My Love/Hate Relationship with Bible Study
One of the things I love to do is study to study the Bible but one of the things I really dread is going to church Bible study. A good example of this love/hate relationship I have with Bible study is something that happened two weeks ago.
As usual the second segment of the service is breaking up into groups to do Bible study. As usual I went in with low expectations that I’ll find it somewhat not a bore. That particular day in the study manual we were looking at what the Bible is. During said something that is practically heresy to me, completely anathema as far as I am concerned. Perhaps, I am over exaggerating but when I hear that sort of thing from a Christian mouth it deeply disturbs me. Somebody said the Bible is a manual for life and the study leader cheerfully accepted it. Come to think of it, I should be equally annoyed with the group leader as well. How can an adult professing Christian for many years, say that about scripture, reducing God’s word to something so inferior and frankly egotistical? The Bible is about how I can solve my problems, really? Yes, I know he had good intentions but that just doesn’t cut it. When I heard him say that my jaw literally dropped and the first thing that popped in my head was “has he actually read it?” You might say, hold on, maybe he had something different in mind. Not only did he spend a good amount of time making the manual analogy, he went into trouble shooting as well. The study leader was so enthused about that bit of nonsense that was so confidently asserted, that he went on to reiterate it to the whole group, as if we all didn’t hear it the first time. I mean, what the heck? The question of inerrancy came up later, which I am usually very interested in, but I had already switched of and disengaged from the rest of the “study”. I was telling a friend about it a few days ago. He kept quiet for a while thinking of how such assertions could possibly be redeemed and he admitted it was impossible.
Perhaps, what got me so worked up, and still does, is that this gentleman is very educated man, a PhD holder in fact. Yet in all his intellectual sophistication his views about the Bible have not evolved since Sunday school. I will give little Sunday school kids a pass for saying that but honestly, it is totally unacceptable for teachers to tell them that. When we call the Bible a manual we are making God’s word into what we want it to be instead of hearing God. Another reflection of this Christian egotism is the popular acronym for the Bible – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, as if scripture is about how to get to heaven. (It’s actually about a new creation and we dwelling here on a renewed earth with God if you were a little shocked by that.) Apart from the theological dimension it completely disrespects it as a work of literature. It is in fact the most influential set of documents in human history. When you read the Bible you see a compendium of ancient texts, spanning multiple genres with multiple authors, coalescing into a single message of God’s plan in and through history, to redeem his creation through a chosen people, climaxing in his son Jesus. It is something fascinating and challenging. If not for anything as a work of literature it is terribly engaging. I really enjoy reading it and studying, whether I am alone or even in a group, provided it is done right of course.
The kind of Bible study format we find in our local churches to use the technical term absolutely sucks. I know that a lot of effort goes into them by sincere men and women who want God’s word to be known and taken seriously among god’s people but frankly they go about it all wrong. I hardly say things like that, about something in the church being totally wrong but in this setting, I genuinely think that is the case. I thought I was kind of the only one bothered about this that much until a friend of mine brought up similar issues out of the blue. As he described what sort of Bible study he has in his church I realised it was a general problem. He lives in another region, is a member of a very different denomination from mine but we essentially have the same Bible study process.
First of all, the Bible study material is mostly composed of basic reading and comprehension questions preceded by a shallow, decontextualized preamble about a truncated study passage, forced to fit the particular church’s theme or agenda. Bible study should be about hearing what the book has to say and not going in with a preconceived scheme of what it should say. I do understand there is nothing wrong with going in to scripture with certain goals. However, you should be open to what it has to say even if you do not like it. This means first and foremost being familiar with the text and its aims. Besides, reading and comprehension questions hardly comprise a study.
The other peeve I have with church Bible study is that everything goes. Study moderators are instructed not to say anything is wrong unless it borders on heresy. Perhaps it is felt that saying something is wrong, or at least you think it is, isn’t very nice and will make people feel uncomfortable. I am not saying we should be brash and inconsiderate but sometimes if we are in the pursuit of what is right, we will be made to feel uneasy. The truth though is not all contributions are good. We do no one a service if we let everything through using an uncritical filter. It creates a false impression that some ideas are valid when they are clearly not and because of that some people will unfortunately pick it up. It’s as if the point of Bible study is coming to an agreement so we can move on to the next topic. Even though forming a consensus is good, the point of studying anything is actually to learn. Sometimes debate will occur and there is no need to fear that. It is a natural part of honest dialogue. Disagreement does not mean we have to be disagreeable.
Several months ago, the church was assessing the impact of the previous year’s Bible study guide. We got into our usual groups and the moderator each asked us what we have learnt from the manual and how we have benefitted from it. I sat their quietly panicking at the prospect of having to lie in church. I honestly had not learnt anything neither could I see how I possibly could from that format. I do not remember what I said or even if it ever got to my turn. They automatically assumed what they were doing was universally beneficially and some people genuinely benefitted from it. I sincerely think it is subpar at best, being enabled by the attitude that once something is churchy it gets a pass. When we set the bar so low for scripture we do ourselves a great disservice as a Christian community. The Bible was not made to be easy or manageable. We need to let it be what it is. Our group Bible study formats obfuscate its power and impact. Let’s actually dare to take it seriously, to read and study it holistically.