READING BY DESIGN SEMINAR
Of Truth, Beauty and Wisdom
Held on 20th July, the seminar represented the flagship event of Media Ministry’s reading advocacy month. We were privileged to have two distinguished speakers to share their knowledge and experience of the literary qualities of scripture, and of literature in general, to edify the human mind and soul.
Dr Fong Choon Sam, Dean of Academic Studies at Singapore’s Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed “The Literary Qualities of Scripture – The Beauty of Truth”, and Rev Dr Tan Soo Inn, a director of Graceworks, spoke on “How Reading Saved My Life.”
The Literary Qualities of Scripture – The Beauty of Truth (Truth conceived and wrapped in beauty). The Bible… comprising a collection of books that express, in various literary forms, the ‘language’ of human experience, the sovereignty of our Creator God and His redemptive, relational dealings with us.
The Bible is inherently beautiful and relatable. As the primary means by which we can know God, ourselves and others, it was composed and written to facilitate human knowledge and understanding of God at its deepest, and richest, level.
This is hardly surprising when you consider that God placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) – an inherent capacity (longing) to seek and find out our true, created, identity. As Robert Solomon observed,
The Bible speaks of God who exists from eternity to eternity and who has acted in time and history. He is active in our stories as He redemptively joins our stories to His eternal story. We read that God ‘has also set eternity in the hearts of men’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our lives in the river of time can become meaningful only if they are connected to eternity and seen in its light… God has given us an innate sense of eternity so that we can stop on our paths and learn to be still and come to know Him (Psalm 46:10). Reflections on Time and Eternity.
Dr Fong pointed out that the book of Job is a splendid work of poetry. It conveys Job’s experience in terms of one human to another. The reader vicariously steps into Job’s shoes and from that vantage point a far deeper encounter with the unfolding story – Job’s wrestling with God’s sovereign goodness when everything points, unbearably so, to its absence.
Then there is the story of Jonah that invites the reader to engage his imagination through an immersive, sensorial, experience. What exactly was it like to be inside that huge fish? The smells, the sounds, the sights, let alone the sensations of the hands? Consider the sheer horror of the environment and the terror of the thought of being digested along with the incoming small fish – for 3 days and nights. Based upon this sensory immersion, what can we now make of Jonah’s mindset and actions upon his miraculous escape?
How Reading Saved My Life (God’s truth captured and perceived in literature). Soo Inn’s ‘life story’ through literature was an intriguing and moving account of the impact literature can have on our lives, especially one founded upon the Word of God. His words and reflections on the books that impacted his life echoed wonderfully the beauty and truth found in the pages of the Bible that Dr Fong had illustrated earlier.
As Soo Inn put it, “The Bible is our central book, but God speaks to us in a variety of ways and books often give flesh to the truths in the Bible. The right book at the right time is a burning bush where we encounter God, and that could be an encounter that saves our lives.”
In God in the Dark by Luci Shaw Soo Inn found a ‘companion’ in time of grief. Picked up at a sale just after the death of his first wife, its timely arrival provided needful succour, a reminder and the assurance of God’s companionship in and through the caring and grieving process for a loved one. Then, from the concluding passages of The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King, as the party approached the Grey Havens, when Sam, the faithful friend of Frodo, suddenly realised that he would not be following his friend (just yet) to the Undying Lands, Soo Inn tearfully read the words, expressing a profound, deep sense of the loss in separation, the pain of being separated from someone dearly loved, indeed from God Himself. Through the honest, earnest, and warmly engaging, style of Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity, Soo Inn found the spiritual wisdom and strength inherent in being able to “saying no” to invitations when our own reason, besieged by obligation, pride and guilt, so often shouts “yes”.
Participants were also treated to a surprise, guest, speaker, Rev Alfred C H Yeo. Rev Yeo is the author of four books, his most recent being The First Three Kings of Israel and The Last Kings of Judah (Vol. 1 & 2). Addressing these titles, words from the man who served as General Secretary of Singapore Billy Graham Crusade in 1978, Rev Yeo brings his wealth of evangelical, missions and pastoral experience, to the familiar narratives spanning King Saul to King Zedekiah, thus illuminating them through a unique lens, peppered with insightful anecdotes and scriptural applications.
Our reading advocacy month represented a call to restore the centrality of broader, deeper and, ultimately, wiser reading in a world where individuals are becoming increasingly isolated and societies more fragmented through the ubiquitous, disengaging nature of social media/mobile applications technology.
Reading widely facilitates a deeper engagement with God’s Word and the world upon His heart. We become more able to center-down on what is real and true in this frantic, me-now generation. The seminar was strongly recommended for all involved in community outreach and spiritual formation ministries, e.g. library, reading groups, Christian Education, and mentoring and discipleship (especially those concerned with the spiritual well-being of children, youth and young adults).
Leland Ryken, professor of English emeritus at Wheaton College, identified a common thread that runs through the stories (parables) Jesus told and the literature of man:
The most important thing about literature; its subject matter is human experience, not abstract ideas or intellectual propositions. In the Parables, Jesus chose the ‘literary’ approach. Truth concealed from immediate perception in order to reveal it to a person who not only had to but were willing to reflect and ponder. In the ‘Good Neighbour’, (Luke 10: 30-36) the audience had to put themselves in the Samaritans shoes to express what it really meant to be a neighbour.
The Word became flesh in order to relate to us in very human terms. [He] Tells of human experience, instead of telling about it. How to read the Bible as literature and get more out of it.
Literature, informed by man’s created, eternal inheritance, taps into and informs his deepest longings, fears and hopes. For the Christian reader, however, there is another, far greater, level of insight that we glean from our ‘unveiled’ reading of scripture:
To read any book for eternal benefit, we must behold the glory of Christ… Fundamentally, literacy is a spiritual discipline that must overcome the spiritual darkness that veils us… The unveiling transforms how we read books… We tap into the eternal value of literature when we read in the presence of God, unveiled to the glory of our savior… Scripture equips us to evaluate what we read in books, and helps us better perceive truth wherever it appears. Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books