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Binocular Reading

Thursday 28th March 2024

Binocular Reading

Written by Andrew Sloane


Preachers are often encouraged to prepare their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  (Or perhaps, these days, the Bible app open in one split-screen while doomscrolling social media in the other.) The idea being that this might remind them to connect the authoritative Scriptures to the world of everyday life rather than forgetting the ordinary world of work and home and focusing on churchy stuff. It’s a kind of binocular reading of text and world that adds depth and perspective to preaching.

But what about workers? Most people in the workplace aren’t at risk of forgetting the realities of everyday life—they are, after all, immersed in it. They’re at risk of simply not seeing how the world of the Bible and the ordinary world they inhabit connect—particularly around their work. Which is odd, really, when you think about how often the Bible directly talks about work. And even odder when you think about how much the world of work saturates the world of Scripture.

Perhaps what they need is their own ‘binocular’ reading of text and world?

Indeed—and it’s easier than you might think, if you just allow yourself a little creativity and imagination (yes, we’re allowed to read our Bible’s with creativity and imagination—see Craig Bartholomew’s new book Listening to Scripture). Try this: as you read a particular passage, ask two simple questions: ‘How does this passage illuminate the world of (my) work?’; and ‘How does the world of work illuminate this passage?’

Let me give you a couple of examples from the Psalms—one pretty obvious, the other perhaps less- so—and see how it adds depth and perspective to our reading of Scripture and our understanding of our work.

Psalm 127 is an obvious place to practice a binocular reading. As we read it, we think about the endeavours we engage in in the world. The households we seek to build, the culture and artefacts we seek to produce, the ways we seek to provide for those who depend on us, the families—nuclear and more extended—of which we are a part, from which we benefit and that we seek to foster and enhance. And we recognise that all these labours depend for their success on the provision of God. And as we do, we remember that the LORD is a gracious God, the one who provides us with good gifts, who grounds and economy of generosity and blessing, not privation and anxiety. And we are called again to trust rather than fruitless, exhausting worry. Knowing that God not only gives us the provisions we need but provides the sleep that anxious toil so often consumes changes our perspective and adds depth to our trust of God in our work.

So much, so obvious, you might say—and that would be fine if you actually read it that way and allowed it to seep into your bones. But let me take you to a less-obvious place to try this binocular reading, the very last song in the Psalter.

Psalm 150 seems to say nothing about work. So, perhaps here, at least, is a text that is all about the sacred, religious stuff, with no connection with work and everyday life at all. But don’t be so hasty. True, at first glance this has nothing to say to the world of work. But, perhaps the world of work illuminates this poem in unexpected ways. I’ll skip over v.1 for a moment, to draw your attention to v.3–5. Before we get to ‘everything that has breath’ praising the LORD, we hear about how sophisticated artistry and technology are brought to the task.

Think about the work of praising—the skill of musicians and singers (and the work that goes into acquiring those skills, as well as the native abilities of voice, and dexterity), the artistry of poets and song-makers and the deep cultures that inform it. And think of all the work in the background that makes making music possible: carving out a ram’s horn or reed for trumpet and pipes; fine woodwork for the sounding box of lyre and harp and cured gut for their strings; high quality metallurgy and excellent smithing for timbrels and cymbals (we want a ‘ting’ or a ‘crash’, not a dull 'thunk', do we not?); not to mention the major construction work required to make the sanctuary of v.1. And all that work is now turned to worship.

Behind this text is all that work, work the original singers of the psalm would have known intimately—they would have touched it and felt it. While Psalm 150 says nothing about work, think how much is says to it, the depth and perspective it adds to the Psalm and, in turn, how that shifts our perspective and deepens our engagement with our work. For if the world of work directly contributes to the praise of Yahweh, surely that serves to sanctify the ordinary labour of our hands?

Perhaps it’s time to remember that the breath that praises Yahweh isn’t quarantined to our ‘sacred’ spaces and times.


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