Reading the BIble: A Disorienting Dilemma
As Christians, why do we read the Bible? What are we after really, when we open the pages of this centuries-old sacred writ?
Jack Mezirow, professor of adult education theory, has argued persuasively that pervasive transformative growth happens rarely and only when “critical self-reflection” is present. The key starting point to this process is what Mezirow called “the disorienting dilemma.” According to Mezirow, a disorienting dilemma is a particular experience in which a crisis of thought is brought on that previous problem-solving strategies prove incapable of solving.
What does this have to do with how and why we read the Bible? I believe . . . everything.
When I contemplate the many encounters between God and his prophets recorded in the Bible, I am struck by a particular similarity. When the prophet hears the Word of God, it is almost always a jarring, frightening, and unsettling word. I think of the prophet Habakkuk, who is shocked at God’s answer to his inquiry concerning his plan for a wayward Israel. I remember Isaiah, who while seeking God in the temple, finds that he has bitten off more than he can chew, when God actually shows up. I recall the puzzlement of twelve disciples around a table who sat in stunned disbelief, all asking, “Is it me?,” when Jesus pronounced his coming betrayal. In all of these and many more biblical examples, what I see are individuals confronted by the voice of God and the consistent result of a disorienting dilemma. After all, should we expect anything less of an encounter between the infinite God and his finite creation?
Far too often in the church today, our reading of the Bible reflects our domesticated and safe view of God and what it means to follow Jesus. We do what I describe as reading to reinforce. A consuming, taxing, and contemplative investigation of the Scriptures is almost alien to the average church context, and is sometimes even deemed “unspiritual.” What is missing is critical thinking, and this lack of critical thinking has lead to an absence of critical self-reflection. As a result, our practice of daily “devotional” glances at the Word have served only to reinforce already held theological beliefs that too often have been shaped and constructed largely by a random gumbo of cultural influences.
I have to wonder . . . should I regularly walk away from my Bible reading without ever feeling somewhat jarred, frighten, or unsettled? Is the purpose of my Bible reading simply to reinforce my present spiritual posture and current level of biblical knowledge? How many times have we walked out of a sermon, church Bible study, or personal devotion time with exactly the same insights, knowledge, and self-view as we had before we walked into it? This just doesn’t seem to match up with the disciples’ experience with Jesus that I read about in the Gospels. Their entire three-year journey with him reads like one giant disorienting dilemma.
Perhaps, we need to abandon our safe and domesticated practice of reading to reinforce and adopt an approach to the Scriptures that results in the experiencing of the disorienting dilemma.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12–13)