The Art of Deep Bible Study

May 22nd, 2014

“Reading Scripture is an art—a creative discipline that requires engagement and imagination, in contrast to the Enlightenment’s idea of detached objectivity. In our practices of reading the Bible, we are (or should be) something like artists.”¹

Previously, I approached scripture with the question: “What does this mean?” And that’s an important question. Yet, when the ancient rabbis searched for meaning in the scriptures, creating mid­rash, they often approached the text with a different question: “To what can this be compared?” Then they would use a creative image, metaphor, or story to describe a resonance between the concrete life situation of the listeners and the biblical text. So when Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom in parables, comparing its reality to everyday experiences in first-century Palestine, he was practicing this rabbinic art of interpreting scripture through life.

Art and the Christian faith have long had a deep connection, profoundly informing and influencing each other. Perhaps this works because scripture itself relies on literary artistry and imagination. The Bible incorporates story, metaphor, dreams, song, poetry, prayer, and prose. When we recognize and highlight the aesthetic qualities within scripture, we no doubt honor the beauty as well as the truth encountered in it. Like a favorite song that plays over and over in our head or a cherished photo displayed in the most significant place in our home, an artful experience with scripture can make the Bible the centerpiece of our lives.

In the congregation, I prefer working with the visual and performing arts to help people connect with their faith. I recently used The Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine, as an embodied interpretation of this familiar story. When I meet with people to discuss baptism, I use images from different cultures to stimulate conversation about the Bible and the theological implications of this sacrament.

During Advent, I used monologues of modern women to connect with the biblical narrative of the virgin Mary. This experience helped participants to think about the mystery of the Annunciation in light of real experiences from their own lives and the lives of those willing to share their stories. For example, what does the Annunciation offer to women who have experienced miscarriage? Or what do we feel when have we carried “the Word” in our own lives?

Art holds the ability to enter into the spaces where we’ve built walls in our lives. Those walls could be familiar or harmful interpretations of scripture, or walls that keep us from building relationships with each other. During Bible study, overt questions and lectures have the tendency to bounce off the walls, while the work of art seeps through the cracks. Art also puts us in a place of awe toward the mysteries of God. We experience the mysteries of God without having to explain or control them.

Photographer Dewitt Jones revealed that the typical National Geographic shot is pulled from over four hundred rolls of film! In the digital era, that would translate as five thousand to ten thousand images. Clearly there are more mediocre photos in the batch than printable ones, but there is also more than one amazing photo in the mix, too. When using the tools of creativity to study the Bible, there will always be more than one beautiful option or moving interpretation. But this creative approach takes humility and willingness to be vulnerable.

Bible interpretation is an art. When we open ourselves to make mistakes as we interpret scripture together, in conversation and through collective imagination, we allow participants the possibility of discovering positive and affirming interpretations within a loyal and loving community. When we wade deep into Scripture, we look through the lens of creativity to discover deeper and astonishing encounters with the text and, more importantly, with others who are made like us in God’s image.

¹ Davis, Ellen F. and Richard B. Hays, eds. The Art of Reading Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003.

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