I heard several people in a row the other day talk about how this or that verse or phrase in scripture “jumped out” at them while they were studying. This is a phrase I’ve heard used my entire life, but especially in college by people asked to speak about the daily reading and come up with some sort of personal connection or application. I’ve done this myself many times and I wouldn’t say it’s an inaccurate description even if the analogy is a bit worn. What is going on here? I’ll take a stab at answering that.
How come scripture always “jumps out” at readers? They are synthesizing ideas as they read, drawing threads together, making connections – not just with the words on the page or elements of the larger story, but with personal thoughts and events in their own lives. A psalm, a piece of prophecy, and a gospel passage are immediately connected to the reader’s current time and person.
People can do this reading other fiction and especially non-fiction. Fewer people than ever in America today seem to be avid readers of history, poetry, or theology. We live in a golden age of TV. The public square is broadly, but not typically deeply informed. For many, (and I say this from personal experience and interactions with hundreds of people over the past 15 years or so) the New Testament epistles are the ONLY non-fiction they will likely read or experience outside of school textbooks.
The news is drama now and even most documentaries are now largely reality-infused drama. So when a contemporary entertainment-soaked man reads the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, he barely knows what to do with it. What the heck is this? An 8-paragraph run-on piece of reasoning! But he finds it fascinating, perhaps for the first time, and gives it a shot. Such a thing is not too hard to grasp, WITH some practice, but it can’t be done cold-turkey. So when the young convert starts to read his bible and puts some effort into processing the words of the apostles, he begins drawing strings of thought together in his mind: Paul’s definition of love in 1st Corinthians, that line about the father’s love in 1st John, that pop song he was listening to earlier, that girl in his chemistry lab that is so attractive, and that sermon he heard last Sunday about losing your life to gain it, that fight he almost had with his coworker yesterday. Suddenly what happens? The text “jumps out” at him.
Why does this sort of thing stand out today? In many cases, only the “people of the book” experience this particular kind of subjective and highly personal intellectual exhilaration. Evangelicism has been moderately anti-intellectual in the past half-century. The joy of scholarship has often been limited to scripture proper. Because the secular academy has at least not been as limiting in the past generation or two, its members are more likely to have had these intellectual epiphanies while studying say, Jung, or Joyce, or maybe David Foster Wallace. They are not impressed by the young convert having them for the first time via a book they don’t take seriously.
We can beat them to the punch though. Christians have a long history of being great thinkers and readers. Do I even need to give a list? Aquinas, Allegri, Pascal, Newton, Lewis – good grief I could go on for an hour. We can be distinguished in this way AND rest in the revelation of Christ’s atonement for us. It’s not either/or. We don’t diminish the power of God’s revelation by supplementing our studying with the works of wise men both living and ancient. Years ago, I was encouraged to read the biography of Smith Wigglesworth, an early 20th century evangelist. He was purported to have never read anything except the Bible, frequently throwing other books and newspapers within his reach into the nearest trash can. This was purportedly a good and commendable thing. I disagree. It’s even worth reading the “bad guys” too just to have a better grasp of what’s going on. Learning a thousand things about the world should not undermine our faith, but rather bolster it. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but it’s just the beginning. He made our minds in such a way that we are always making connections and putting pieces of the creation puzzle together. EVERYTHING can “jump out” at us, not just scripture. Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s work takes this shape. Keep you eyes peeled.