Taking the Bible to English Class

Last week we talked about the importance of paying attention to the immediate context of what we’re reading in Scripture. Today, I want to talk about words.

I love words. I love how they can be spun and stretched and woven into a thing of beauty. I love that meaning can be conveyed not only mechanically or simply for the sake of information but as a crafted work of art.

God chose to reveal His Word to us through human language—and what a masterful work of art it is. The artistry of its language, its complexity, its imagery, its beauty—it invites us to study and consider it as we would any other great work of literature. But unlike any other piece of literature, we approach it with awe and reverence, knowing that what its pages communicate is not concocted by a human mind but by the mind of God. Its pages reveal who He is. Its words are alive.

When we pay attention to the literary nature of the Bible, we are not undermining its power. We are embracing it for what it is and how God has chosen to reveal himself. He revealed himself in a way we could understand—in a book, written in human words, using stories and poetry and logic, using the same literary tools we use today.

Words, Context, and Imagery

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This is where some would say, “Yes, Diana, but this is for nerdy English-major types like you. Why should I care about this?”

I will admit I probably get more excited about this than some. But this isn't a matter of nerdy-ness or liking literature. If we're seeking to be sensitive to the context of Scripture so that we read and understand it properly, there are some important words and literary devices we should pay attention to.

Physical Time and Space 

  • Speaker and audience, “I”, “you”—Who is speaking? Who do they assume is listening? How does this influence the way we understand the passage?
     
  • Place markers—Are you given any information about where this is taking place? Where the people involved are located? What does this have to do with the passage?
     
  • Time markers—Are you given any indication of when something is happening? Are you given a month, day, year? Is it put in the context of someone’s life or death? What does this time frame have to do with the passage?

Logic and Train-of-thought

  • Sequence markers—Are there words indicating an order of events? Look for words that imply a ‘first this, then that’ or ‘that was then, this is now’ relationship. Words like “after,” “now,” “then,” “when,” etc. How does this order of events affect the passage? Are they talking of something in the future or the past?
     
  • “Therefore,” “For this reason,” “Thus”—These words signal a conclusion based on previously given information. What is being concluded? Look back at what came before. What supporting evidence or logic led to this point? 
     
  • “For”—Often used to introduce an example or supporting piece of evidence in a logical argument, particularly when it starts a sentence. How does it relate to what came before it? To the entire flow of the chapter?
     
  • “But”—This word signals a contrast with what came before. Example: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy…” (Eph. 2:1,4). How does the verse contrast or give a surprising conclusion compared to what came before? 

Literary Devices

  • Repetition—Repeated words or phrases usually indicate emphasis. What words or phrases continue to reappear in a verse, chapter, or book? (Think about words related by a root, for example, joy and rejoice, or encourage and encouragement.) How do they relate to or point to the main message?
     
  • Metaphors and Similes—Both use imagery to make a comparison. A simile uses “like” or “as” (“the devil prowls around like a roaring lion”) and a metaphor does not (“the Lord is my Shepherd”). How does the imagery relate to the passage? What point is it trying to make? What is it illustrating?
     
  • Contrasts and Comparisons—Are two things being compared or contrasted? Are there connections being made to how they are similar or different from each other? (Example: Paul contrasts law and Gospel and life in the Spirit vs. life in the flesh in the book of Romans.) How does this relate to the passage? What point is it making? How does comparing/contrasting these things help to make this point?
     
  • Quotations—Is something else being quoted? Is it another passage of Scripture? Is it another source from the time? Is it someone else’s words? How does it relate to the passage? Is it being approved of or criticized? If it’s another passage of Scripture, look back at that other passage (you’ll usually go back to the OT from the NT), and read it in its own context. How does this context relate to what is being said in the NT passage?

Remember that our goal is to read and interpret Scripture well. Noticing these words and literary features helps us to read a passage of Scripture in the right context. They ground a verse in a train of thought or story as a whole. When we see it in its proper place in the whole, we are better equipped to understand it correctly. 

This is true in a small verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter sense. It’s also true with the Bible as a whole. Next week, we’ll talk about the big-picture of Scripture and how to locate what we’re reading within the overarching redemption story.

Friday Morning Coffee #33

Happy Friday!

This morning, I'm thinking about the book I've been plowing through over the last week: Surprised by Oxford, by Carolyn Weber. A friend of mine was kind enough to both recommend and lend it to me, and I've been thoroughly enjoying it. It's a memoir of Weber's journey to faith while studying Romantic literature at Oxford. 

With my own background studying literature in undergrad, I've been loving her literary allusions and the part the Romantic and metaphysical poets played in her coming to faith. Her story has been taking me back to the days of my freshman year British literature class, feverishly memorizing lines of poetry, soaking up the lectures delivered with the slightest hint of a Newfoundland accent. I've been feeling the pull to dive back into poetry again. 

I've also been thinking about the role other people play in our faith journeys. So much of Weber's story revolves around conversations with particular friends or professors and even a few chance acquaintances. It's had me reflecting on the web of relationships God uses as a means to bring us to Him - and to continue our growth. I am sometimes in awe He would choose to work through mere humans in this way.

As I write this, I'm thinking of the people God has brought into my own life. Of the people who have walked with me through the various seasons of "in progress" faith growth in the past. Of the people who are walking with me through this season, those people I will look back on in another ten years and point to as key conversation partners in the journey. For all of them, I am exceedingly grateful. 


How has the Lord used people in your life through your journey of faith? Feel free to share in the comments. I'd love to hear about it! 

A Tale of Two Sermons

I once heard two sermons. They spoke of the same little passage—a mere eighteen verses, hardly a column of text. But how different they were. 

It was not merely a matter of skill or style. It was not a matter of truth or falsehood, right or wrong.

One told me what I had to do. 
The other, what had been done for me. 

One sent me off with the suggestion to reflect on what I was doing wrong. 
The other sent me with thanksgiving of the One who came for me in my lostness. 

One piled on guilt. The other mercy.
One gave a word of law. The other the message of grace. 

I am no master homilitician, but I know which I prefer. 
I know which one drives me to awe and praise, and which to morbid introspection.
I know which one inspires me to change, and which makes me despair of ever being good enough. 
I know which one turns my eyes to Jesus, and which turns my eyes to myself. 

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The secret to true transformation is never law. It is never the litany of my wrongdoings, my misplaced loves, my sins. It is never the rehearsal of how I don’t measure up. Yes, I fall short, this I know—the Bible tells me so. But I thought the song was about Jesus.

How easily we forget our own message—the one that tells a story of grace coming to us in our unworthiness, the story of what has been done for us—not of our performance or our rehabilitation. All we truly have to give the world is Gospel—all else is just a Christianized rebranding of the “earn your way” slave drivers. 

Grace transforms us. It transforms my behavior and my attitudes. It possesses me with its glorious, excruciating, intoxicating light.

The Spirit transforms us. He peels away the thick dragon skin of my selfishness and pride and makes me a new creation. He gives me a soft heart, an obedient heart. My life bears His fruit.

To assume that this can be manufactured through guilt tripping or pump-you-up inspiration is to miss the point. It’s to forget our history. It’s to forget the gateway through which we walked into glory.

Our story will always be about grace. Our life will always be shaped and molded through a response to what has already been done for us. It is finished. We respond in thanksgiving. This thanks changes our hearts, and our newly transplanted, resurrected hearts change our lives.

This is the message I can never get enough of. It’s the one my parched soul laps up in rejoicing desperation.

Reading the Bible in Context: Part 1

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the man who wanted to discern God’s will for his life. He let his Bible fall open on the table, and, with his eyes tightly closed, jabbed at a point on the page with his finger. He opened his eyes to read what the Lord had “revealed” to him. It was Matthew 27:5: “Judas went and hanged himself.” 

He was stunned. Surely he must have gotten something wrong. Perhaps he should try again. He repeated the procedure, Bible falling open, blindly picking a verse. This time, he randomly picked Luke 10:37: “You go, and do likewise.”

* * *

It is a basic commonsense reading practice to pay attention to context. We do it with books, with poetry, with the newspaper, even with a letter from a friend. We would scoff at someone who presumed to pull a single line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and attempt to explain its meaning clearly apart from the lines surrounding it. It’s challenging enough to do this with the entire poem before you! 

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What if someone presumed to read Anna Karenina by daily flipping to a page at random, plunging her finger onto the page, reading a sentence or two at will, and closing the book until its appointed literary roulette the following day? It would be laughable. She may know a few names, perhaps stumble on a plot point or two. Over time, she may piece together some of the story or themes. But her grasp of these would be limited, and she would surely miss the power of the story arc, the intricacy of language, the shifting character development. She would miss the message of the book as a whole. She would miss the story.

Why do we think we can treat the Bible this way? 

I want to talk today about the importance of context. We talk about context in relation to the Bible in two important senses. 

  • The immediate context—What words, thoughts, arguments, etc. surround the verse or verses we read? 
  • The Redemption-story context—How do these verses, this passage, and this book fit into the big-picture, overarching story of Scripture?

We’ll talk about the first one, the immediate context, this week. 

Why Is the Context of Scripture Important?

Simply put, we need a context to understand the full meaning of words.

We realize this quickly when we drop into the middle of a conversation. We get confused: Wait, what happened? Who was that? What did they do? Why were you there? We ask someone to back up and explain what came before. We need a summary of the back story. We need caught up. 

Can you sort through these questions without stopping to ask for some context? To some extent, yes. If you listen carefully, your friend may retrace her steps and reexplain. You may be able to piece together the details. But you also run the risk of catastrophically misunderstanding her entire story.

So it is with the Bible. We can drop into the middle of a book like the middle of a conversation. We may be able to piece together the correct meaning. Or we may completely misunderstand. This could be avoided if we take the time to pay attention to the context of what we're reading. This does not require a seminary degree or advanced skill. As I said last week, you do not need to be an expert to study and understand the Bible well. 

It does require us to pay attention. We recognize that we’re dropping into the middle of things, and then we are careful as we listen. We’re wary of jumping to conclusions. We look for clues. We ask good questions. In short, we look for the context.

Practices to Read the Bible in Context

Reading well is a skill. Understanding the flow of an argument is a skill. Seeing the big picture around a sentence—and its role within that picture—is a skill. But these skills can be learned and developed. If this is a struggle for you, be encouraged—you can get better at this.

Becoming a better Scripture reader will not come all at once, but we can take steps in the right direction. The practices I’ve outlined here are suggestions to get you started. Other basic reading and reading comprehension skills are also helpful here. 

  • Work your way through an entire book of the Bible from start to finish instead of choosing verses at random. Pay attention to how what you read yesterday relates to what you’re reading today.
     
  • Read a book of the Bible the whole way through in one sitting. You may miss some details, but the larger themes and repeated portions will stand out better. Remember, these books were originally listened to aloud.
     
  • As you seek to interpret or apply a specific verse, read the verses that come before and after, the entire paragraph, or the entire chapter. Look for clues that would indicate a connected flow of logic, the borders of a story, or the bounds of an illustration. 
     
  • Ask—How do the verses I’m reading connect to those that came before and those that come after?
     
  • Use basic Bible study tools, like the book outline or notes in your study Bible. These outlines will trace the basic skeleton of the book and help you to see how the part you’re reading fits in with the whole. Good study notes should also help with this. Use these as a tool when you get lost or are struggling.

There’s another important practice I haven’t mentioned. We’ll talk about that next week…

Friday Morning Coffee #32

Good morning, friends. 

I'm cozied up with a cup of tea this morning. The chill of fall is setting in - although it could also be the cold I'm nursing. In any case, I'm looking forward to all that autumn brings with it. The crisp cool of the mornings. The return of sweaters. Apple picking and hot apple cider. The vibrant color show of the changing leaves. It may be my favorite time of year here in New England. 

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We saw some of the first hints of fall last weekend. Scott's parents and brother came for a long weekend, and we took them up to the White Mountains and the Lakes Region. Every where we went, we saw the blush of autumn with the first changing leaves.

When the sun graced us with its presence, we were out in the woods. Wandering trails, winding through mountain roads, listening to the song of streams and waterfalls. And when the rain came, we retreated to the warm haven of our rental house, playing games and sipping tea in front of the picture windows looking out over the river.

What a restful combination - to be with family you love in a beautiful place. 


Have you been on any adventures lately? I'd love to hear about it! Feel free to share in the comments!