learned a foreign language twice—in high school and in my doctoral program—and nearly lost them both. You could say I was “literate” in both languages (with occasional help from a dictionary). However, I never used those languages easily, and reading became much harder over time. Yet, I have friends who speak and read multiple languages frequently and fluently. When it comes to the “language” of the Bible, is it possible to be literate but not fluent?
The Difference Between "Literate" and "Fluent"
What is the difference between being literate and being fluent? It is the difference between working with a language and living within a language. Fluency, derived from the Latin “to flow,” implies a natural, easy familiarity with a language. Becoming fluent describes what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might call being in a “flow,” so participation includes deep appreciation, creative engagement, and a total involvement with the language in and through life.
Everton Morais, an interpreter for the Church of the Nazarene, notes that this type of fluency seems different from being bilingual. Instead of mentally translating from one language to another before understanding it, fluent translators relate language and concepts simultaneously. Fluency often occurs through immersion into the culture that shapes the language. Many people either live in a host country or grow up within a family that embodies the language. They not only learn about a language but they also practice the language regularly in their lives.
Can fluency even be possible when it comes to our participation with what theologian Karl Barth called “the strange, new world within the Bible”? If so, how can we move from literacy to fluency with the Bible and become immersed in its world, revealed in and through Scripture? I believe it is possible but only if we know how to allow the Word of God to shape us and guide us into a “flow” with Scripture’s stories and practices.
Being Formed by the Bible
Robert Mulholland, author of Shaped by the Word, stresses that these practices help us take seriously our need to read the Bible for formation as well as for information. Mulholland notes that we often seek “mastery” over information rather than obediently allowing God’s Word to shape us into the life of the kingdom of God. Mulholland argues for a balance, so that we may allow God’s Word to shape and form us.
Mulholland’s view comes very close to Dallas Willard’s understanding of study as a spiritual discipline. Willard writes:
We not only read and hear and inquire, but we meditate on what comes before us; that is, we withdraw into silence where we prayerfully and steadily focus upon it. In this way, its meaning for us can emerge and form us as God works in the depths of our heart, mind, and soul. We devote long periods of time to this. Our prayer as we study meditatively is always that God would meet with us and speak specifically to us, for ultimately the Word of God is God speaking.
Reading formatively is supported by John Wesley’s guidelines for reading Scripture, and it sets the tone for gaining fluency.
Three complementary approaches help us enter into the “world of the Bible” to explore the larger story of Scripture, imaginatively dwell in smaller passages, and participate in worship. The first approach requires a fresh reading of the Bible as a broad story told in community. Recent efforts by Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) and the American Bible Society reveal that many people in the United States own Bibles but do not engage as deeply as before. One reason may well be the lack of an understanding of the story of Scripture. As a response, these agencies developed newer Bibles that don’t include chapter or verse citations so that the Scripture looks like a series of books to be read within a community.
Our first challenge may be reading and seeing Scripture as stories that fit a larger narrative, and hearing it in community. Christians would do well to engage the Scripture first in larger narrative accounts, seeing the breadth of the biblical culture as they engage the text. Two recent responses to this need include the Community Bible Experience from Biblica and Immerse by Tyndale. Both approaches guide readers into a narrative flow of Scripture, seeing the stories and passages in a larger context.
Second, while seeing the larger narrative horizon, readers also need to engage deeply with specific passages through deliberative, reflective engagement. Ruth Haley Barton suggests we engage in a long-standing practice of “divine reading” that combines the Word and silence: “As we make ourselves open and available to God through this practice, the Scriptures penetrate to our very depths, showing us those things about ourselves that we are incapable of knowing on our own due to our well-developed defense structures.”
This approach can help us remove our cultural assumptions so we can enter fully into a culture shaped by Scripture. This type of reading begins in silence before God and includes a slow reading of Scripture, sometimes with our reading a small passage or word several times. The second step involves deep reflection or meditation upon the depths of the passage, which moves us to the third step of asking if there is an invitation or challenge in the reading where we might respond to God. This active third step invites us into the fourth phase of contemplation: resting and residing in God’s revelation and presence before finally rising to live out God’s Word and His will for the world.
Submitting to a regular pattern of divine reading invites us to imaginatively dwell within the story of Scripture until it begins to saturate our being and shape our actions. Finally, we also enter the world of Scripture through worship. When the biblical narrative becomes evident in regular Scripture readings and biblically informed singing, we begin to participate in a community anchored in the Bible. Recent insights from neuroscience suggest that the formative life of congregational worship provides an influence far beyond the small amount of time dedicated to its practice.
When we deliberately allow regular Scripture readings (such as the lectionary) to shape not only sermons but also congregational engagement, we help provide a community life that is energized by the Holy Spirit. Still, to accomplish biblical “fluency,” we should not see these practices of Bible reading and participation simply as techniques for us to use when we feel like it. Instead, we need to approach Scripture engagement much like we approach any habit or daily discipline in life: through deliberate, continuous practice.
Research in the field of neuroscience reveals just how powerful habits and practices are at shaping our minds, but they require time to fully take hold. This involves daily engagement with Scripture. Habitually participating in specific Bible practices on a regular basis can make a profound difference in our lives.
Becoming fluent requires implementing habits and practices that allow Scripture to shape us much like a new culture shapes us. This approach does not negate the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, adopting these practices of Bible reading allows us to be led more specifically by the Holy Spirit. This approach may challenge us to “unlearn” or at least suspend other approaches to reading the Bible, so that we can open our lives imaginatively and prayerfully to the full world of Scripture. Rather than merely understanding or applying Scripture to our lives, we can adopt habits and practices that engage Scripture. In this way, we will discover the full narrative embedded in Scripture so we can “flow into” and find our daily lives defined by God’s story.