Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bible Reading 2: The Blessings and Curses of Being a Biblical Scholar

Four years getting a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies and four more years studying Scripture in seminary have obviously changed my approach to the Holy Book. I would not trade my education, for it has enriched my life and my faith in countless ways. Yet serious study has also made some aspects of Bible reading more challenging. I begin here, with what I’ll call the “curse,” before returning to the rich rewards I’ve reaped from serious engagement with sacred Scripture (blessings).
Curse: My first reaction when I approach a text is to think of what I don’t understand, even though I probably do understand the main point.
For example, I get frustrated reading one of the most straightforward, black and white books in the Bible – 1 John – because I can’t discern its structure and did not understand why John said the same few things over and over in slightly different ways.
When I try to read devotionally, all the “rules” of interpretation come into play:
  • How can I meditate on a verse I haven’t read in context? Just one isolated verse? Really?
  • How can I learn from a passage when I don’t understand linguistic details, historical background or how it fits and functions in the whole book?
  • Don’t I need to interpret a text in canonical context, that is, in light of the whole scriptural story?
  • How can I faithfully apply a text if I don’t grasp its meaning and implications for its original readers?
The questions can be paralyzing, when I simply want to listen to the text and apply.
But there are also rich blessings of academic study of Scripture. Often, these blessings are received through and because of rigorous wrestling with interpretive questions like those above. One such blessing came up in a conversation I had with a college student about reading the Bible devotionally. I’ve always struggled with this. I tend to read for ideas rather than “application points” that speak right into my life, especially. But then I realized two things:
  • Even If I’m not specifically inspired each time I open the Word, the truth is in me, and it speaks to me when I need it, especially when I’m walking through a valley or undergoing trail.
  • I’m learning to apply the Bible’s “big ideas,” that arise out of its Grand Story. I find these themes far more exciting and inspiring than the relevant nuggets that we can – responsibly or otherwise – mine out of texts.
There are other blessings too:
  • I have skills and tools to discover the meaning of difficult ancient texts.
  • I have greater capacity to learn from the labors of great teachers who write about the Scripture.
  • Study increases my grasp of who God is and how he’s working to redeem this broken world.
  • It also continually clarifies my picture of righteous worship, faithful living, and how God’s Spirit empowers both.
  • I have come to see so many glorious dimensions to the saving work of Jesus.
  • I have a greater hunger for heaven, and I understand why it will be wonderful: because we’ll live as priests in the presence of our God offering sacrifices of praise to him, just as he created us to do!
So, at the end of the day, I would say the puzzlement and occasional paralysis in approaching Scripture is a small price to pay for the rewards I’ve reaped from my first decade of academic study. Even if I my personality pushes me be more academic than devotional and more abstract than practical, I’m convinced that these elements can – indeed must – be wed. To this end I labor and study and read and pray.
What’s your “bent” when you come to the Bible? What parts of reading and study do you find most challenging or exhilarating? How do you see the relationship between devotional reading and study?

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