A recent post on “quality” and “better methods” prompted a thoughtful challenge from a regular reader. Generally, I took the interlocution as probing my assessment of Bible study methods: “Who sets the standard for ‘better’?” Specifically,¹ Rick Warren’s published methods (which I’d identified as being of uneven quality) were mentioned, and I’ll deal with those more in the next post.
My post on 10/14 was not one of my “better” (ha) ones, and I was probably scapegoating, to some extent. (Maybe I’d do “better” to bemoan the lack of quality in other areas: conductor selection processes, auto insurance departments’ lack of communication with each other, fast food touch-screen programming, etc.) Quality and substance are always of concern to me, not just in Christian arenas.
I’m not prepared to ease up much on—much less to retract—the basic call for utilizing the best known methods in Bible study. In the spirit of discussion, I’m setting out here to identify what I see as the hows and whats and whys (the whos aren’t the issue) of quality in Bible study.
One problem with most Bible Study “methods” and practices is that they simply don’t expend energy on context. In the “general church folks” milieu, not taking textual scholarship into consideration is probably secondary, but it is also significant. I believe these two items are of paramount importance. Methods that do not scratch the surface of either 1) context or 2) responsible scholarship are inherently of lesser quality.
In giving Warren’s list of study methods a once-over, I thought the dozen was neatly and readily marketed, but only 1/3 to 1/2 seemed to have authentic merit. One evening, I was in a group that used one of Warren’s methods—one of his better ones (or so I’d thought)—but the discussion ended up majoring heavily in vague, nearly baseless opinions, teased out by the question “Which word stood out to you in this chapter?”
- One strong pro: several people in the group seemed to have read the whole chapter at least once, in preparation (!). They actually had ready answers to the above question! Wow!
- A few cons: 1) book-level context was ignored; 2) the range of meaning of the original-language word was not on the table; 3) the situation into which the letter had been directed was presumed impertinent by default (not by direct statement); and 4) no textual structuring within the document was considered.
May people’s faith be stimulated by activities that don’t have biblical text as their basis? Of course, yes. On the other hand, if it walks like a cat, it’s not a duck. If it’s more devotion- or inspirational theme-based, it’s probably not be Bible study per se. Such motivations for living Christianly may be great, and I’d accept that they can be God-originated. More often, I observe that they are synthetic, and I’d suggest that apparent “spiritual growth hormones,” synthesized by humans, are not organically grown out of the text. They can produce artificial results. Such insights might well be valuable, but why call them “Bible study”?
Some may not be “into” responsible, contextual handling of Biblical texts
In his response to the earlier post, my esteemed interlocutor speculated on the needs of young believers, as well as women’s take on things. He would never have been attempting to paint an entire gender pink, but I took it that he was (rightly) saying, “Not everyone’s like you, Brian.” Another relatively academic friend’s wife, the guy says, isn’t interested in anything that seems “academic,” and more women may indeed feel that way than men. To the extent that it’s a women thing, it may be because of bad male behavior—blustering through dogma and other junk under the macho guise of scholarship, rather than purveying genuine academic insights.
Personally, I’m glad my wife is more into context than in typical “let go and let God” fluff or jumping around through different biblical books to find bits about love, joy, peace, faith, and goodness. I do not judge the hearts of the women or men who are inspired and spurred on to good by such things, but I am not myself drawn by non-contextual study, and I do think there are more viable, more valid ways of going about edification, to boot.
I’m happy to report that quite a few other insightful women with whom I’ve had the privilege of studying would also prefer to be honest and responsible with one text on its own. I’m sure it’s the same just about anywhere, although we also know some others (women and men) who reject anything that seems academic to the slightest degree.
As for new believers, there is certainly a need for good study methods appropriate for baby Christians. What is not OK is using bad methods that lead to invalid conclusions that in turn lead to shallow Churchians. The alternative is good methods—methods that help to produce lifelong learner-disciples who over the years come to understand more and more of how history and ancient texts inform authentic faith.
Next: Rick Warren’s methods
¹ Caveat lector: I had originally also called out Joel Osteen’s fluff, and that stuff deserves no more comment—not while discussing Bible study, at least. Arguably, the Gospel Advocate (a sectarian publication) does major in Bible study, but its tenor has in much of the past been more geared to watch-dogging and propping up denominational tenets than to digging into texts without prejudice. On this my friend Steve and I agree. One thing further here: I shouldn’t have named the Beth Moore material, not having had any personal experience with it. I imagine it is some of the better devotion-based material out there, and I presume it gets into real Bible exegesis at least some. My wife, having had two experiences with Beth Moore material, has now supported my impression in general terms.