Praying the Bible Book Review

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Of the books I plan to read this year, a few of them concern historical attitudes and approaches to the Scriptures.

If Gerhard Ebeling is right, and church history can be conceived of as “the history of the interpretation of Holy Scripture” it seems fitting then that we lend our ears to the collective voice of the past and listen with sincerity. To turn to the past is to recognize that we are not the first Christians to handle the sacred text. We are not the first to excavate at this site. Besides, each age has made some major discoveries and we do well to learn from them. If we believe that God has worked steadily and progressively throughout church history, then to listen to the past is to recognize God’s work.

If we don’t, we risk marginalizing our understanding by an overly contemporary outlook shaped by the exigencies and assumptions of today.

We risk becoming a hermeneutical island.

The understanding of history is an uninterrupted conversation between the wisdom of yesterday and the wisdom of to-morrow. And it is a conversation always conducted honestly and with discernment.

–Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. 6, p. 1

Praying the Bible

Reading Praying the Bible by Mariano Magrassi is just this sort of uninterrupted conversation. The book is an overview of lectio divina written in close dialogue with church fathers and medieval monks and exegetes.

Part of Magrassi’s aim is:

…To return to the rich sources from which we have unearthed a few fragments here, not out of scholarly curiosity, but by way of vital rediscovery. It is an amazing experience that can still serve as a model today. It can be the stimulus and animating force behind our reading, which is so proud of its scientific tools but so lacking in spiritual power. (56)

Magrassi wants “to discover again a living experience of the Word in its chief moments” (104).

Overview and Impression

This book is really incredible—short, accessible, inspiring, thoroughly cited, and eminently quotable. I read a library copy in three days and since I couldn’t mark it up, I ended up using sticky tabs everywhere. There are some books you want to read, and there are some books you want to own. About halfway through this one, I decided it is the latter.

One reason I decided to buy Praying the Bible is for its reference value. There are SO many quotes and portals to a whole world of literature on lectio divina, especially from the early church fathers and medieval period. You will be introduced to a cast of medieval characters you’ve probably never heard of before. Magrassi is a beautiful writer in his own right; however, the book as a whole is like a skillfully arranged mosaic—the patristic and medieval quotes are seamlessly integrated into Magrassi’s own writing, style, and thought. He is able to call forth a host of theological witnesses without abandoning the rhythm and flow of his argument AND without loosing his voice among the crowd. Magrassi functions somewhat as a host at a party—introducing to us a lot of very interesting people and yet the whole time maintaining control of the conversation.

The book functions on two levels. First, it is a quick-moving yet impressive introduction to lectio divina. Second, it is a sustained argument for the rediscovery and practice of lectio divina today. In Magrassi’s mind, piety and exegesis have been wrongly cleft. Our pride swells because of the advent of scientific methods applied with analytical rigor while our spiritual bellies swell because of malnutrition and starvation. Magrassi shows us how differently the church approached Scripture before the advent of scholasticism—as a source of living water, a kiss of eternity, a living Book, the saving power of God, an inexhaustible mystery, a mystical container of Christ. The connection between reading and prayer is stressed throughout, as is the indispensability of a deep, experiential encounter with the living, person of Christ as we appropriate the sacred text.

This book is not intended to function as a step-by-step “field guide” to prayed reading. Rather, it sets forth the richness of the historical tradition, the key ideas and the concrete dispositions employed, and ends with a terse summary of the four acts of lectio divina. The tone Magrassi writes with, I would call, “impassioned academic.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to deepen their experience of reading Scripture.