Maybe because we are in the process of making some changes to our long-running adult Bible study / Sunday school class, for which I’ve been making these notes and questions for a good while now, I’ve been thinking about “basic approaches.” Here are my thoughts, along with some questions – at length, I fear, since I seem to have gotten carried away:
We presumably study the Bible for a few reasons – at least:
- basic knowledge – because “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful” for various purposes (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and because we just want to know more about it, and how to find our way around in it, and maybe even ace the Bible knowledge questions on Jeopardy, or pass the PC(USA) Bible Content Exam – seriously;
- spiritual formation – to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) and to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may know/discern what is the will of God – good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2) and “grow up in every way” into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13-15, more or less)
- encountering God, or at least opening ourselves up to that encounter – since “the word of God is living and active” and “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13), which is one way to encounter God, and scripture is also the place we get to “taste and see that the HOLY ONE is good” (Psalm 34:8) and that God’s instruction is “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (Proverbs 3:18) and “immerse ourselves in words of torah,” including the torah that is Jesus.
Scripture is not the only way to do all this, but it is one big way, and all the other ways [e.g., prayer, worship beyond prayer, service, fellowship] are connected to it and through it.
All of that is exactly the opposite of reading the Bible as if it is “a roadmap” or “a rule book.”
[Which just sets me off, when I hear those phrases in children’s messages or read them on the internet, since only some tiny fraction of scripture can possibly fit into that model, so they’re like a bold announcement that we don’t care about the real Bible at all!]
That “road map”/”rule book”/”the” [as if there is one and only one!] “lesson of the text” approach feels like treating the Bible the way some people treat fruit: just toss it into the juicer and squeeze, strain out the pulp, throw the rest away. Instead of treating it royally, like a ripe peach on a hot day in the thick dust and shade of the orchard behind our aunt’s house, sitting on the edge of the irrigation canal with our feet in the water, biting into it and getting the juice all over our hands and our clothes, and chewing on the pit until it’s clean and smooth as a stone.
Or maybe more relatably, treating the Bible as the ocean it is, to dive into and swim around in and soak up and ideally grow gills in the process. Treating it as the “yellow wood” it is, where roads diverge and way leads on to way, and somewhere ages and ages hence we’ll admit that even the roads more travelled by constantly seemed to take us to unexpected places. Treating it as a world, to live in. As immigrants, obviously, but not to worry, the Bible has a lot to say about caring for “the stranger.”
In the service of all that, we need to be able to ask questions that will open up the text, get us thinking about it from lots of angles, get us listening for its different voices, get us lingering with the text long enough for it to work on us enough for us to hear more of what it’s saying.
Knowing questions, there are probably infinite questions we could ask. But there are a few basic starting points that I go back to over and over again, that seem recurrently helpful. These are:
- “Plain text” questions: Do we know what all the words mean? Do we know what all the sentences mean? Do we know what all the paragraphs are saying, what the text overall is saying? Do we have concrete reference points for all the language in mind? If someone wrote this in an email to us, what would it mean?
- [This is the place at which I like to point out that everyone who says “I don’t read the Bible literally” – another phrase I personally despise – has not thought things all the way through. Because if we don’t read the Bible literally at least the first time through, we can’t even begin to read it at all. If we can’t read the word “bread” and think of a loaf of bread, e.g., we’ll never get to the symbolism of the “bread of life.”]
- “Literary text” questions: What do we notice about the text as literature? What are the repeated verbs, nouns, other words? What are the unique ones? What meanings do those suggest? What kind of genre of text is it – a story, a prophecy, poetry, law, a saying, a letter full of good advice, straight up theology, … ? And how does that genre invite us to understand the text, to relate to it? Are there characters? How are they presented? Is there a plot? How does it unfold? Do we, the readers, know more than the characters in the story do? Or do we know less – are they keeping secrets? Or are we finding things out just as they do? Is there movement – does everyone end up in the same place, or a different place, by the end of the story? Is the movement from high to low, low to high, wet to dry, alive to dead, or vice versa? What about dialogue? Who says what? What does that tell us about the speakers? Symbols? What are those symbols doing in this text? Etc. … all our English teacher’s questions.
- For instance, what do we notice about who speaks in Exodus 2:1-10? Who does speak? What do they say? What does that tell us about them? [The daughter of Pharaoh seems pretty interesting to me in this regard … ]
- For instance, how is water working in Exodus 2:1-10? [Yes, we know there’s a giant river in the middle of real-life Egypt, but could there not also be symbolism at work? Because after all, you can leave a baby on a doorstep, you wouldn’t HAVE to put him in rushes on the bank of that river. But since you did … what does all that water do to the meaning of the text?]
- “Biblical context” questions: A “part-to-whole” approach. How does this part of the Bible – these verses – fit into “the whole” – either the whole book, or the whole bigger unit of text, or the whole Bible? What does it remind us of from earlier in the text? What is it going to set us up to think about in a particular way in some later part of the text? How does it add to or subtract from or modify the meaning of some idea, or some symbol, that keeps turning up in the Bible? What meaning does it add, or change? To what does it change, thanks to this? How does this text fit with or support other parts of the larger Biblical text? How does it … let’s say, challenge or complexify other parts? Which Biblical “voice” [since there are several] does it seem to speak with, or to reinforce, or to qualify?
- [And here, in my opinion, and not only mine, it’s good to be aware that “the whole” differs for Jewish and Christian readers of the Hebrew texts, and that it is not a mistake to read the Bible without feeling compelled to think that it’s “really” about Jesus ALL the time.]
- For instance, lots of readers point out the echoes from the story of Noah that show up in the story of the baby in Exodus 2:1-10. The ark. The way an “ark” is a vehicle of safety in waters that are meant to be waters of death. What does thinking about Moses’ story in light of Noah’s story make us think, or feel?
- And then, what does thinking about Moses’ story in light of that later escape of all the Israelites, from Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, if you will) on dry land make us see, and think, and feel?
- “Reader response” questions: What are we bringing to this text as readers? What’s our background or history with this passage, story, etc.? With any particular words in the text, or any particular situations? Where do we find ourselves identifying with, resonating with something or someone in the text? Or, anti-resonating, resisting? Can we tell why that is? Where in our own lives do we hear echoes of situations or thoughts in the text? What do we notice is influencing our response to the text, the way we’re reading it? Does that lead us to any particular thoughts or feelings? What if we tried to read the text a little differently – can we? Why, or why not? What do we learn from that?
- For instance, in reading Exodus 2:1-10, I keep being reminded that I, myself, am the adoptive mother of a beautiful child who was rescued from a bridge, and who joined our family as a toddler … which undoubtedly makes me think differently about the daughter of Pharaoh than I might otherwise …
- “Human experience” questions: These are especially good for narrative texts, but can work for other texts, too. If we think of the text as telling us about a real human world, what is that world? Who are the people? What are they going through? What do they see, hear, smell, taste, feel? What kind of relationships are they involved in, what’s their human experience? What might they be thinking and feeling? [I say “might,” rather than “must” – as there are RARELY IF EVER any “must” thinks or feels when we’re talking “people.” Real human beings are remarkable in their ability to respond to things differently from how we, whoever we are, think they “must.”] What would we be thinking and feeling if we were in their shoes, or watching them be in their shoes? [Although for that matter, here it might be instructive to ask ourselves if we’re inclined to think someone in the text “must think” or “must feel” this or that, and why we think that, and whether we could imagine them thinking or feeling something different from that, and how that would affect the meaning of the text if we did.]
- Like, what do we suppose the baby’s sister is going through? Why? How do we suppose she feels at the end of the story? Why?
- “Reading from the margins” questions: [Which I am not the best at remembering to ask, so am trying to get better at that …] Where do we see or sense class – or maybe, wealth and privilege – operating in the text? Who benefits from it, who suffers from it? What about race, or if we prefer, ethnicity? What about gender? What about any other social category? Where do we see power happening in the text – who seems to have it, who seems not to have it, how is it being exercised, how does that seem to affect the outcome of the story or to influence the way the text seems to take us towards this or that idea or feeling? Where do we sense an agenda in the text, or more than one agenda? Who would benefit from our adopting that agenda? Who wouldn’t? How does that – or, maybe, how should that – influence our reading of the text? Which Biblical voice(s) are we hearing in the text, and which one(s) are loudest, and which one(s) are saying what? [Because a little hermeneutics of suspicion never hurt anyone.]
- “Calvin’s” questions: The ones we fall back on because Calvin says, right at the beginning of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that all the true and useful knowledge we possess is of two kinds: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. So:
- What is this text telling us about God? – Where are we seeing God in the text, what is God doing, what is God saying explicitly, where does God seem to be operating in the background, what image of God are we being presented with, what divine purpose(s), what divine instruction(s), … ? [And we might ask ourselves, how does that fit with the way we normally think about God? How does that expand what we think about God? How does all this make us think and feel? Why is that??]
- What is this telling us about “ourselves”? That is – about people/humanity in general, about created human nature, about fallen human nature and the consequences of sin, and about ourselves, specifically? As far as this goes, there’s the picture of people presented in the text, which is one set of things to notice, and then there are all the ways we notice ourselves responding to the text, which is another set of things to notice, and to wonder about – why are we like that? What do we think about that? How do we feel about that?
- “Spiritual formation” questions: How do I sense this text calling me to change? Or, to stay the same? To keep on keeping on? To do more of, or less of? What personal quality or qualities does it seem to be commending to me? What practice or practices is it encouraging? What would need to change in my life for me to move more in its direction? If I did, what would change in my life, or might? What am I going to do about that? What does this reading give me a greater appetite or longing for? What does it discourage, make me turn away from, or want to turn away from? Does the text present any models? What are they? Dispense any advice? What is it? Provide any instructions? What are those? Will I take any of that? Why, or why not?
- “Contemplation” questions: What in this text draws me towards God? What do I see more clearly in God to praise? To thank? To adore? To fear [or, perhaps, to stand in awe of]? To love? After all this, what do I hear God saying to me … now?
And we know this is still just scratching the surface, right?
Obviously [I hope obviously], we never get to reflect on or discuss all those questions in any one class, or at any one time. But over time … if we keep on reading, and asking them …
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asked for an egg, would give a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”Luke 11:9-13