As a child, I was interested in everything. But now, as an adult, I've had my share of boredom. Personally, I rarely run into the "there's nothing to do here" kind of boredom. On the contrary, I experience more of an "I don't want to be doing this" kind of boredom. Typically, my trigger is not a lack of subject material, but rather a surplus of information I'm simply not interested in. (Think football stats... okay, that's enough.)
What I've found true over time is that, in many cases, folks are only bored until they start to understand. Science class is boring... mathematics are boring... English literature is too long... classical music is too lame... only "nerds" like that stuff... I'm not really into technical specifications or quality measures... I can't stand sitting through another safety training... when would I ever care about investments or insurance rates... and who really gets excited about Bible study, besides the pastor?
In so many areas of learning opportunity, the prospect of learning seems dreadfully boring... until we understand how our lives are impacted. As soon as we see we have a vested interest, suddenly, we're interested. Certainly, interest can lead to understanding, but understanding is often the spark for interest. We hear something that resonates, and now we're hungry for more. Personal relevance is a key motivator for learning. This is the grave and noble challenge of every teacher of every subject of every era of all time: fostering enough understanding to spark the interest of students to see how these "boring" things really can matter to them.
When it comes to personal Bible study, I think what many call "boring" is really just a lack of understanding. "I don't know what this means, and I don't feel like figuring it out... this is boring. The Old Testament is too long. There are too many names and places in the New Testament—way too much culture and geography. I really don't care how the original Greek word is pronounced. Doesn't meditation sound kind of boring to you? I would pray more, but I don't know what to say. I don't see how anything called a spiritual 'discipline' can be any fun. Do people actually read the study notes in their Bibles? Only nerds like that stuff." (Ever notice how nerdy most of our pastors are? I'm the biggest nerd you'll ever meet...)
If you've ever been accused of taking verses out of context, or accused someone else of doing the same, then you may be able to appreciate this challenge. In response, Duvall and Hays developed Grasping God’s Word “to help serious believers... learn how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible," with a primary focus on learning how to read the Bible before trying to interpret or apply it.
Although it may fall into boring-sounding, nerdy territory for some, many readers benefit from first learning some basics of literary interpretation before attempting basic interpretation of Scripture. To help break the seal, Duvall and Hays lay out a hands-on approach to reading and understanding the Bible, explaining that “a logical organization would begin with theory before moving to practice." However, because the majority of individuals learn better in a tactile environment, relying more on practice than on theory, the authors present their approach to reading and application through “the abundant use of biblical examples and hands-on assignments... to involve [readers] in the nitty-gritty of biblical interpretation." In this manner, the Word of God becomes tangible, to be touched and examined piece by piece.
Throughout the course of the book, the mission shifts from learning how to apply the Bible to your life and moves toward learning how to “apply your life to the Bible." After all, considering the subject matter is the inspired Word of God, “This is not to suggest that the Bible is nothing more than an object to be analyzed or scrutinized." As the authors explain, “We have not changed our view of the Bible, but we increasingly find value in thinking more about how we adjust to God and his ways rather than putting ourselves at the center in even the most subtle of ways."
Important to remember is that, when discussing study of the Bible, we're not simply approaching a study of historical events and factual data. We are examining the “self-revelation of God, inspired by his Spirit and teaching us his ways in the past so we can live for him in the present." In other words, “It is not enough merely to grasp God’s Word intellectually to make sense of it. No, we need to grasp God’s Word practically to make use of it... This is the true end of biblical interpretation: to know as we are known."
Thus, Duvall and Hays describe a five-part model they call the “Interpretive Journey.”
First, we focus on the question, “What did the text mean to the biblical audience?” In other words, we begin by looking at a biblical passage in the context of the ancient peoples for whom it was originally written, taking into account the time, place, and circumstances under which it was written. We also look at how a passage relates to the preceding and following passages to summarize what God was telling His people at that time, in that place, under those circumstances. Typically, when accusations start flying about taking verses out of context, it's because a verse has been pulled out and quoted on its own, without appreciation for the surrounding material or how a Scriptural point fits into the Scriptural whole. Structurally speaking, verses of the Bible are composed specifically to support and connect. You can't hand someone a door knob and tell them that's the house.
Next, we move to the question, “What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?” Here, we specify those contextual barriers that might prevent us from hearing the biblical message exactly the same way the original audience heard it. As Duvall and Hays put it, we look at the “width of the river” we need to cross to reach understanding. For example, between ancient Hebrews and modern Americans, we observe many differences in cultures, customs, and circumstances. Furthermore, Christians today read the Bible knowing that Christ is the Messiah—some pretty significant pre-knowledge the ancient audience was lacking. These differences can prejudice our views of ancient times and skew our understanding of God’s Word in our time.
With that awareness, once we identify what the text meant to the biblical audience and how we differ from that audience, we look to the next question: “What is the theological principle in this text?” What is God telling His people today, through the Word given to His people thousands of years ago? This, as the authors explain, involves looking for “any similarities between the situation of the biblical audience and our situation." More often than not, the basic human condition reflected in Scripture remains the same as the human condition we face today, transcending time and space to present a principle we can apply to our lives and situations. Therefore, the authors provide a set of guidelines to develop theological principles from any given passage. Such a principle should “be reflected in the text... be timeless and not tied to a specific situation... not be culturally bound... correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture... [and] be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience." If a perceived principle does not meet these guidelines, chances are it is just that: a perceived principle, rather than a theological principle.
From there, we build on those guidelines using the next question: “How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?” This step calls upon us to compare and contrast our understanding of one principle against our broader understanding of the over-arching principles found throughout the Scriptural text as a whole. When we internalize a big-picture, God’s-eye view of the entire Bible contents, we have access to a vast repository of Spirit-led references and cross-references to determine whether our understanding of a particular principle aligns with God’s overall principles. But never fear, we're not talking about memorizing the whole Bible... another day, we'll talk about "book surveys" and their use in condensing biblical familiarity. The point right now is to make a practice of looking to Scripture to determine whether our understanding of a principle aligns with our understanding of Scripture.
Finally, once we identify a theological principle and discern its validity against other theological principles, we move to the question of application “How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?” Here, we synthesize everything gleaned from Steps 1-4 to develop transferable learning that we can implement directly from a passage of ancient Scripture into our own present, personal lives with God. This is learning from the past at its best. When we look at God’s interactions with His ancient peoples and see how their situations relate to ours, we can infer God’s interactions with us today and adjust accordingly. It's here that we find the timeless wisdom that transcends culture, customs, language, and geography to bring us into the whole of the Word.
This is where we find our vested interest in learning to read, interpret, and apply Scripture. This is where we catch the spark of understanding as we see how this really matters to us... not just in some general, abstract, theoretical way, but right now, in practice, today. This is where we can begin to grasp the Word in our context and not just apply the Bible to our lives, but apply our lives to the Bible—fitting ourselves to God, rather than trying to fit God to us. And yeah, that takes work... but I've gotta tell ya, once you catch the first spark of understanding, it's impossible to say the Bible is boring.
Next >>> Ideals, Identity, and Character Issues (Part One)