Many people believe that to study the Bible in depth, a person has to attend the seminary. The burden is to find the money to enroll in a seminary and then spend years studying things, some relevant and others irrelevant. This is only partially true. For example, unless you have to take a class on typology in patristic literature, there is little incentive to dig deep into ancient books and find out how the Noahic flood is a type that hints to baptism.
But don’t despair. If your purpose is to develop a deep faith by studying the Bible in depth, then you can surely accomplish that without attending a seminary as long as you are willing to invest in what it takes. Mind you, I’m not writing about a quick-fix Bible study pretending to be in-depth. Of course, you can learn pastors’ lingo and use sophisticated terms that Bible scholars use, but don’t lie to yourself; without a disciplined study of the Bible and its reception in society, the attempt would only be a pretense. In order to deepen your faith through scrupulous Bible study, you need a long-term and habit-based Bible study. Such devotion to the Bible requires you to balance reflection with analysis and listen to your community of believers. You also need to live according to the insights you gain. To accomplish that, you may want to develop some habits.
What habits? Below I describe some habits that are indispensable to my personal Bible study. But before that, let’s come up with some general definitions. 1) A long-term, habit-based Bible study means a regular, consistent, purposeful study of the Bible and its place or perception in society for at least a year or two. 2) Reflection and analysis are two modes of thinking about the subject matter. Reflection tends to be more personal, playful, imaginative, and experience-oriented while analysis is more objective, disciplined, theoretical, and data-oriented. 3) Listening to the community involves hearing what other believers say or believe about the given subject matter and then considering that in our own spiritual journey.
Now, if you form and apply these ten habits to your Bible study, I believe you will increase your chance of developing a deep faith by deepening your grasp of the Bible.
Helpful Habits to Study the Bible in Depth
1.Read the Bible and related literature.
This may sound obvious, but it is worth emphasizing. Read the Bible and any related literature: don’t just listen to them when you drive. Listening is good, but for an in-depth study, reading helps more. When you read, there is no voice or layer of human interpretation between you and the Bible. But when you listen to the Bible, a layer or subtle interpretation (from the artist or the person who reads the text out loud) comes into the equation. Every reading of the Bible is partly a process of interpretation. So eliminate the unnecessary voice from the process, and be more intimate with the scripture.
Reading the Bible is just the beginning. You may also want to read related literature (This is what students do in seminary). By related literature I mean texts devoted to the scholarly interpretation of the Bible. These texts can be classical (Augustine’s On the Trinity) (affiliate link) or modern (Sugirtharaja’s Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World) (affiliate link). But find and read them because they will teach you to consider everything in and about the scripture: word, context, perspective, voice, genre, archeological findings, etc. Also, read various translations of the Bible. Read atheistic, agnostic, and mystical literature just to familiarize yourself with the possible perspectives and challenges they put forward to understanding the Bible. Along the way, don’t forget why you are reading the Bible. Your purpose (an in-depth study) will frame your reading experience.
2.Talk about passages to your pastor and others.
Reading is a solitary experience. It takes place within you, which is good for developing an intimacy with the text but bad for a real-world faith polished through human interaction. So talk to your pastor about the passages you read. Request time, and discuss the passages. Prepare before you go so that your questions are relevant to the pastor and to you. Ask the hard questions, and let the pastor wrestle with the text to see how humans (who studied the text) try to grasp its depths.
Find and discuss biblical passages with those who disagree with you. Their perspective is no less valuable than those who agree with you because they will push you to consider certain elements of the text that you may otherwise miss. If you have an opportunity, find and discuss studied passages with internationals or with those who come from another culture. Trust me on this; the perspectives you will observe will stretch your mind for good. A person who grew up in an oral culture may reveal certain aspects of the text that you may not find anywhere else.
3.Memorize your favorite passages and verses.
If you think memorization is about imitation or mindless repetition, think again. Memorization is more than just passively storing information. It is another way of learning in which the learned material becomes internalized with a high level of precision. When it comes to the Bible, internalizing the text with a high-level of precision (down to the letter) matters because the word of God becomes part of you. And you become part of the word of God within you.
The joy of memorization will come to you when out of the blue in the midst of an activity, a verse will pop into your mind, moving your heart and shedding light onto the situation. To memorize the Bible, write down the passage and glue it to highly visible places so that your eye can catch it several times a day. You can write the verse or passage many times. Also, consider partnering with someone in memorizing the text. It will make memorization much more interesting. Set aside time everyday to read, repeat, devise memorization tricks, and memorize the scripture.
4.Apply lessons learned from the Bible in everyday life.
Applying lessons learned from the Bible in everyday life is another way of learning the Bible. Coupled with reading, it is a powerful tool for developing a deep faith. As you do that, you will discover difficult passages to live by and easy passages we are drawn to. You can begin applying biblical teachings into your life right now, slowly and easily. First, talk to God often. Talking to God does not mean praying all the time. Consider God to be your esteemed conversation partner who listens to you and responds in gracious, often unexpected ways. Talk to God just as you would talk to your beloved friend.
Also, observe how others apply biblical teachings to their lives. You will learn how to apply the scripture in daily activities, but you will also gain insights on how not to apply the scripture. The wrong application of the Bible is often worse than no application at all. Take up a social cause, and challenge yourself. If you are shy, start from an activity that does not involve too much tension. If it’s not standing up for political justice, then how about volunteering in an animal shelter? These attempts will challenge your previous assumptions by forcing you to consider how to bring biblical teachings into new situations fraught with real-life consequences.
5.Meditate or contemplate on the passage and its subject matter.
Meditation or contemplation of biblical texts has been a part of Christian life from ancient times. All major branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism) teach about contemplating the text. Contemplation is a personal, imaginative, and free-floating reflection on the text from the perspective of faith. You can start with learning how to do Lectio Divina and incorporating it into your spiritual life. From the Eastern tradition, you may gain some insights by applying hesychastic prayer. (Yep, these are the things you learn in seminary). Also, focusing on various elements of the biblical text and its application helps.
By contemplating, you invest your emotions in the biblical passage. To do that, use your imagination. As you read the text, visualize and dramatize the topic in your mind’s eye. Do you read Jesus’ birth story? Then imagine a star is shining one day and is barely visible another day. See the magis who refuse to reveal the purpose of their travel to fellow travelers in the caravan. Imagine them taking turns to observe the movements and brightness of the star every night after the caravan comes to a halt. Use your brain and see them whispering to one another as they enter ancient Palestine only to be disappointed by the unsatisfying answers of an old shepherd. Observe young shepherds with dust-covered feet stumble upon the old men from the East, and hear their raspy voices.
6.Travel to Bible-related exhibits and historic places to understand how society uses these topics and ideas.
Traveling may seem to be just a pastime. But for a person who wants to understand the Bible as more than just a text, to observe historical places and bible-related artifacts matter. If you cannot travel to Jerusalem, you may still travel to attraction parks that are themed or influenced by Christianity. These parks will show the way society perceives and uses themes stemming from the scripture. This will develop your awareness of how the Bible may say one thing and society may make it into another for the sake of money, entertainment, or supporting political opinions. In short, you will see how many extra-biblical concerns color our perceptions of the Bible. These travels will show you what themes of the Bible are highlighted in our entertainment and business world and the implications of that. After several of such visits, you will see the larger societal context affecting our perceptions of the Bible.
Also, travel to places where the ways of living are closer to the biblical world. If you grew up in Chicago and have never been on a farm, find one and spend some time there just to get a glimpse of the agricultural world. The biblical world was agricultural. This would enrich your experience of the Bible because you would understand certain teachings of the Bible in a new light. If you have never heard an actual real shepherd calling to his sheep by playing a flute or a similar instrument and the sheep hearing and responding to his voice, you would miss a layer of understanding from John 10:27. “My sheep listen to my voice.” The lack of that real world experience would make your understanding of that verse an abstraction. So strive to experience the parts of the world that retain elements of the biblical world.
7.Research the passage or verse that you cannot put aside.
As you study the Bible, you will discover that certain stories, passages, images, metaphors, and concepts linger in your mind. Some will put down roots into your soul. For me, these anchoring biblical teachings include the human body as the temple of God, humankind as the image of God, God’s self-sacrificial enactment of salvation through Jesus Christ, and the mystery of God’s justice. The verse that wounded my soul and brought me to Christ is this: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The words stir my heart and move me to study more, think more, and live more. When you notice the passages or images grasping your mind and heart, don’t ignore them. Take notice, and think about why these passages captivate you more than others.
Captivating passages and metaphors can be a gateway that God opens specifically for you to pass through and know God closely. So single out these images from the Bible, and intensify your study of those texts without ignoring the others. Go deep. I mean deep-deep. Find scholars who worked on the subject, listen to sermons devoted to the subject, and pray so that God may reveal to you the nuances of revelation you may miss. Go out of your way and find what other faiths teach on these matters. Do a close reading of the texts that speak to your heart. A close reading is the kind of reading that focuses on the text from several angles and explores every detail of it, including its background, wording, location among other texts, the church’s use of the text throughout history, the grammar and connotations of the language. You don’t even need to know Greek to do these things. Software like Logos or Bibleworks and webpages like Bible Hub or Bible.org will guide you and fill the gap in your knowledge. The main point is don’t let the lack of knowledge hold you back.
8.Attend a church and listen.
Now, remember that studying the Bible without listening to the community that takes the Bible and wrestles with its sharp edges is lousy work. The book is a lifeless thing, and the physical Bible only becomes a living force when people pass the message of Christ from generation to generation by listening to the Bible and reinterpreting it over and over again in their own context. So attend a church. Listen carefully to the sermons. Hear people’s discussions to know how the Bible is studied. Observe how people sincerely live by it, how the Bible was ignored, or how it is turned into a toothless storybook we use to support petty opinions. Learn from the wisdom of the church that interprets the Bible to give you hope, and wrestle with the elements of it that are archaic, out-of-touch, and oppressive.
See people try to embody the text in their relationships. Develop a fellowship with believers: remember, for these basic yet very important elements of deep faith you don’t need to attend seminary. Become friends with them if only to see how the Bible is highlighted in one sphere of their lives and ignored in others. Learn from them, and notice your own shortcomings. Participate in church activities, and see how believers struggle to keep together in an increasingly individualistic world. In short, be part and parcel of a community that translates the scripture from word into action. This will force you to recognize that “no man is an island” (John Donne) in his relationship with God, and God’s love for us is not determined purely by words in the text.
9.Take a break, and come back again.
Do you think an in-depth Bible study and an attempt to live our lives by the insights gained from the Bible would not have negative effects? Do you think the more you study the Bible, the more angel-like you would turn out to be? Wrong! We are humans, and any activity that is intensive, long-term, and governs our lives takes a toll on us. As time passes, a long-term attempt to study the Bible becomes stale. In fact, at some point, that’s what happened to me when I studied in seminary. Simply put, we get used to it, and the monotonous elements of our attempts blind us to unusual details that the uninitiated may notice. The sacred word turns into something ordinary. We develop the illusion that we have mastered the Bible. This is normal as similar things affect totally unrelated activities too.
Don’t blame yourself for being less faithful, but just realize that unless you take a break, you may be stuck in this phase long enough to weaken your faith. Take a break from the in-depth Bible study. Let your mind work and absorb what you studied while you do something unrelated. Go kayaking; spend a month or so doing things unrelated to your Bible study. How about jogging? If you do that already and can’t find another activity, then enjoy the time in which God is present in your life in a behind-the-scenes fashion. See if you notice the presence of the Hidden One in unrelated events, situations, and things of your life. But I would encourage you to develop a habit or a hobby unrelated to the Bible so that when you return to the text, your new and unrelated experience can cross-fertilize your Bible study.
10.Find and explore biblical passages in other mediums (like music, drawing, theater, etc.).
An important but often neglected way of studying the Bible is to find and study the embodiment of scriptural themes in other mediums. Learn or experience the representation of the Bible in these mediums, and notice the unique angles they bring. This is an indirect study of the Bible (and applied in seminary classrooms too), not as a written text but something deeper and larger that can be presented in music, novels, theater, drawing, and the fine arts. The presentation of biblical insights in such mediums draws attention to the marginal elements of the biblical text and are highlighted due to the artistic vision or nature of the medium.
Listen to Handel’s “Messiah,” and notice the drama. Don’t be afraid to speculate about the music and the way it presents “Messiah” because through disciplined and imaginative speculation, God grants insights to people. Watch movies made about Jesus Christ. Don’t just swallow it passively or entertain yourself, but critically appropriate the way it presents its scriptural themes. Was Jesus Christ a blue-eyed, long-haired white man? If not, why do movies present him as such? Moreover, how much has race played a role in Jesus’ life and his interaction with people? Ask a few of these types of questions, and next you may find yourself pondering the question of race in the Bible and its representation in various media. These things may sound like ivory-tower matters devoid of practical implications. But delay your taken-for-granted desire of instant gratification for applicable results. Think about these things, and let them sink into your soul. Down the path, you will notice subtle changes deepening your faith.
By forming and applying some of these habits into your Bible study, you will gain a new and deeper understanding of the scripture and find new ways to appreciate an already nuanced faith of the universal church.
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