When Truth Slows Down: Literacy and Mystery in Breathing
I am reading aloud Sherlock Holmes 10,000 feet up on a mountain. I am standing on cold and solid rock. The book is in one hand, propped at eye-level, and I am speaking loudly. My warm breath is meeting the yellow paper that holds a 100 year old story that I’m seeing for the first time today. I’m standing on rock, breathing. Reading feels like breathing. My family is sitting down nearby, eating trail mix and swapping water bottles. They only listen enough to throw laughter at me. After hiking for a few hours, we are resting at an overlook of Lake Helene in the Rocky Mountains. There are granite walls in front of me, deciduous forest behind, and a blue sky above that in-between each cloud spares a glance to look at its reflection on the lake. Although my family is barely listening to me, I think that everything else is. At least I am listening. I am 19 years old and I am speaking to myself, here, the story of an unruly detective and his mystery. Aha! There is a lot of mystery in the things I read.
Reading aloud has always helped me listen to myself. I have grown up reading aloud and loving when others read aloud with me. We slow ourselves down when we read aloud and find that we can understand something better. We recognize our voice and our breathing and so our reading hints at our aliveness. When we read with one another, we see them breathe and wink at their aliveness. There is inhale and exhale, and in-between, the recognition that breathing, like reading, is a special gift.
So, there I was: reading Sherlock Holmes the summer before I came to college. And I was experiencing a tremendous confidence with who I was with books. They were what I grasped when trying to understand the world: humanity, myself, God, and the unfolding connections between and amongst each.
I grew up going to church and being loved in the church. On Sundays, the pastor breathed out words from a 2000-something year old text while we sat in scratchy green chairs with white metal backing or in new pews with openings in their backs so you could put your feet up on the one in front of you. It’s here that we read aloud together the invocation, recited the confession, received the absolution, and recited after the reading of Scripture, “The grass withers and the flower falls, but the Word of our God stands forever.” As a congregation, we affirmed that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In Sunday School, I learned that the words in the Bible were the result of divine inspiration and that they were all from God: a gift. The Bible was here for us when we felt that God was not, and we thanked God for giving us His Word so that we would not err. Words were our reminders for how to live—how to have life. I thought that the Bible was a special book from another world. This world wasn’t born out of history but magic. The fantastical stories didn’t happen on Earth, they happened in another place entirely. And the wisdom that seeped out into my life were secret messages that could only be found between those thin, crinkly pages. I believed in a burning bush because I read about a burning bush. I grew up believing in the sacred necessity of words and language. I grew up knowing what to believe because someone had written it; we knew that we believed because we said (uttered, sang, chanted, confessed, affirmed) it. It’s like when you hold a pebble in your hands and then someone asks you, “Where is the pebble?” and you forgot about it because that’s just the way you hold your hands.
We placed such significance on the words of Scripture to the point where it weighed down our regular words, having life around words from the book, listening to long sermons, or surveying a book of the Bible over the course of the year. We studied Scripture on Sunday mornings, afternoons, and Wednesday evenings. We memorized verses and the questions and answers in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (often for prizes on Wednesday nights). We carried short prayers in our pockets and posted notes on the fridge, bedroom walls, and bathroom mirror. My mom printed Bible verses for me on cards that explained how I should “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” recognize the Fruits of the Spirit, and consider the idea that the Creator of the universe also knew my name and the amount of hairs on my head. I read my mom’s cards in my hands, scanned her loopy scrawl, and learned how to live. Other times, I would scroll my finger down the index in the back of my Bible in the “Reader’s Helps” section, select a problem, and page backward to the book, chapter, and verse that offered advice for your problem. I still have this Bible and it bears the remnants of my youthful searching: broken fibers, wrinkled corners, penned notes, and unruly highlights. I can still scroll my finger in the index and find a verse to look up.
Words formed rhythms of worship for me and my family. We sat and sang words. We stood and said words. We read words and memorized them. Strings of letters connected with one another were our avenues for convening with God, knowing God, and having faith. Everything literate was holy. Because we believed that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” we prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Our daily bread was the Word of the Lord and the presence of God—our spiritual nourishment cast in the same light as our physical.
When I got to college, I was excited that I had brought my Westminster Confession of Faith with me to my dorm room. I never read it, but it reminded me of who I was. Once the newness of college life started to wear away, I began to seek after the familiar rhythm of Bible reading and study because I missed home and my family. I had moved to a new state where literally everyone was a stranger to me. The practice of my faith (plus phone calls to Kansas) connected me to where I came from. As the months carried on during freshman year, however, I came to find a significant disconnect between the religious literacy I engaged with growing up and my reality. Growing up in the church, we knew and then obeyed; there was little room to obey and then know. You could go to church and sing, read, and proclaim but then go home and remove yourself from any of the meaning in what you had just sung, read, or proclaimed. The realization of this brought a new strangeness to my life. I wanted to understand truth—real truth that would change how I lived. I realized that truth might be found through experience as much as through in-depth biblical analysis. After all, I had grown up in a house that derived meaning from words, and growing up it had been easy to know what a passage from Scripture meant. Once I came to Minnesota, it was so much harder to understand how I related with that textual meaning for myself. So now I was in college, creating a home away from home in a new location, community, and understanding of self. I was also coming to connect meaning to my experience in the world—experience that I then connected to what I read and was raised to believe.
When I read the Bible in college while I also read about the history of places around the world, I came to understand that the Bible is not only a collection of stories but a collection that informs one long, mysterious, and beautiful story of who God is and who we are. It’s not some magic book of guidelines for how we might live or a smattering of stories with dramatic problems and colorful illustrations. The verses and chapters are not there to use only when I need to look up advice for a momentary affliction nor was the formation of the Bible as a sacred text a purely spiritual matter. On the contrary, the Bible is directly established in history, in the ebbs and flows of humanity, while at the same time being a story through which the Holy Spirit moves. The Bible was not outside of our time-space, but it also wasn’t restricted to it. The unfolding of Scripture in the hands of prophets and the decisions in the process of canonization were divinely inspired as much as they were grounded in reality. The Bible was a book (the book) that talks about restoration and redemption for all people, that directly called out the structure of everything that I was a part of. The Bible is God’s story of love: its creation, identification, and invitation. And these were the ideas that I was seeing play out in my life and studies.
From studying history, I saw the dramatic need for the restoration of brotherhood, goodness, love, and forgiveness in our world. I was coming to terms with the idea that we cannot hope to change the world if we do not also have hope in another kind of world. So many of our efforts to usher peace are the repeated failures of those that came before us. Looking at our history calls us to realize that something is wrong with how we relate to one another as human brothers and sisters and that we must reach out beyond our human striving for a truth to pull towards us. I was often studying history alone, and from the amazing amount of time I spent by myself during my freshman year, I realized how much I needed love in my life. As I came to see God as more grounded than ever in my reality, I came to see God’s story of creation and redemption (and everything else) as a reflection of our beautifully messy lives as created creatures: both are mysterious in the way that they have their story. My hands could hold the truth of the resurrection and the skeptic’s critique of Jesus’ divinity; I came to see how one informed the other even more. Our stubbornness to let ourselves open up to the divine mystery was simply constituent of the divine mystery itself. We can hold a text (the Bible) and our experience, and it can be mysterious, absurd, and bright.
Reading words from Scripture now, I read aloud, slowing truth down, trying. I think about the words while they are in my mouth, the breath that ushers them to slip out and enter the space in front of me, my vocals vibrating with warm energy, and I wonder about their connection to me (to me out of all people) and to the lives of others now and throughout times and places, within the weight of history. When you read out loud, you have the time to recognize that you remember something that’s happened in your life. You realize you’re holding a pebble. The pebble has been with you all along, and there was an action that placed that pebble in your hands in the first place. Or did you pick it up of your own volition? Either way, it’s there when you thought it might not exist. I have this life with all of its experiences and then I have this divine text with all its sayings, and I’m finding that they speak with and to one another. Aha! There is a lot of mystery in the things I read.
Although the Christian faith has left me at odds with myself, itself, and the people around me, I have come to understand that I cannot remove its presence from my life. Instead of trying to remove its influence, I can stand on its foundation and read aloud: feet on cold hard rock and breath giving warm air to words on cracked tissue paper pages. I can read aloud the meaning that I am making from this foundation. It’s a special meaning, and when, right now, I can hear myself writing aloud, I feel my breath. I recognize again how writing, like reading, like breathing, is a special gift.
I will read, recite, proclaim, sing, confess, resolve, write, sigh, speculate, and live into the mystery—and I will do it aloud. I will hear myself.