Below is an excerpt from Chris Webb's new book, The Fire of the Word.
What are we to make of the Bible?
By any standards we choose to apply it is an astounding and magnificent book.The sweep of history is breathtaking and the depth of insight profound. Its poetry enlarges the heart, its philosophy soars into the heavens, and its prophecies rattle the soul. Through the centuries Scripture has comforted, inspired, guided and challenged millions.
Yet many of us also experience this book in other ways too. An arsenal of proof texts for attacking one another. A dry textbook for academic dispute. An over familiar friend whose impact has been blunted. A confusion of ancient wars, terrifying judgments and impenetrable theology.
I wrote The Fire of the Word to help you fall in love with the Bible again, to give you a fresh perspective on this beautiful book. I want to help you find in the Bible holy ground on which we can encounter God, what the ancient Celtic writers used to call a "thin place" where heaven and earth meet and interact.The Fire of the Word is an invitation to voyage deeply into the greatest of all books and come face to face with its living Author.Come with me; let's rediscover the Bible together.
Peace, Chris Webb
Foreword by Richard J. Foster. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1. Hear His Voice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2. Learning to Read Again. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3. Do Not Be Afraid. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. The Yearning of God. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5. My Beloved Speaks. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
6. Reading Like Lovers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7. Anatomy of the Soul . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
8. Listen!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
9. Living in the Gospel. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
10. The Book of Christ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
11. Sacred Reading. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
12. The Disordered Soul . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
13. A Life Desired . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
14. Beyond the Bible . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
15. Friendship with Jesus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Fire of the Word is a marvel and a joy. How thrilling to welcomethis fresh, new voice to the field of Christian spirituality. Christopher Webb has accomplished what few have succeeded in doing: he has given us courageous openings onto what a life hid with Christin God can be like. As I read this book, I felt the words on the page calling out to me, inviting me into a deeper, fuller way of living-away of living that is joyfully creative and soul-expanding. The moreI read, the more I felt my heart burning within me, a little like those disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:32). How do I name the feeling? What should I call it? Perhaps I could describe it as an open invitation into "The Order of the Burning Heart."Let me share with you three compelling reasons for reading The Fire of the Word.
First, this book is saturated with grace and mercy. The stories,the teachings, the allusions, the very feeling tones of the words themselves are soaked in grace and mercy. Grace and mercy given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. Chris writes, "From the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation,the Bible jubilantly proclaims grace to this world; an exuberant,life-embracing grace that exceeds anything we could possibly hope or imagine."
Chris, however, is doing far more than simply using words ofgrace and mercy. He, for example, does substantial theological work to cut through the Gordian knot of the common juxtaposition of the Old Testament God of wrath and the New Testament God of love.His work here is impressive indeed.
Second, this book gives us a deep sense of reverence and awebefore the majesty of Scripture. Chris gently leads us before the wonder of Scripture where "the boundary between heaven and earthhas been worn through." In another place he describes the Bible as"a thin place through which the presence of God breaks into thisworld and bursts with unpredictable consequences into our lives.Even though it is not consumed, this book burns with unquenchable fire." With exuberant flair he writes, "the inspiration of Scripture is something greater, something wholly other: a life and presence has been breathed into Scripture. . . . The Bible contains . . . the divine Author himself. Here the voice of God is heard; but God notonly speaks, he makes himself fully present-gentle as the stillsmall whisper on the mountain, terrible as an army with banners-breaking through the pages into our hearts, our lives, our world."
For all his exuberance over Scripture, however, Chris is carefulnot to fall into worshiping the Book-bibliolatry as we say. Heknows that the purpose of the Bible is to lead us into an adoring loveof the triune God-Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Worship belongs toYahweh alone.
Third, this book gives us insights into faith-filled living that often surprise us, pleasantly so. Chris's stories surprise us: the tortured art work of Caravaggio, the soaring poetry of Ann Griffiths, the incredible devotion of three monks in a tiny order called the Little Brothersof Nazareth, the determined search of Mary Jones for a copy of the Bible, and more. Chris's phrases and metaphors surprise us: he describes pride as "the all-consuming black hole of the soul"; he says ofthe Bible that "fire is trapped under the ink"; he reminds us that "sinners may have the wildest parties, but saints have the most fun."Drawing on an ancient Christian tradition, Chris's reinterpretationand use of the Song of Solomon surprise us.
Personally, the high point of the book and a pleasant surprisecame with Chris's theological work on the medieval thinker John Duns Scotus. That is a name with which you may not be familiar, but by the time you finish this book, you will not only know his name but have a clear understanding of how important he is to our whole understanding of Christian spirituality. Chris's analysis of Duns Scotus's concept of "the absolute primacy of Christ" with its multilayered implications for the work of spiritual formation is simply masterful!
I commend to you The Fire of the Word. It is a book which willboth teach and delight.
Tolle, lege-take, and read.Richard J. Foster
Learning to Read Again
The filthy Roman backstreet was wrapped in darkness. Foul smelling water trickled between the stones underfoot, and a single guttering candle burned in a window high above. A drunken young man, his clothes tattered, stumbled into a doorway and threw up violently. Across the street two prostitutes, their faces garishly painted, cackled with delight as they watched him slide down the door frame and fall into the pool of his own vomit. He looked up sharply, and they noticed the angry purple bruise forming around his left eye. Yelling a colorful curse at them he tried to clamber to his feet but slipped and fell again. Howling with laughter they turned the corner and disappeared.
He sat in the gloom for a couple of minutes, staring up at the flickering candle, lost in his hazy thoughts. Then he pulled himself to his feet again and weaved his way toward another doorway at the end of the street. He hit the door hard with his shoulder and it crashed back on its hinges, toppling him into the inky blackness of the hallway beyond. Cursing and groaning, he clattered noisily up the wooden staircase; a voice from a neighboring house yelled at him to keep quiet. Pushing open another door, he tumbled his way into a large attic studio and collapsed into a chair in the middle of the open floor. The candle, now burning low, sat in the open window behind him. As the light shone over his shoulder, he contemplated the canvas mounted on the easel before him. There were fourfigures gathered in a tight huddle in the center of the painting, surrounded by a thick and impenetrable gloom. Their faces were illuminated by some bright light, but everything else lay in darkness.For perhaps half an hour the young man pondered before the canvas,unmoving, his eyes half shut; a casual observer might have thought him asleep.
Then, with a start, he leaped up and frantically began mixing paints onto a cracked wooden palette-thick, oily purples and browns, grays and greens. Stabbing a brush into the mixture, he began edging color into the shadows around the left most figure. He painted for hours, energetically, even frenetically. As dawn began to color the city in a soft crimson light, the painter, now somewhat more sober but utterly exhausted, fell back into the chair and examined his work thoughtfully. He closed his bloodshot eyes and nodded.It was finished.
On the canvas, three disciples stood in a tight group around the newly resurrected Jesus. Matthew and John looked on in wonder as an incredulous Thomas pushed his finger into Christ's wounded side. Jesus, his eyes etched with compassion, held Thomas's wrist,keeping the hand steady. The scene was shocking and extraordinarily tender all at once. Without doubt a masterpiece.In his chair, Caravaggio slept.
The Language of Art
A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear a seminar given byNeil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum who had formerly worked for fifteen years as director of the National Gallery in London. He had been asked to speak about the relationship between faith and art. Despite MacGregor's impressive reputation, though, I didn't come into the seminar with high expectations. Visual art had never been a language I'd felt able to understand. When I took a stroll around a gallery (a rare enough event in itself) I never foundmyself able to get beyond an instinctive "that looks good/terrible"response; as for what the artist was trying to say, and what the significance of the work might be more widely-how should I know? In the end, was there really any more to it all than the creation of attractive pictures and sculptures to fill up empty spaces?
MacGregor held me spellbound for an hour. Never once did helecture to the experts (You know: "This, of course, is an ironic reversalof neoclassicist assumptions."). Instead he spoke to the philistines,like me, who knew little and appeared to care even less. Welooked together at examples of early Christian marble carvings andcompared them with a contemporary sculpture fused together fromimpounded rifles in Africa. We lingered over Pieter Brueghel's Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, losing ourselves in the darknessand shadows.MacGregor gently showed how the use of color here ortexture there contributed to some sense and meaning, some story oridea. And together we discovered how all this expressed and deepened the way people thought about life, faith and God. I came awayfeeling somehow expanded, enlarged.
And I was hungry. I bought and borrowed books of paintings. Istarted looking for opportunities to visit the galleries I'd formerly ignored. The paintings on the walls hadn't changed; the same mixturesof pigments hung on the same old canvases. Still, something was different. Now, for me, this art had a voice. I saw Salvador Dali's Christ of Saint John of the Cross in Glasgow and was overwhelmed by its immensity and power. On a visit to London I made time to see an exhibition of Botticelli's drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy and was enraptured for hours. I even had a framework with which Icould appreciate some of the stranger expressions of modern art,which before had been incomprehensible; I spent an entire afternoon captivated by the collection in the Saatchi Gallery alongside the Thames.
Then I discovered Caravaggio. My introduction to this early Baroque genius was through his painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, a work he completed in the midst of a life of riotous drinking,womanizing and brawling in the first year or two of the seventeenth century. He was an unlikely biblical interpreter, but someone had, perhaps, neglected to tell him that only saints were allowed to encounter God in Scripture. The Incredulity is a passionate and movingpainting. Jesus and three of his disciples stand with their heads almost pressed together; the apostles' faces are etched with astonishment as Thomas's finger presses into a sliced fold of flesh in Jesus'side. Caravaggio was pioneering a vividly realistic and naturalistic style, and the sheer physicality of the work is palpable; he shows the resurrected Christ as a solidly flesh-and-blood man, brutally pierced by the nails and yet living and breathing still.
Of course, this is precisely the point of the biblical story which so captured Caravaggio's imagination. The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, one of their number was missing. The other disciples had faithfully gathered in the upper room, but Thomas was wandering somewhere in the darkness. And when he hears later of this appearance of the risen Christ, he cannot bring himself to believe it-in fact, he bluntly refuses to accept it. Did Caravaggio, the drunken, violent reprobate, see something of himself in Thomas? The outsider, the misplaced doubter, the one who was never in the right place when God showed up?
But John's narrative continues:
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut,Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here;and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in myside. Do not doubt but believe." (Jn 20:26-27)
This is the moment Caravaggio seeks to portray. Little wonderthat his painting is so graphic; the biblical text itself is shocking. I have read a dozen expert commentaries on John's Gospel since first discovering Caravaggio's work, but none have come close to conveying the sheer emotional impact of this scene with anything like the immediacy of that oil-smeared canvas.
Whenever I look at this painting, really see it, allowing myself tobe drawn into it as MacGregor has taught me, I find the experienceintense and overwhelming. The darkness surrounding the figuresholds my gaze on that tightly packed group, the horrific wound, theprobing finger, the startled eyes. I feel short of breath. I have beenopened to the power of art.My world has changed. Someone has taught me to read.
The Master of Paradox
This book is also about learning to read. Most of us, if we're going to experience the Bible as a life-changing text charged with the presenceof God, are going to have to learn all over again how to read it.There are all sorts of assumptions and preconceived ideas we may need to lay aside, and some new expectations we'll need to nurture.There are fresh skills to be learned, the skills of attentiveness, openness and obedience rather than (or, more correctly, alongside) the skills of the linguist, the exegete and the theologian. Learning to read again will be like learning anything else: it will take time and practice; there will be frustrations and setbacks; we will need to apply ourselves in a sustained and dedicated way.
Much of what I write in these pages is the fruit of my own explorations, guided by the wisdom of the great Christian thinkers and writers of past ages. Of course, my life (probably rather like yours) is lived out on a rather smaller canvas than the great figures we looked at in chapter one; I am no Francis of Assisi or Antony of Egypt-and certainly no Moses. Still, I've shared something of their experience: meeting God on the holy ground of Scripture has also changed my life-repeatedly. This ancient book has spoken into my contemporary world with startling clarity and irresistible authority.It has guided crucial decisions, shaped my moral universe, molded my world view and constantly challenged my assumption that, as the poet W. E. Henley put it, "I am the captain of my soul." I wouldn't be living where I live, doing the work I do, surrounded by the people who make up my world-in fact, I wouldn't be the person I amtoday if it weren't for the way the softly insistent voice of Christ has spoken to me through the pages of Scripture.
By the time I reached my early twenties I was investing a lot of time and energy exploring spirituality. I wasn't a complete stranger to the Bible or the Christian faith; I'd been very keenly involved in a church youth group in southern England in my teenage years. But by that point my spiritual odyssey had taken me in a very different direction: I was a faithful practitioner of Zen meditation. I devoured Buddhist and Taoist texts. I invested long hours trying to master thebasic breathing and concentration techniques. I struggled against the incessant flow of thought in search of the "empty mind." And I waited. There is a teaching in Zen that you don't seek a roshi, a spiritual master, to teach you the way to enlightenment. You simply practice your meditation and, when you are ready, your master will find you. So, patiently, I practiced and watched for his coming.
While I waited, a friend gave me a book of koans to use in my meditation. A koan is a sort of Buddhist riddle, an insoluble puzzle designed to force the mind to think beyond its normal parameters,to push itself beyond rational thought into the realm of intuition-a classic and well-known example is: "What is the sound of one handclapping?" But many traditional koans don't work well in a Western context; they're too culturally inaccessible, rooted in the thought world of ancient China and Japan. The book I was lent tried to addressthat by gathering together a series of well-known paradoxical sayings Westerners could relate to more readily. It was a collection of the sayings of Jesus from the Gospels.
Jesus, of course, is the master of paradox. "Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it"(Lk 17:33). Or try this: "The last will be first, and the first will be last" (Mt 20:16). Jesus encourages people to abandon their wealth in order to find great riches. He calls them to give that they might receive,"a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over" (Lk 6:38). He tells his followers that he has come that they might have "life, and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10)-and then summons them to take up a cross and follow him to death. After two thousand years of diligent preaching, we think we have a pretty good handle on his parables, but those who first heard them left confused and bewildered; even his own disciples often had to askfor an explanation. Is it all that surprising, then, that even Buddhists find themselves admiring Jesus as a teacher whose message pushes the mind beyond its usual limits?
So, armed with my new book, I began to meditate on the Gospels.I immersed myself in the sayings of Christ. I turned them over andover, day and night, hoping to be overcome by their strange internal logic. I wandered into a church and started going to a small group where other people were reading and thinking about his words.And, in the end, the inevitable happened. I had been waiting for my master, and my Master found me-he just wasn't the master I expected.I heard the call of Christ through those words of the Gospels, and my world was turned upside down.
I still experience the Bible as the great koan of my life. For me,these words find their fullest meaning not solely in themselves but, beyond that, in the encounter to which they lead. I find myself coming to Scripture the way an Orthodox worshiper approaches an icon.To those of us more familiar with the conventions of classical Western art, the stark outlines and vivid colors of these sacred Byzantine paintings seem to create an air of strangeness, otherness. The longer we look into them, the more we realize that their perspective appears all wrong: the lines of buildings and tables don't converge toward the far horizon as we expect, and the proportions and postures of the people can seem awkward, even strained. At first, everything seems confused.
But as we look longer, we are struck by the sudden realization that the angles and postures are all perfectly natural and correct-or, at least, they would be if we were dwelling in the world of the icon. But we are not. We are outsiders, looking in on the kingdom of heaven: it is our viewpoint that is distorted. To look into an icon is to be challenged to reconsider our perspective, to discover a new place to stand where everything falls into correct alignment, to be invited to step through into an alternative reality: the reality ofGod's kingdom.
Like an icon, and like a koan, the Bible comes to every one of us as something wholly strange and unusual, a world sketched out in awkward and irreconcilable angles. It alternately comforts and jars,inspires and grates. Scripture is untidy, unwieldy, difficult. We stretch our minds to make sense of it-categorizing, systematizing,shaping everything into neat theological compartments. Yet the Bible resists us at every turn. It will not cooperate, it will not conform to our schemas, it will not be tamed. But then, of course, Scripturedoes not seek to be analyzed and understood. The Bible is not a theological textbook, a philosophical treatise or the answer book to life's questions. It is a thin place through which the presence of Godbreaks into this world and bursts with unpredictable consequences into our lives. Even though it is not consumed, this book burns with unquenchable fire.
A Blunted Blade
If we're honest, though, we don't always experience the Bible as a dramatic and powerful force in our lives. Most people, after reading the Gospels, don't go and sell all their possessions and devote themselves to a monastic community or a life of itinerant preaching like Francis and Antony. Nor does Scripture always seem to crash intoour imagination the way it did for Ann Griffiths, soaring through her soul and bursting out in poetic ecstasy. And long before the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr., throughout the decades leading up to the American civil rights movement, the Bible had been widely read and discussed, but it hadn't caused many people to reshape their views on justice for African Americans or other minority groups-in fact, in previous generations the Bible had been vigorously used to defend slavery and the subjugation of the "sons of Ham" (that is, people of African descent).
The Bible clearly has the potential to provoke the most radical and far-reaching changes in individuals, societies and nations. And yet equally clearly the Bible is read day after day by countless numbers of people, and shared Sunday by Sunday in millions of churches around the world, without that change being widely experienced.The Word of God may claim to be "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb 4:12), but for many of us the edge of this sword seems to have been dulled, and its capacity to pierce our hearts and souls somehow blunted. It's not hard to find people who know the Bible well, intimately even, and yet seem to be largely untouched by its message.
A friend recently told me the story of his uncle who, on retirement,decided to read right through the Bible from beginning to end in a single year. Twelve months later, having easily achieved his goal, he reasoned that with all the spare time he had on his hands,he might actually be able to read the entire book in a single month.That was a considerably more ambitious target-but he did it. And so he thought to himself, One hundred forty-four. There's a biblical number. Now if I read the Bible once every month for the next twelve years . . . And that's exactly what he did. Rarely has anyone been so immersed in the Bible as that man. "And here's the irony," said my friend; "my uncle died shortly afterwards . . . the meanest, bitterest son of a gun you could ever wish to meet." It's the tragic story of toomany Christians and churches: soaked in Scripture, yet in the end completely untouched.
Sometimes, of course, the reason is very simple: resistance.We don't want to be changed. As soon as the Bible begins to challenge us, to undermine our prejudices and dogmas, to call for a change in our lifestyle and priorities, then the shutters slam down. Changing the world would be fine. But changing my life is not part of the deal.
But resistance-which we all experience to some degree-is only part of the picture. Many of us would welcome an encounter with Christ through the pages of the Bible. We come to it with a longing to meet with God. We know that meeting may not be easy; we may,like Jacob, end up wrestling with God in the dark night until, beatenand exhausted, all we can do is cling to him and refuse to let go. But we are so deeply dissatisfied with ourselves and our lives, so sharply aware of the pain and fury of the world around us, and so keenly aware of our utter inability to do anything about it, that we are more than ready to take the risk of opening our lives to him.
When we start rustling those thin India-paper pages, though,something else happens. Maybe the words of Leviticus ("On the eighth day he is to take two lambs without blemish, an unblemished ewe one year old, three tenths of wheaten flour mixed with oil for the oblation . . .") begin to wash over us until our minds slumber. Or we turn to Paul but are unable to hear his voice without also hearingthe echo of preacher after preacher who has taken his breathless vision of life in Christ and turned it into a neat little system with compartments and categories for everything. Perhaps miracles spring from the page to confuse us (Did this really happen? Is it wrong to ask that question?). The big picture may elude us, so that we find ourselves disoriented by the confusing parade of kings, prophets, judges, seers and priests. There are parts of the biblical story that(rightly) shock and outrage us: murder, rape, genocide, often justified in God's name. How are we to understand these stories, andhow should we respond? And on top of all this, many of us struggle with the Bible simply because we've been taught over and over how to mine this book to extract truth, but rarely how to open ourselves to it so that we might come face to face with the living God.
It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible for us to experience the unpredictable sharp edge of Scripture. The Bible retains its power to act as a koan, an icon, a meeting place between earth and heaven. It has the inbuilt capacity to thrust us into the presence ofGod. We just need to rediscover how to read it.
The seven readings below are koans drawn from the teaching ofJesus. Some are outright paradoxes (losing your life in order to save it), while others are puzzling and obscure (no one is greater than John the Baptist, who is least in God's kingdom).
It's very tempting to dodge the force of these sayings by trying towrestle a straightforward solution out of them. As you read and reflect this week, try not to succumb to that temptation. Don't avoid the difficulty of these words: live with it. We're trying to open ourselves to a new way of reading in which we don't have all the answers-there may not always be answers to be had-but we are content to stay present to the text as it makes us present to the great and eternal mystery of God.
Again, recording your response to these readings, both your thoughts and your emotional reactions, may be very helpful; you can come back and review these notes after completing the book and reflect on how your practice of reading may have changed or grown.
Day 1 Mark 8:34-37 (save your life by losing it)
Day 2 Mark 9:33-37 (the first must be last)
Day 3 Mark 10:41-45 (the greatest must be a slave)
Day 4 Matthew 10:34-39 (not peace but a sword)
Day 5 Matthew 11:11-15 (John the Baptist, the greatestand least)
Day 6 Luke 17:5-6 (great faith like a tiny seed)
Day 7 John 12:24-25 (life comes throughGod Inhabits This BookThe Bible has the astounding power to shape and reshape lives. The stories ofpeople like Francis of Assisi, Antony of Egypt, Martin Luther and Martin LutherKing Jr. vividly demonstrate this. So why aren't more of us being transformed byScripture today?Many of us simply need to learn to read Scripture in a whole new way. In thesepages Chris Webb encourages us to transform our Christian life by reading as loversrather than as theorists-allowing the Bible to utterly captivate both our mindsand our hearts. He shows us how we can learn to read Scripture afresh, as a bookinfused with the living presence of God. We will discover how our reading willrealign our reality individually and communally, taking us beyond the pages into arenewed way of life.
When we open the Bible, it does not point into the far distance and say to us,"God is there!" Instead the Spirit draws near and whispers through each line, "Look:I am here." Come, discover a reading of Scripture that opens our hearts to the living Word of God.
Chris Webb has been the president of Renovaré USA , a Christian spiritual formation ministry, since 2007. In addition, heis an Anglican priest, speaker, writer and new monastic. Chris has ministered in a variety of urban and rural churches in his native Wales, as well as in a church of the homeless. He has taught in seminaries andc olleges, and spoken at dozens of retreats and conferences. Chris and his wife Sally currently reside in Colorado with their four children.
Available January 2012