Focusing on the Problem Spots

Part of teaching the Church to love Bible Study is teaching them how to read the Bible closely. In that spirit, this is something I wrote a few months ago for my church’s blog:

As I have been teaching Romans and Galatians on Sunday mornings these last several months, I have also had occasion to throw in some mini-lessons about general Bible study method. Most recently, I have been emphasizing the primacy of close reading of the biblical text over the use of tools like commentaries, handbooks, dictionaries, or atlases. To clarify, I am not against the use of commentaries or any other tool available to the modern Christian. If we really esteem the Bible as God’s special revelation to humanity of his will and character, we should use every resource at our disposal in our pursuit of biblical understanding.

What I am against, though, is a kind of Bible study that short circuits the reader’s wrestling with the text by a too quick resort to reference tools the moment we come across something we do not understand. This is because often it is precisely those parts of the text that give us the most trouble – the problems spots – that hold the key to our understanding of the larger passage or even to our own spiritual growth. The process of wrestling with a difficult text – which is really a kind of prayer – cannot be replicated or replaced by reading someone else’s take on that text. Honestly, you are probably not even ready to understand someone else’s take on a problem spot until you have wrestled enough with the text to come to your own tentative solution. When we outsource our deep thinking on a problem text, there really does not remain much difference between what we have done and the quick, cursory reading of the Bible that we might do when we are trying to simply check off our two or three chapters for the day. Chances are, you have not really let that text work its way deep into your innermost self and trouble you the way the Bible so uniquely can. Instead, you have very likely found in the text yet more support for the presuppositions and values that you brought to the text. When you let someone else wrestle with the hard parts of the text, you have probably just performed as self-confirming reading of the Bible rather than a self-critical one.

This brings me to my main observation: one of the main differences between a cursory reading of the Bible and a close reading of the Bible is that a cursory reading tends to draw our attention to what we already understand, while a close reading focuses in on precisely those things that we do not understand. A cursory reading glosses over the hard parts to ultimately reconstruct a basic outline of what we thought we already understood. It is kind of like reminding ourselves what the text said, or at least what we thought it said. A close reading, on the other hand, involves adopting an attitude that says, “However much I thought I understood this passage before, I want to understand each sentence and how it pertains to the sentence before and the sentence after.” Inevitably, this attitude will involve finding problem spots in the text that we have never before resolved. It is in wrestling with these problem spots that we will grow and be transformed the most in our understanding of the text, of ourselves, and of God.

Think of what you’ve been reading in the Bible recently. What sort of problem spots, places that seem harder to understand than the rest of the text, have you encountered? Have you found that focusing attention on these spots opens the door to new and better understandings of familiar passages?

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