A Quaker approach to reading the Bible. Rhiannon Grant shares how she explores a new book of the Bible.
Recently I was prompted – by a request to write something about it – to explore a book of the Bible which I knew existed but hadn’t spent much time reading and thinking about. In this book post I’m not going to talk about that book itself (you’ll be able to read what I wrote in the Barclay Press series of Bible studies, Illuminate, in due course: http://barclaypressbookstore.com/ILLUMINATE/ ), but I want to share some of my experiences around exploring a new book of the Bible. These steps won’t work for everyone and you should feel free to customise as necessary, but if you’re wondering how to get started with a book of the Bible this might be a way forward.
1) The first reading.
Although I was only going to write about a couple of chapters, I started by reading the whole book. Mine was reasonably short, so that wasn’t a huge challenge, although I did have to set aside time specifically for it. If I’d been given a longer book I might have split it into sections, or started with the next step (researching other people’s understandings of the book) so that I could work out which parts I needed to focus on. But even with a long book, a quick read, even a skim, to get the feel for the way the whole thing is structured, will help me to understand how it works. I was looking for things like: What kind of writing is this book – is it narrative, theology, poetry, a letter, an anthology, a liturgy? What topics does this book cover repeatedly? Can I find some key words? Are there words or ideas I don’t understand? Where is the heaviest content and where are the clues about who wrote this, when, and why?
2) Other people’s ideas.
I never try and read the Bible alone. That doesn’t mean I always join a group, but that I’m always aware of the ways other people have used these texts. Ideas from the Bible – more or less distantly – are all around me in the predominantly Christian culture in which I live, and Biblical words are used in lots of ways. (I don’t just mean theological words, although terms ranging from ‘baptism’ to ‘redemption’ are readily used in metaphorical and practical ways in everyday British English, but also words like ‘angel’ which have taken on many meanings in many traditions and where our current pictures might be a long way from those of the Biblical authors.) To get an idea of other people’s ideas about the book I was exploring, I looked at the notes in a study Bible, did some Google searches, and looked for books of commentary. I’m very lucky to have access to a university library, but some commentaries and study guides can be found online for free (for example, at Bible Gateway: https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/ ) or bought from your favourite bookshop.
Understanding other people’s ideas about the book helped me to work out what was going on in my first reading. In particular, some other people have specific expertise which they can share. For example, some people have expertise in the original languages of the Bible, the way different parts of the Bible relate to one another, or about the context in which these texts were produced. Over time a body of scholarship builds up which can help me make sense of the things which confuse me in the text. Commentaries help me to understand questions like: Was this all written by one person, or not? Who were the original readers or hearers of this story, poem, or letter? What references to situations at the time might I be missing, and what questions are there about how this document should be translated? I don’t necessarily expect to work out the answers, but getting even one other person’s take on the issues can help to clarify what’s going on, why I’m puzzled, or some of the ways I might want to think about the book.
3) Second reading.
With lots of other people’s ideas in hand, I went back to the text. This time I read a different translation of the book, looking for some of the ways in which it made different decisions, and revisited the questions I’d had on the first reading. By this stage, I recognised the structure of the book. I knew what was coming, and that helped me to make sense of the beginning. Some of the ideas still seemed alien – they probably always will, because my cultural context is so different – but I had a feel for their shape and the role they played in the book, and I could begin to get into forming my own connections with them. When I was an undergraduate, I would probably have stopped at this stage and written my essay. (If you are actually writing an essay, there’s some other stuff you need to know which is outside the scope of this blog post – try this guide to writing essays in religious studies from some Harvard professors: https://hwpi.harvard.edu/files/hwp/files/religious_studies.pdf )
Because I wasn’t writing an academic essay, but reflecting on the Bible within the context of the Quaker tradition, I went on to another step.
4) Taking it into silence.
The steps so far have very focused on thinking, and mostly on words. They have been about reading, searching out reading material, making some notes, and so on. I can throw in some videos or podcasts about the Bible, I can try and make a diagram of the structure of the book, but engaging with a text will always require some wordy work. To balance this out, I looked for ways to connect what I’d learned from the text to my spiritual life. For me, the easiest way was to spend time with it in silence. Journaling, art or other creative responses, going for a walk to think about it, and many other options could also work.
I don’t think I could do this at the beginning – or rather, I could and did, but at that point I could only offer a prayer of confusion. What on earth is going on here, God? After the research and the second reading, I have a much more complex set of questions and a more nuanced emotional reaction, and in my experience I’m more likely to feel the Spirit moving in that. I still bring some confusion into the silence, but I am also bringing some understanding, some anger – about ideas I find troubling and passages which have been used to hurt people – and other, more personal, feelings. In the silence, some of this unravels or clarifies for me. Here are the things which matter.