Thursday, January 31, 2013

When Bible Study Isn't Bible Study

I first started attending Bible Study when I was 19 and joined a singles group at the church I'd just begun attending.  We were using the Serendipity Bible, a Bible created with study guides built into it.  They start with "ice breaker" questions, then have some questions about the text itself, and then have some application questions.  For a long time, we studied the Bible on a beginner-type level.

But I've also been involved in "small groups" that are called "Bible Study", but instead of studying the Bible, we read books.  There really isn't anything wrong with reading and discussing books; I love to read.  I just find myself wondering why people called it "Bible Study" when the Bible is not read nor studied.  Or, if the Bible is read, people just jump to "application" and do not really discuss the text.

At the same time, most Christians would probably agree that the Bible is pretty important.  And yet, we often have high Biblical illiteracy, even if people think they know their Bible.  They may have memorized some verses, heard sermons, or even read through the entire Bible in three months.  But reading it and studying it are two very different things.

I feel very fortunate to have minored in Religious Studies in college and to have taken mostly Bible-related classes for that minor, as well as Bible-related classes in my major (English).  I loved being able to really get into the text in large chunks and not just a verse here and there, loved learning historical and cultural background, and loved coming to understanding of what the Bible is.

I feel like often, we just assume most Christians will get bored with this type of study, because it doesn't always bring out the "application" that we think we all need.  Don't get me wrong; application is important, however, I feel as if we try so hard to make everything in the Bible automatically apply to our own personal lives that we actually miss out on what is in the Bible.

Of course, it is possible to spend so much time learning about it that we forget to think about how it does apply to us.  But if we do not understand it, if we think it is so simple, if we do not put any effort into learning about it, can we really apply it to our lives?

What if we apply it, and apply it wrongly, because we don't understand it?

Do we sell ourselves short?  Do we assume that we can't get into background and context because people do not want to learn, or can't understand it?  Do we avoid it because we think people will be bored?  Why? If we think people will be bored when they learn about the Bible, then don't we have a huge problem?  For a book that is so important to our faith, shouldn't we make an effort to understand it?  How can we say it is important yet not understand it?

Those are a lot of questions, and I am curious to hear your answers.  What have been your experiences with "Bible Study"?  Do you think churches should offer more in the way of opportunities for people to really study the Bible and not just application classes?  How would this be done?


Caris Adel said...

I love this post. What really freaks me out, is I would say I'm a person who really knows the Bible. And not to sound arrogant or anything, but in a group of people, I'm the one that knows what the story means, where it can be found, where else it's talked about, etc....part of it is that I'm a fast reader and a good memorizer and I grew up steeped in it. I mean my pastor has even said that I intimidate him with how much I know, haha.

But I just started reading Inspiration and Incarnation, and a couple of other books talking about the Bible and beliefs and things..............and holy crap. I know nothing.

I think one reason that this isn't done more, is that most people aren't even qualified to lead something like this, because of their own ignorance.

I think the other thing is...........once you start getting into these issues, you run into some tensions. What if that makes people change their beliefs, or change how they view the Bible? Heaven forbid, people might think on their own :P

I'm actually kind of angry, but mostly really annoyed, that there is so much I was never taught. And not all of it is major stuff. But really, we can't talk about how maybe the first 5 books weren't written by Moses? We can't talk about how it is alike and different from ANE? Why was none of that stuff ever taught to me? Not even ever mentioned????

And....I would much prefer book studies over Bible studies, but yeah I don't get why we call them Bible studies either. I actually really like DVD studies too, provided they are good. My favorite ones I've ever seen are the Converge DVD's put out a couple of years ago.

Leslie Maddox said...

I taught a singles Sunday school class for several years, and we studied the Bible for both understanding and application. But I was single at the time and was able to devote many hours every week to preparing the lesson. Since getting married and attending various small group studies, my observation has been that most of the people teaching either weren't gifted in teaching or didn't have (or make) the time to prepare lessons. So they would use books to guide the study or have a very surface-level class. It's frustrating, but it really is a huge time commitment, and now with two small children I don't know that I would be able to devote so much time to lesson preparation, either.

Kelly J Youngblood said...

Oh, I'd like to read that book one of these days!

I think you bring up a good point about tensions. It was through actually studying the Bible that I ended up with a lot of questions and doubts. Now, I think I'm better off for it, but it's a scary thing to go through.

I think that it's just so hard and takes so much time to really study the Bible--and we usually want fast answers as to how it is relevant.

And I do like book/dvd studies too--but I just wonder if we are replacing the Bible with things about the Bible (and I'm guilty of that myself, for sure).

Kelly J Youngblood said...

I have 2 small children too, so I understand what you mean! And yes, it is a huge time commitment to prepare to lead/teach/facilitate a class or small group.

Caris Adel said...

I've always liked them because I've found the Bible boring, because I know it all. There's only so many times you can read the same stories over and over, when you know what you are supposed to be getting out of them. So I'm hoping that I&I gives me a love for it again, and I want to try midrashing Isaiah this year. The Burning Word had a lot of good ideas on how to do that, and I think that kind of studying will give me a love for it again.

Kelly J Youngblood said...

You know what you might like? I haven't read it yet but Frank Viola just wrote something called "When the Pages Are Blank: How to Bring the Bible Back to Life". Scroll down to see the different ordering options.

Caris Adel said...

oh that does look good. Reading it now.

Jim Fisher said...

N.T. Wright's "For Everyone" series is very good and very approachable. Each book takes a passage from the Bible, which is freshly translated by Wright, and talks about the meaning of the text in its historical as well as literal contexts.

When we read "Blessed are the meek", we can study the meaning Jesus conveyed to his original audience speaking in Aramaic, the meaning Matthew intended to his audience in Greek, and the meaning the King James translators intended in English. The word "meek" no longer means in English was it meant 400 years ago. And today, the Greek word would probably be better translated as "steerable", as in a wild horse tamed to the bridle.

All of that context brings a richness to the text and our baseline understanding of it. From there, the Holy Spirit has much more to work with. We will hear more easily the meaning the Holy Spirit wishes to convey into our personal context.

I try to stay away from certainty -- from static, dry, lifeless applications of the text. If I hold it all lightly, I avoid turning into a stiff-necked (opposite of meek, BTW) horse, allowing myself to feel the gentle tugs of the reins of the Holy Spirit on my cheek.


Kelly J Youngblood said...

I love Wright's "For Everyone" commentaries :)
Hmmm... stiff-necked as the opposite of meek...hadn't heard that. I think I like it.