By Rev. Kathryn Ray
Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked. -John 3:5-9
You know when you've done something basically your entire life, and then suddenly one day it's like you're discovering it for the first time? This is the story of how I rediscovered sacred reading. Even though I'd literally been doing it the week before.
As I was driving back to Chicago from Missouri back in April, I began listening to a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It’s done by two young adults who graduated from Harvard Divinity School. One of them, Casper ter Kuile, explains that he chose to go to Divinity School because he had been working on climate change activism, and he realized that deep questions of moral identity were at stake. As climate change dislocates people, largely people in poverty, from areas that are no longer habitable, our communities face a test of our fundamental values. He realized there was a basic question to answer as these climate refugees come to our shores. What kind of people are we going to choose to be? So even though he had not grown up in a religious household and did not claim any religious tradition, he chose to go to divinity school to explore that question.
In Divinity School, Casper took Bible classes and learned about various ways of interpreting sacred text. He appreciated them, but he never really felt like the Bible was his text. And then one day, he started re-reading the Harry Potter books, which he had read as a child. And he felt this deep well of emotion spring up. He realized, this is a text that I call my own.
So Casper teamed up with the humanist chaplain Vanessa Zoltan, and they began this remarkable podcast in which they apply strategies of sacred reading, like lectio divina, Ignatian contemplation, the Jewish practice of chevruta, to the Harry Potter books.
Vanessa explains that she embarked on this podcast because, even though she didn’t believe in God, she had come to believe in the value and power of the sacred reading practices that she had received from both her Jewish heritage and her Divinity School education.
In one of the first episodes, she says that when you read a text as a sacred text, it means you give yourself permission to see your own life through the words in front of you. It means asking questions like how does this speak to me today, how might it challenge me to live into my values more fully? And not only asking those questions, but having faith that you will find answers.
Vanessa said that she had come to believe that if you trust a text enough to open yourself to it in this way, sacred reading can make you a better person.
When I heard those words, I felt myself start to tear up as I drove along I-55. I had never heard a better explanation of what it means to read a book as a sacred text, and why that practice is so important to my spirituality.
The whole radical notion of incarnation that Jesus embodies is that God’s love lives in our messy encounters with one another. Incarnation invites us to enter into reflection about life’s deep meanings as one would enter into a relationship with a friend or a lover.
To be honest, I have trouble doing that with Jesus. It’s too easy to idealize him. To set him on a pedestal as the paragon of right living to which I aspire, not see him as a concrete, flesh-and-blood reality to relate to. But I can relate to this text as a loved one. I can be moved by it, I can learn from it, and I can be angry at it, I can be troubled by it. I can find it at times insufferably tedious. I have a much messier relationship with the Bible than I do with Jesus.
But if I apply myself rigorously to that mess, I find I am changed for the better. I had never articulated my relationship with Scripture that way. A Jewish atheist chaplain on a podcast was my guide.
She reminded me that I can open the Bible to this story that we read today, this tale of Nicodemus encountering Jesus, and I can find in it an abundance of meanings, a sea of potential insights and revelations. Like Nicodemus himself, I can put questions to this sacred story.
I can ask of it, “How can this be?”
To follow the example of Nicodemus is to engage the text in a rigorous way. Wrestling with different interpretations, weighing one against another. It is to come back to the text again and again, with a different focus each time. In so doing, we train ourselves to ask new questions of words we thought we understood long ago, because we believe that there is new meaning to be found in them.
In short, we cultivate a relationship. And in so doing, we open our hearts to be changed, to be moved, to be broken unexpectedly, by a Holy Spirit that blows where it wills and cannot be tamed.
So if sacred reading is so powerful and useful, why only do it with only a single set of canonical texts? The Holy Spirit speaks to us through many voices and many texts, not just the Bible. The practice of sacred reading should open us to its nudgings wherever we may find them, whether in the words of Isaiah or Childish Gambino.
And yet, I do believe that God has conspired to draw together and mold God’s people through the Bible in a particular, special way. When communities come together across space and time around a single set of texts, something amazing happens.
When we come to a table to read together, to discuss together, to reflect together around a text, it becomes a structure of support. It becomes a pergola. A pergola is one of those roof frames you put over a patio or a walk way. The purpose of a pergola is to allow vines and ivy to grow upward towards the sky, and to become thick enough that birds can come and perch in its shade. It is literally a living structure.
The Bible is a pergola upon which centuries of reflections, centuries of wrestling over questions of love, and meaning, and values, have grown.
We are the children of a creator God who made us as creators. I believe that the Divine Imagination moves through our ability to tell stories that make meaning of our lives and our history, that manifests itself as we carve questions, and chisel out answers for the great questions of our day:
Who are we? Who shall we be?
And that Divine Imagination has provided as a companion on that journey both this text and the untold ancestors who grew vines of meaning upon its beams.
It is Casper and Vanessa’s custom to end each episode of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with a blessing for one of its characters. I love this practice, and the free abundance of grace it shows. So I will end by blessing Nicodemus, who dared to seek out Jesus by night and ask questions. Who would not be satisfied by the answers. Bless Nicodemus, and bless you all.
Image credit: Jesus Mafa. Nicodemus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved June 5, 2018].