12 Tips for Bible Studies that Don’t Suck

by Marc Olson

  1. Take a deep breath. First, relax. You don’t need to be an expert to read the Bible, or even to lead a discussion, so don’t hold yourself to some arbitrary standard—and certainly don’t try to fake it. Let your own interest in finding stuff out, your gratitude for God’s grace and your love of the people you’re sitting with set the table and the tone.
  2. Let the Bible do its own thing. It’s tempting to start with a theme—even something cool and important like forgiveness or community or love. Resist this temptation, as it often reduces a rich story or section of the Bible into a less interesting thing, with fewer dimensions. Start with the story, or the letter or the list—read it carefully and see what it offers you. Think of the Bible less like a paper-flat roadmap and more like a living landscape, with its own topography and climate and creatures. Pay attention to the words and the world they shape. Explore it together. This may take more than 20 minutes, so slow down.
  3. Lean into the weird. This is related to tip #2. Lots of Bible studies start with themes or aim for takeaways as a way to focus the talk and the time—and to avoid getting stuck in the weeds by some of the Bible’s stranger stuff. Smart and skeptical kids, just like their adult counterparts, will be drawn to the opaque, odd or intriguing elements of the Bible’s world, though, and they’ll notice when these things or skipped or slighted. Engage miracles and prophecies—not to mention the occasional bear mauling, sea parting and episode of adultery—with curiosity. You don’t have to explain these things, but you will benefit from beholding them.
  4. Don’t simply search for rules and life lessons. The Hebrew Bible holds more than 600 commandments, about everything from behavior to belief to what kind of foods are ok to eat. You probably know about 10 of these off the top of your head and maybe a few innovations and revisions on those themes from Jesus and the folks that followed him in the New Testament. That whole big Bible isn’t just a wrapper for these rules, however. Tamp down (or better yet, let go of) the urge to wrestle some nuggetty moral or set of must-have manners from every story. This is a written word that reveals so much more than rules for righteous living. It’s the story of God: who God is, what God loves and how God does all that loving.
  5. Find the funny bits. It’s there, despite what you may have been told or experienced. Youths and kids turn out to be wiser than the teachers, widows and young women wield subversive power and the guys who think they won the war end up with hemorrhoids and houses full of mice. Humor in the Bible includes the puns and reversals and surprises that upend the expected and reveal the world-changing love that God has for the underdog, the unwanted, the second-born and the scorned. It’s not always hilarious, but it can be satisfying and sustaining—which was usually the intent.
  6. Leave the cover closed from time to time. See what stories you already know. Everybody at your Bible study has a scriptural story or two stored up someplace in their memory and imagination—no matter how mangled or mashed up with an episode of the Simpsons or themes from Harry Potter they might be. Start with Noah and his ark, or the creation of Eve, or the Good Samaritan, or Saul on the road to Damascus. Take turns telling stories aloud before you even open the Bible. Talk about what makes for a memorable story, and what meaning sticks in the mind and heart. The material that went on to become the Bible lived and lasted by memory and telling for centuries before any of it was written down.
  7. Embrace ambiguity. Make friends with polyvalence and the reality that the Bible was authored and assembled by an unknown (but rather large) number of human beings with various interests and agendas and arguments over a span of centuries in a set of lands and spate of eras that are utterly foreign to your present moment. Resign yourself to knowing that there are at least a handful of theologies at work among the Bible’s 66 books, and the order in which these books appear is not the order in which they were written. Bend your modern mind around the reality that some passages of ancient prose were intentionally crafted to be alluringly opaque and ambiguous. Admit that each of the Bible’s many moments was aimed at a specific audience with a set of intentions and aspirations for its effect. Then, finally, make friends with the truth that all translations into new languages, including ours, are themselves interpretations, which bring their own baggage to the party. Practice saying “I don’t know” and “beats me” and “let’s figure that out together”.
  8. Parse the categories. Teach your group that the Bible is less like a novel or dictionary—or even an encyclopedia—and more like a library. History and poetry are shelved in there, right beside myth and songs and wise sayings. Family trees are stacked along with folklore and inventories and letters and the front-page accounts of heroes and kings. Getting a sense of what kind of writing you’re reading can be a great gift to any group. As you identify the genre, discuss together what’s required for that kind of writing, what makes it good or great, what it’s attempting to do, and what it’s not trying to do.
  9. Welcome history into the mix. Respect the remoteness of the Bible’s ancient sources and setting, but do some homework. The last two centuries of history and archaeology and study and science have brought amazing richness to the background of the Bible. Up until the 19th century the scriptures were among a very small number of known ancient documents to shed light on the Bronze Age cultures of the Fertile Crescent. Since then, we’ve deciphered cuneiform, mapped Sumerian cities from space, explored King Tut’s tomb and dug up the Dead Sea Scrolls. Look it up.
  10. See where it’s blooming today. The Bible actually has a pretty vibrant and busy social life these days, despite what some might think. Not only is it one of the primary mythical and moral sources for Western culture—including the art, religion and politics of the last couple millennia—it’s also pretty hip. Start looking and listening for places outside of self-referentially “Christian” culture where the Bible’s themes, and even its language, are echoed and employed by contemporary artists and musicians and poets and politicians. Start erasing the imaginary border between “sacred” and “secular” because the Bible doesn’t present itself that way. Challenge your group to a kind of cultural scavenger hunt for these places where the Bible and its words are rooting and flowering in the world away from church. Share what you find and what you think.
  11. Ask questions that can’t be answered. Nothing against the people who can rattle off the names of all 12 tribes of Israel, as well as Noah’s wife and the Latin name of the fish that were native to Lake Tiberias in the year 5 CE, but Bible study is more than Bible trivia. Show your group ways to open the Bible with questions beyond who and what and when. Invite them to wonder about—and build questions about—the whys and hows that are provoked by scripture: Why does God act like that at this time? How is God merciful and just at the same time? Why do people fail at being faithful so often? Why does God love us? What is Jesus showing us about God when this happens? Bible studies can be amazing incubators, where budding theologians are warmed and watered. They can also be the opposite: cold corners, where creative questions are stymied and shut down, and where wonderment withers.
  12. Expect God to show up. Take another breath, friend. You aren’t alone. As you undertake yet another excursion into the Bible with perhaps reluctant companions, recall God’s promise of comfort and company. But stay humble; this is not conjuring. Walk by faith into the lovely mess of mysteries and mayhem that make up the Bible’s wild witness. Stay curious and hungry. Have fun.

MarcOlsonMarc Olson is a freelance catechist who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota where he lives with his aging basset hound, Bruce.  He is the author of “The World Jesus Knew: A Curious Kids Guide to Life in the First Century.”  In addition to being a garbage driver, a hearse driver and the manager of a homeless shelter, Marc served as a pastor in the ELCA.

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