This semester at the GCW, we’re going to look at a series of readings based on the Church’s liturgical calendar–namely the readings which will be used in many churches on the Sundays following our Tuesday scripture study. This is a departure for us, and for me. We typically study a book or a lengthy section of a book from scripture. I still think this is the best way to come to both an appreciation for and a deeper understanding of scripture. But I’m thinking that maybe a change of pace would be nice.
For folks who will be joining us over the course of the next semester, there are a couple of things essential to the way we study scripture at the GCW. My approach to scripture has always been to take the Story seriously as “story”; i.e. that a close reading of the text and attention to the elements of the story will yield a richness of meaning that is otherwise lost in other approaches. Some folks call this “narrative criticism.” The simple and most pertinent reason for this approach is that first and foremost the author wrote what they had to say as a story and therefore meant it to be understood within that framework. Secondly, stories are understandable to all of us. We have an innate ability to understand stories if we but pay attention. This doesn’t mean jettisoning understandings that come out of historical, social, political, cultural and linguistic analysis and whatnot. Rather it takes all of that into consideration within the context of the story itself; certainly knowing something about the history of Israel or having knowledge of Jewish rituals enriches our reading of the story. Together, as a group, we help to ferret out the little tidbits of knowledge that we all have accumulated over the years, enhancing our individual readings of the story with what others bring to light from both their knowledge and their experience.
Here’s a brief rundown of what we keep in mind as we study scripture together.
The first question to ask when approaching Scripture is NEVER “what does it mean?” The first question should ALWAYS be “what does it say?” or “what is written?” The text, albeit in translation, is the fence that hems in the various possible meanings of any particular story or passage. The meaning of a verse like “Love your enemies” can never mean “bomb and destroy your enemies.” The text itself negates that as a possible meaning. This is why we start by taking the text seriously.
The author of a book or passage is in control of the story. Every detail is there for a reason. So again, we need to read closely. At the GCW, we read and unpack a verse at a time.
We have an innate ability to understand stories. Many of us have been taught an overly reverential attitude toward scripture and we come to it doubting our abilities to understand. The truth is that, like when we watch a television show or read a novel, as long as we pay close attention, we usually can figure out what is going on. Same is true for scripture.
So here are some “helps” in learning to read or study scripture seriously as story:
- Read the text closely.
- Read the text with others, mining each other’s knowledge about what is going on.
- Read whole passages or whole books and puzzle out your own ideas and questions before consulting outside sources (like commentaries, which are also interpretations). Use outside sources only after you’ve achieved some of your own familiarity with the story.
- Use 2 or more good translations of scripture (NRSV, New Jerusalem, New American, and more). We’re reading of course in English, translated from the Greek and Hebrew. Translation is also partly interpretation and having translations that sometimes differ on particular words or phrases helps to clue us in to parts of the story which are “in play,” so to speak.
- Write out the text yourself. Write in your bible, jotting down notes, circling words, etc. Fill up the margins. Keep a journal of your study.
- Put yourself in the place of one of the characters in the story. What do they see, feel, think?
- When reading, note the following elements of most stories. These elements help to carry and articulate meaning.
- Where do passages begin and end? (Look for changes in setting, voice, etc.)
- In what order do things happen?
- What words, themes, actions, settings, situations, etc. are repeated?
- What is the setting?
- Who are the characters? And what do we know about them? (status, gender, jobs, ethnicity, etc.)
- What is the relationship between characters?
- What action happens? Who does or says what?
- Is there conflict? Between whom? Why?
- What drives the story? What is the plot?
- Is there a “twist” or “surprise” in the story?
Stories have power. They help tell us who we are, what we value, what is worth living and dying for. These stories in scripture should be foundational for us. And finally, these are the stories our ancestors have passed down to us. There is something here they want us to discover, something good and important and transformative. They want to tell us something. It is to our great joy to listen and to understand what that something is. We hope you’ll join us this semester as we listen and discuss together.