How One Reads Scripture

I just finished reading Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, written by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an Episcopal priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. The book is an exploration of the Christian theological questions raised by mental illness. Greene-McCreight suffered from major depression and was diagnosed as bipolar and she writes from the standpoint of one who has struggled mightily with questions about the meaning of suffering from a Christian perspective.

While she takes seriously the need for various forms of medical/psychological treatment, she also talks about the important role of prayer (both her own prayer and the prayers of her family and friends) and of scripture in her healing. In Scripture she found, “the Lord of life, the crucified and risen King who claims victory over all deathly powers. While, as she observes, this is true for everyone, regardless of their state of health, “for someone who is mentally ill, encountering the Lord of life when all one can think about is death and despair is not only surprising, indeed, shocking, but also healing.”

A theologian by training, her Appendix on Why and How I Use Scripture is a useful aid for all prayers, not just those suffering from illness.

Here are three of Greene-McCreight’s appendix comments that I think are useful to keep in mind when reading or praying with scripture.

The first is that the practice of reading scripture against itself (which she follows) “means to acknowledge the unity of the canon. I read Matthew, and then turn to Isaiah and its voice quoted in Matthew. I read Galatians, then turn to James, without throwing up my hands in despair at the seeming contradictions. The point is not to claim that Matthew misquotes Isaiah or that Galatians cancels our James or vice versa, but that by reading one text against another we learn more. We can dig out the marrow of scripture by reading it according to itself.” I confess that I have not always followed the practice of going back to other parts of the Bible that are referenced, particularly in the Gospels. It strikes me as a failure I should remedy.

The second is to read scripture with the understanding that it is inspired by God. She oberves, “When I find a particular ‘error’ or ‘inconsistency,’ I question why that may appear as such, what it might tell me about the Divine Voice. I do not take such ‘errors’ to be indicative of a lack of meaning or of scripture’s having been ‘falsified.’ To say that scripture is inspired is to say that it has a purpose, it has a direction.” I think, this is an important point. We can find plenty of examples of things in the Bible that are not factually accurate. But the lack of factual accuracy does not mean there is not a valuable truth conveyed by the passage in question. So to speak in terms of “purpose” and “direction” rather than “accuracy or textual perfection” is useful.

Finally, she writes that “when I come across a difficult passage in the Old Testament, or in the New for that matter, I struggle with it until I can gain some meaning out of it. If I still can’t, I am willing to leave it alone until I am wiser, should such a day ever come, rather than jettisoning it in my mind as though it were less profound than I.” I suspect I struggle less than I should when I can’t immediately draw meaning from a passage and then, tend to toss it aside rather than come back to it.

Sound advice.