I. Bible Study
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | June 25, 2020As I mentioned in our Wednesday update this past week, we’re starting a bible study on Romans. (Wednesday at 7pm; details in the newsletter below!) Today, I want to create a sense of what we’re doing when we study the bible, particularly a New Testament letter, and I want to distinguish bible study from two other kinds of engaging with scripture: what I will call daily bread and contemplation.
Imagine that you are at a restaurant to get some food. Maybe you’re just getting off work and grabbing something quick on your way home. Maybe you’re on a date. Maybe you just had to get out of the house by yourself for a bit. Maybe you’re celebrating a graduation or a wedding. Regardless, you are hungry, and you need some food. Depending on the situation, your physical hunger could be mixed with weariness, anticipation, desire, joy, sadness, feeling lost—any number of things.
The bible is like spiritual food. Our souls are hungry for it; the soul’s metabolism needs this kind of sustenance. As we saw with the restaurant example, this hunger could come alongside weariness, anticipation, desire, joy, sadness, or feeling lost. It is fitting, therefore, that the bible contains within it stories, poems, teaching, and instructions to respond to all these different experiences of spiritual hunger. The bible is big, powerful, and diverse enough in its language to feed us wherever we might be.
As is the case with healthy food, what is most important is that we eat it so that it can nourish us. This is the first and probably most important way of engaging with scripture: let it feed you. Read it. Day in and day out, read, mark and inwardly digest our scriptures. Whether in the midst of weariness, anticipation, desire, joy, sadness, feeling lost—or even in a matter-of-fact, get some calories in me ‘grab a breakfast bar’ kind of snack, let the bible sustain you. It’s why we have it.
This first kind of engagement with scripture I’ll just call ‘daily bread.’ It requires no specialized training or saintly disposition: it just requires that you be a human being doing your best to get by. ‘Daily bread’ takes seriously the fact that we’re not God, that we are God’s creatures, that we are finite and flawed and in need of ongoing help and support. ‘Daily bread’ takes for granted that God is caring for us. It is a posture of faith that is humble, simple, and wise enough to let first things be first.
Let’s return to our metaphorical restaurant. Let’s say you get your food, and you’re enjoying it. Whether you’re inhaling a cheeseburger in between your too many engagements or savoring risotto across from your beloved on date night, you’re doing what a body does and replenishing yourself with this much needed food.
At some point you ask yourself, “I wonder what the chef was like who made this?” If you’re having a cheeseburger-in-the-car kind of day, maybe the chef is a no nonsense, plainspoken man who is capable of handling a lot of orders on the fly, whose great culinary virtue is being reliably present in your hectic schedule. If you’re relishing a particularly delicious dish out on a candlelit evening, maybe the chef is a woman who has an artist’s flair and attention to detail, someone who pours beauty into everything that pleasure might linger a while.
Likewise, when we read the bible, sometimes we find ourselves lifted to contemplate the Author behind these words. What sort of God is it who might say something like this? What sort of Storyteller would talk about prodigal sons and waiting fathers? What sort of Poet would describe Jesus as a mother hen trying to gather up her chicks? What sort of Visionary would reveal to us the throne and the lamb?
This second kind of engagement with scripture I will call contemplation. Here, our focus does not remain on the words themselves, but rises to consider the God who is offering them to us: not what is said but Who might be saying it. Contemplation takes seriously the fact that the bible is always a means to an end, that what God wants is for us to become more like Him and in so doing to enjoy Him, and that we will always be hungry and restless until we rest in Him. It is a posture of faith that is appetitive, patient, and unwilling to settle for anything less than God.
One final return to our metaphorical restaurant. Once again, your food has arrived, and you’re getting ready to eat. Maybe suddenly you lose your appetite and do little more than pick at your plate. Maybe you love your meal so much you can’t help but pass your plate to your sister-in-law so she can try it. Maybe it’s not particularly good or bad on your palate, but you’re just glad for the calories.
However the food tastes, at some point you begin to wonder how the chef actually made it. What is it about a P. Terry’s burger that tastes so much better than other fast food ones? Why are there peanuts in Pad Thai—I thought peanuts came from Georgia! This steak is too well done, so what’s going on here? How is it that all those different ingredients in mole combine so perfectly into this mysteriously perfect sauce?
This is what bible study is like. If daily bread is about what our souls are eating, and contemplation is about who did the cooking, then bible study is about the how and why the food actually got made and brought to our table. Bible study is primarily about recipes and waiters. It requires that we get up from the table and go to the kitchen to find out what’s going on.
Study is a posture of faith that is curious, analytical, and maybe even a little adventurous. It can be aided by learning and honing certain skills, but what is really important is a willingness to get up from our tables and actually enter the kitchen where the food was made: a place where the lighting and sounds are different, where people move at a different pace, where ovens ding and industrial dishwashers steam and where we might hear new words or phrases, or familiar ones used in a new way. (Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that eighty-six salmon does not mean that we have eighty-six salmon left, but that salmon is actually no longer on the menu!)
When we study the New Testament in this way, the kitchen is the first century world of the Roman Empire. When we study the letter of Paul to the Romans specifically, the kitchen is the mid-to-late 50s CE and a very particular long-distance relationship between an apostle and a church in the imperial capital he’s never visited. It’s a long, two thousand year journey from our 21st century table to this kitchen.
Study takes this fact seriously: the world in which the bible was written is not our world. When we read a letter like Romans, we are overhearing a conversation that did not include us when it was first had. Furthermore, there are lots of intervening generations of Christians who have read and interpreted Romans for their own place and time (folks like Martin Luther, for example) and we will likely bump into them on our way to the kitchen!
This is the kind of bible study I am hoping to lead. We will enjoy a good bit of daily bread and contemplation along the way—why go to a restaurant if you’re not going to eat?—but my hope is to help us spend some time in the kitchen.