To be literate in an area is to have a basic understanding of that field of knowledge adequate to read and understand what others are saying or writing in that field, and to be able to express one’s own thoughts and ideas intelligibly. To be Scripturally literate is to have an understanding of the Bible and the ways it has been used by Friends adequate to understand what others are expressing in Scripture or about Scripture, and to be able to express one’s own understandings and insights to others. Scriptural literacy is necessary to understand and benefit from the riches infused in the Quaker faith tradition.
Scriptural literacy is important because throughout Quaker history the Bible has both shaped the faith of Friends and has been a way of expressing their personal spiritual experiences. Friends have felt themselves to be caught up in the New Testament narrative in their present lives; the Bible has been more important to Quakers than simply the account of a pivotal series of events in the past. The words of the Bible have seemed to generations of Friends to be accurate and evocative descriptions of events in their own lives. Biblical language and allusions fill the writings of Friends, so that we can hardly understand what they mean to tell us about themselves unless we have a sense of what the Scripture they have used is saying and what that meant in their personal experience.
Recent generations of Friends, especially among the unprogrammed Quaker traditions, have interacted with the Bible at one remove from their personal lives. Contemporary discussions often center on the Bible as historically accurate or not, as morally acceptable or not, and especially whether the Bible is an authority, and if so what kind of authority: primary, secondary, infallible, advisory, and so on. These can be useful discussions, if entered into with an open mind and heart.
For the earliest Friends, these considerations did not reach the heart of the value of the Bible. To them the Bible was most importantly an expression of historic encounters of human beings with God that were now being played out in their own hearts and lives. These Friends read the Bible as a living story that not only described important events of the past, but at the same time was describing their own stories as individuals who were seeking a deeper and more authentic relationship with God. Something vitally important was happening to them, and they found in the Bible accounts the words and images to describe their experience. The truth of the Bible was that it described what they knew from personal experience to be true about God’s relationship to human beings.
To become scripturally literate in the Quaker tradition is to discover, to the best of our ability, the story that early Friends saw told in the Bible, the way they felt that story reflected in their own lives (and the phrases and passages that seemed especially powerful in that regard), and tools or practices that can help us to make the same connections in our own 21st century lives.
To understand fully what these Friends have had to say about their spiritual journeys, we need to be able to read and understand Scripture as they did. They used and adapted the vocabulary of Scripture, applying it to their own inward experiences (cf. Brian Drayton and Bill Taber, A Language for the Inward Landscape). We also need tools of our own, to help us unlock the meaning of Scripture for us in the 21st century.
Four sorts of resources will help us accomplish these goals. First, we will read the writings of previous generations of Friends with the intent of recognizing how they used Scripture to express themselves, whether in express quotations or allusions and metaphors. The work of ‘interpreters’ of Friends use of Scriptures, including T. Vail Palmer and Michael Birkel, will be a second resource. Practice of several ‘techniques’ for reading Scripture will help open our eyes and hearts to experiencing that same perspective of earlier Friends in our own encounters with the Bible. Finally, we’ll practice with a basic toolbox of methods for uncovering the context and early meaning of Scripture passages we study.
(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)