My Introduction to Writing in the Margins by Lisa Nichols Hickman

I hope you saw our review of this lovely, recent book at the BookNotes blog.  You can read it here.  In that post I noted that I had the great privilege of being asked to write a foreword to it.  I enjoyed an early version of the manuscript quite a lot, and I respect the author, Lisa Nichols Hickman, a lot.

(Lisa’s husband, by the way, is an old friend from years ago with the CCO.) She is a Presbyterian (USA) pastor in New Wilmington, PA. It was a great joy to try to write a foreword that would help frame the book with ideas drawn from it. It’s a harder task than I realized, but I hope you’ll enjoy reading my essay. 

Thanks to Abingdon Press for allowing me to do this.  It was a great joy, and I hope it inspires you to want to buy Lisa’s book.  This is a slightly edited version of what appeared in Writing in the Margins: Connecting with God on the Pages of Your Bible. © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

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You have picked up this book.  Now you’ve got to pick up your pen. This is a book that you will underline, dog-ear and mark up.  It is, as they say in this digital age, interactive.  You will enjoy it, you will learn interesting things about a lot, and you will be inspired.  But, I assure you, if you do interact with it as it invites you to, enjoying the sidebars and pull quotes, and especially the exercises and reflection questions, you will live differently as a result. You will start doing this with your Bible. Soon, your whole life will become interactive.

It starts with a holy longing. Or at least curiosity. You’ve got the book in your hands so you are part way there. But there is some work to be done; if you are curious, you’ve got to participate. This is experiential education. Get on those safety goggles, friends, this could get dangerous.

Sociologists and cultural critics (and educators, booksellers, pastors, and all sorts of book lovers) have spilled much ink in recent years about the effect of the internet on our reading habits. Nicholas Carr has famously asked, in his must-read book The Shallows, “is google making us dumb?”  He documents a scary thesis: the interactive and short-form style of on-line reading has eroded our ability to sustain serious thought, to focus, to think deeply about the printed page (electronic or otherwise.)  Perhaps it is emblematic of this problem that the device we use to get to our fast-paced, hot-wired snippets of reading is called a browser.  Good readers – and, more importantly, those who value thoughtful interaction with books and the beauty and ideas they carry – know that we have to do more in our study (and more in our lives) that just browse. To put it simply, we have to pay attention. Lisa Hickman is subversive in this info-glut, zippy age because she invites us to settle down.  She invites us to focus. She asks us to care enough to take our learning seriously by refusing to be passive, starting with the printed page and, as the habit is learned, in our very lives.

Close, engaged reading, with pen in hand, paying attention to the words on the page – in any book, although her focus is on Scripture – demands that we do at least two things, and Rev. Hickman wisely helps us learn both.  

Firstly, we must resist distraction.  We have to pay attention to the text.  In story after inspirational story, Lisa tells of people she knows who have done this.  From a college student involved in a summer beach ministry (and working at a yogurt shop called Peace, Love, and Yogurt – how cool is that?) to a seasoned social activist, to one of the heroes of the book, a middle-aged friend in her congregation who was dying of cancer, she inspires us to learn how to read the Bible carefully.  I am sure it will help you see the words on the page with careful attentiveness.  As you’ve surely already deduced, she helps you learn to do this by the simple art of using that pen.  Underline, circle, star, highlight  – and write in the margins!  If you are nervous about this practice, she explains that it is “consecration, not desecration.”  She does a fantastic spin on the famous call to read the Bible with the newspaper in the other hand; she says to read the Bible with your pen in the other hand.  

But the second thing, after using pen or pencil as a tool to help you focus and to see the text in all its strange and glorious wonder, is this: Lisa teaches us to make connections.  She tells us, as she looks at the well-worn Bibles of the people in her book, that they have drawn lines and arrows, circled words and then pointed to other words they scribbled; sometimes there are symbols or dates or exclamation points.  They are, almost literally, connecting the dots. Hickman calls them “sacred connections.”

And here is the amazing part, something this book will help you with: by writing our own thoughts, feelings, frustrations and hopes next to the Holy text, we discern the connections between God’s Word and our lives.  By commending this practice, Hickman shows that Biblical faith is a living faith.  That is, we who are called to be God’s people are invited to know God, to listen to God speak, to relate timeless truths from the Bible to the complexities and messiness of our real lives.  She swipes a line from the feisty radical historian, Studs Turkel, who often told people to write in the margins of the books they read – even to question and disagree! – and to thereby enter into what he called a “raucous conversation” with the author.  When the book is as grand and vital as the Bible, and the authors include an array of women and men from se
veral cultures and distant centuries, this midrash of interaction is going to be raucous indeed.  By inviting us to write in the margins of our Bibles, Lisa helps us enter into this dialogue not only with its inspired truths; ultimately we are in conversation with the Triune God of the universe.

In Writing in the Margins you will find all sorts of interesting stuff about writing, books, about the history of marginalia -it’s a pretty cool word, isn’t it? – and what we can learn by being willing to write in our Bibles. Do you know what Elvis wrote in his Bible? Did you know that hundreds of years ago printers figured out a “golden ratio of page design” that helps the eye settle on the text?  You know what normal margins are, but did you know the center ones are called gutters?  

She doesn’t over-work the image, but you can take it from there – sometimes we find God’s truth in the gutter, deep in the center of dark hardship where there is little margin and where perhaps God even feels absent. Hickman does not advise us to pick and choose the parts of the Bible that we most like, scribbling up only the sweet stuff.  God is a real conversation partner, and the history of redemption unfolds in the full drama of Scripture through thick and thin.  As you make connections between the true stories, poems, prayers, politics, songs, and letters that make up the Bible and the true stuff of your own life – by writing in the margins pieces of your story, the thick and thin of your life – you will, she promises, come to know God’s grace in Christ Jesus, the living Word of the words.

Jesus, we all know (or do we?) raised a ruckus in his own holy life.  He embraced those on the margins of society, insisted that his own ministry was an inauguration of the ancient Hebrew Year of Jubilee – as described in (get this) Leviticus.  Lisa starts this study of writing in the margins of the Bible in Leviticus, with a rumination of how God commanded the Israelites to leave margin in their rows of crops, a public agricultural policy that made room for the homeless and poor; those on the margins. It’s a good place to start a book, since it is where Jesus started. His very first sermon (recorded in Luke 4, a passage marked up in my own Bible) cites a prophetic text from Isaiah that alludes to Leviticus 25.  Jesus, the Lord of the marginalized, preaches about margins, declaring Himself to be the one to bring Jubilee shalom to the people of Israel.  They liked that, Luke tells us, until Jesus preaches a bit more, suggesting that there are others – non-Jews and enemies! – who get in on God’s redemptive regime.  He makes some connections, drawing on the margins of Israel’s story, and at that point, they wanted to kill him.  

What might you write in the margins of this amazing passage? There are connections between the identity and mission of Jesus with the Older Testament law and prophets.  There is good news, indeed, but it may be troubling.  Outsiders – those on the margins of society and of our own lives – are included?  Grace is bigger than we thought?  God cares about the world, about land and prisoners, about justice, about restoring all aspects of culture?  And we are recruited to be involved in it all?  Holy things happen when we inhabit these margins, when we allow the echoes and resonances to come to the fore, and to come alive in our lives.  You will experience God in fresh and holy ways, through the Bible itself, as you enter the conversation, writing, scribbling, interacting.  

Maybe this practice will be hard for those of us who think that Christian truths are abstract, religious ideals from a gilded-edged Book that are just there.  We simply must agree with them and try hard to live them.  This is, you will soon figure out, not the view of the Bible that the Bible itself teaches.  Scripture comes to us as a story, which points to a living relationship with a living Lord; it is not static and it must be embodied anew in each generation, in each life.  

Perhaps this practice will come more naturally to those who have grown up digital, interacting with video games and hand held devices.  Choose Your Own Adventure books were popular a few years back and the generation raised to actually enter stories – to help live out the story – might get this high-def way of engaging the Scriptures.

Younger or older, rationalist or experientially-inclined, this is a book for us all.  It will help us read our Bibles more playfully, even as it teaches us to take it more reflectively; it will deepen our relationship with God, and cause us to take our lives more seriously.  As we write in the margins we are entering into a holy space, and as we find God there, we will be slowly shaped into the image of the Christ who embraced those on the margins. This is not magic, and it is not a simple technique.  It is a way of life, including habits of reading well, seeking God, and learning to listen.  Interacting with the Word of the Lord through Scripture in this scribbling way lays bare our own lives – over time we are transformed, so that we might be faithful agents of God’s reign in the world.  

Any book that can help us do this, that can help us make sacred connections between the Word and the world, that can train us to enter this redemptive project of God’s rescue of the world, is well worth having.  More, it is worth interacting with. Write in the margins of Writing in the Margins, and soon you will be writing in the one-inch margins of your Bible.  And who knows what will come next? I am sure it will be a holy adventure.


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