On Reading the New Testament

This term I’m TA-ing a New Testament survey at a grad school, where most of the students are not future pastors and theologians but therapists. Most come in with little to no exegetical training; many have really messy past-relationships with the Bible.

One challenge the entire teaching team faces, it seems to me, is to get our students to read the text well–to not settle for “Sunday School answers.” We’re only a few weeks into the term, and it’s obvious to me that this is less a biblical/exegetical task than it is a literary task. Of course. *

During my office hours last week, I tried to help a few students score better on their Reflective Summaries, an assignment that has them reading a short passage from the Gospels (some only a couple verses) and writing about its context and significance for the New Testament, what it says about the identity of Jesus. I found myself giving English/writing-major tips to these students.

Yes, researching a bit, reading the commentaries, will help you. But really, just pay attention to the narrative structure. Who are the characters? What’s happening; what’s the plot? Why does the author say it this way and not that? What do you think the audience heard?

I think back to my first interactions with the Scripture, when I was 11-, 12-years-old, before I spent much time at church. My only way of reading the Bible was reading it like a story.**  I didn’t know the historical-critical method. I hadn’t read any commentaries. Sunday school had yet to pollute my mind with things like, “Jesus is always the answer,” the ultimate cheat-sheet. Instead I just read the stories. I was infuriated by some. I fell in love with characters. I imagined myself in others.

And though my reading was nothing sophisticated, I know now that I benefited a lot from reading the Bible this way. It helped me begin to ask the bigger questions of Scripture like, What does this say about who God is? And, What does this say about who people think God is? I wasn’t so hung up on, oh my gosh, what is this text telling me to do? 

My hope as this course continues is that my students will improve their scores by reading well, by entering the narratives, and asking questions of them, instead of looking for the list of rules embedded inside.

*

Reading scripture, I like to preach, is so similar to reading poetry. What you can’t do, or shouldn’t do, is try to beat meaning out of it. Instead, let the poem/Scripture speak to you. Listen to its soft purring, its angry yawp, its tired sigh.

I ask them to take a poem  / and hold it up to the light  / like a color slide / or press an ear against its hive. …
But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.
–Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”

 

* Today I listened to our New Testament professor, Blaine, speak to his own approach to reading the Bible; for him, too it came from a deep love for literature. And to read the Scriptures well often just means, fundamentally, reading well.

** Though by high school, I was labeling each Pauline epistle’s “thesis.” Ha.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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