Approaching a Biblical Book

As we contemplate the coming of Christ, here is “A Prayer for the Christmas Season.” for your personal or church use.

Dr. Mel Lawrenz is Minister at Large for Elmbrook Church and Director of The Brook Network. His writings may be found at WordWay.

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The reason we study the Bible is to deepen our connection with our Creator who has been gracious enough to speak to us through the prophets and apostles. The way we get the connection is to look for the true meaning in the biblical text, which we can only get to if we examine the whole before the parts.

The basic block of meaning in the Bible is the individual book. These “books” have different forms: a chronicle of history (e.g., Joshua), a collection of prophetic oracles (e.g., Isaiah), a collection of worship poems and songs (e.g., Psalms), a gospel proclamation (e.g., Luke), a personal letter (e.g., Titus), the account of a vision of all history and the future (e.g., Revelation), etc.

When we prepare to study a book of the Bible (for personal Bible study, or for group participation, or for teaching, for instance) we need to understand:

1. The historical background of the book. For instance: the first five books of the Bible were written in order to give the people of God a clear vision of who they were; Ezra and Nehemiah were written to re-establish the core spiritual principles of rebuilding a nation; Lamentations comes out of the utter loss and humiliation of conquest; the apostle Paul wrote Philippians when a prisoner of the Roman Empire; Revelation came out at a time of great persecution. Each of these historical settings helps us understand the meaning of the texts.

2. The cultural background of the book. What we mean by culture is the beliefs, customs, languages, arts, and ways of life of a particular people. Culture is deep and complex. Biblical authors wrote what they did in particular cultures, and we must understand them to understand their texts. The Hebrews moved into and conquered the people of Canaan, and the clash between their cultures were at the center of the biblical story for centuries. We need to understand the paganism and idolatry and the tribalism of the times. To understand the Gospel of Matthew we have to account for some details about Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture. 1 Corinthians requires us to know something about the social immorality of Greek culture. The book of Hebrews brings up cultural aspects of first century Judaism, etc.

3. The geographical setting of the book. The Old Testament prophets who spoke to Israel and Judah, raising spiritual issues within the people of God are one thing, but Ezekiel, written in Babylonia during exile, has a whole different setting. Books written from a rural setting use rural metaphors, and those written from urban settings use urban language and comparisons. Geography matters.

4. The political setting of the book. Writings coming out of a strong empire like Israel during the days of David and Solomon have one set so concerns. Those written during horrible civil war have a different perspective. And those written from exile take the perspective of the conquered and oppressed.

All of these aspects of the backgrounds of biblical books do not make the Bible impossible to understand, and they do not obscure the core meaning of Scripture. In fact, the multifaceted historical/cultural/geographical/political backgrounds of biblical books make them richer as records of God’s truth. We learn about moral value and spiritual principles as God reveals them in all of life’s circumstances. Also, when we acknowledge all the complexities of the backgrounds of the biblical books we are learning all the ways God Almighty is redeeming and judging the human race.

So what are some steps to approaching biblical books as whole units? Here is one process:

1. Begin by reading a simple introduction to the biblical book you are about to study. Simple introductions are found in study Bibles or Bible handbooks.

2. Read the whole book straight through, ignoring chapter and verse divisions. Those divisions were added many centuries later, and they can get in the way of a simple straight reading.

3. Take notes. The questions you have. The statements that stun you. The words that are repeated. The transitions that show the flow and connection within the book. Watch for the main points. Perceive the passions and concerns of the writer.

4. Make an outline, or just a list of the main parts and points in the book. Don’t worry about the outlines produced by Bible scholars at this point. This is your personal perception of the flow and structure of the biblical book.

5. Read a more detailed background resource—a book introduction in a commentary, an online article, an article in a Bible encyclopedia, for instance.

6. Go back and read the whole book again. If you have to teach it, read it a third time or more. It is amazing how much more we pick up as we scan through the biblical text repeatedly.

Spending time examining a biblical book as a whole gets us past fragmented reading. “A verse a day” will never get us to the meaning of the Bible. We need to keep seeing the whole.

Beautiful things aren’t perfect

It seems strange to write this in a culture obsessed with perfection. But what is stranger perhaps, is that perfection is as much a construction as most other things; a dynamic idea that lives in the collective imagination of a people. Whether it’s bodies or art or rhetoric, or anything you can think of, we collectively negotiate and are in conversation essentially about a standard by which to determine things. And the height of this standard is perfect. But think of anything that you love, anything or anyone you think is beautiful – a painting, a book, a person – is it perfect? Are they perfect? Notwithstanding personal religious beliefs, my answer is always no.

Beauty itself has a standard, a standard that is wrought with biases and prejudice and cultural specifications and implications. Despite knowing that our understanding of beauty is limited not only because of our humanity, but because of the diverse ways in which we are socialized, we still have this yearning for reaching this standard of perfection in the things and the people we consider beautiful. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to others? Why do we claim to want something futile and unattainable?

Perhaps if you believe as I do that there is a Creator and the Creator is perfect, and so our soul might have a predisposition to seek out perfection. But even within these theological constructs, it would be misguided to look for that perfection in ordinary beings, that I might encounter in a Supreme Being. After all, the world is fallen and if we take that for granted, then everything contains something good and beautiful. But also something tainted with the consequence of imperfection in a fallen world.

I often wonder how many people go to bed at night feeling so inadequate about who they are – from the features on their face, to the curves on their bodies; from head to spirit to soul to toe. I wonder about this because I find that all of us are so critical of ourselves, and not in way that is particularly beneficial. If you take perhaps half a day to listen to how you talk about yourself, you will realize that it’s incredibly suffocating much of the time. You are suffocating yourself in your expectations of perfection.

And of course these endless critiques are not limited to the person we see in the mirror. We transfer them to those around us, and we are often harsher than necessary. It makes sense. How can you be kind to others when you are not kind to yourself? We inflict upon each other these near impossible standards and expectations, and we are all founding wanting because of it. Ironically, it demonstrates further how we are creatures of imperfection.

Perhaps then it is in the brokenness of the things that make up our lives, that we ought to really search for beauty. Perhaps that is the only way to really find it, and to find often. Moreover, I am not sure a single perfect thing exists on this earth; I think that our constructions deceive us and limit us even more than we are already, in this state of being. I think it is better to still find beauty in the cruel, shameful, and ugly parts of life. I think that sort of beauty is resilient and mysterious and spectacular; and above all, honest. I think that sort of beauty lasts forever.

Beautiful things aren’t perfect.