There are many ways to interact with the Bible – I have previously talked about
Lectio Divino, or holy reading, and FIER is another technique where you try to experience a passage “first hand”. Obviously unless you are The Doctor (or possibly a neutrino), travelling through time to experience it first hand is a tall order, but the next best thing is to imagine yourself there. This can be done by choosing one of the people present in a given passage, and putting yourself in their shoes – trying to imagine what they are thinking, feeling, seeing, smelling, etc. Having now done this several times, I can confidently say that I have acquired a new and deeper insight each time, both through my own thoughts and reflecting with others. I like the way that it takes the Bible seriously – the events actually happened, albeit a long time ago, and we can put ourselves in the shoes of someone who was actually there and actually did those things.
The exercise works well with any narrative passage – such as found in the gospels or in Acts – and should be carried out using a single episode or scene. For example, Jesus washing the disciples feet or the Transfiguration would be good examples. With a little bit of structure this is a very easy and powerful approach, and I am indebted to The Revd Simon Downham for teaching it to me. While it can be done on one’s own, it is very well suited to a group context, with a leader.
The exercise itself has four phases, as you might guess from the title; Familiarisation, Identfication, Experience, and Reflection. The first two stages are preparation, and the bulk of the exercise is spent on the third, before finishing with a review.
There isn’t very much required in the way of preparation, although the leader will need to be familiar with the passage, and will have ideally thought through what being there might have been like. For this example, I’m going to work through Jesus washing the disciples feet (John 13:1-17).
Overall it probably needs around an hour to do, although you can obviously shorten it by choosing a shorter passage or doing the experience stage more quickly. It could also take longer if you let the reflection extend into a more general discussion and/or application.
The leader should outline the 4 stages to the group, and then introduce each as they get to it. I’ve always found it helpful to participate with my eyes closed, although the leader doesn’t get that luxury (most of the time).
The first phase is just to become familiar with the passage. The leader sets the context of the passage, and then reads it out loud to the group. This may include a few verses before and after it it helps set the scene. At the end of this phase, each participant knows how the story starts and ends, what happens, where it happens, and who the key players are.
In our example, it is the Passover meal, and we’ve just had the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has been teaching about dying and rising, but the disciples don’t really understand it. It takes place in a room, and at least the disciples and Jesus are present.
The leader now reads the passage out again, this time inviting everyone present to pick a character in the story they are going to identify to experience the story as. This may be as one of the major explicit (named) characters, one of the implicit characters, or another person who could be reasonably assumed to be present. The leader should mention several possibilities for people to choose, especially some examples of ‘assumed’ characters.
At the end of this phase, the participants know whose shoes they are going to be walking in, as such.
In our example, the explicit characters are Jesus(!), Peter, and Judas. Implicit are the rest of the disciples. Other characters might be serving boys or girls, the owner of the house, perhaps one of the Marys.
At this point, everyone should be familiar with the passage, and have chosen a character in the story. The third phase to to experience the events as that character. The leader instructs everyone to go back in time and ‘become’ that character in their mind – they are no longer Johnny or Isabel, but they are now Peter, or Judas, or a servant in 1st Century Jerusalem, or whatever.
The leader then reads the passage through again, this time very slowly and pausing after every verse, or part of verse if appropriate. The leader should use the pauses to ask questions about what the characters are thinking, feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting. They should try and ask questions from each character’s viewpoint, and directed at individuals – “what can you see?” – leaving a gap after each question.
In our example, the leader might start off with the following questions:
- What sort of evening is it – warm or cool?
- What is the room like? What’s on the floor, the walls? Are there windows?
- What can you smell? Can you smell the lamb? The wine? The bread?
- What stage is the meal at – have you tasted anything yet? Are you hungry? Thirsty?
- Has it been a busy day? Are you in the mood for a special meal? Are you tired and just want to go to bed?
- What you you hear? Is it noisy or quiet? Are the disciples talking and joking, or more subdued and reflective? Is it noisy outside with normal hustle and bustle?
- Is it brightly lit, or darker in the room?
- If you’re the owner, do you feel this is a special meal, or just another one to bash out? What are you your concerns?
- If you’re the owner or a servant, have you recognised Jesus, or are you not that interested?
- How is the table laid? Is it lavish or simple?
- If you’re a disciple, does it feel different to normal? Is there any tension in the air?
Let’s say verse 4 is read:
So he [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist.
This may lead the questions similar to the following:
- What stage is the meal at? What have you eaten and drunk so far?
- How did Jesus get up – suddenly and obviously, or gently and quietly.
- What happened when Jesus got up? Did everyone notice straight away and the room go quiet? Or did conversations carry on?
- When did you notice him get up, and what do you think he’s doing?
- What are you thinking as he starts to strip off?
- If you’re the owner or a servant, what are you thinking? Are you embarrassed? Are you concerned about the nature of this party?
- If you’re Jesus, are you cold without your outer clothes on? What do you feel as you take them off?
- Where does he put the clothes down? Does he throw them on the floor, or fold them up? Where does he get the towel from?
- What do you think is going on as he wraps the towel around him?
As we get into the actual foot washing, the leader might ask what it feels like to have your feet washed by Jesus. What is like to be waiting? When do you realise he’s going to do everyone? Is the water hot or cold? Are your feet disgusting, or not too bad? Do you try and brush them off surreptiously before Jesus gets to you? Is it nice to have clean feet afterwards? If you’re Peter what are you thinking as he comes round to you? And Judas? If you’re not Peter, what do you think of his discussion? Does he make you roll your eyes, or do you agree with him?
The leader probably wouldn’t want to use quite as many questions as this after each verse, but I’ve written a lot to give an idea of the sort of things that can be asked, and how to think creatively about the story.
The leader should end with some time and space for personal thought.
The final stage is debriefing – the participants should stay “in character” as they are interviewed by the leader about what they experienced. The leader takes a straw poll of who is which character, and explores the story with them from that viewpoint.
General questions such as
what struck you about the story? or
what was surprising or interesting? are fine, but more directed questions are also good – in our example you might ask a ‘Peter’
How did you feel as Jesus got closer to you?, or an ‘owner’
What did you make of it all?.
This phase can last as long as you like – in my experience people always come away with a fresh insight or thought about the passage, especially if it’s quite a familiar one. It’s also my experience that other people have thoughts and ‘angles’ that would never have occurred to me.
Once the reflection is finished, make sure you bring everyone out of character, and back to their normal selves. I know this sounds a bit “hypnotizey”, but it draws a nice line under the exercise;
You are not in Jersusalem anymore, but are now back in England.
The only significant criticism I have heard of this method is that it steps beyond scripture. We can’t know who else was in the room, whether it was a warm or cool night, or even how dirty our feet were. The danger is the passage becomes to us the picture we’ve made up in our minds. For me, however, treating a given passage as if it were true and trying to experience the events as if they actually happened honours scripture, rather than diminishes it. Also, engaging with at this level really makes it stick in your mind – two decades on from my first encounter, I can tell you the passage that was used, who I identified with and what I experienced.