many people study the Bible without ever being shaped by the text. When we come to the Word with our own agenda, we put ourselves in the position of control. We may look for what we get out of it rather than ever allowing the Word to get into us. We so easily forget that reading the Word of God is meant to be a supernatural act of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We’re meant to be listening to the Word with the ears of the heart.” (p. 102)
Charissa, a high-achieving perfectionist who daily checks off Bible-reading from her to-do list, struggles to understand the value of slow and prayerful reading of Scripture (lectio divina). What’s the point, she wonders, of reading the same short passage several times and listening for a word or phrase that catches your attention? Why pay attention to thoughts and feelings that arise around that word? Why ponder and pray about how that particular word from the Word connects with your life? As she wrestles with her own resistance, she begins to see how gripped she is by her desire for control. She’s spent years reading the Bible for information; slowly she discovers the gift of reading for transformation.
The characters also learn to read Scripture with imagination: Picture yourself in a gospel narrative. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Touch? Feel? Are you a particular person in the story or simply an observer? What happens as you imagine yourself interacting with Jesus?
A book club I met with shortly after Sensible Shoes was published asked if I would lead them in a prayer exercise. So I read from Mark 10:46-52, the story of blind Bartimaeus crying out for Jesus. After I’d given them time to imagine themselves in the story and to pray about what they’d noticed, we talked about their experience. “I’m confused,” one woman said. “I started off as Bartimaeus, yelling for Jesus, confident he could heal me. Then suddenly, I was part of the crowd, telling Bartimaeus to be quiet. I’m wondering, how could both of those impulses be inside me at the same time?” I felt like taking off my shoes and worshiping right there in the bookstore. Not only had she read the Word, but she was being read by the Living Word. What a holy moment.
So slow down. Listen. Take off your shoes and feel the sand beneath your feet. You might find yourself dropping your nets and following Jesus in ways you never imagined.
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