Studying the Bible

Praying with scripture is something I do with great frequency and I think it is a very powerful form of prayer. But it is also the case that there is value in studying the scripture. At Mass we hear and reflect on short passages of the Bible in isolation and, in my experience, rare is the priest who spends a lot of time in his homily providing the context of a particular reading. (The same is generally true when we pray with scripture – whether we use the daily Mass reading or something else, we are praying with an individual passage.) Therefore, unless we engage in study of the sciripture outside of Mass and our individual prayer, we don’t, for example, see a particular Gospel or another book of the Bible as a whole, or focus very much on how particular themes are treated across different books of the Bible.

Those new (and even those not so new) to Bible study might find useful a book called Learn to Study the Bible, by Andy Deane. The book is subtitled, Forty different step-by-step methods to help you discover, apply, and enjoy God’s Word. I might quibble with the subtitle, in that I found several of the methods in the section of the book providing basic bible study methods close enough to each other that I’m not sure they deserve separate treatment. Nonetheless, there is much to recommend the book.

First, the book does attempt to bridge a divide between prayer and study, by emphasizing the value of prayer for our understanding of the Bible and the inclusion in each of the methods of a step for reflecting on how the subject of our study applies in our individual lives. My criticism of some approaches to Bible study is precisely the failure to include or emphasize what I consider to be an essential part of Bible study: How does this truth appy to my life? And one of the chapters in the initial section of the book on foundations of bible study treats the subject of application in great detail, reminding us that “unless we determine to apply the Scriptures to our lives, we never will.”

Second, several of the methods in the section of the book titled Major Bible Study Methods aim to address some of the issues I raised earlier. One method addresses getting an overview of an entire book, another focuses on characters and what we learn of them throughout different books of the Bible, another focuses on how particular topics are addressed across different books, another on themes. In their individual ways, each provides a method for gaining a broader perspective than we get from reading individual passages.

Third, in a section titled Studying Specific Passages, there are some interesting techniques for some particular topics and/or words used by Jesus or prayers in the Bible as a way to deepen our understanding. While some of the methods in this section are approaches I have engaged in my own study and prayer with scripture, others offered things that had not crossed my mind and that strike me as very useful. There is also a section at the end that provides some methods for scripture study with younger students.

As will be the case with any book of this type, some methods will appeal to some users more than others. But I believe it is a useful reference and I know I will use it both for my own study and in retreats and other programs of spiritual formation that I offer for others.

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