When I graduated from Seminary, one of the first things that I strove to do was to acquire books. I wanted to have the insight and wisdom of great theologians, thinkers, and scholars to guide me around matters theological, ethical, and spiritual. This was, and still is especially the case with commentaries on the scripture. As a pastor, I am expected, on a weekly basis, to lead a community to wrestle with, consider, and delve into a Biblical text, and this is no small task. In one Bible verse are a multitude of meanings, layers of context and sub-context, social influences, rhetorical word plays, and traditions of hearing and receiving the text. With one Bible verse are centuries of tradition engaging with the text, centuries of scholarship that has considered the social, the historical, the literary, and the spiritual nuances that are overtly seen or are to be found more subtly within the text. I could read a passage and have a sense of what it meant for me, but I knew that there was so much more to the passage that I would not be able to ascertain on my own. There is mystery and wisdom to be found in the text that I do not have the training, the time, or the ability to discern without the assistance and guidance. Hence my need for commentaries, for books, for the collection of scholarship on passages from the Bible. I open a commentary on a Gospel reading or a story from the Hebrew Scriptures and deeper dimensions of experiences would unfold before me. And in doing so, I am engaging with the views and experiences of someone else, I am adding another conversation partner to my engagement of the scripture, and I am broadening my interaction with the text. Hence my desire to acquire books, specifically commentaries about the Bible.
I now have volumes and volumes of commentaries and other books that offer different views, different readings, different lenses on just about every verse in the Bible. They are all helpful in their own ways, and have offered me guidance in my own weekly struggle to discern and engage with scripture but these works of writing are still limited. There is only so much that can be shared through the written word. There is a level of knowledge that is offered, there are revelations that can be discerned, but at a certain point, that knowledge and experience stop and there is still more to discern.
The arts open us up to experience the divine in a different way, a way that is not simply shared through dissemination of information, but that is experienced.
The arts convey not so much knowledge, but a way of being, a way of feeling, a way of engaging with the ideas of the text that is not found in the technocratic expression of historical dates, rules of grammar, or social commentary and context.
The arts offer an opportunity to engage with scripture, and the revelation that can be found in scripture in a way that goes beyond information and settles with experience.
Consider the psalms. Consider what were, very likely, songs that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. We hear psalms expressing hope and triumph, fear and anxiety, and looking for direction and guidance. I could read what scholars have written, but through music, music written specifically with the psalm in mind, perhaps even for that psalm, we are invited to engage with the psalm thought a different lens, a different layer of interpretation. The difference between a composer and a Biblical scholar is the way in which one engages the text, the ways in which one is drawn into the text, and the ways in which the truth of the text is shared.
One could speak about the feelings of anguish that is found in Psalm 13, or one could write a piece of music that draws the listener to engage with the experience of anguish.
There are multiple settings of one passage, multiple ways of engaging, all offering ways to engage with Scripture. Just like I prefer to have a number of commentaries about a specific Bible passage, we can also look for multiple ways to hearing and experiencing a psalm. Find a musical setting. Listen with an open heart. Let yourself be pushed and challenged. Open yourself to hear the psalm in different ways through different compositions.
Check out three musical explorations of Psalm 13 written by members of the Composer’s Project.
The psalms give a good start, but there are multiple settings of multiple passages of the Bible. Some are great and profound and challenging, while others are not. I would find the same range of excellence with books. What is important is to engage. To consider what the annuls of time have considered to be excellent, and take seriously those works, but to also engage in new works, in the unknown compositions, in the young and emerging composers. There are a multiplicity of voices offering greater depth and insight into scripture.
From that time after Seminary through today I continue to look to books, to authors for guidance and wisdom. I continue to read commentaries and in engaging with various scholars I know that I am encountering a slice of a revelation of the divine. But I also listen to music, look at paintings and sculptures, read the reflections of poets, and look to expressions of dance that draw me to engage with the text, with the revelation of the divine in a different way. I bring my burdens and my hopes, my worries, and my joys, and a desire to be changed and challenged to my engagement with the art and the scripture. I hope to be pushed and challenged in a way that goes beyond the head and to the heart. There are times when I am not moved at all. There are times when a commentary does not offer me any new insight. But there are those times when I am shaken at my core, when I am challenged and comforted and a light of God is revealed that I had not seen before. I wish to continue to add to the shelves more books, but I wish also to add recordings, musical scores, and invite in the wisdom of those who experience the divine through music and the arts.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone, Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church of East Greenwich, RI
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