Reading the Bible – 2 Simple Questions

Open BibleReading the Bible can sometimes seem very complicated and confusing. The huge distance in history and culture may cause us to wonder if we can make any sense of it without specialist knowledge.

There are many tools that can be learned to help us study Scripture. In the main, they basically tend to boil down to 2 key questions that we can ask:

1) Why?
2) So what?

The first question, “why?”, relates to the text and what has fed into it. We ask why the author might have wanted to write this – what kinds of circumstances may have caused them to think this piece of writing useful or essential? Why is it structured the way it is? Why has it been included in our Bibles?

There are various resources that can help us to address the “why?” question. Historical and cultural studies may be of some value and so consulting commentaries may be useful. Also, when we come to think of how the text is written, an appreciation of literary technique – their skills as a writer – may come into play. If these feel too much like the tools of the expert for use in dusty studies only, then we can often get similar results by using our imagination – try to put yourself in the place of the author/first readers.

Answering the “why?” question is not an exact science. We simply cannot know for sure what the circumstances of writing were or what was going through the author’s mind. Using historical or literary tools may help us to understand better, yet in essence what they do is inform and feed our imaginative leaps at grasping “why?”. We trust also that God’s Holy Spirit is involved, speaking to us as we wrestle with the text.

The second question “so what?” is very similar to our first. The slight difference is that it concerns itself more with our present circumstances. What significance do our findings from the passage have for us today?

This cannot help but be a subjective exercise. We cannot judge what matters to us today without already involving our own cultures, theologies and preferences.  Moreover, our present situation and experiences will in part dictate what is “important” to us at the time, meaning that the “so what?” aspect of a passage may vary depending on when we read it.

If we don’t ask the “so what?” question, then we risk being left with historical artefacts or dry doctrines and systematic theologies. These things can be learnt and even agreed to without them having to affect us or the way we live. Everything is abstract rather than concrete. Asking “so what?” helps to ground our interaction with the text – we are coming to it with a purpose, not just to dig up a load of information.

The 2 questions do not always operate separately as we read. They can and do blur. For example, we can weigh up the usefulness of the answers we find to “why?” by constantly asking “so what?” – there can be a constant interaction between the past and our present.

A great deal of Bible reading involves the imagination and is an “art” not an exact science. Even if we don’t delve into “scholarly” methods, we can still help ourselves to get a lot from each passage simply by asking why it is there and what the significance is for us. If we can’t find any, then maybe we either need to work harder or come back another time as it isn’t speaking to us right now.

© Joe Lenton, September 2012