Why do/should we read the Bible? Does it matter how well we know the stories and history, or is that a secondary concern? This post is the first in a series about “Journeying with Scripture”. It is an opportunity to explore further how and why we read the Bible. It will also uncover some of the thinking behind the Bible study books “Journeying With Abraham” and “Journeying With Nehemiah” and how they might differ from other approaches.
For many generations, their first encounter with the Bible has been in the form of stories told to them at Sunday School. These are often the stories with the most action and appeal for children. Some will even remember having had tests or exams on these stories to make sure that they had absorbed all the details of who did what and when.
This approach largely reflects the common education/learning ethos that has prevailed (at least in the UK) for some time: imparting information. Whether it be lists of words in a new language, historical dates, the periodic table or mathematical formulae, education has tended to focus on the giving of and the ability to reproduce information. This has been true not only for children, but has persisted into realms of adult education, including sermons.
Now, clearly this has not been the sole purpose of learning, nor is it an aspect of education that will or needs to go away. However, might it be that the tide is changing and a slightly different focus is emerging, one that new generations may experience and that we may learn from? It seems, at least in some sectors, that information is dropping down the priority list slightly in favour of enabling skills that help people to handle information, think for themselves and grow into well-rounded human beings (in theory anyhow!).
Simply knowing things does not necessarily do the job of equipping us for life. It is an important part of growing up and continuing to learn, but facts and information can so easily slip into “mere theory” or something that can be compartmentalised away, ready for regurgitation at the appropriate time, but not doing anything in the meantime.
How might this apply to our Bible reading and studies? Many traditional approaches involve focussing on reading comprehension – learn who the characters are, what they did, maybe consider historical concerns – then at the end seek to draw out a moral principle, perhaps by posing a vague question as to how this story is relevant to us today. A “good” Christian may even be defined by how well they can regurgitate the information they have been fed – who are the twelve disciples, the twelve tribes of Israel, etc.
Yet, despite the good that learning this information may potentially do, there is a real danger that it is hived off from the rest of life. It may go into an information box that we can call on when quizzed, but doesn’t necessarily do anything the rest of the time. Is the Bible there so that we can learn a load of facts? Isn’t it perhaps more important that it functions as a means of grace through which God may transform us?
Information may of course lead to transformation – this cannot be denied. But, maybe we can work in such a way as to facilitate transformation more readily. Maybe if we engage more personally with the stories, rather than keeping them at arms’ length, and if we keep on asking what it means to us now rather than postponing that to one vague final application, we might help ourselves be more open to ongoing change at God’s hand.
All of us do in fact involve ourselves when we read. We bring our assumptions and theological frameworks and experiences to the text each time we look at it. We can’t help it. So, perhaps we should bring ourselves to the stories in a more conscious way and not pretend that we can look at things in a detached, objective way. Perhaps we should consider how our experiences and ideas are similar to or differ from the characters we meet. Perhaps we should admit that we are reading the Bible with an agenda – to grow into the people God wants us to be. Then, maybe we can and should go looking for how the stories help us to become those people by raising questions, setting examples and more.
Yes, it is easy to get blinded by our own involvement in the reading process and make mistakes in our interpretation and think God is saying something when actually it is only our minds looking for what they want to find. But, if we come with a humble attitude, ready to be challenged, to ask questions and have questions asked of us, then the Holy Spirit can use our muddled attempts to nevertheless mould us and shape us in Christ’s image.
So, if we come away from reading or studying Scripture unable to recount all the details of what we have read, does it matter? If we remained unchanged, unchallenged, not comforted or spoken to, then maybe it does. But, if we emerge as different people, if we have been drawn to see ourselves in a new light, if we have met God, then surely that is what matters and not how much information we have absorbed?
If we take a highly information focussed approach there is the danger that stories become too familiar and we think that we know what they are all about as we’ve read them or heard them many times before. Perhaps we have heard the same application before. Maybe we think we are mastering the text, becoming masters of theology and are all the better for it. But, are we?
Perhaps we are becoming more and more entrenched in one way of seeing the text and don’t realise that it is our way and that we are possibly becoming closed off to seeing it afresh or in new ways that God has for us. Maybe if we focus less on achieving a certain level of knowledge that will help us to keep humble. Maybe if we focus on discerning what God is saying to us at the moment through the text then we can be open to hearing something else at a different time.
The idea of “Journeying with Scripture” is that we remain travellers who are always open to discovering new things, to learning and growing. We may pass familiar landmarks, re-visit favourite spots, but there is always something new to see. Think of places you have been – you may get to know them well, but they are always slightly different each time you go there. Part of the reason is that you are not the same each time you go. Part of the reason is that there are things there you haven’t noticed before or a different part is being more clearly illuminated as the light that day is different to last week. Maybe this metaphor can extend to help us think about our relationship with Scripture.
Next time you read the Bible, why not try focussing less on information and do less of a reading-comprehension style approach. Instead, try to engage with the story, the characters, your life and God through a mixture of approaches. Use your imagination, empathy, experiences, prayer and critical thought as well as historical knowledge, other passages and more to help you to create an ongoing “dialogue” between the ancient text and the present day. If you haven’t already done so, start a journey with Scripture, seek to be transformed as well as informed.
You may find that the “Journeying With…” series of Bible studies are helpful for your own private study or for your group, especially if this method is unfamiliar to you. Each book focusses on trying to help you engage as fully as possible with the Scriptures, being concerned with a lived out faith with many opportunities for you to explore and apply what you read to your own situation(s). You won’t find many reading comprehension questions, but you will find a lot of questions!
There are free sample chapters of the “Journeying With…” books available from the Going Deeper With God homepage. Why not give them a go?
© Joe Lenton, April 2013
Image: “Ducks & Goose on the Broad at Sunset” used with permission – www.originalartphotography.co.uk