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Confession: I Can’t Read The Bible That Way ~ #LifeUnmasked

I used to think getting all deep and lit-crit-y about ancient texts was the smart-intellectual-person thing to do. I’d sit in World Lit class feeling ignorant and shallow for just enjoying the story while the rest of the class debated what Shakespeare was really saying in “As You Like It,”  Then I’d head to my required Bible classes and feel exactly the same as we dissected the Psalms and Gospel of Matthew. I’ll never forget the agony of making 50 observations for a “prep” on a 5-verse passage for “Introduction to Bible Study.” I’d get so desperate I’d start counting articles, as in “This passage contains four instances of the word ‘the.'”

For all the work I poured into those preps, I don’t remember a single thing. Nothing changed me.

scissors and pages in a book

From college through all my years in Baptist churches, I’ve been taught to approach the Bible in this detached scientific way: Observe (hence “observations”) – examine what the text says, Interpret – ask what that text means, Apply – what am I to do based on what this means?

As I’ve written about previously, a few years ago I tore down the house and started rebuilding my faith from the ground up. I’ve intentionally stepped back from things like this and looked with fresh eyes. One of the things I’ve discovered is that we’ve lost the beauty, the life, and the power of our Holy Scriptures to cold scientific analysis.

It is horrifying. I want to scream, “Really?!?! Really?!?!? That’s what we’re supposed to do with the Bible? May it never be!”

I’ve heard it said that Scripture is God’s love letter to us. I’m not sure I agree with that analogy, but think about the kind of literature we find in the Bible. It is made up of stories, prayers, and letters. It isn’t a research paper, a thesis, or an encyclopedia. It isn’t a rule book, a systematic theology, or a constitution. Holy Scripture is God’s message to us about Godself and the world and us, and in a way we cannot fully understand, it has transforming power.

When my husband writes me a letter or my kids tell me a story, I don’t diagram the sentences, break it down into an outline, count the instances of the word “the,” and then try to pull out steps to apply to my life. That isn’t the point.

I listen to the voice behind the words, I connect to what they’re saying, I build a relationship with who they are revealing they are through their story and words.

I cannot approach Scripture clinically anymore. I believe that dissecting Scripture is as harmful and futile as cutting open a living person to look for their soul.

Now I can hear some of you protesting, “Joy, do you really think you can just read the Bible and understand it without study?”

No. I will be the first to proclaim the challenge of understanding an ancient text. (Oh the irony of using an obscure word like “perspicuity” to describe the concept that Holy Scripture is easy to understand.) Our Scriptures are ancient and written in a language and by people very far removed from us today. This requires some work on our part to understand the context, the significance of the various details given (or assumed by the writers), and the mindset of the people who heard these words originally. But here’s the thing: the purpose of my word studies and outlines ought not be clinical. My purpose ought to be to allow the story to soak in and transform me.

Doug Chaplin describes what I’ve been thinking so well in a post on Anglicans and the authority of Scripture. Here’s an excerpt.

The authority of a story (and most of scripture is story) is often subtle, frequently a long-term project, and nurtured by repetition and slow digestion. It is about the reshaping of how we see ourselves and our lives by forming our mental world, and populating it with the images, examples and friends who open new possibilities to us, as well as warning us away from bad ideas and foolish practices (of which there are more than a few in the Bible). Our interplay with those stories is rarely unequivocal, but often complex, and we may well reshape and reconfigure the stories as we go.

What do you think? How do you approach Scripture?

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  1. I would say I began really looking at the Holy Scriptures in a mixture of the way I approached other ancient writings and the way I approached spiritual writings — ancient or more modern. On the one hand I sought to understand the culture and context in which they were written. And on the other I sought to understand how they were employed in spiritual practice and life.

    And then, as my identity began to be associated with Christ, I came to see them as all pointing to and illuminating Christ. What we call the Old Testament is the shadow or foreshadowing of Christ and he is the culmination of its story. The Gospels are the revelation of Christ and the center of the Holy Scriptures. And what we call the New Testament are those actions and teachings of the apostolic witnesses in the light of the revelation of Christ that were preserved in written form.

    In some ways it’s pretty anachronistic to think of the Holy Scriptures as a “book.” They are a collection of books and writings and only relatively recently were ever rendered in a single bound volume. I think that and the the fact that we are a literate culture (“instinctively” trust the written over the spoken when a choice must be made) shapes the way many people think about the “bible”.

    I’ll note that in Orthodox liturgy, the Gospels still form their own book. They are placed in the center of the altar and are venerated like an icon. And they are used and processed in other points in the liturgy beside the gospel reading. They are also not generally bound in leather because they are life-giving and the skin of a dead animal is seen as a sharp contrast. Instead they are bound in gold if available or in cloth.

    I approach the Holy Scriptures today to meet Christ. I guess that sums it up.

  2. Yes! I’ve run into this so many times in (Baptist) churches, as well! I was actually removed from the last teaching position I held in a church, in part, because I (respectfully, adamantly) asked that I not have to require the entire class to circle, triangle, etc things from the workbook study that leadership was forcing us to do, but to simply allow those who’s learning styles lean in that direction to pursue that part of the study if they liked. It was not well received or accepted.


  3. Our Creator is well, creative! I think the scriptures, the way they are joined together and assembled, the writers used, were just as creative…which leads me to believe that there are creative ways to approach reading and digesting those same words. At times I have read through entire books in one sitting to take in the “big picture”…the overall voice of the writer. At times I have broken down a single scripture, or text…and I’ve done cross word references. Times I have memorized and meditated on a chapter…digesting, savoring each and every word. And I’ve sat through classes on historical context. I don’t know about you, but every approach has taught me something new about my God. I think the moment we stick Him in a box and say, “This is how to do it,” we say in essence, “We don’t need you any more God. We figured it out.” I like to err on the side of believing He is faithful to teach me however He wants to, in spite of how I approach His word. Like a child, He will gently (or sometimes not so gently) get His point across to me…He is God after all.

  4. Amber-Lee says:

    I smiled when you said you wouldn’t diagram a letter you would get from your husband, because that’s something I definitely would do if I was a little bored one afternoon! It has it’s pros and cons, though. I could be looking at the grammar of the letter, simply because I love grammar and enjoy the beauty of it. Grammar has a lot of meaning for me. I also could get into a zone of hyper-criticalness, where I miss the message completely, and just focus on the jots and tittles. So, for me, those word studies are beautiful and creative. They are so much fun for me. I’ve been over-educated, though, and sometimes I need another eye to help me out. The Old Testament is difficult for me, because historical criticism has been beaten into my head. In the OT the answer is *never* Jesus. Now I’m having to take a class that looks at the OT through the lens of the Early Church Fathers, and I’m uncomfortable without how much Jesus they read into the Hebrew Scriptures.
    And this is why we read and live the scriptures in community 🙂

  5. Amber-Lee says:

    Oh, and I just shot this comment of after I frantically finished my Hebrew homework 😉 Off to class!

  6. Joy, I’ve been on both sides – really all sides of this. When I was a baby Christian I read the Bible with a companion book – “what the Bible is all about” Henrietta Mears – it helped me with the little stuff – the stuff you don’t know from just a plain reading – but mostly I was about reading the Bible all the way through – which I did. After that I began studying it deeper and deeper and deeper – and a bunch of times through. Then there was Seminary and learning Hebrew and Greek and by the time I graduated my study had gotten a little too clinical I think – and it stopped having heart. But it’s been balanced in this time I’ve been blogging, because if it isn’t real, if it doesn’t touch, it isn’t gospel. It’s been reading in this community – mostly inhabited by women – by moms like you – that things have changed so much. So now I study deeper than ever – but I don’t lose sight of the story, the heart, the people, the love, the message – as Ann says, “tell me your story don’t give me your sermon”. I try – I probably fail more often than I succeed… But I try. God bless you Joy. And you know – I’m jJust trying to think back in the year plus that I’ve been reading you – trying to remember something you’ve written that I didn’t heart – and I can’t. Just sayin’.

  7. I love the way that you put this perspective into words. There’s really something to be said about soaking as opposed to analyzing. It’s much more liberating, and never ends. We can feel like we’ve gotten to the end of the analysis when we read the Bible, but the soaking can happen again and again. So encouraging!

    A few years ago while I was sitting in church, it dawned on me that this study method we learn has an underlying assumption that our Author is dead – like Shakespeare and the others in English class. In reality, we don’t need to analyze nearly as much as we do, since we have a personal relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit. You don’t break your husband’s letter apart because you can just ASK him what he meant if you have any doubts. I suspect that God wants these words to drive us to Him, but instead we are excessively driven to the study guides and notes in the margins. Which I certainly did with Shakespeare… Loving the comparison.

  8. I’ve actually been moved to tears as I’ve taught Sunday School lessons when the absolutely INCREDIBLE narrative structure of the Bible just overwhelms me. I don’t mean that in a clinical way, not at all. As holder of a degree in English, my mind is too trained to suss out the narrative, and I’ve never, ever been disappointed in the way His creativity shines.

    “When my husband writes me a letter or my kids tell me a story, I don’t diagram the sentences, break it down into an outline, count the instances of the word “the,” and then try to pull out steps to apply to my life. That isn’t the point.”

    Exactly and amen.

  9. well you certainly had me at “lit-crit-y,” joy. lol. and sheesh, at least you ENJOYED the world lit pieces — my literal left brain pretty quickly tuned ’em out. (i know, i know — they’re precious works of art. but it was what it was.)

    and thx for this post, joy. b/c no matter how somebody approaches the Bible, this is precicely this point:
    “I listen to the voice behind the words, I connect to what they’re saying, I build a relationship with who they are revealing they are through their story and words.”
    it’s indeed ALL about building the relationship . . .

    reminds me of something i read a while ago & deeply appreciated (& needed!):
    “Come to the Word for one purpose and that is to meet the Lord.
    Not to get your mind crammed full of things ABOUT the sacred Word,
    but come to it to meet the Lord.
    Make it to be a medium, not of Biblical scholarship,
    but of FELLOWSHIP with Christ.”
    – miles j. stanford, the complete green letters (caps mine, of course)

    your lit-crit-averse friend,

  10. Joy, you really must read Eugene Peterson’s “Eat This Book.” It will make your heart sing to find a scholar/pastor who basically agrees with what you’ve written here. There is much good to be had in doing study of language/history/sociology of ancient texts. BUT, first and foremost, we need to remind ourselves that they tell the story of God and they help us to see how our stories fit into that larger, grander narrative. My Lenten discipline this year has been a daily blog post on one of the lectionary texts for each day – and in those, I’ve tried to respond/reflect on what the Word says and what the Word says to me. And we’re all invited to do that – not to rip it apart word by word, phrase by phrase – but to sit with it, to sit under it, to learn from it, to allow it to change us from the inside out. Thanks for these good words.

  11. Yes – I often feel the same pull towards the mystery of Scripture. A desire to sit in the story of it, and the wonder of it, without the science. Thank you for capturing that so beautifully here.

  12. “I listen to the voice behind the words, I connect to what they’re saying, I build a relationship with who they are revealing they are through their story and words.”

    Yes! The study of something does not have to distill it down so clinically and coldly. The Bible cannot be contained in one genre, neither shall it be contained by one form of study. We are meant to wrestle with the Bible, as well as consider the relational aspect.

  13. After meeting Serena Woods and reading her book (http://graceisforsinners.com), I started reading The Message, which I’d had serious misgivings about. Eugene Peterson has a great explanation of how his interpretive text fits in the grand scheme of Bible interpretation, and it made me much more comfortable with TM. I also love the J.B.Phillips New Testament, which is a similar interpretive work rather than a true “version” of the Bible. These two interpretations have helped me read the Bible as “story” rather than “study”.

    Have you read either, Joy?

  14. One church we attended had a saying ” If God’s Word says it, I believe it.” I tend to pretty much take the Bible at face value and understand that it is God speaking to me. Study for me is comparing scripture with scripture as in the mouth of two or three witnesses there is truth. This post is thoughtful and I am glad that you are rebuilding from the foundation up.

  15. An intimate relationship with Jesus is the most important thing in my life. By devouring His Word He speaks to me daily! Your post is encouraging as to how a person can come out of darkness into light be beginning again to rebuild.

  16. Steffanie says:

    Well I have to be honest, sometimes I read the bible and sometimes I don’t and it really makes me useless…But thank you for your awesome post here…

  17. Joy, thank you for making the time to express your feelings on the matter. I know many people on either side of this debate, having attended bible college as well. But I think the two things you’re talking about, reading scripture as a story and reading scripture as literature, should not be separate or at odds with one another. They should actually strengthen each other. I do not want to make denominational generalizations, but there are those that tend to separate the story and the literature of the bible from each other and that is what caused all this strife in the first place. The key–at least in my feeble, human mind–is to use both of them to gain a full understanding of the truth of God’s Word and to then let that truth take us over.

    You are right in saying that you do not need to interpret a story told to you now, but that is not the case with scripture. It was not (initially) written to us and with our context in mind. If we can take the time to understand the context each portion of the Bible was written in (from whom and to whom), then we will fully grasp the subtleties of the text and be able to more appropriately apply it to our lives. The plan was not to tear the Bible apart word by word, but rather to understand it’s original meaning, so as to inhance the story.

    If your search is for truth then you must be compelled to find the truth of the story through careful study–seeking to understand small parts in order to fully understand the whole. This is not dissection, but rather careful consideration. I feel as though this kind of study is what will allow us to grasp the larger story and open up doors for transformation.

  18. Good post! I’ll definitely be pinning this on pinterest!

  19. it’s both/and for me. i love practicing lectio divina with teens (and others) because the scriptures can and do speak to us–with the holy spirit we’ve no need for an intercessor. it is amazing to hear kids tell what they get out of it and see them realize that it is living, active, and actually applicable right this minute, entirely independent of anyone “smart” or fancy explaining it.

    but as a religion major, i also love to pick it apart. my academic experience at public school was certainly different, and it did change my faith for the better. learning original language and context–i love it. it’s never been cold or clinical to me, but then again it wasn’t church that taught me to dig like that. academia stirred me deeper into faith.