The other day, I said something in a class on the Book of Joshua about how central the Bible is to some people’s lives. “Why,” I said, “there are Bible scholars around here who devote their whole lives to studying this one book! Compare that to literature scholars, who cover at least a whole century or so of literature.”
“Actually,” my Bible professor said, “there are some around here who devote their whole lives to only one book–or even a few passages–of the Bible.”
“I know,” I said. “I was just trying to be polite.”
But seriously, my friends, there’s a big difference between seminary and the world, at least here in Connecticut. Walking through the halls of Yale Divinity School, one would think that the Bible is the hottest book out there. Just about everyone is taking a Bible course, studying for an Old Testament or New Testament midterm, reading articles and commentaries for upcoming papers (help!!!), writing sermons on Bible selections, and so on.
No matter what type of class one is in, the Bible figures prominently. Theologians look to the Bible for truths we can express about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. (They engage in long, detailed exegesis of passages in small footnotes on every page of their works. It’s exhausting to read.) Preachers study passages for meanings and look for connections with other Bible stories and passages. Bible students and scholars comb through the same passages and books over and over again, using a variety of interpretive methods to uncover various layers of meaning. We’re like archaeologists digging for God.
And yet, on the ground in the real world, there seems to be little Bible study going on, at least in my territory. This surprises me due to the extensive exposure I had to the Bible both as a child and as an adult. I was surprised when a Roman Catholic student in a Bible course said that she has had no exposure to the Bible except through the Sunday readings. In my ten years of Roman Catholic catechism, we were introduced to the Bible in fifth grade and studied it every year after that. (Vatican II called for Bible study by all Catholics, and my parish, Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Sunnyvale, California, took that seriously. Yes, that is the church’s name.)
I was taught to be literate and responsible with the book, to recognize the complexity of its sources and meanings, even when I was a child. When I was in college, and when I was an adult, there were sporadic Bible study offerings in Catholic churches. And when I switched to the Episcopal Church, there were multiple Bible study offerings in both Episcopal churches in California. We weren’t pretending to be expert scholars of the Bible in these studies; we were simply fellow sojourners eager to stay connected to the Word. That “Word” resonates with at least two meanings for Christians (Word as Bible, Word as Jesus, the embodied revelation of God).
So I was surprised to find that a number of Episcopal churches around here offer no Bible study. I proposed several Bible studies at different times in one parish but was not taken up on my offer. We play games in which we try to recognize Episcopal hymns and Book of Common Prayer trivia, but not Bible knowledge.
It’s curious to me that Roman Catholics and Episcopalians seem to have this reputation for little exposure to Bible study given my own frequent exposure in Catholic and Episcopal settings. But perhaps the reputation is deserved. Do Episcopalians and Roman Catholics study the Bible less than other Christians? If so, we are ignoring the long, long line of Christian teachers and theologians–from Augustine to Julian to Martin Luther to Barth to Schüssler Fiorenza to Elizabeth Johnson–who point to the Bible as the source of our Truth(s).
And the Episcopal Church clearly holds up the Bible as important in its Education for Ministry course, a four-year course that begins with two years of Bible scholarship.
It’s true that the Bible can be complex and sometimes even confusing and frustrating. It can rattle our concepts of God if we are believers, and it can turn off those who are not believers, who may find in the book’s language a sense of condemnation, incomprehensibility, or a portrayal of a vengeful, violent God that they never would want to know.
But for believers and nonbelievers alike, it can also be a beautiful book, full of history, poetry, narratives, wisdom literature, and even humor.