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Reading is a Magical Thing–and That Goes for Scripture Too

Reading is really quite mysterious. We take it for granted, but the fact that a series of scrawled symbols and shapes stained on a piece of paper can transport us into the mind of another human being is rather magical. But I’ve also become aware that there are different kinds of reading, or different ways of reading. We don’t generally sub-categorize reading when we think of the word, but there are differences in the way people read (this book is a good place to start to explore this idea). I’m not going to make any sweeping claims about the way other people read, but I know from my own experience that I have seen at least two different ways of reading: reading with my imagination fully engaged and alert, or reading with my imagination subdued or asleep.

Here is an example.

There is a passage in Matthew 15 that I’m sure I have read dozens of times about a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. After a bit of back and forth Jesus finally agrees, and the woman’s daughter is healed. It’s one of Christ’s many miracles, and having read it so many times I honestly didn’t get much more out of the it than the synopsis you’ve just read. There is a way of reading at the surface level, simply skimming facts, actions, and words off the top of a story and not really seeing (imagining) the things you are reading. You don’t experience what you are reading.

* * * *

I have a very hard time when my children are sick. I am filled with a gnawing helplessness when I have to watch them suffer and endure a bad illness. This woman’s daughter was demon-possessed. She must have been an absolute wreck. How many nights and days of screaming, cursing, biting, clawing, hitting, writhing agony had she endured? How much pain had she suffered as she watched her precious daughter suffering? It is not an exaggeration to say that she had been living in hell.

She hears from one of her friends, perhaps someone come from the market, that the man they call Jesus has come near to where they live. People say that where he goes, those who have been blind from birth are made to see, that in his presence limbs that have been lost grow back and are made new; the crippled dance; the dumb rejoice. Imagine the flame of hope that must have sputtered up in the desperate woman’s heart–a small, smoldering thought.

Maybe she found out where he was staying and went there, or maybe she knew where he would pass by and just stood there waiting for him. When she sees him, she runs to him, crying out in a loud voice, her desperation driving her beyond all reservation. She puts herself before him, begging him to have mercy on her for the sake of her daughter. As soon as the words have left her lips she waits expectantly to see what he will say. Can he do this thing for her? Will he do this thing for her?

And Jesus ignores her. He doesn’t say a word. He turns his back on her and walks the other way.

She must have kept at it though, begging and weeping–calling out to Jesus to help her. Eventually the disciples get irritated at this wild-eyed woman following after them, the sound of her wailing rubbing raw their nerves. Clearly Jesus wasn’t going to help her, so they finally have had enough and tell Jesus to just get rid of her; send her away! The picture I have in my mind of this woman following Jesus is that of a stray, hungry dog following behind them, and the disciples throwing stones and hollering and shooing, trying to scare it off. At their request, Jesus finally turns and speaks to her, but it is not the words she is longing to hear. I have nothing to do with you, is essentially what he says. I came for a different group of people, and you are not one of them. Rejected, again.

I imagine that here she falls at his feet, the tears making mud as they fall in the warm dust at Jesus’ sandals. The only words she is able to get out come between sobs: “Lord, help me.”

Jesus has already told her no, but he does not repeat himself. Rather, he gives a reason–an explanation for why he will not help her, and he does it by analogy: It would be like taking the bread that has been prepared to feed the children of the house being thrown instead to the dogs under the table.

This is not a kind analogy. This is not the jeans-wearing Jesus that I see portrayed everywhere in America. This woman is a dog, a sub-human, of far less worth than the chosen people, the Jews. You are like an animal, he says.

And here is what is incredible: she does not get offended, or hurt, or insulted, or even discouraged; she doesn’t turn away in disappointment. She takes Jesus’s analogy and she runs with it. “Yes–you are right,” she says. “I am a wretched, lowly creature. But even the worthless dogs get to eat the crumbs that the (messy) children drop from the table.” She has caught Jesus, so to speak, in his own analogy! How can he deny her now?

I think Jesus must have had an interesting expression on his face when he heard her say that. I see a bit of laughter in his eyes, a glint of wonder; he must have been running over with tenderness. “O woman,” he exclaims, “great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”

I think that as that woman ran home, her heart pounding in her chest, she knew that when she burst in the door of her home should would finally embrace her daughter again, not the claws of a demon. And when she found her daughter, on her feet and smiling, I imagine that the tears flowed freely.

* * * *

I think that I have had, floating around in my head, some subtle, unspoken assumption that inspired literature should somehow be read from a purely rational, intellectual, logical perspective, without that pesky and untrustworthy imagination coming into play. I’m beginning to think now that is not at all true. Without the imagination, our knowledge of the scriptures must always be purely a ‘head knowledge’. I want to begin experiencing the scriptures. So I must bring my whole being when I read scripture, including my imagination, in order to be transformed by the stories therein.

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