One of the pleasures of living in Barnesville, that "Quaker crossroads," is Friends Center, which holds weekend retreats on Quaker topics about four times a year. I spent this weekend there at a retreat/workshop on reading the Bible in the manner of early Friends.
Our facilitator was Michael Birkel, a religion professor from Earlham. Michael is a scholar with a gift for connecting with people. That made the weekend especially pleasant, as did the mix of people attending the workshop.
I already knew that the early Quakers read the Bible "in the Spirit" and were immersed in the Bible. It was, as Michael put it, "their mother tongue." I also knew that they read the Bible experientially, becoming co-participants in its story, which is also a post-modern way of approaching Scripture.
What was most interesting to me was to understand that the early Quakers read the Bible not in terms of "facts" or "truths" or "rules," but in terms of images. The images that we might speed through as metaphors or representations of abstract truths, they sat with and luxuriated in. These images--rivers and mountains, roses and lilies, roots and rocks, soil and seeds, fat and feasts-- had reality and resonance for them. As they were writing letters or pamphlets, one Biblical image of, say, a river, would trigger an association with another Bibilical image of a river or of water, and what would emerge would be a rich juxtaposition of Bible passages, ranging, say, from Exodus to Isaiah to Luke to Revelation. They gravitated to the Song of Solomon, a deeply-felt erotic imagistic love poem, as often reflecting their experience of the Light. Their faith was not abstract, but embodied, textured, tangible and sensual.
I love the idea of the early Quakers, whom we (or I) tend to think of as rejecting music and art and other forms of corrupting "riot and revelry," actually enjoying the richness and beauty and fecundity of Biblical images.
The emphasis on experiencing Scriptural images led them to a fuller understanding of Biblical truth. By not trying to immediately get "behind" a metaphor to its meaning, they were able to see the value of the metaphor itself. For instance, George Fox realized that the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God in the book of Revelation was not an accident but indicated the nature of the "warfare" Jesus will "wage" in the "end times." What kind of army would a lamb lead? Would "a lamb" lead troops armed with carnal weapons? Fox said, no, of course not, and tied the "warfare" of Revelation back to the "armor of God" described in Ephesians: the Lamb's weapons will be faith, truth, righteousness, peace. With these, love will defeat the carnal, militaristic powers of Satan.
It's a gift to us that the early Quakers were pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment thinkers. They felt no compunction to slice and dice the Bible scientifically, to approach it empirically, to boil it down to a set of propositions or rules. They were completely comfortable with experiencing it emotionally and in an embodied way as well as intellectually.
What do you think of their approach?