“When the foundations are being torn down, what can the righteous do?” (Ps 11:3). The last few decades have seen postmodernism tear down the foundations of language and communication. Of course, that is only the most recent in a long line of efforts to destroy the foundation of God’s communication to mankind through his Word. What are believers to do when meaning itself is under attack? Many Christians have answered this question by returning to earlier eras of the church for help to determine the meaning of the Biblical text. Perhaps this is an embrace of postmodernism’s assertion that truth is tribal—the authentic meaning of Scripture can only be arrived at within the “tribe” of the church. Or this appeal to the past may be a counter to postmodernism’s denial of objectivity—there is such a thing as objective meaning in the text because believers across centuries and continents have looked at the Scriptures and arrived at the same meaning. Whatever the case, Pierced by Love falls squarely within this category of efforts to find meaning in the Bible by looking to the past.
Pierced by Love seeks to explore lectio divina, or divine reading. For those unfamiliar with this terminology, Boersma explains: “Lectio divina simply means reading the Bible the way it’s supposed to be read—as divine Scripture” (1). To read the Bible as divine Scripture is to look for God in the Scriptures—specifically to look for Christ. Traditionally there are four steps in this method of reading Scripture: “lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation)” (6). The first two chapters of the book serve as a sort of introduction for these four steps of lectio divina. The remaining chapters explore in detail thoughts or concepts connected to specific steps.
To explain lectio divina, Boersma uses two key concepts in the opening chapters—transfiguration and ladders. Through the means of the words on the page we come to the Word—Christ. The four steps of lectio divina “form the ladder that takes us to God himself” (43). However, this ascent to God is not a gnostic abandonment of the material world. Boersma uses Plato’s concept of the ideal to explain it this way: “It is precisely when we stand at the top of Plato’s ladder that we most truly appreciate the lowest rung. Why? Because it is Beauty Itself that is present within individual beautiful things” (19). Thus, when one reaches the final step of lectio divina, “contemplation allows us to clearly see the divine reality that always already shimmers within creation” (31).
As Boersma makes his way through each of the four steps, he highlights particular aspects of them. In chapter three he stresses the importance of paying attention to the text, which is a special challenge in our age of distractions. Here he leans heavily on Augustine’s thought that “to read the Bible well was to read it and reread it, and in this way to make our home in it” (68). In chapter four he begins to address the matter of meditation. Two key building blocks for such meditation are memorization and organization—turning the mind into a concordance. After all, “for prudent decision-making—for the life of virtue—we need to become a living concordance” (77). Chapter five builds on the concept of meditation by using food analogies. Meditation requires more than simple memorization. It requires thinking about what the text is saying. Boersma stresses that “Chewing the text is hard work” (100). This work involves “trying to figure out how the words function in the context of the passage, the book as a whole, and the entire canon; trying to understand the genre, the structure of the passage, and so forth” (100). Chapter six reminds that meditation centers on the true tree of life—the cross of Jesus. With chapter seven Boersma moves on to prayer, and especially the role of repentance. He notes that “compunction [being pierced by message of the text] is biblical” (159). As chapter eight explores contemplation—the final step of lectio divina—it wrestles with the tension between contemplation and action. It traces the way men like Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Aelred of Rievaulx used the Bible’s account of Mary and Martha to balance the two. Ultimately, Boersma makes the point that “when it’s time for divine reading, we should get ready for contemplation, and when it’s time for work, we should give ourselves wholeheartedly to the task at hand” (170). The final chapter explores the theme of silence. The thought of this chapter is that moving into silence is “moving into the life of God” (183). Specifically, Boersma connects silence with humility, and ultimately to Jesus’s humility. “In Jesus’ silence we recognize the self-emptying, sacrificial humility of God” (201). Finally, the book closes with eight theses on lectio divina.
While this book claims to present the way Scripture has been read within the Christian tradition, it might be more accurate to say that it more narrowly presents the way it has been read within the monastic tradition. While the occasional church father is name-dropped, and Augustine figures prominently in a couple of chapters, figures from the monastic age are much more common throughout the book. Many of the illustrations are drawn from monastic texts, and the contents of a number of chapters explore writings from monastic authors in detail. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. These monastic sources have valuable things to teach about the arrangement of information and the use of the visual in summarizing biblical details. For instance, Hugh of St. Victor’s use of the ark as a way to summarize and frame history is interesting, and Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life presents an interesting way to summarize the life of Jesus.
However, this heavy reliance on monastic sources brings some unwelcome baggage. For instance, one can certainly find currents of work righteousness throughout the book. In discussing John Climacus’s thoughts on lectio divina, Boersma excuses his work-righteousness. He writes, “John’s spirituality is synergistic in character: we must cooperate with the grace that God gives if we are to make it to heaven. Nonetheless, his spirituality is hardly bereft of Christology” (38). Shortly after, Boersma approvingly quotes Benedict of Nursia: “We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven” (41). In discussing the role of meditation, he writes, “Lectio divina, therefore, is a therapeutic endeavor that prevents or heals the sickness of a wandering mind, teaching it instead to focus on God. Meditative reading does not just teach us the contents of the biblical text (though of course it does that too). It aims at moral change, a change from sadness and disgust to happiness and joy” (59). While a Roman Catholic might be at home with such language and thoughts, a Lutheran is more likely to squirm with discomfort, and rightly so!
One also senses a deficient view of repentance in chapter seven, where he discusses at length the role of tears in reading Scripture. In discussing both Augustine’s conversion and David’s repentance after his affair with Bathsheba, Boersma emphasizes their tears. Ultimately, he turns this repentance into a human work. One sees a hint of it when he writes, “A light of relief flooded Augustine’s heart: he had broken with his past and in repentance turned decisively to his God” (152). Notice that he makes Augustine the author of repentance. This is in keeping with what Boersma writes shortly afterward: “We weep in repentance, so that our tears produce Christ in our hearts” (156), and “The bread of tears is indispensable food, for it is none other than the real presence of Christ” (160). This overemphasis on the first part of repentance is at odds with the Augsburg Confession’s emphasis on the second part of repentance.
Can a Lutheran find worthwhile things to learn from Pierced by Love despite these issues? Certainly. The simple guidelines Boersma offers for reading the Bible bear a striking resemblance to Luther’s four strand method of reading Scripture (7). Boersma’s frequent reminders that reading the Bible is about finding Christ are a welcome encouragement not to let our own study of Scripture devolve into mere professionalism. In the final analysis, other books are probably more worthy of making it to the top of your reading list. However, you may appreciate the investment to read the six pages at the end of the book where he explains his eight theses on lectio divina. Many of the points he makes are solid and worth remembering for those who are often in the Scriptures.