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Bible study not “Bible study”

April 2, 2010

One thing evangelical communities have down is Bible study.  You can walk through the Bible, examining the architecture and archeology of the Holy land.  You can dive into the life of a particular person:  Abraham, Ruth, David, John, Paul.  You can focus on an era or a theme: the early Church, fruits of the Spirit, Jesus’ parables.  You can read the whole Bible or one book of it in a year, a semester, a month.

Or you can turn away from hermeneutics and exegesis and go straight for self-help nonsense.  You can study a “Christian” book.  You know what these are.  They are usually thematic.  They usually offer some diagnosis of your failings in life and a graduated scheme for improving your situation.  Many of them focus on relationships, promising you can fix your kids, your husband, your mother.  All you need is quality time, more sex, and boundaries (respectively).

You can find these book “Bible studies” in small groups and Sunday school classes.  I’ve had conversations with pastors and church leaders about the tendencies of groups committed to studying Scripture to get sidetracked by book studies instead.  Many of the folks I’ve talked to think there should be a balance.  A couple months of  first Corinthians followed by a couple months of Wild at Heart. The problem is, most of these books are only loosely based (if at all) on a scattering of Bible verses taken out of their context and used to reinforce some predetermined conclusion.  Some of them are even “studies” based on a movie based on the fictional story of a Christian couple with marriage problems.  (read, or preferably, don’t read: The Love Dare)

Kit includes film DVD, book, "study" with leader's guide and DVD (t-shirts sold separately)

Scratch a little at these books and you’ll find watered-down Freud, Spock or worse, Cosmo, with a few Bible verses to mark it as a legitimate source of authority.

Most of these books are essentially printed and bound sermons (authors like Max Lucado come to mind).  I’m not saying all these books are full of error (though many of them are rife with it), but in supplanting honest-to-goodness Bible study for these is stretching the depth of their content past their fixed point value as nightstand reading.  Usually discussions of such books are less-than-critical.  People argue more with the actual Bible than they do with John Eldredge.  And often no one is asking questions about the premises, evidence, and conclusions of these books.

Small group conversations about such books can only skim the surface, and there is little authority or accountability to be offered by such chit chat.  When I taught literature to middle schoolers, I found it difficult to break them out of the book report confines they’d acquired during middle school.  They were accustomed to telling a teacher whether or not they liked a book.  I had the same problem with critical essays and my high school students.  “John Steinbeck did an excellent job…”  (as if he’d care that a 10th grader gave him two thumbs up).  No thought about what the characters were up to, what those images meant or what the author wanted you to believe by the end of the thing.  Just “it was well-written and it made me kind of sad in places.”

These self-help books are popular.  They are the Christian publishing world’s bread and butter.  People are looking for answers and if they’re pithy and come with sorta-funny anecdotes about a man on a fishing boat or some unnamed husband’s buffoonery, all the better.  And if folks want to fill their free time reading this stuff, I guess I can be no judge of that (I myself am a sucker for an America’s Next Top Model marathon).

But if we’re ever going to be a people who discern truth and check these teachers, we have to begin with calling things what they really are.  Studying these books isn’t Bible study.  It’s leisure reading.

There may be moments where truth comes through and challenges you; and that’s great.  But there will be an equal if not heavier measure of ear-tickling, and we need genuine Bible study to be able to spot that and oust it when it comes.

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