Reader's Block

One of the striking things about Daniel Block’s new book, For the Glory of God, is that it assumes throughout that most basic and often neglected of truths: the church is a creation and an act of God’s grace, not our response to his grace.  In the strictest sense, we do not do church; God does church.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this in the book occurs in Chapter 11, ‘The Drama of Worship.’  In one of many pithy sentences in the book, Block writes: ‘Christians today would do well to reconsider their fascination with drama in  worship and replace it with delight in the drama of worship.’  

Part of that drama is to be the reading of scripture.  For the Christian there should surely be nothing more exciting than what scripture says, whether it is some action packed Old Testament narrative or Paul launching out into a doxology as he contemplates the finer points of his Christology.  The reading of scripture should be a high point of every worship service.   And, even more than Shakespeare, the scriptures therefore deserve to be read in a manner which allows their drama to stand out in bold relief.

Indeed, Block goes as far as to say that the scriptures are first and foremost meant to be read not preached (p. 190).  That is a stark claim and one that I would perhaps contest when expressed without qualification.  Yet he does identify a real weakness: the way scripture is typically read as one of the weakest parts of contemporary worship.  True but sad: to read scripture badly is to present God’s grace sloppily. After all, scripture is both an account of the grace of God, in that it tells the story of God’s work for his people and offers detailed explanation of the same; and it is also an act of God’s grace in that it is inspired revelation.   Even after he had acted to save, God did not leave his people without a record of that action.

Many of us have heard the scriptures in public read as if they were a phone book or a cure for insomnia.   Form – that is, spoken form – must surely be shaped by, and appropriate to, content.   The Bible’s content is both holy and exhilarating. Dramatic reverence is thus what should characterize public reading of the Bible.  Anyone who has ever been to a poetry reeading or has listened to, say, Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas, knows that reading out loud is itself an act of interpretation and can be done well, indifferently, or downright poorly.  Block’s call (pp. 190-92) for those who read scripture to devote time and energy to the task is most apposite.  How many of us do so?

One might add that a good sermon should reflect this too. The intentional, thoughtful, articulate reading of scripture should be woven into the fabric of the sermon itself.  True, it can be a somewhat distracting habit when a long scripture passage is read at the start of a sermon and then reread during the course of the same.  Yet one aspect of good preaching is that it directs the attention of the congregation back to scripture again and again, both through the use of allusion and direct citation of other related passages.   That will not only instill confidence in the congregation that the preacher is connecting his specific message with the broader content of the Bible but also sets a great example of how scripture is to be dramatically central to our thinking as Christians.

In all of the discussions I have read on worship, I have not come across any real discussion outside of Block’s book of the aesthetics of reading out loud.  Given the fact that Protestantism – in fact, biblical Christianity – is a religion of the Word spoken, we need to give more attention not only to the amount of Word spoken in our churches but also to the manner in which it is spoken.   When the contemporary ideal for preachers seems to be either that of the stand-up comedian or the talented talk show host, we need to be aware that the cultivated casualness of these modern heroes is inappropriate to content that is more often serious than amusing, and more frequently confrontational than conversational.  And that quality needs to be exhibited not only in the preaching of the Word but also in the reading of the Word.

If Block is correct, and I believe he is, then this is a subject which requires far more serious thought and practical attention.