Do you remember ‘magic eye’ pictures (stereograms)? If not, google them, and you’ll see apparently random, confusing, fractured patterns, which at first look incomprehensible. But take the time to sit with one, relax your gaze, look through the image and after a few minutes a picture will emerge. A shark or a boat are famous subjects; and not only will the shark emerge from the chaos, but the image will have a strange 3D quality.
For many people reading the bible can be like trying to ‘read’ a ‘magic eye’ picture. We often come to the text with questions, uncertainties or even doubts, and that’s ok! These are old, old stories. In the light of all we now know from science, are you really asking me to leave my brain at the door? No, I’m not. Do I have to swallow a seven-day creation story or a man being eaten by a fish to have faith and take this book seriously? No, you don’t.
For the record, I believe the bible is inspired by God, but even as early as the middle ages the church learned to read levels of meaning into the biblical text. On the surface is the literal, historical reading. That is followed by an allegorical or spiritual reading, ‘what does this story tell us about God?’. Thirdly, a moral reading, or ‘how then shall we live?’ and finally an eternal (or eschatological) reading, ‘what might this tell us about where this is all heading?’ For the early church fathers, as far back as the third and fourth centuries, the literal reading was the least interesting. Sometimes we need to sit with these stories, relax our ‘gaze’, let them move us, shape us, do their work and connect us to God.
It is one thing to read a manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is quite another to sit before the orchestra and let the music surround you. Some experiences have to be lived, or experienced, before they reveal their meaning.
As Rainer Maria Rilke put it:
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language.
Do not search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.”
Or, as the orthodox priest Kallistos Ware says,
“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
So come, bring your questions, even your doubts. A church should be a place of radical honesty, discovery, wonder and transformation. A place where we encounter the mystery of God and ask the question ‘how then shall we live?’
Grace and peace,
Charlie is the Senior Minister at Bessels Green Baptist Church.
Services are at 10am and 4.30pm on Sundays.
Please go to bgbc.co.uk for more information about the church and all that goes on during the week.
Image credit: Aaron Burden on Unsplash