The Bible’s Role in the Formation of Character

bible-reading“… The practice of reading Scripture, studying Scripture, acting Scripture, singing Scripture — generally soaking oneself in Scripture as an individual and the community — has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as central to the formation of Christian character.

“It is important to stress at this point … that this has only secondarily to do with the fact that Scripture gives particular instructions on particular topics. That is important, of course, but it is far more important that the sheer activity of reading Scripture, in the conscious desire to be shaped and formed within the purposes of God, is itself an act of faith, hope, and love, an act of humility and patience. It is a way of saying that we need to hear a fresh word, a word of grace, perhaps even a word of judgment as well as healing, warning as well as welcome. To open the Bible is to open a window toward Jerusalem, as Daniel did (6:10). no matter where our exile may have taken us.

“It is, in particular, a way of locating ourselves as actors within an ongoing drama. No matter how many smaller stories there may be within Scripture, and how many million edifying stories there may be outside it, the overall drama of Scripture, as it stands, forms a single plot whose many twists and turns nonetheless converge remarkably on a main theme, which is the reconciliation of heaven and earth as God the Creator deals with all that frustrates his purpose for his world and, through his Son and his Spirit, creates a new people through whom his purpose — filling the world with his glory — is it last to be realized. To be formed by this capital-S story is to be formed as a Christian. To take the thousand, and ten thousand, decisions to open the Bible today and read more of the story, even if we can’t yet join it all up in our own heads, is to take the next small step toward being the sort of person who, by second nature, will think, pray, act, and even feel in the way appropriate for someone charged with taking that narrative forward.

“We are not yet, after all, at the end of the drama. Bible readers … will find themselves drawn in as ‘characters’ on stage. Yes that may well mean ‘playing a part,’ and all the old charges of hypocrisy that cluster around the practices of virtue will come rumbling in here as well. But the more you know the play, the less you will be ‘playing a part’ and the more you will simply be yourself. Sooner or later, you’ll be acting naturally. Second nature. That’s how virtual works.

“Of course, within the Bible there are all kinds of far more specific passages which shape and direct the life of faith, hope, and love, and which the Spirit can and does use to stir up God’s people to produce fruit. Almost every paragraph of the four gospels will have this effect, if read, pondered, and prayed through slowly and carefully. Likewise, the Psalms will open up the heart and mind of anyone who reads, sings, or prays them with any attention; they will form and reform that heart and mind in a way which, though by a no means always comfortable, is always formative of Christian character. Even the genealogies, best read today at a run, can provide a powerful sense of the ongoing purposes of God, with generation after generation living by faith and hope before the next major point in the divine purpose unfold, like a long-awaited late-blooming orchid. Some parts of the Bible are best drunk like a large glass of water on a hot day — in other words large quantities at a time — while others, such as many parts of the letters, are best sipped and savored, drop by drop, like a fine wine (always remembering that, especially in a letter, every verse means what it means in relation to the whole thing, not on it’s own). But the point is that reading the Bible is habit-forming; not just in the sense that the more you do it the more you are likely to want to do it, but also in the sense that the more you do it the more it will form the habits of mind and heart, of soul and body, which will slowly but surely form your character into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And the “your” here is primarily plural, however important the singular as well.

“This isn’t to say there aren’t hard bits in the Bible — both passages that are difficult to understand and passages that we understand only too well but find shocking or disturbing … Avoid the easy solution to these: that these bits weren’t ‘inspired,’ or that the whole Bible is wicked nonsense, or that Jesus simply abolished the bits we disapprove of. Live with tensions. Goodness knows there are plenty of similar tensions in our own lives, our own world. Let the troubling words jangle against one another. Take the opportunity to practice some patience (there may yet be more meaning here than I can see at the moment) and humility (God may well have things to say through this for which I’m not yet ready). In fact, humility is one of the key lessons which comes to reading the Bible over many years; there are some bits we find easy and other bits we find hard, but not everybody agrees as to which is which.

“Some people, it seems, are temperamentally suited to a particular book or type of book which others find opaque. John’s gospel is like that: some acclaim it as the very summit of the Scriptures, while others, though appreciating some of its great strengths, find it awkward and puzzling. Some people find that with St. Paul as well. Perhaps — and this is where humility comes in — it might just be the case that Scripture is so arranged that in order to grow toward a full genuine humanness toward the well-rounded virtue of being a royal priesthood, we have to grow into Scripture, like a young boy inheriting his older brothers clothes and flopping around in them while he gradually fills out and grows up. Perhaps it’s a measure of our own maturity when parts of Scripture that we found odd or even repellent suddenly come up in a new light; when people who naturally embrace Paul come to love John as well, and vice versa; when people soaked in Revelation suddenly warm to Acts, and vice versa. Perhaps it’s another sign of maturity when our sense that Scripture is made up of some bits we know and love and other bits we tolerate while waiting for our favorites to come around once more, is suddenly overtaken by a sense of the whole thing — wide, multicolored, and unspeakably powerful. We had, perhaps, been wandering around in light mist, visiting favorite villages and hamlets, and then, as the mist gradually cleared, we discovered that everything we had loved was enhanced as it was glimpsed within a massive landscape, previously unsuspected, full of hills and valleys and unimagined glory” (N.T. Wright, After You Believe, pp. 261-264).

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