You’re young and in love. Every day a letter from your loved one drops through the letter box and lies invitingly on the mat. Unfortunately, your life is rather busy at the moment so you don’t bother to open it, except sometimes at the weekend. Strange, isn’t it? How much is that relationship really worth?
You’ve guessed it; I’m referring to the Bible. God’s daily love letter. How come we ignore it so often when it could come to us sparkling and fresh every day? I’m not letting myself off, either. I frequently read the Bible dutifully but without expectation.
‘The most valuable thing that this world affords…’ These are the words that are spoken to the new monarch as he or she is given a copy of the Bible at coronation. If that’s really the case, how can we make a new start with the Bible?
THREE DIFFERENT LEVELS OF READING
It’s worth remembering that the Bible is multilayered and is a book of genius and complexity. We can read it in various ways:
For the story
The stories of the Bible are at the heart of our faith. We need to be soaked in these stories, formed and shaped by them, so they become an integral part of our lives.
We read to learn more of the ways of God, using anything from Bible notes to commentaries.
For transformation, rather than information
We want to be made new, so here we read the Bible with the heart more than the mind, although the two should always be in close touch.
READING THE BIBLE ALONE
If you’ve always assumed that using Bible notes is the best or only approach to engaging with the Bible, may I challenge that assumption? Let’s face it: some people just don’t get along well with notes.
Here’s a way into regular reading without them:
• Pray for guidance and wisdom.
• Make your own choice about what to read, but don’t wander around the Bible aimlessly. Take a whole letter, a whole book, or a section of a Gospel and go through it at your own pace. Watch your own prejudices and keep a balanced diet.
• Think: What did this passage mean when it was originally written? What does it mean today? What should I do as a result?
• Pray in your own way based on the passage and your reflections on it.
YOU COULD ALSO TRY…
The Benedictine method
This is an ancient way to ‘chew the word’ and get all the goodness you can out of it. We need to resist the modern tendency to rush on to the next thing. This is like a spacious meal with a good friend.
1. Read: Slowly take in the passage and see which phrase stands out and gets your attention.
2. Reflect: Chew the phrase, repeat it and ponder it. Stay with it as long as you need to.
3. Respond: Pray about the thoughts and feelings that arise during your reflection.
4. Rest: You may want to stay in silence for a while, resting in God’s presence.
The Ignatian method
This is a way of entering a gospel event and experiencing it from within, through the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. The mind isn’t God’s only route into our lives and this intuitive, sensory approach is very valuable for some people.
1. Read the passage slowly and attentively. Put the Bible down.
2. Close your eyes and rerun the story slowly, using your senses to enter it imaginatively. See the various people, smell the sea air, listen to the voices, feel the stones underfoot. Watch the story unfold.
3. At the end, move in closer to Jesus and ask him about what has just happened. Let that conversation (prayer) go on as long as necessary.
4. Reflect on what you’ve learned, and give thanks.
This approach may not appeal immediately for a number of very good reasons, such as personality type, theology or upbringing, but it may be worth persevering. It’s a way that has been treasured by millions of Christians and has become popular again in recent years.
READING THE BIBLE IN A GROUP
I won’t describe the classic Western approach to reading the Bible as a group, because many are familiar with it. Here are some different ways into group study:
The African method
1. The passage is read aloud but each person has their own text. Silence is kept while group members see which word or phrase captures their attention. Then the members simply say, in turn, what that word is, without comment.
2. The passage is read aloud a second time and members are given time to think about what that word or phrase means to them. These thoughts are then shared in turn.
3. Open discussion takes place on the reflections that have been shared.
4. The passage is read a third time, followed by open prayer.
The learning cycle
• Story. The story or passage is read aloud and members are encouraged to hear it afresh. How difficult it is to hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a new story?
• Snaps. Where does this story or passage ‘snap’ with your experience? Where does it make a connection, remind you of something, or bring back a memory? What feelings does it arouse in you?
• Study. The leader has done some homework on the passage and now gives some input and leads a discussion, but this only happens after members of the group have been able to identify with the text in their own terms.
• Spin-offs. What are the spin-offs, the implications, of this passage and the discussion the group has just had? What does it mean in practical terms for members personally, or for the Church, or for society? Has this just been a nice evening or will members respond to the gospel mandate with positive action?
Swedish Bible study
This method invites a more personal engagement with the text. A photocopy of this passage is needed by each member of the group.
1. The passage is read aloud.
2. Members are invited to go through the text, marking it with: a star against anything they think is especially important; a question mark against anything they don’t understand; a light bulb against anything that strikes them afresh; and a cross against anything that seems offensive.
3. The group discusses the different marks members have made, with discussion probably intensifying around the question marks and crosses.
4. A strong final question is: ‘What will any of us do differently as a result of this Bible study?’
This can be a particularly effective method. It doesn’t always work, and it depends on the leader conducting the conversation confidently, but give it a try.
1. A passage is chosen, for example the healing of the man in the tombs (Mark 5:1-20), and read aloud clearly.
2. The group is divided into subgroups to represent the demon-possessed man, the disciples, the herdsmen and the local people. The subgroups sit in different corners while they listen to the passage being read again, but this time they hear it as the character they represent.
3. The character groups have 15 minutes to consider together how they feel about the story and their part in it and, in particular, what questions they would like to ask of the other characters, or what challenges they would like to make. There are grounds in this story for anger, confusion, puzzlement, defensiveness and more.
4. The ‘characters’ come together, though still seated in their character groups, and the discussion begins as the leader invites them to question and challenge each other. The leader conducts or orchestrates the conversation. Ideally, the group members should speak in their own character’s voice, for example: ‘We herdsmen are feeling pretty angry with you foreigners. You’ve just come over here and destroyed our livelihood!’
5. After a full and frank exchange of views, the leader can draw out some of the lessons of the story and perhaps some parallels with contemporary issues in the Church and in society, such as ways in which we scapegoat people and how we value animal welfare.
This is risky, but rewarding with the right group.
1. Take an incident such as Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). The passage is read aloud.
2. The group is divided into characters: Jesus, the disciples, Mary, bride, groom, steward and servants. Some creativity might be needed if there are too few or too many people.
3. The passage is read again so that group members hear it through the ears of their own character.
4. The group is asked to create a freeze-frame picture of what it might have looked like just after the water was found to be high quality wine. The body language of each person should express their character’s thoughts and feelings. The group will need to work this out together, discussing how each one would feel and why.
5. The freeze-frame is acted out. Each person in turn can be invited to leave the scene for a minute and walk around it, seeing how the various characters are represented.
6. Further discussion follows when the ‘model’ is taken apart. How do the participants understand the incident differently now?
The techniques I’ve listed here are just some of the many ways in which we can explore the Bible. The tragedy is that it seems to be the most-owned and least-read book in the world, in the West at least. Perhaps we can resolve to make this the year we revive our Bible reading and our expectation of how God will speak to us through it.
Martin Luther said: ‘The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me.’ May it be the same for us.
‘When someone reads the Bible they are not merely reading a book or indulging in a literary exercise; they are being dealt with by God.’ GK Chesterton
‘Reading scripture constitutes an act of crisis. Day after day, week after week, it brings us into a world that is totally at odds with the type of world that newspaper and television serve up to us on a platter... Reading scripture involves a dizzying reorientation of our culture-conditioned and job-oriented assumptions.’ Eugene Peterson
‘Read the Bible – it’ll scare the hell out of you.’ On the T-shirt of a hairy biker at Greenbelt
Rev JOHN PRITCHARD is the author of Beginning Again on the Christian Journey (SPCK)
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