December 13, 2005

Why Study the Bible?

Adventist Review dialogues with Lyndelle Chiomenti, editor of CQ (the collegiate quarterly); Falvo Fowler, communication projects manager for Office of Adventist Mission/Global Mission; and Gary Swanson, associate director of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference.

In this roundtable discussion, participants approach the topic of Bible study and discuss the importance of it to our spiritual growth.

BJS: Below is an excerpt from an e-mail that I received recently:

?Why do I want to sit around for an hour listening to the same Bible story I?ve heard a million times? . . . I?m tired of Bible stories and abstract principles. I have a son to raise, and a marriage that is just OK. And instead of addressing the real problems and concerns we have with society today, we sit talking about people who lived 2,000 years ago. Yes, their stories may hold lessons, but I want real people, real stories.?

How would you answer her question? How does reading about people 2,000 years ago affect our lives today?

1549 page10LC: The writer said she wanted to hear about real people. Well, the Bible is about real people. And even though they lived 2,000 years ago, human nature never changes--except by the grace of God. So the principles we glean from the Bible are just as valid today as they were back then. We like to hold people in the Bible up as paragons of virtue, but they all struggled with doubt. And they all struggled with their own particular vices. Look at David.

GS: I think they were more real than we?re comfortable with at times. It makes me wince a little to hear about some of the things they did, and yet God loved them. And God continued to love them unconditionally. They were more real than we are in many ways.

FF: What many people fail to see--and I didn?t see it until I started reading the Bible for myself--is that every story in the Bible is different, and how God dealt with people in the Bible is different. No two stories are alike. Even the miracles are different. It tells me that we can be ourselves, and God still loves us.

LC: How did you discover it for yourself?

FF: I hit the wall really hard in my life, and I needed to find out whether I actually believed in this thing called Christianity. I wanted to see where God began leading His people, so I decided to start reading in Genesis. It was then that I realized that God dealt with each individual differently. That knowledge allows me to see that I don?t have to be a Daniel, and I don?t have to be a Paul. I can be me, and know He has a way for me.

BJS: So, with a guy named Joseph in prison, a man named David committing murder and polygamy, and a woman named Jael driving a tent peg through a man?s temple . . . How does what God said to them speak to us?
FF: Biblical people were willing to listen. I think we grew up in a culture in which we talk to God, but we would be very uncomfortable if He were to talk back to us.

LC: That is what Bible study is about: God talking back to us. It?s our opportunity to read His words, and to listen to Him.

GS: I think we could just as easily ask, ?Why not read the Bible??

I?m not so old that I don?t remember getting a love letter! When I read a love letter, am I reading for nuance, and trying to decide if the comma had been here instead of there, what difference would it have made in the language? No. I try to discover what the writer is trying to say. In the broadest sense, that?s the way we should be reading Scripture. It really is in its broadest sense a love letter. The difference is that we don?t all have the same relationship that we used to. But the love is still there, and why not be reading it?

FF: Many people I know--myself included--didn?t read the Bible because we were told to read the Bible. And when you are told to do something while growing up, you usually don?t want to do it. I think one of the reasons the majority of Adventists haven?t read Ellen White, or haven?t understood her, is that we?ve been told we have to read her. When I read the Bible for myself, because I want to, I come to the point where I ask, ?Why didn?t anybody tell me about this??

LC: One of my favorite books of Ellen White?s is Education. She says there that the purpose of redemption is to restore God?s image in us. I can?t think of a better reason to study the Bible. It?s through the Bible that we learn about how He wants to restore His image in us. And when you think of being re-created in the image of God so that we can be like Him--with a loving, forgiving, merciful heart toward people who do wrong to us--what a wonderful reason to study the Bible!

BJS: Is there a difference between reading the Bible and studying the Bible?
GS: Yes, there is a difference. To read it for its story is valid. In any approach to literature, you can read it superficially for its story. But the time comes when it is necessary to study it as well, to discover what it?s trying to say on a more profound level. That?s where the issue of study comes in.

1549 page10FF: Often we just read through the Bible. But it?s important to look at what God has to say, and what He was saying at the time. So much was happening during biblical times in their culture. And if we don?t understand what was happening with the rest of the world, then the Bible will have a very narrow definition to our lives, and we will separate it from what?s happening in our world. For example, I was reading the introduction to the book of Ezra recently, and the scholars brought out the point that Confucius was in China at the time, Buddha was in India, and Socrates was in Greece. Just think of the philosophy going around! There was a world going on in Bible times! To me, it makes the Bible relevant to living, and not a separate part of our lives.

LC: I think reading the Bible implies a certain roteness, dullness, of a stale habitual type. ?I have to read so many chapters a day to get through the Bible in a year.? But studying the Bible implies that you are serious about doing something with it. Then you get into the issue of why you are studying the Bible. Do you study it merely to prove that the Sabbath is right? Or are you studying it because you really want to be re-created in the image of God?

GS: There exists a cognitive response to Scripture, and an affective response to Scripture. And, generally speaking, we are a cognitive people. We like to prove things. We like to have our ducks in a row. We must prove that A+B=C. You can prove things to death and not feel it. It?s the difference between information and transformation.

LC: We need both. And who?s to say which is more important than the other? I would be more inclined to say transformation is more important. But I can?t be transformed unless I have the information basis.

I think if each of us, as we study or read the Bible, could see our life as an extension of the Bible, an extension of the greatest story ever told, then it might start to take on more meaning. We might begin to ask, ?How does my story fit into all this??

FF: One of the sad things about Christianity these days from a Western standpoint--and I say this with all due respect--is that we fail to see how the Bible was written, or why these stories were told. They came basically from Eastern culture, from a highly narrative history. And the reason for these stories is so that future generations will remember the belief systems of their society. Hinduism has its stories, as does Islam, as per its culture. But the stories of Christianity and Judaism are told because of their faith. The Old Testament stories were told specifically so that the people would remember their history, and not misunderstand it. And they came together to hear these stories. Theirs was a culture that came together to hear truth.

That?s why group Bible study is so important. If I study it on my own, I can go off on a tangent. But if I come together in a group and we talk about my interpretation of Scripture, somebody can respond, ?That?s not what I think they meant.? Then I can look at it from a different perspective. I put the two together--individual and group study--and I?m closer to truth.

GS: That?s one of the challenges to the Western mind: this idea that you don?t go to yourself solely to decide what is truth. People in biblical times had far more of a collective mentality, and arrived at truth in community. We in a Western society have been acculturated to more of an individualistic approach.

BJS: Who or what has been instrumental in making the Bible relevant in your life?
LC: Oddly enough, my high school English teacher. He said to us, ?Don?t believe something just because your parents believed it. Find out if you believe it. And if you believe it after you?ve studied it, fine.? So I started studying it for myself.

FF: My mom taught me from a very early age to fight/wrestle with God. She used examples in the Bible (Abraham, Elijah, Moses) in which men argued and debated with God. It was as if they were saying, ?I will talk and debate with You, because You are real to me.? For many, there is this sense of ?Don?t touch God because you might mess Him up.? My mom taught me to talk with Him, laugh with Him, and fight with Him because He?s real.

GS: I admired my grandfather, who was a Swedish immigrant and shoemaker. He was a simple man. He wasn?t an articulate or sophisticated thinker. But he?s the man whom I consider to be the best Christian I have ever known. And I loved him deeply.

LC: I had wonderful teachers at Andrews University (included are people such as Dr. Augsburger and Dr. Gregg). Observing the lives of these Christian men and women talking about the Bible from up front in class, hearing them pray, and having them invite us into their homes really inspired me.

BJS: What has been your greatest struggle with Bible study?
FF: I?m surrounded by Christians, and it?s a wonderful environment to be in. But the challenges to my faith are not as many as when I am working in a non-Christian environment. I think it?s easier when we?re searching Scripture, and living and/or working in a non-Christian environment, because I think we more readily see ways that we can witness, and put our Christianity into practice.

1549 page10LC: That?s my greatest struggle too. When you edit Bible study guides, as I do, you don?t want to go home and read the Bible again. Reading the Bible for a living can take the shine off Bible study to some degree. On the other hand, the blessing is that you don?t realize what your brain and heart are absorbing until you?re sitting at a stop light on a Friday afternoon, and you?re mentally struggling with a situation. And all of a sudden the Holy Spirit reminds you of a verse you read that week that fits your situation perfectly. And you say, ?OK. I get the message.? Part of the struggle for me as well is finding the time to study on my own, and not just when I need to for work.

GS: Life is full of noise. It can be good noise. But finding the time, and hearing the still small voice through it all, take effort. You can?t just hope it?s going to get through. The Lord can do that at times, when there doesn?t seem to be any other way, but staying open is tough.

LC: Working with the Bible for my livelihood has forced me to broaden my definition of Bible study. I don?t know what that definition is yet; I?m still working on it! But often I equate my gardening with Bible study because I think of what Christ said about nature. It really is brought home to me when I?m weeding or bird-watching. To me, that?s a form of Bible study. Another thing that my work has forced me to do is to engage in other spiritual disciplines: prayer, meditating on God?s Word, simplicity. It?s been an exciting journey!

FF: I promised myself I wouldn?t say anything about music . . . but in the eighties many ministers made money talking about the evils of rock music. One person used ?backward masking? to ?prove? that rock music was from the devil. He took songs by such groups as Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and Pink Floyd, and spun them backward for you to hear the ?real? message of the song. The interesting thing about that was that, from that point on, whenever I heard the song, I forgot about the song; I remembered only what the ?message? was! I didn?t know the message existed before. So the devil actually spoke to me because of the minister.

That ties into Scripture. When I study Scripture, because of fear about the end time that some have drummed into us, it?s hard to read books such as Daniel and Revelation. When we read them, we see the beast (of Revelation 13 and 14) and the fear of the end times, but fail to see the hope that God offers. In the process of trying to scare the ?hell? out of us, they?ve unfortunately scared the Christ out of us, too.

GS: I?ve noticed lately that scriptural themes are turning up in popular culture. And it?s been a revelation to me to realize that many of the inspiring themes in Scripture are quite universal. For too long I?ve considered Scripture and culture as two parallel tracks that never crossed, that the truth you find in each of them has no connection. But many things going on in culture are very familiar, spiritual themes that are universal to humanity--and they come from God. He?s putting truth out there wherever people will hear it. Unfortunately, Adventists have often acted arrogantly in our belief that we are the only ones who ?have the truth.?

FF: Many people my age don?t want to read the Bible because of that arrogance. I don?t think we should say that ?we have the truth,? but that ?we have come together and recognized God?s truth.? There?s a difference. When we say, ?We have the truth,? it appears that we own it. It?s ours.

We did this exercise in our Bible study class in which we talked about time. We asked, ?How much TV do you watch in a day?? ?How much computer . . .? When we added it all up, we figured out that most people have about 15-20 minutes saved for God. And out of the 15-20 minutes, they try to fit it in between commercials so they can see what happens on TV.

After that study, a lot of class members realized that they do have a yearning to study the Bible. But then they asked why they didn?t make the time. That?s a tough question. When we look at it, it can be difficult to figure out why we don?t make time. We could say we?re too tired, but that?s not it. It boils down to: How important is our relationship with God? 

Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.