Reading the Bible without a Net

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By George E. Curtis (1830-1910)[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I work with graduate students who not only read books but read books and articles about the books, study manuscripts of the book, deconstruct the book, study books in original translations, and more. And I find this is what they want to do with the Bible. They want to get the best commentaries out of the library, understand what the text says and means in the original languages, understand the origins of the text and more.

I have no quibble with this per se’. Having attended seminary and learning something of biblical exegesis (though I by no means consider myself a biblical scholar in the professional sense), I seek to do the same when I’m in a formal teaching setting and have (or make) the time to do this work. Often, this work does contribute to enriching my understanding. I do value learning from those past and present who have worked in the same text and discovering whether my ideas are totally out to lunch.

But I also think that all of this sometimes becomes a “net” that may distract us from developing the “high wire” artistry of reading the scriptures well.  Furthermore, it seems to me that it develops a culture of “the expert” that says that only those who can read in the original languages can unlock the “secret code” of the Bible to us.

What I want to propose is that more fundamental than all this is simply bringing the practices of reading well to the Bible. My experience has been that there are scholars who read the scriptures poorly in spite of their scholarship (as well as those who read it well) and uneducated people who read well. So what goes into reading well:

  • Attentiveness to the text and to the literary art within it. The Bible, like any other book, conveys ideas through story, poetry, discourse and other genres and uses various literary cues to point us to meaning including repeated words, the climax of a story, the ordering of ideas, contrasts and comparisons, and figures of speech. When we read anything attentively, we pay attention to these sorts of things.
  • A willingness to suspend our judgment as far as this is possible while listening to the text and living within the story or poetry or discourse. Often this involves multiple readings and the use of imagination.
  • An awareness of the context of what is written. Outside sources can help, but often the most important contextual clues for any work can be found within the work if we are observant. One thing that is a good practice with any book is to skim first, then read closely. With the Bible, this can be a general skim of the whole to get a sense of the big story, or a skim of the particular book in which one is studying.
  • An openness to the text that involves a willingness to be engaged and transformed by what we encounter. When we are hostile, indifferent, or distrustful, it seems that our assumptions are those of suspicion rather than presuming the best.
  • Christians also believes that God provides illumination as we study scripture (and other things as well). It seems to me that it is not wrong to ask for this and to believe that if God is there, God wants to communicate meaningfully and intelligibly with us.

As I write this, I realize that this kind of reading requires mental effort. It is different from simply allowing a text to wash over me or have someone tell me what it says. I suspect that some of what motivates resorting to the “nets” of original languages and commentaries is that we buy the notion that this is a mysterious book that only experts can understand. I also suspect that sometimes, we are looking for a sure fire short cut to understanding. Actually, to really do the biblical scholarship thing right is itself a long-haul proposition and a little learning here may also be a dangerous thing. I can’t believe how many really bad readings of scripture I’ve heard that were prefaced by “the original Greek says.”

Most scholars of great literature will come back to the idea that whatever else you read, you must read and re-read these great texts and soak yourself in them. They are deep and rich with meaning that doesn’t yield itself to a quick, casual glance. And so it has been with my experience with the Bible. When I began reading it, there was much I didn’t get. But there were compelling stories, especially the various encounters Jesus had with people, poetry that gave voice to my longings for God, and instructions in the letters of Paul, John, and others that made sense.

Many who follow this blog are good readers. You know what it takes to read well. Whether you are a reader of the Bible or not, I hope you will do some reading “without a net”. And if you have the time, definitely use the resources of other scholars to enrich your reading. I just hope you won’t spend all your time in the net!

 

 

4 thoughts on “Reading the Bible without a Net

  1. Great stuff; thanks. Suggestion: Use a bigger font. I found this impossible to read on my phone. Once I made it big enough to read, each line was far bigger than the screen, so I’d have to scroll left to right as well as up and down. But obviously the article was well worth reading, because I made a point of getting to my computer so I could read the whole thing. I’m a preacher, and needed a little inspiration and encouragement this week. The passages speak to me, but I haven’t yet figured out how they might speak to my congregation, who, for the most part, doesn’t really want to hear about the Bible much but would prefer a psychological how-to speech based on perhaps one random word in the readings. I’m glad to be reminded that “God provides illumination as we study scripture” and that “God wants to communicate meaningfully and intelligibly with us” — and, I pray, through us if we’re preachers.

  2. Beautifully said, Bob. I especially like your description, “developing the ‘high wire’ artistry of reading the scriptures well.” I have found that staying with the text and reading it the way you described (without giving in to the impulse to reach for a net), often reveals layers of meaning we may not have encountered in a commentary. Thanks for elaborating on this in such a helpful way.

    • Thanks! Coming from someone who writes of “the layers of meaning we may not have encountered in a commentary” (a wonderful phrase that gets at exactly what I’m talking about) is a compliment indeed. Looking forward to the next Quietkeepers post!

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