Usually, I encounter Scripture through discrete chunks we call “texts” — single verses or clusters, or, if one follows some reading plan, several chapters at the most. Every once in a while, however, I will read through some book of the Bible in one sitting.
When I do this — read an entire book at a time — I’m often surprised. For one thing, it rarely takes as long as I expected it would. The very fact that the books are broken into verses and chapters, I suppose, plus the fact that whole sermons are sometimes devoted to a few verses, plus the burdens (both positive or negative) of certain verses upon vast areas of our lives (I’m thinking, for example, of texts as diverse as Romans 8:28 and I Timothy 2:12,13) — all this conspires to make us think individual books are as large and strenuous as Mount Everest.
So it’s a good surprise how a sense of scale and shape return, and more quickly than expected. It’s like shifting the Google earth screen to a larger view, in which essential contours and proportions can be seen. One gains a new and necessary specificity about the book as a whole.
And then there’s the landscape one sees by clipping along through it from beginning to end.
Last week I read the Book of Revelation this way. I’m not naturally drawn to fantastical creatures or to blood, nor interested any more in the End Times jigsaw puzzles around this book that I was set to decades ago. I know that the Revelation was written for a time of terrible persecution for those who refused to worship Nero et al., and wanted to keep that context in mind, but otherwise hoped to see it as if for the first time. Impossible to do so, of course, because there’s only one first time and for me it’s long gone. But here it was again, a vivid, very visual, and action-packed display, yes, but one of consolation, of God’s protective power and zeal on behalf of God’s suffering people.
What really struck, and stayed with me, in this particular reading, however, was how the author had built his vision of hope upon earlier Scriptures (which we now call the Old Testament). I realized this because I used The Jerusalem Bible version, which has allusions and quotations in italics and so makes obvious how many there are. I saw old sources built into a striking narrative around the central fact and figure of Christ.
Such building, it seems to me, must be what it means to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). I think of challenges that I or others in my family and community face. Can I too, more openly and imaginatively, let the Word’s “old” words, phrases, images, and people gather in me to form “new” narratives of hope?