I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation at VTS by Stephen Lyon, coordinator of The Bible in the Life of the Church project for the worldwide office of the Anglican Communion. Lyon and his colleagues have been charged with offering “signposts of understanding” to help unite a global fellowship of Christians that encompasses a wide range of cultural contexts and theological convictions.
That’s a big project. After all, an Episcopalian in Mississippi probably reads the Bible quite differently from an Anglican in Nigeria or a Londoner who belongs to the Church of England. But what unites them about their orientation to scripture? And what unites them all to the larger fellowship of Christians?
I was encouraged to learn that one thrust of Lyon’s project has been collecting, curating, and distributing strategies and resources for “doing Bible better” in diverse local congregations. I think much of what I heard would be helpful for Christians of any denomination, especially given what we know about the importance of Bible reading and fluency in vibrant congregations and faith-filled homes.
Here are Lyon’s five recommended strategies for “doing Bible better” in your context:
This one may sound a little heady right out of the gate, but it’s a key starting point for faith leaders interested in bringing the Bible to life in a contextually appropriate way. While there are very important similarities, different kinds of Christians bring different assumptions, convictions, and spiritual gifts to their reading of the Bible.
Are you a little rusty on how your tradition makes scripture authoritative for the people of God you worship with? Denominational websites typically offer a short primer (here are Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal examples).
Sometimes a tradition’s early leaders and historical documents are fruitful for study; in my experience, learners are more interested in these historical details than we might expect, if we’re willing to help them sort through archaic language and claim history as a living story.
Of course, getting your head around how you read the Bible goes well beyond knowing your tradition. Lyon offers this exercise (adapted from renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann) to individuals who want to better understand what they bring to reading scripture. At each stage in the exercise—corresponding to a different stage in life—Brueggemann asks probing questions about the issues active in one’s life at the time and the dominant messages he or she was hearing.
Only about 20 percent of Americans describe themselves as engaged with the Bible, and mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics scored pretty dismally in the Bible knowledge section of the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Religious Knowledge Survey. Clearly, we’ve got a lot of work to do in fighting biblical illiteracy. If we don’t, the likelihood of scripture serving as a source of strength, comfort, guidance, and living relationship for the people in our congregations is very low indeed.
A Bible literacy trend taking many denominations by storm is the Bible Challenge or Bible Year. These efforts are exactly what they sound like: a chance to read the entire Bible in just twelve months.
They tend to be most successful when tackled in groups, and many of the participants I’ve spoken to appreciated plans that offered passages from multiple sections of the Bible each day. This one from the Center for Biblical Studies gives a portion each day from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament to add some variety.
Of course, there are lots of ways to learn about the Bible without reading it word for word. The Story from Zondervan offers a more manageable abridged version. Bible Briefs and Enter the Bible articles are written by scholars but intended for non-experts and introduce individual books in an accessible way.
And there are of course more curricula, study tools, and companion books out there than one could ever hope to try. Among the most intriguing to me at the moment are the Echo the Story curriculum for youth from Spark House and Lyon’s project’s themed studies on creation and economic justice (these latter should be easily adaptable for non-Anglicans).
And for those for whom words, especially words in abundance, can be a challenge to personal learning style, there are lots of fantastic multimedia resources that engage the Bible’s broader themes, historical background, and resonances in the arts.
The Old and New Project and Jim LePage’s Word Bible Designs give biblical books and stories a modern graphics twist, the Glo Bible brings together beautiful maps and video explication, Bible study ‘maps’ add art and poetry to accompany the Gospels, and G-dcast animates Torah portions and psalms from a Jewish perspective.
Anglicans are certainly not the only Christians who read a large amount of scripture within worship services. This can be an important way to improve people’s knowledge of and connection with scripture—but it takes some intentional effort on part of preachers and worship planners.
Many publishers offer lectionary-based curriculum and Bible study resources, including tools as simple as bulletin inserts for taking the week’s scripture themes home. A more substantial change to consider at a churchwide level is the Narrative Lectionary, which was specifically designed to tell the story of the Bible more coherently on a week-to-week basis and in a four-year cycle.
Another way to go deeper with the Bible in worship is to design services around particular themes. Here, the Bible in the Life of the Church project has made suggestions like a liturgy around the themes of science and technology and a Biblical drama that tells a pilgrimage story with excerpts from the Psalms.
Perhaps the hardest thing for any local church to do—whether or not it is part of a global network of affiliated churches—is to learn from other parts of the world. But even the most homogenous congregation likely contains within it individuals who come from other countries, have relatives from other countries, have traveled extensively, or have served internationally. Many churches also enjoy partner relationships with communities near and far.
All of these relationships can be a rich source of learning about different cultural approaches to scripture. A good conversation should build on existing trust and requires careful planning and ground rules for intercultural conversations.
Anyone who preaches or leads Bible study regularly should also seek out resources that reflect a global Christian perspective. Two books I’ve recently discovered that help in this endeavor are Abingdon’s Global Bible Commentary and Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible.
The latter would be simply a strong if unremarkable children’s Bible were it not for the illustrations by artists from all over the world who were “invited to portray the stories with the style and richness of their own culture.” I highly recommend it, and so do many of my colleagues.
The former is an accessible and inexpensive single-volume commentary that begins each book’s discussion with a description of the interpreter’s life context. These profiles are frequently quite moving and almost always eye-opening (or at least they were for this privileged and unharassed Western Christian).
Speaking of preaching, and other tasks of biblical explication and instruction, Lyon’s final recommendations are basically about what we might call transparency in biblical leadership. Too often, clergy and other teachers act as purveyors of secret knowledge (I’ve been guilty of this) rather than companions and guides on a journey that is not just open to but really essential to the lives of all Christians.
How should we go about interpreting difficult passages? What should we do when we hear Good News in a passage and want to share it with the others? Where can we go for help when we’re confused or challenged beyond our knowledge and experience?
It’s up to faith formation leaders to encourage the asking of these questions and equip young and old to answer them both for themselves and especially in community. This must begin with our own willingness to do so—and to do so, in part, in appropriately public ways for the benefit of those we serve.
There are fewer high-quality programs and curricula on biblical interpretation as a subject than on study of particular books and themes (at least that seems to be the case from my vantage point). I found myself wishing I could get trained on h+, the program in biblical hermeneutics produced by the Bible Society in England. Perhaps the relative scarcity of such programs is Lyon’s reason for emphasizing the approach of modeling.
Whichever of these recommendations seem promising to you, remember that we won’t solve the problem of “doing Bible better” without starting somewhere. We’d love to hear about which ones end up working well in your context.
Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, a contributor at Faith Formation Learning Exchange (where this article originated), and a panelist on the Easter People podcast.