“How Are You Feeling?” An Approach to Reading the Scriptures

by Rev. Dr. Cristofor Panaitescu

After struggling for years longing for the ultimate way of understanding the Bible, I finally concluded that my struggling would have no end. I understood also that there was no ultimate way, but just a way.

Watching television testimonies today often means hearing how people feel in different situations of life. Breaking news about a catastrophe is basically a report about what and how someone felt at the moment of that tragedy. And frequently, it is about what and how they felt in the aftermath of the event. Usually, the reporter tries to be empathetic regarding the subjects of his or her story. Actually, the simple fact of being at that place, on that spot, involves empathy. The same applies to happy events like sport, shows, or documentaries involving victory, accomplishment, celebration or astonishment.

The question “how did you feel?” is the verbal outcome of an everyday experience studied and described by psychologists as being the basis of life at its first undeveloped and uncomplicated emotional level. Once this question of feelings is addressed, the newsperson invites people to develop their story or their version of the event. As for the one watching TV at home, that person sees the whole thing throughout his or her feelings, and the simple fact of watching implies emotional involvement. I’ve had the opportunity to compare this media pattern in different countries on different continents while watching TV, and it is always the same.

This question is of paramount importance with respect to the study of the Bible. While Protestants and an increasing number of Catholics use this line of interrogation positively in order to uncover the meaning of Scriptures for their lives, Eastern Christians ignore this method while reading the Covenants. I say “Eastern Christians” because Orthodox faithful living in Western countries are at ease with this way of studying. The reasons why Eastern Orthodox do not allow this approach to guide their approach to the Scriptures are various, but here I would like to note the possible consequences of such an attitude: reading the Covenants in fear of wrongfully understanding them, not reading at all the text of the Bible, allowing someone else to guide one’s feelings while reading the Scriptures, and finally, accepting without discernment the interpretation of the text coming from above, the human above. The last two issues just mentioned above are rather related to political discourse then to telling a story around an event.

This question, with its wide range of options related to lectio divina, involves connecting not with living people, but with biblical subjects. The new setting is as follows: the reader is like the one watching TV at home. The text/the author is the implied reporter, though not in the modern, direct manner. Biblical personages are always the ones telling stories and saying how they felt. Even if there is no possibility of directly interviewing them, of becoming a reporter in the strictest sense, nevertheless lectio divina and prayer allow the reader to connect “off line” with the persons in the Scripture. As for God, he is the one telling stories, saying how he feels, interpreting other’s feelings, and being empathic to other’s emotions (but this also is a subject itself, for another paper).

Let us consider an example: the first chapters of the second book of Samuel. David becomes king, begins to attack the Philistines, and subdues them. After the first tragic attempt to bring the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem, he revisits the way of doing it and finally he succeeds. David fears God and understands that His proximity is source of blessing and death, of anger and joyfulness, of jubilation and shame. Blessing for the house of Obed-Edom (2 Sam. 6, 11), death for Uzzah (2 Sam. 6,7), anger for David (2 Sam. 6,8), joyfulness for the house of Uzzah (2 Sam. 6,12), exultation for David (2 Sam. 6,14), shame and infertility for his wife Michal (2 Sam. 6,23). David experiences quite a wide series of feelings in a quite short period of time. Even God is said to have feelings (2 Sam. 6,7), which it is to be taken literally, in my opinion. One of the outcomes of this episode is David’s desire to build a house for his Lord. The text, as an experienced reporter, tells me that he wishes that out of a mixed emotional experience: joy mostly, but fear and awe too. He takes his feelings for granted, and his friend, Nathan the prophet, encourages him in building a house for the dwelling of the ark of the Lord (2 Sam. 7,1-3). But another interpreter of those events and feelings “intrudes” promptly and changes the course of things, of history actually (2 Sam. 7, 4-29): God, who sees the heart of his subject David, takes down an emotionally well-intentioned act born out of mixed feelings. What follows in David’s life and what emerges in his poetry confirm this: he continues to proudly defeat Philistines while killing his brave Uriah; he shows mercy to Saul’s son, Mephibosheth, while casting away his own son, Absalom. And the examples could go on and on.

I am not fool to compare my self with David, but I am allowed to see if his feelings, his way of dealing with emotions, is similar to mine. because as viewer I want to empathize with the people being interviewed and being asked about their feelings. Here, as reader, I want to empathize with the emotions expressed in the Bible. And I should look for similar behavior from God, as in David’s case, regarding my own life. David’s story, mostly his behavior, might shatter my feelings, but this should not push me to judge him, but to learn from him and with him.

It took me many years to understand what a Catholic monk said me once: “Do not take yourself too seriously while reading the Scriptures!” After struggling with my feelings, with my self-implemented sense of guiltiness, of sinfulness, I understood that the sacred text may be read as a tale where I would be allowed to become the hero I like most, where I would be allowed to feel whatever it takes to keep breathing till the end of the thrilling story, where the feeling is far more important than the rationale of the plot or its metanarrative meaning. Reading a tale felt like childhood. And my favorite Hero loved and let children come to Him.

Cristofor Panaitescu is an Orthodox monk and priest working and celebrating in the South of France. His areas of theological interests are lectio divina, ecumenism, and ecclesiology, especially the crisis within Orthodox biblical hermeneutics and the crisis within church.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.