Thursday, October 5, 2017

Why Study the Bible?

For the first time in a long time, on Sept. 24 I attended a Sunday School class in a Southern Baptist church. That experience was the springboard for the question posed above.
Questioning Bible Study
June and I spent the last weekend in September in southwest Missouri. On Sunday morning we attended a very lively Baptist church in a rural area several miles south of Springfield. 
The study material used for the class we attended was the “Explore the Bible” quarterly produced by LifeWay, the publishing company known from 1891 to 1998 as the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.
Exodus and Leviticus are being explored during this fall quarter; the Sept. 24 lesson was on Exodus 14:13-28. In the class we attended, the King James Version was the translation used, although LifeWay also offers two other translations.
By the end of the class, attended by 12-15 older adults, I began to wonder about the purpose of it all. There was almost no attempt, either by the teacher or the quarterly, to make the class any more than a study of the events found in the Bible passage.
After returning home, I was able to buy a digital copy of that Sunday School quarterly online. Here are a couple of statements in it indicating what readers might learn from study of Ex. 14:13-28. (i) “God delivers His people, providing a way of escape.” (ii) “Believers demonstrate faith in God by obediently following His directions.”
Bible Study Questions
In listening to the Sunday School teacher, who was quite articulate in his lecture about the Bible passage, there were several questions that I would like to have raised. I did not have any chance to do that—and it probably would not have been appropriate to have done so as a visitor.
Here are some of my questions: If the Church is God’s people today, will God provide us a way of escape from our “enemies” similar to that provided to the Israelites whom Moses led to and through the Red Sea?
Since God did not tell the Israelites to build up armed forces and fight against the Egyptians militarily, why do so many U.S. Christians seem to think they should be supporters of massive armed forces now?
Then, what are God’s directions to believers today? Is God directing Christians in the U.S. to support the current President? My guess is that probably 80% or so of the people in the church I attended on Sept 24 voted for and continue to support DJT, even though (or because?) he threatens to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korea and to “totally destroy” that country. Is that God’s will?
So, why study the Bible to learn about the past without considering or discussing what lessons there might be for the present?
Of course it is much easier, and far less controversial, for a teacher or a quarterly to deal with information about the past than to struggle with present-day implications of the Bible passage being studied.
Purpose of Bible Study
There is, certainly, some value in studying the Bible for understanding its content in historical context. Shouldn’t the primary purpose of a Sunday School class, though, be seeking to understand the meaning and challenge of the Bible for us in our context today?
But who is willing to engage in the hard work of that kind of Bible study? And to what extent would our interpretation be shaped by our political views rather than the latter being shaped by the Bible?
Still, we surely need to study/explore the Bible with the intent of finding it a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths.


  1. Leroy, thanks, as always, for your provocative blogs. I am trying to be a good teacher and not allow despair and hopelessness to get the better of me. My strengths are teaching people to think independently and critically. And a little bit of that goes a long way. But, where one may run into despair is in embracing the expectations of the contemporary "quick-fix" life philosophies. Frankly, as we both know, real change takes many generations. While I do not know the status of the little country church of which you spoke, I wonder how people in my own church could so uncritically vote for and support the policies of DJT. Their children and grandchildren will look back and see them for what they really were (are), in much the same way that we, now, look back on the initial white (supremacist), manifestly destined (through the Doctrine of Discovery), colonializing, settlers (robbers) of this land. Is it too late to change our ways? A good teacher never thinks so.

    1. Thanks, Milton, for your thought-provoking comments--and for sharing your hopeful attitude at a time in which it seems that despair is, understandably, more common.

      I am thankful that you are still teaching people to think independently and critically--and sad that I no longer have that opportunity on the college level. I trust my blog articles foster that kind of thinking in my readers. But, alas, it seems as though not many younger people read my blog--at least I don't hear from many younger readers. (That's part of the sadness, too, of being seen, apparently, as an old man, although I don't like to consider myself in that way.)

      The demographics of current religiosity seems to show hope for the future, when the sins of the past towards American Indians, African-Americans, LGBTQ people and other mistreated groups will be more openly acknowledged and greater respect & equality for all will be affirmed. But the same demographics do not seem hopeful for churches like the one I visited on Sept. 24--or for most churches rooted in the traditions of the last hundred years or more.

  2. Local Thinking Friend Debra Sapp-Yarwood sent the following comments by email with permission to post them here.

    "Interesting blog again, Leroy.

    "I think there are two elephants in the room: 1. There is an assumed eschatology in conservative Christianity. You ask this question: 'If the Church is God’s people today, will God provide us a way of escape from our 'enemies' similar to that provided to the Israelites whom Moses led to and through the Red Sea?'

    "From my understanding of contemporary conservative Christianity, the answer would be 'yes'--and it's going to look like a Tim LaHaye novel (which includes a lot of violence, and is supported by their surface-level reading of the book of Revelation). The only question up for debate is when that might happen, not whether.

    "Elephant 2: Conservative Christians do not see surface-level reading as shallow; they see it as an act of faith. The assumption is that any modern day 'believer' can read any number of translations of the Bible and know precisely what God is saying to this day and age. The belief is that God directed (inspired) this mystical book to be written in a timeless way that would speak to 'believers' in all ages. So, accepting the surface is 'believing.'

    "Your question begs a further, more menacing, question: who are our 'enemies'? For many in the conservative movement, enemies are their fellow (progressive) Christians, whom they believe are not really 'believers,' backed by the evidence that progressives do not accept the mystical overlay of the inerrant Bible and just read it.

    "Progressives question God, and hence promote a 'lukewarm' (or worse) faith. I daresay the conservative church you visited would not look upon your primary blog followers as a group of 'thinking friends,' but rather a group of Devil-led elites. (Not that I would cast you into the role of 'Devil.')

    "There is no assumed eschatology in a progressive Christian Sunday school class. Eschatology is a separate topic up for discussion. Moreover, we view the Bible as a library of books from different times and written in different genres, and we have opinions about how much human error is introduced. And that is why a progressive Sunday school class can study the Bible and discuss author's intent, use of poetry and other literary devices, cultural clues about biblical times and other context, whereas the conservatives are looking to their fellow 'believers' to confirm or challenge how they read the face value of a passage of text."

  3. Here are significant comments by a local, and quite new Thinking Friend, Marilyn Peot, who is also a Roman Catholic Sister.

    "After a first read of your comments, I realize you are touching the tip of the iceberg.

    "Would you believe I have recently taken up as a reread Bede Griffiths' Marriage of East and West. His take on Scripture is cutting through all the myths, directives, and historical events.

    "Bede (1906-1993) was a good friend of his tutor C.S. Lewis and he followed the theosophical teachings of Thoreau and Emerson. He later converted to Catholicism and joined the Benedictine Order. He accepted an invitation to establish a monastery in India and later took over an ashram in Karala. Becoming a spiritual leader and writer, he remained at Shantivanam until the end of his life.

    "What an astute, enlightened mystic. His coming into a new consciousness--and sharing his understanding of the other traditions--has given us sooooo many reasons for deep meditation and openness to the Divine...and surely addresses the questions you mention.

    "Thank you for your probing and revealing some basic questions we need to dialogue around."

  4. Then about 15 minutes ago I received these comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for raising some interesting questions. It would have been interesting to hear the responses.

    "Judy and I once attended a Bible study at the synagogue of a conservative congregation. We studied some stories in Genesis; the study was led by the rabbi. The participants raised all kinds of questions and offered all kinds of opinions. It was much more detailed than any Christian Bible study I have ever attended. An important factor was the fact that most of participants in the Jewish study know Hebrew. Very few Christians, among the laity, know New Testament Greek.

    "Nonetheless, the Bible is a fascinating book and I have enjoyed the studies I have attended and led."

  5. Charles Kiker responding as anonymous to escape all the password gobbledegook. Not surprised there was no effort to go beyond or beneath the words recorded in Scripture. I think the first thing we need to do in reading/studying scripture, is to ask "So what?" Not being sacreligious or disrespectful, but so, what does this have to do with me/us today? How does this comfort us, challenge us, rebuke us? How do we go from here, in a nation stunned by a gun massacre, to a better place where such will at least be more rare? We read the shortest verse in the Bible (so I'm told), "Jesus wept." So wha? Does Jesus care about what happened in Las Vegas a few days ago? Does Jesus care about the profits of the gun industry? Does Jesus weep with the loved ones and friends of the two Tulia women who lost their lives in a traffic accident yesterday? And a thousand more questions.

    1. Charles, thanks for commenting--and there is no problem about you posting as anonymous since you give your name.

      You caught the essence of what I was getting at in my article. Why study the Bible? In order to see what the Bible passage studied has to do with me/us today. That should be the point.

      It is not easy to come up with answers to questions such as the one you raised. But it seems to me that those are the very kind of questions that need to be seriously discussed in Bible study classes

      Thanks again for your good comments and for the significant questions that you posed.

  6. Here are pertinent comments by Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona. Truett is a retired Southern Baptist pastor whom I first met when he was pastor of my home church in the 1960s.

    "Thank you for the blog about Bible study. I have not attended Bible study for years, until recently, because of the shallowness and unapplied formats that seem to always exist. A year or so ago, I began attending a popular class in our church taught by a former missionary and seminary professor. It was a whole new world in insight and helpfulness.

    "You know, I believe a major problem in our churches past and present is the shallow Bible study programs that are offered. The materials that come out of LifeWay are pathetic and I would guess that may be true with other denominations. The material that come from Smythe & Helwys are better.

    "I'm not sure that lack of education should be blamed for all of it but it sure plays a part. Spiritual maturity is important and that doesn't merely stand upon education. That's my take, Leroy. Thanks again. That has been one of my beefs for years."

  7. Excellent thought provoking Blog again Leroy and I don`t know that I am qualified to Give even my opinion, but I would like to learn the right way to follow what GOD expects and Not man.
    I don`t appreciate the words Trump and others use about destroying other people and entire countries, but is it realistic to Not have a strong military as at least a deterrent in a world with so many crazies out there to destroy us if they could?
    I like your way about Loving Everyone and learning from our past, but what is the way we should follow according to the Word?
    I hope I am Not showing my ignorance and I truly want to practice what you espouse, but I just want to know haw we can Specifically do it!
    John(Tim) Carr

  8. As a former minister of education in Southern Baptist Churches, Bro. Leroy, I have to say you have touched on a subject that has caused me much grief, tongue-biting, and arguing with ministers of music. Given Sunday School generally has less than one hour allotted to it, no small group can get very deep in an extended text. However, there is no excuse for a teacher not to be organized enough to get to the "so what?" part of the material. That brings up my grief over music directors that take Sunday School time for choir warm-up! Take a course in Bible history if all you want are ancient facts. Bible study should be life transforming if it is to be worth your time and attendance.

    AS for the football protests, Marcellus protested by throwing down his vocational tools and then giving up his life. I would have more respect for these football players if they threw down their multi-million dollar contracts from all these racist team owners and walked off the field. Maybe that's what Kaepernick did (although I am not sure I have heard he gave up his contract willingly), but last I heard he still wants to play pro football.

  9. As we have been to many small churches and participated in Sunday School classes throughout our years as Southern Baptist missionaries, we (Ron and Cindy Reynolds) have noticed that sometimes Sunday School lessons become just a "habit" to read the lesson and leave little time for discussion. I don't think people necessarily like it that way, but it just falls into that pattern. At the end of the lesson the section "In my Context" has some questions to spark discussion in order to make it more practical and applicable to everyday life. Depending on the leader for the lesson or the participants, more or less time is spent on this section. I know that we all tend to get frustrated with how a lesson goes or feel it isn't worth our time. But I think it would go better if we all tried to ask the hard questions and help get the conversation started. For those who have taught in educational institutions or led in the secular world, this might come easy, but for the majority of church members in some of these smaller churches, it isn't what they are used to. I'm hoping more can help steer the conversations toward more practical application instead of just giving up on the class.

  10. My most general answer to "Why study the Bible" is based upon a basic presupposition:

    My presupposition is that those who wrote the Bible had some experiences of who we call God. Their writings were an attempt to express those experiences and what the experiences meant to them, many times within a context much wider than just their personal lives.

    We can learn something from what they wrote, however more importantly, my hope is what they wrote becomes a prompt to my own experience of God. Questioning what was written is a good way to facilitate an opening of our minds, hearts, and our very lives to an experience of God. Many times these experiences cannot be adequately be put into words. One of the most important things about reading the Bible is not about any knowledge we may gain, but changes that happen in our lives because God finds us.

    Questions are always important because we live in a very different context than the biblical writers. My hope is that there are basic common experiences of humans that are shared by all. Trust, awe, hope, gratitude, solitude, suffering, love, patience, ecstasy.......all based in what I call an "openness to reality". When I open my life to common human experiences which bind us together, God finds me.

  11. I have been to Sunday School/Bible Study at churches of various brands over the years (Baptist, Lutheran, Christian, Anglican, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, Methodist, Orthodox, Assembly of God...) including Southern Baptists. Most do some kind of Bible Study, and have some interaction. I typically felt at home with them whether I was a member or visitor. A few did topical studies unrelated to the Bible. Most met with their group weekly, sincerely cared about each other and typically took some time to pray for each other. The study was typically of less importance than the relationships. That makes since - "Love One Another".

  12. I like your last question and statement. Do we hold to the interpretation of our upbringing? Have we been burned by some "Christian" group(s)? Do we have a favorite experience or methodology? And as you say, do we have a prominent political persuasion?

    But, if one is denominational, maybe a pre-set study isn't a bad place to jump in - surely the Spirit of God can use it in some positive way, even if it is just the gathering of fellow believers to love one another.