When I think of a Christian reading the Bible, I recall a certain scene in the Finnish literature classic The Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi (1870). Set in early 19th century, rural Finland, this novel is the story of seven orphaned young men and their coming of age. A difficult obstacle for the brothers to overcome, in making the transition to adulthood, proves to be the challenge of learning to read. At this time literacy is, moreover, a requirement of full membership in the church, since the Lutheran vernacular Bible programme makes sense only if the people can read. When the brothers, after many twists and turns, finally learn to read, they are each rewarded by the priest with their own copy of the New Testament. The scene of which I am reminded takes place when the brothers return home, each with his own, brand-new copy of the Holy Scriptures solemnly in hand. The author recounts that they first dine but then retire, each to read his own book. “And a profound silence prevailed in the room.”
“And a profound silence prevailed in the room.” This scene nicely captures the modern way of relating to a book, no less to religious scriptures than to any other sort of book. Nowadays this approach to reading is so self-evident, so natural, that it is hard to imagine any other. Reading is a private affair in which silence prevails, a silence that embraces the text and the reader alone. The brothers read quietly, without any discussion between them.
This applies to all books, but when we consider the Bible, which is not just any text, but which carries the dimension of holiness associated with the word of God, the reading takes on a special character. In the silence of this reading, the reader is before God. Regardless of the degree of intensity or awareness with which it happens, the reading includes more than mere interpersonal communication between writer and reader.
From the outside, it is impossible to know or to dictate how the meaning of the text takes shape in the mind of the reader. It is impossible for one person to enter the world of images and memories of the other, of which the text now becomes a part. Language, pictures, symbols, trains of thought and stories take on their final meanings as pieces of the inner world and life experience of the reader. A text speaks to the individual person.
However, when the novel’s brothers retire, each to read in silence, this does not imply that they are each creating their own individual religion. The book that each of them holds in his hand is his own New Testament, but it is not only his own private book of holy scripture, as if he had chosen it, thinking: I’ll choose that book as my Holy Scriptures. The brothers are very conscious of the fact that the book is common to all Christians. When they settle down to read, they are conscious that, through reading it, they are ever more part of that which is common. The Book binds them, those young men in a little Finnish village, to the whole of Christendom, a fellowship of shared language, shared pictures and symbols, and shared stories.
Despite the fact that the modern way of reading tends toward loneliness and separation, a religion’s common holy scriptures build up the identity of an individual precisely as a member of the community. The Bible is central to the identity of the whole Christian Church. It contains the Word of God that is Holy to us, not simply to me as an individual person.
For the novel’s brothers, the New Testament does not become meaningful only once they have learned to read. It is already meaningful because they have grown up in a Christian community and a Christian culture. The content of the book, its language, stories and spiritual universe have always surrounded them. When they read privately and in silence, they are not venturing into some unknown, alien territory. On the contrary, they are delving deeper into that which is held in common.
The most important context for Bible-reading is, after all, the worship service. The Bible is the Christian Church's book, having been born in her midst and for her use. It was born to be read together, in the context of Christian worship. It is the book of common worship, the book of being together before God. Its message is meant to be received in community, shared in community and interpreted in community.
In modern reading culture, it is of quintessential importance to hold on to the communal character of religious reading. The original purpose of Bible-reading, which becomes all the more relevant in modern culture, was to overcome human loneliness and separation.
Even when an individual Christian, wrapped in silence, is alone with the Holy Scriptures and before God, and when the meanings of the text take shape through her person, she is not interpreting the text alone. She is not in a vacuum. She has with her a connection to her own religious tradition, but also to the Church’s whole 2000-year history of interpretation with its richness and diversity. This history remains even when the Bible is used out of its religious context, as one cultural cornerstone among many.
As the young men of the novel retire, each into his own silence to read, they do not do so in order to capture the truth about the world, about life and about God. This kind of reading is tempting in the midst of a deeply fragmented and uncertain world. Yet this kind of reading would make the Holy Scriptures a mere tool for the reader, a tool by which he might replace God by ruling his own reality and governing his own truth, a tool he might use as a weapon against others.
The Holy Scriptures, however, precisely because of their holiness, require humility, and humility requires silence. This silence is not primarily the muteness that separates one from another, but the silence in which the reader is addressed by the text. This kind of silence offers a basis for that strong sort of identity that means participation in something greater than one’s own self or one’s own understanding. This is also the starting point for genuine dialogue. The Holy Scriptures thus become so natural a part of one’s identity that one need not hide behind their shelter in order to face another whose holy scriptures and tradition are different.
For the brothers of this novel, the scene in which “a profound silence prevailed in the room” is an integral part of their becoming adults, of agreeing to build a common life together with others.