Reading the Bible with an eye for wonder

In the preface to this book, William P. Brown states “. . . I have sought to bring the ancient Scriptures to life and through them to point the reader toward new imaginings, new ways of reading biblical texts, even those texts that remain ‘dead and buried’ in their familiarity.” From my reading of Sacred Sense I believe Brown accomplished what he set out to do. Sacred Sense helps readers to find that place where the wonder, surprise and mystery of the Bible speaks.

This is a book that addresses a neglected need within the Christian community. We need help to read the Bible. It is not that we need to create time to read God’s Word. We do need to make time to read but our primary need is to get beyond the “dead and the buried,” the familiar and imposing our agenda on the scriptures. In Sacred Sense, Brown is deeply aware that “The Bible is read and used (and abused) in so many ways: to find answers to pressing questions, prove a point, win an argument, formulate dogma, reconstruct ancient history, get rich, induce shame, and, most tragically, promote violence and justify oppression.” In Sacred Sense, Brown practices a “more fundamental, life-giving reason for reading the Bible – to cultivate a sense of wonder about God, the world, others and ourselves.”

In reading the Bible with an eye for wonder, Brown invites us to participate in “…reading with readiness for surprise and in the process raising ‘wonderings’ – questions and ponderings that stir the imagination and generate thinking, without leading necessarily to one way of understanding the text.”

In each of the 16 chapters addressing a selected scripture text, ranging from Genesis to Revelation, Sacred Sense gives us a rich sampling of where reading the Bible with eyes of wonder leads. “These are the texts” says Brown, “that take my breath away and give breath back to me. They evoke the kind of wonder that leaves me restless and hungry yet hopeful and fulfilled.”

Brown’s introductory chapter to Sacred Sense is a good place to start for personal reflection or small Bible study groups pondering why we read the Bible. I found this chapter to be masterfully written, a resetting of the terms of engagement with God’s Word.

Surprisingly, Brown states in the preface that “This may well be the hardest book I’ve ever written. . .” Indeed William P. Brown has written other “lengthier (and some would say belaboured) works over the years.” What made Sacred Sense “hard” for Brown is not reflected in a book filled with technical, deep theological jargon. “Hard” is not about difficult concepts to communicate or to grasp. This is Brown’s hardest book because he has relinquished control. He has allowed the sacred text to speak, a task which he found extremely difficult because as a trained Biblical scholar and academic (he is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia) he is accustomed to setting the agenda and controlling the object of study. Brown’s academic skills are brought to the text but the approach to scripture is cast in a different light. Here the sacred text is given control; its mystery, wonders and surprises take the lead.

Brown’s first chapter is a focus on Genesis 1, called “Cosmic Wonder.” “One of the many overlooked wonders of Genesis one is its mathematical intricacy” writes Brown. It is a study in which Brown has readers listen to the Bible’s first chapter delight them with the “divinely spoken cadences reverberating throughout an intricately ordered universe.” This is not a chapter seeking to answer “How God created” or “When did this happen” as though the text was given to answer those questions. No, Brown takes us into the sacred space created by the text. We get to stand on the holy ground of the text, let its story be the symphony rather than our questions creating the agenda.

The wonder that Brown hears in Genesis 1 is “The Genesis Code” which he says is “not to be confused with The DaVinci Code by Don Brown (no relation).” To decipher The Genesis Code is to see the Creation Story as God’s claim that the entire creation/cosmos “is cast in the image of the temple!” In other words, “The universe, according to Genesis one, is God’s cosmic sanctuary.” I leave the details to your own reading.

This is a more than a book to help us fall in love with the Bible again. Sacred Sense brings us to that place where, with the boy Samuel, we turn to God to say, “Speak Lord. I am ready to listen.”

  • Jim Poelman is the pastor of Redeemer Christian Reformed Church, Sarnia, Ontario.

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