Recently I read an article by Richard Pratt, called Pictures, Windows, and Mirrors (WTJ 45, 1983) and it has given me a helpful image to explain something I gleaned while in seminary. In the article he lays out three ways of reading the Bible:
- As a WINDOW
- As a MIRROR, or
- As a PICTURE
We tend to read the Bible in the first and second way most often. But what about the third way? Let me explain.
Reading the text of Scripture like a window is to focus on its history. We read the Bible to find out what happened – to have a window into the past. Reading the Bible this way is to be concerned with the event that lies behind the text.
Reading the text of Scripture like a mirror is to focus on one’s self. We read the Bible to see what it might say in regard to us. We read with our questions or issues in view. And, much of the time, the text will confirm what we already believe.
Each of these two ways have their own merit. But, what about this third way?
Reading the text of Scripture like a picture is not to focus on the event, or to focus on one’s self, but it’s to focus on the author. What is the author trying to depict? He’s not simply trying to tell us what happened; he’s also trying to color our view of what happened. We can’t just peer through his presentation; we must look directly at it. We’re forced to stand where he stands, see from his vantage point, and accept (or reject) his representation. What he does with his paintbrush matters. Why did he say this? Why did he omit that? Why did Luke arrange his format differently than, say, Matthew or Mark? It all matters because he’s trying to accomplish something unique in the telling of his narrative.
Pictures, Windows, and Mirrors.
- One reading looks through the text
- One reading peers into the text
- One reading looks directly at it
Three legitimate ways to balance our reading of the Bible. Two of the ways we evangelicals employ well. For one, we deeply care that the events of Scripture actually happened (windows). And, two, we want to know they have some bearing on our life (mirrors). But, this inclination can cause us to simply ‘use’ the text, rather than to ‘receive’ it.
We hunt for information and content. We search for answers and comfort. We look through it to get to the past and we look in it to reflect ourselves. But, notice, both of these readings merely ‘use’ the text.
In chapter nine of his seminal work entitled, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis explains the difference between using literature and receiving it.
A work of art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used.’ When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination… according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities.
So the question is, are we just using the Bible, or are we receiving it? Might I suggest, that if we want to receive it we begin by reading it much more like a picture.
Most of us adorn our homes with windows, mirrors, and pictures. But think of it, two of them serve a utilitarian role, whereas the other serves a more aesthetic one. The value of windows and mirrors are neutral. They only acquire worth when they’re put to use because essentially they’re blank screens. Pictures, on the other hand, have more of an inherent value. You hang a picture on your wall because of what it represents. You hang a Monet because it’s a Monet. You hang a landscape shot because it’s Ansel Adams. You read Luke because you love, not only what Luke says, but, how he says it. You receive the piece on the author’s terms. You’re not trying to get to the past through a Monet and you’re not trying to reflect yourself through an Ansel Adams. You’re simply taking it as it is and enjoying all that’s there. That’s what it looks like to receive a text as a picture. We enter the world of the author and accept it (and even love it) on its own terms.
Windows, mirrors, and pictures – each of these ways have a place in our reading experience. But, let’s not forget the picture, let’s not forget what the author is trying to accomplish in the life of his reader.