Participatory Bible Study: Map to the Method
|[Introduction]||1st||[Overview]||[Preparation]||[Context] [Reading] [Study Tools]
[Hanging Biblical Interpretation]
|[Allegory] [Epistles] [History]
[Parables] [Poetry] [Prophecy]
[Stories] [Visions] [Learning and Living Scripture]
|Study Guides||[Hebrews] [Revelation] [Learning and Living Scripture] [Ephesians]|
I was in a Bible study group in which we were discussing the gospels. We had just read one of the many passages in which the disciples fail to understand something that Jesus was teaching them. One class member immediately responded, “How could the disciples be so stupid? How could they possibly not understand?
This type of response is very common in Bible study groups. We look at the Bible stories from outside, from the perspective of advanced, better informed people who obviously know much better than those who were involved. When we look from that perspective, we will tend to find the things in the story that will help us justify ourselves. “We are better; they were worse. We have advanced so much since their time.”
I am not suggesting that we need to behave precisely as the characters in Bible stories behaved. (I discuss some of the issues involved in understanding stories in another essay.) What I am suggesting is that we need to come to the Bible (or any other literature for that matter) prepared to learn from the stories or other writings. We can learn from the good and the bad, from the clear and from the unclear. Having a learning attitude, and allowing our thinking to be challenged is more important than simply learning the facts.
In order to do this we need to be prepared for the type of study we plan to do, and also to be prepared in terms of our attitude. This is why I emphasize prayer before and during Bible study, or for those who are just looking at the Bible, but are not believers, I recommend thinking specifically about your attitude as you study. This does not mean that you must decide to agree with everything that you read. Rather, you decide to learn from their experiences, and judge their experiences from their perspective.
Types of Study and their Purpose
I place types of study along a continuum from general light reading to serious, point by point study. Don’t get the idea from the word “light” or “serious” that I think one end of the spectrum is better than the other. I think Bible study needs to involve a variety of types of activity, from reading long passages quickly, to careful examination of every grammatical detail of a verse.
Your preparation will relate to what you’re trying to do. When I set out to do some light reading of lengthy passages, I may just select an easy to read Bible version and sit down in my living room chair and read. I don’t have to concentrate constantly in this case; the process is very similar to that of reading a novel. This allows me to get an overview of whole books or blocks of books. For example, I enjoy reading Luke and Acts together in this way, trying to complete both books at one sitting. Other large blocks are Joshua through Kings, Chronicles along with Ezra and Nehemiah, or the entire Pentateuch (or just the narrative portions of it).
Just remember to prepare for the type of study you intend to do.
Each person will use different materials. In other essays in this series I discuss various books and how to use them. Here let me list some possible materials and how they would be used.
Note taking, including marginal notes if your Bible allows
- Colored pens or highlighters
Mark passages according to topic
- Good study location, desk, lighting
Make yourself comfortable while you study
- Music or other background sound
Some people like to study with praise music running
If you prefer to take notes somewhere other than your margin
Allows you to use Bible study software or to take notes
- Devotional guides
If you have trouble deciding where to start
For books and other study tools see Bible Study Tools.
Your attitude preparation is really very simple. Get ready to listen and discern, but not to condemn. You are going to be reading about people who lived in a culture very different from your own.
Reading with an open mind doesn’t mean that you accept everything that the characters or even the writers say and do. You don’t have to view their culture as the ideal. What you do need to do is understand their actions within the limits of what they knew and within their circumstances. It’s very easy to assume that someone should have known better when you don’t understand their situation.
For example, much of the violence in the Bible needs to be understood in the context of the times. I’m not going to try to resolve all of the issues that result from incidents of violence in the Bible in this short essay, but I would like to suggest some ideas that must be a part of understanding violent passages. Christians have often reacted in one of two extreme ways. Some would reject all of those passages, normally through rejection of the entire Old Testament. That does eliminate many difficult passages, but it both leaves some unresolved issues with the New Testament, and it tends to cut off a large percentage of the way in which God has worked with people. On the other hand, some Christians use violent passages in the Bible to justify being violent people now; if the Israelites could make war and wipe out whole cities, we are justified in advocating the same thing. If the Israelites stoned people to death, we can do the same.
I would suggest that God’s message in the Bible had to be targetted at the situation in which people lived. Reform is not as easy to implement as we may think. Thus one needs to understand people’s violent actions in the context of a violent world. At the same time, one cannot justify actions now based on the situation then. The question for a Christian would be what direction Jesus is leading us? Is Jesus calling us to violence or to more peaceful action? This can be a complex question, but that is part of the joy of Bible study.
First, learn to understand what people did and why in their context, then as you study you may be able to learn what God was trying to do with them, and by extension what God is trying to do in your own life.
Preparation is the most individual element of Bible study. Make sure you have the materials and the mental preparation that will allow you to listen to God as you study. The bottom line is what you hear from God.