Proclaiming the Word of God

Ministers of the Word

In his book “Life Together”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, theologian and participant in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, addresses the issue of the reading of scripture in the context of ‘common devotions’, in other words, in liturgy.

Bonhoeffer suggests a remedy for those who find it hard to comprehend the Scriptures when they are proclaimed in liturgy: ‘We must learn to know the Scriptures again…. We must not grudge the time and the work that it takes. We must know the Scriptures first and foremost for the sake of our Salvation.’

Acknowledging that reading the Bible aloud for others is not easy, he gives guidance to those who take on the role: ‘The more artless, the more objective, the more humble one’s attitude towards the material is, the better will the reading accord with the subject.’

Bonhoeffer offers this ‘golden rule’ for ministers of the word: the reader should never identify himself (sic) with the person who is speaking in the Bible, ‘otherwise I will become rhetorical, emotional, sentimental, or coercive and imperative; that is, I will be directing the listeners’ attention to myself instead of to the Word. But this is to commit the worst of sins in presenting the Scriptures.’

Bonhoeffer says that reading Scripture aloud is akin to reading to others a letter from a friend. You would not read the letter as though you had written it yourself and yet you would also not read it as if it were of no concern to you but with personal rapport and interest.

I was struck with the similarity between what Bonhoeffer is saying here and the following from the article by Godfried Danneels that I wrote about last week: ‘Neither rhetoric nor theatricality nor pathos has a part in the liturgy’, says Danneels. ‘Reading is not acting; it is allowing oneself to be the humble instrument of a word that comes from beyond. The exaggerated impact of the personal individuality of the man or woman who reads can kill the liturgy and eliminate its harmonies.”

Strong words indeed, but excellent advice for all, lay and ordained, who read the scriptures in liturgy!

Bonhoeffer concludes by claiming that proper reading of Scripture is not a technical exercise that can be learned but something that grows or diminishes according to one’s own spiritual frame of mind and that the rendition of the Bible by many a Christian grown old in experience often far surpasses the most highly polished reading of a minister.

This reminds me of the story of a young monk who returned to his community after an absence of several years spent studying scripture and drama. The first night back, the young monk was invited to demonstrate some of his learnings and responded with a technically excellent rendition of Psalm 23. It was met with polite applause.

By coincidence, one of the psalms at prayer that night was Psalm 23. It was read in a thin, quavering voice by the oldest monk in the abbey, and afterwards there were tears in many eyes and on many cheeks. Puzzled, the young monk asked the abbot why the old monk’s rendition had had so much more impact than his own. The wise abbot replied: “My son, the difference is that you know the psalm, but old Brother Kevin knows the shepherd.’

Elizabeth Harrington