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.
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.
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?
On Wednesdays, I host the Life:Unmasked link-up, where we write naked, sharing the real, imperfect life we’re living. If you’ve written a bare-all post in the last week, or if you do in the next week, drop the direct link to your post into the linky below, and then visit at least 2 other writers and leave a comment to let them know you appreciate their vulnerability.