A Contrarian Bible Study Method

7 Ways to Keep Finding the Surprise of Scripture

I’ve been reading a couple of books on the history of the Bible in America. I’m not finished, so no book reviews yet, but I want to share an impression. Biblical illiteracy is not new. Nor is the tendency to make the Bible into a good-luck charm, more enshrined than encountered, more shelved than searched. And the people in past years who tried to engage with the Bible seriously and apply it to the issues of their day? They got a lot wrong. We’re not the only ones who struggle. What a relief!

We are human beings. Even when we have access to the Bible, even when we take it seriously, we’re prone to misread it. Why? We read the Bible through the lens of our cultural categories and assumptions, our unspoken priorities and sense of the way the world is—assumptions so deep we don’t even notice them. People in the past did it, and we’re no different.

I’ve also been coming to realize that our misreading is no surprise to God. Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9). Jesus famously attacks the Pharisees for missing the point of the Scriptures (John 5:39). Peter connects God’s patience with the ability of people to misinterpret—even to “twist”—the Scriptures, particularly those parts as obscure as passages in Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Not doubtful enough

On consideration, what is surprising is how God’s Word works within our limitations, our cultural assumptions, even our rebelliousness, transforming them like yeast in dough. And Jesus reveals himself in the Scriptures. He promises that he is the way we can follow, that we can know the truth and be freed by it (John 8:31-32), that real life is available to us.

Despite God’s grace and patience, our misreading can have serious consequences for ourselves and others. So how do we avoid (or repent from) bad readings like justifying slavery or excusing violence or sexual license, or idolizing work or family or the environment, or trying to coerce or manipulate others? How do we avoid focusing only on passages and themes we like? How do we make space for the Bible to “meddle” in every area of our lives? How do we allow ourselves to be so transformed that our assumptions change, that our categories of existence are increasingly determined by the reality that God reveals in the Bible?

It may start with asking different questions when we approach the text. It may start by making a change in what we doubt, thinking carefully about our assumptions and our habits of interpretation, and putting them to the test.

Contrarian Bible Study: Letting the questions in

Perhaps you have led a Bible study with a contrarian in it, someone who questions everything you say. My suggestion here is to be the contrarian. But instead of arguing with other people, argue with yourself and your culture. Take steps to identify your assumptions and test them against the Bible. This way, instead of merely looking to Scripture to affirm what you already think, you’re intentionally looking to challenge your preconceptions, allowing it to do its work of “rebuking error, correcting faults” (2 Timothy 3:16). And this may open you up to fresh surprises in the text. Here are some ideas of how to do that.

  1. Approach humbly. Question your own authority to be the final interpreter of the text. Recognize that you are not immune from mistakes and misreading. Ask God and others, past and present, for help. Pray: “God, you know what you are talking about. You have something to say here. Help me listen.”
  2. Expand your readings. Read passages you would not normally highlight. Read the Old Testament (if you’ve been neglecting it) to encounter ways God has interacted with people and explore God’s priorities. Read systematically through a Bible book or section, rather than defaulting to your favorite passages.
  3. Do the work. Jesus tells us to seek him. Don’t expect knowledge to leap into your brain. Read the actual text, slowly, in a couple of different translations. More than once. Pay attention to the details and the relationships. Do you understand the context? Why is this passage placed where it is? How does it relate to the Bible’s overall message?
  4. Reconsider your categories. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts—and neither are his values our values or his categories our categories. What is God’s intent in this passage? Rather than applying the passage to your life, apply your life to the passage.
  5. Take the hard statements seriously. We are trained to iron out the seeming contradictions in the Bible. Instead, could we ask: Do I want to explain this away? Why? How would someone who is not a believer read this? Would this passage make someone in my culture (or perhaps my political party) uncomfortable? Ask God to show you what there is to learn in the places that cause you to pause.
  6. Increase the scope of application. Does this passage apply to you, your family, your neighborhood, your church, your city, your region, your nation? The environment? Your work? Your leisure? Finances?
  7. Look for the surprises. Find pausing points, where the text itself might allow for some suspense. When someone asks Jesus a question, stop before you read his answer and think carefully about how you would answer it. Then read Jesus’s answer. It might surprise you.

Many of us have learned to turn to the Bible for comfort, to let it calm qualms and cast out doubt. Yes, it can have that effect. But the “alive and active” Word of God is also described as a “double-edged sword” that cuts us to the marrow. “It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). How would it change Bible engagement among the people you lead, if you helped them unleash its power to do just that?

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Peter Edman
Peter Edman

Peter Edman is a quality assurance manager at American Bible Society and also edits the trauma healing product line. He is senior warden of Christ Church Anglican in Wayne, PA. He holds a master's degree in religion and literature from Yale Divinity School and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and six children.

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