Posted by: rogermitchell | October 12, 2011

Reflections on the word and spirit

I grew up in the movement known as the Brethren, sometimes referred to as the Open or Plymouth Brethren, but I moved on in my late teens after experiencing what the Pentecostals and Charismatics call the baptism in the Holy Spirit. But back in those early days I remember being aware, as a child and young adult, of an obvious difference in spirit between some Christians and others. This was apparent both in personal relationship with them and in the way they used or read the scriptures, as the male members of the movement were encouraged to do publicly in what was known as the Sunday Morning Meeting. It is this distinction I first noted among the people with whom I grew up, which I now wish to develop with reference to a much more contemporary experience.

Some very good friends gave us, for our recent fortieth wedding anniversary, a complete set of CDs of the scriptures being read verbatim, which is available from the Bible Experience Media Group. The series is very well produced, and some of the readings are good. But listening to the gospels for several hours while driving from London back home to the North West last Sunday night, I found myself increasingly troubled by what I was hearing. I realised that I didn’t much like this Jesus! Yet I know the gospel narratives inside out and love the Jesus I encounter there. The issue was the manner in which the gospels were being read. This question of the spirit in which we encounter and express Jesus is unavoidably revealed in the way that we read his words out loud. I experienced a similar, although less marked or unpleasant reaction to watching Pier Paulo Pasolini’s ‘Marxist’ rendering of Matthew’s gospel.

It is this crucial matter of the spirit with which we approach the Word that the apostle Paul was getting at when he said “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2Cor3:6), and Jesus himself noticed about the Pharisees when he remarked “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me; and you are unwilling to come to me so that you may have life” and “This people honours me with their lips but their heart is far away from me” (Jn 5:39-40; Mtt15:8). This categorical difference in our encounter with the scriptures can be illustrated by reading the ten commandments aloud. I remember the first time I understood this when my then colleague Roger Forster demonstrated it to us. By varying the tone of his voice he conveyed without any change in the words themselves, that if you read them as a judgemental decree you are left more or less cowering and condemned. However if you take them as the positively encouraging outcome of entering into a relational covenant of love with God, then the joyful “You SHALL love the Lord your God” renders all ten commandments the announcement of a behaviour pattern that flows naturally as God’s gift.

To conclude, this issue of the spirit is central to our understanding of and relationship with the Word. Graham Ward emphasises wonderfully the necessary approach in his stimulating book Christ and Culture (Blackwell 2005) when he describes the relational approach to the Word as an economy of response. I believe that this is what Jesus was getting at when he cautioned us to take note of the role of our own heart or spirit. As he put it “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man” (Mtt15:18) and “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (Jn6:63). I think this is why one of the strongest warnings that Jesus makes is about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Once we invert what is of the Spirit with what is of the flesh, the world system or the devil, we are in nearly irrecoverable trouble.


  1. Such a vital insight Rog. Thank you!!

    • Thanks Mark and Jane for the encouragement, and how good to hear from you!

  2. How true that tone makes such a difference. When you listen to the words of Jesus as he pull Peter out of the water after his short walk on it, I hear laughter in Jesus’ voice not condemnation. That has helped pull me out of the water a few times. I also used to read to 3-5 year olds directly from the Bible and spoken well they listen well and it wouldn’t work in the monotone that many use. I had the privilege of reading Psalm 139 at my son’s wedding and it was a joy to put great expression into it as they walked into their new life together, indeed the words do come alive.

  3. So what you are really saying is that if we have not entered into relationship with a loving Jesus, who gave all in a pouring out of love, then we will miss the meaning of the scriptures that testify to him. And worse, we will convey that confused meaning to all who listen to us. A pretty interesting point for so many Christians who are fundamental literalists when it comes to the Bible. c.

    • Hey Cheryl, I really should stop by here more often, this stuff is fun! (Sort of). Perhaps we forget that favourite of literalists, all scripture is inspired by God… rather we forget that this could as easily describe the experience of reading and in any case was never intended as statement about inerrancy, which was hardly a hot question at the time.

      As to literalists, personally I have never met one, but I’ve met hundreds who pretend to be.

      • You are right – I almost always seem to meet pretenders, folks who claim to be literalists in the interpretation of the inerrant word of God but who, of course, pick and choose what they take literally. I’m not a literalist in anything, I think. Wow, now I’ll have to think about that. But perhaps Roger is getting at something even deeper here. The Bible was always an oral book – it was meant to be read, aloud, to the community. Even Paul’s letters were meant as such. So the energy created around the spirit that animates the reading in some way really does have some affect on the meaning on the Spirit inspired words. Oh, dear, I’m getting muddled here. My point (after a long day of teaching how to draw arrays in AutoCAD – joy) is that there is a connection between the words and the reading, they were meant to go together, and they affect one another. Or something like that. c.

      • Hi Chris,
        Good to have you back commenting here! Wouldn’t it be dreadful if people took everything WE said literally! It must drive God barmy! Seriously though, surely choosing creation, incarnation and parables as a way of communicating with humankind should make it clear to everyone that a rationalist, literalist approach is hardly God’s!

      • Thanks Cheryl, and you Roger, nice to be welcomed.

        I was only half not-serious. I was trying to remember where I did a series of posts a few years back on the question of the voice of scripture. I think it might have been on OpenSource, but that forum is closed now.

        Allusion, inference and even irony are important in the art of reading. I recall a conversation with Martin some time ago about the possibility of irony as the voice of Romans 13, for example. That changes a lot in terms of interpretation. One of the huge weaknesses of literalism is this deep misunderstanding of the role of the reader. As if we could read without voice. We can’t, we don’t. When I write I often wonder what voice people have in their reading of my words. I wonder if it is as tentative as I know it should be, as quizzical, as curious. Or do people read my stuff hearing the voice of a preacher? (Which I am blessed never to have been)

        One thing of which I am quite sure, we read scripture in the voice of the God we imagine, in the image that we hold. So our reading frequently says as much about us as it does the book.

    • Hi Cheryl, the only qualification I would make to your initial paraphrase of what I’m getting at above is that I believe that it is possible to have the right spirit and attitude without having a recognised “personal relationship with Jesus.” It is “by their fruit that you will know them” (Mtt7:16-20) and I think that what comes through when the scripture is read aloud is part of that fruit.

      • I don’t know who the readers were on that CD, Roger, but terrible things happen to the vernacular of scripture when some actors get to play with it. A great exception was when I heard Tony Robinson (Baldrick etc) read some passages. They were lovely, full of the deep questioning and curiosity that he brings to things because of who he is.

      • Roger: I’m so glad you wrote this. Yes!!!! It is clear that people can read and have the right spirit without having experienced a relationship with Jesus. I think of them as Kingdom seekers and often find far more fellowship with those folks than I do with church-goers or those who claim to be Christian. For example, I’ve been fascinated by some of the discussion about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I keep stumbling onto writers who use the term Jubilee and call for debt forgiveness. Interesting. They have a vision of the Kingdom and they understand at least one of God’s approaches to economics as they seek social and economic justice. I read an article against capital punishment recently and the writer used all sorts of biblical references to support his position and to demonstrate why proclaimed Christian, Texas Governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry might be quite wrong to sleep well on the nights people are executed (especially as it is pretty clear several have been innocent).

        So yes. People come to the Kingdom sometimes without any awareness they have done so. And Chris, love the comment about how we tend to read in what we imagine is God’s voice thereby revealing our image of God. And yes, I think that often says lots about us.

        Oh my Roger, you really opened up something here. Who would have thought that how we read scripture could be so important. c.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this same thing loads recently. Am reading a most excellent book, recommended by Dyfed, called ‘The Immoral Bible’ by Eryl Davies (a reader in OT Theology at Bangor Universtity). It focusses in particular on those extremely tricky ethnic cleansing/genocidal passages of Joshua and the different ways one can choose to interpret or read them. Very helpful because if we don’t challenge the way that we read scripture then we end up with a very skewed and appalling understanding of who ‘God’ is and how he uses power.

    Your work on this when applied to Jesus is also so key, Rog. If we start with God and then get to Jesus we are left concluding that Jesus was only method acting in taking on humaity for a time, in order to identify with our weaknes, whilst all the time he would go back to being the great fearful supremo afterwards, who would smite anyone who didn’t bow the knee. But if Jesus IS the revelation of the Father and his life laid down, kenotic love is actually THE power that undoes domination systems, then we can no longer think of God or his power in any other way. And so, when we read about him, we can’t allow the text to bring us to any other conclusion about him than he has revealed himself to be. Which subsequently calls us to read the text and wrestle with the issues of how things were written and why far more than we have allowed, and so we need the spirit of revelation, not just the written letter or else we will find only death! But the way of the Spirit is life in all it’s fullness and freedom.

    I have recently spent time listening to some preaching that felt like it was imprisoning everyone present. I wasn’t quite sure how the conclusions drawn had anything to do with Jesus and the life and freedom he brings. Ah well. New ideas and fresh ways of looking at things, really can change the world!

  5. I agree Roger. Thanks for reminding us again of the power of the spoken word communicated with grace.
    I don’t know if you have access to “YouVersion” in the UK on your smart phones, but it is a fabulous bible for your phone – loads of different translations. I was quite excited when they added audio to many of the translations, until I listened to one…with sappy music in the background as if the reader was part of some daytime sit-com. YUCK!
    We have lost the awe and joy of the spoken word and the art of storytelling in this “literate” age.
    I really like the work that Soma Community is doing to help reclaim the orality of the story – teaching people the grand sweep of the narrative and training disciples to live and breathe the story. It’s primarily done orally…check it out:

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