Bible study 102 – methods and groups

As it happened, a lot of the discussion on Wednesday revolved round a feature of “How should I read the Bible” which I hadn’t considered. There were two people in our discussion group who had serious difficulty with reading, one who thinks more in pictures than words, and one who goes beyond that – she didn’t manage to read a whole book until she was 32, and spoke of needing a whole range of sensory input to grasp something.

I don’t have difficulty reading text. I could read before I went to school at 5, courtesy of demanding of my mother to learn about this fascinating stuff and showing that I could recognise some simple words before anyone had thought to teach me letters (my mother still likes to talk of her shock when, from a pram, I pointed at a sign and said “dat says ‘Esso’ “). The local primary school headmaster was consulted, and said I was obviously ready and suggested a set of books which my mother then used to teach me. By the time I was 11, I was reading not only my own three library books a week, but also the additional six my parents borrowed, whatever they were. I used to read after going to bed, usually by getting on the other side of the bedroom curtains and using the light from a nearby street light, once my parents wised up and made sure I couldn’t steal a torch so as to read under the bedcovers. I used to have nearly photographic memory for text (nothing like the case any more). I am probably addicted to reading; if there is nothing else to read at the breakfast table, I will read and reread the backs of cereal packets.

If you don’t have a problem yourself, you tend not to think that others may have it. Mea culpa! However, as in what follows, although I am myself primarily a text-based learner and student, there are other ways of study which I find helpful, and I can therefore learn from other’s experience and hope to give something from my own which may help them.

There was discussion around making up a set of images to accompany favorite texts (a scrapbook of these was shown) and using Childrens’ or other illustrated Bibles, and audio books.

However, this led to me having (and sharing with her) an insight from my own experience. If I’m studying a passage seriously, and particularly if I’m using “lectio divina”, I make a point of reading it aloud at least once, with feeling, which gives you both audio and a feeling of “ownership”. I’ve acted in quite a few scripturally based amateur drama productions, which gives you another dimension or two (expression and movement). On one occasion, however, in auditions for a part in the York Mystery Plays a few years ago, we were asked to improvise around a scene (actually, the crucifixion, as it was the Butchers’ play). Having to think ones self into the character of one of the participants as well as all the rest gave an entirely new slant for all of us. I hope this will prove to have been some help.

I suppose that ends up as a sort of externalised version of Ignatian Visualisatory prayer, combined with a kind of Bible Study group. That is, of course, as well as being a form of prayer, a seriously productive way of studying the Bible!

Groups are another wonderfully productive way of reading and studying the Bible for me. I tend to be fizzing with more ideas than I could express in the time provided after one – and that brings me to an aside. My memory used to be very good, and I didn’t tend to note down thoughts and intuitions as they came to me; now it isn’t nearly so good, but I’ve not developed the good habit of keeping a notebook in which to write these down as they come to me. Not only does that make sure I won’t forget them, or forget that I’ve got that memory somewhere if I looked for it (a slightly different thing) but it also reinforces the thought. When studying seriously, writing things down helps me a lot. So I should do more of it, and maybe others will find this useful as well.

Why am I fizzing with ideas? Well, other people have different thoughts and intuitions from my own, however deeply I may be studying by myself. If I’m talking about scripture or religion more generally, I tend to get more out of it talking with people who don’t think like I do. This is in one way easy, because apart from online, I’ve never come across a community of people who do think like I do. In another way, though, it’s difficult, because the very fact that I don’t think the same way as those study groups which have historically been available to me means either that I can’t share many of the thoughts or intuitions I am actually getting or that I run the risk that someone is going to have part of their thinking radically challenged.

This has in the past resulted in me being asked to leave a Bible study group, and on occasion to accusations that I’m guided by evil spirits, am a mouthpiece of Satan or even that I’m the Antichrist (a promotion I really don’t deserve). While I don’t much like this (English understatement here), more seriously it’s led in the past on a number of occasions to someone losing their faith, and I absolutely don’t want to do that, however much I may think that “an unexamined faith is not worth having” (James Luther Adams) and that ultimately faith, as opposed to belief, cannot be shaken by a challenge to belief. Faith is an emotional commitment of love and trust in God, and as such is properly immune to challenge from reason. However, it seems to me that that emotional commitment can often follow from and almost always is nurtured by a belief structure, so it is not usually a good thing to damage that structure before the emotional commitment has arisen. It may be that the love and trust was not directed at God but at a belief structure, for instance.

I would hope in the future to get round this with a group which basically accepts the twelve step approach that each can share their “experience, strength and hope” in a supportive environment where each accepts that all they can themselves share is their own “experience, strength and hope”; it may differ from mine (and I hope it does!), but everyone seeks similarities not differences and hopes that something they say will be of use to others and that something others say may be of help to them. After all, I have managed to study scripture in the past with people of other religions and none without there ending up being “more heat than light”. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

(to be continued)

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