Another Bible Study Method! - March Issue

Welcome! I'm Harma-Mae Smit and this is my monthly newsletter diving into topics of faith. You can subscribe by clicking this link.

It’s nice to be back after a short break. As promised, I spent the break collecting my series on Proverbs 31 into an ebook (PDF), which is free to all email subscribers, so sign up to get your copy :)

This issue of {Hmm...} will be a little different than these past few months—I'm giving you a more practical topic to switch it up. I’m calling it “another bible study method” because I don’t think it’s “better” than any other method out there, but rather it’s an additional method that can be helpful! Try it out and let me know.

~Love, Harma-Mae

Another Bible Study Method

reader traces verses in a weathered bibleHow do we usually teach the Bible? When teaching children, we tend to either tell them biblical stories, or give them verses to memorize. These can be great strategies, but both of these can reduce the Bible into chunks. Verse memorization especially can isolate individual verses from their context, but even children’s bible stories can simplify a biblical narrative to the point where a child might not realize how different the emphases of the different gospels are (to give just one example).  

I don’t know about you, but I always found it hard to get a good sense of the “big picture” of the Bible, since we tend to take only a few verses at a time, or go chapter-by-chapter. When we read the next chapter, we may’ve forgotten about what was in the chapter before it, and we’re quite likely to have forgotten what was in the first chapter. I've found it feels like trying to get a good idea of what a painting looks like while having your nose pressed right up against it! Therefore, we often miss the way an argument might be built up chapter-by-chapter (as in Romans), or how a narrative alludes to or parallels an earlier narrative (for example, how Jesus bringing the Sermon on the Mount to the people echoes the way Moses brought the Law down from the mountain to Israel). In addition, the words of a chapter can become so familiar to us that we assume we know what they mean, but we don’t realize we tend to think of them in isolation and haven’t fit them in the context of the rest of the book.  

This Bible is a big book, so of course it’s difficult to wrap your mind around it! There’s too many story arcs and repetitions and references back to itself to ever cram into your head, but in time you can start to get a lot of meaning out of its overall structures. One method that is often suggested to counteract reading verses in isolation is to read one whole Bible book in one shot. This is one great method, and if you haven’t tried it yet you should definitely see how it changes the experience. One potential drawback might be that you still skim over familiar sections, assuming that you “know” that part—especially if you’ve chosen a long book and you need to give your brain a break! So the method I suggest is similar but a little bit different: pick a Bible book and outline it.

This means picking a Bible book and creating a chapter-by-chapter summary of it. It's even better if you commit to attempt to memorize this outline, because you’ll try to keep it clear and short, and because you’ll be forced to draw connections between the chapters to help you remember the order they come in. But even if you don’t try to memorize this outline, the process of trying to summarize instead of reading verse-by-verse forces you to pull back from the text and think about the big picture.

A method like this can be as intimidating as committing to read a whole Bible book in one sitting! So there’s a few ways to make it less intimidating. Not all of us have the skill of easily summarizing what we read, so feel free to use other resources to help. For example, copy all the headings from one of your Bible translations, and read them through to see if you follow the story of that book by the headings alone. You can then adjust or add to the headings as you need, until you have an outline that feels like it sums the book up. Go back and read a chapter whose heading wasn’t clear to you, and you might be surprised at the details you never noticed were in that chapter!  

Or you can look up outlines and summaries other people have made. I’ve seen several great summaries of Hebrews, for example. Another resource might be YouTube videos like the Bible Project. You may find some of these resources summarize too broadly, or they use different words than you would use, and so you can adjust your summary to what you think is most accurate. It’s okay to disagree with a summary you find, because then you’re really thinking critically about how you would describe this Bible book’s message in your own words.  

The point is, consciously putting in the effort to see “the big picture” by creating something of your own helps you make the message of the Bible your own. Your summary will certainly not be better than the Bible itself—that is not the point. But the point is to internalize what you’re reading, rather than skimming it or assuming you remember what the familiar words mean when you’ve never really thought about them. It’s an attempt to get away from words that are so familiar you hardly realize you don’t hear them.  

You might start to notice new details, like the parts of the stories left out of the Bible stories told to children. You might notice details like how Genesis is divided into ten sections starting with the repeated words, “These are the generations of...” (ESV), which is a structure unique to Genesis. Or how Exodus is punctuated, not by genealogies, but rather theophanies (when God visibly reveals himself to humans, such as in the burning bush).

Start small! Pick a shorter book to try it out—John is a good one to try for a narrative, since summarizing it will help you picture what it contains that the other gospels leave out, and you can use the seven major miracles of Jesus described in it as significant points. If you want something that’s more about doctrine, you can try Galatians—it's less familiar than Romans, but packs a lot in it.  

The reason I recommend trying this out is that this is an exercise I was required to do for my courses in the Old Testament and the New Testament. I was required to get acquainted with each chapter, even the chapters I might be tempted to skip reading otherwise, and as a result I began to feel at home navigating through the message of the Bible as a whole. I definitely do not remember the chapter-by-chapter outlines I created. But as a result, each Bible book feels like an old friend, when I encounter it now, rather than new and intimidating territory.  

There are some books that this method will work less well on—Psalms and Proverbs come to mind. I, personally, have found prophetic writings like Isaiah and Jeremiah hard to summarize as well. But it works very well for narratives, helping you pull back enough to see the plot progression. It also works well on much of the New Testament letters.   

Who knows? By the end of this, you might find you finally remember what differentiates 2 Thessalonians from Philippians.

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Here are my top recommendations for interesting and uplifting links to get you through the month ahead—explore at your leisure:

Article: Jane Austen’s novels have been used to treat shell-shock!

Article: “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship” – I found this was a different perspective on social connections than usual

Video: I filmed a handful of videos in February, so here’s one, if you missed it

Podcast: Christianity & the Arts: Literature & Ar‪t‬ (Mid-America Reformed Seminary's Round Table)


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