Understanding the Bible #2–What Am I Looking For?

July 13, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

I was not good in high school English.  Before you start evaluating the grammar of that first sentence, let me tell you what I mean.  I was not a good person in English.  I did well, but I was not good.  I didn’t get it.  I didn’t like it and that may or may not have caused me to have a bad attitude.  The story that 17 yr old Cloften would have told you is that all English teachers were out to get him.  I’m not sure what he would have said to why, but I’m sure it would have been creative.

Thirty-nine soon to be thirty-ten year old Cloften would tell you that the 17 yr old was an obnoxious punk who didn’t like the class or the assignments, resented being in there and only wanted to get an A and get out.  I did make good grades, but, primarily because of the attitude, I never really “got it.”  We would read these plays or books and then have to talk about themes and foreshadowing and imagery.  There was some story where a dude woke up as a cockroach and we were supposed to talk about the symbolism.  “Don’t know, don’t care.  Just tell me and I will gladly repeat it back to you on the test.”

I came to believe that I just didn’t know how to do it and that I wasn’t capable.  In college in my one obligatory English class, we were to read books and write a paper on them.  I asked the professor what we were supposed to do.  He said, “read the book, come up with a theory and prove it.”  I thought in response, “What?”  I did not do well in his class.

Then one day, after my 10th or so viewing of Braveheart, it all kind of came to me–the theme of the movie, symbolism, etc.  Now I see it in movies all the time. (I mean not movies like Con Air, but you know movies with a point.)  Now amazingly, I can analyze books as well, and simultaneously discovered that my problem had been attitude (Isn’t it always?).

It’s that same “Can’t Do” attitude that follows most of us to reading and understanding the Bible.  “OK,  I read a passage in the Bible, which means my eyes went over all the words on the page, so what?  What am I supposed to learn? What am I supposed to think? What’s supposed to happen?  Or is nothing supposed to happen–I just do it and say I did it?”

There are two ways of approaching the Bible (Obviously there are more.  We will focus on 2), and I would like to suggest that they are intertwined.  The two ways are literary and spiritual.  The spiritual approach is to pray before you read and ask God to show you something, to teach you, encourage you, change you, etc.  You then read it and expect God to do just that.

However, it can be difficult for that to happen if you really don’t know what you’re reading or how to read it.  This is why even the most spiritual people can get discouraged reading the Bible or well-intentioned people can misinterpret the Bible and/or misapply it.  So let’s talk about what to be looking for as you read it, understanding that what God does in your life is the most important part.

Is it possible to sum up the Bible in 3 sentences? Sure, if they are complex sentences.

The Bible is the story of God who created the universe for his pleasure and created people to be in fellowship with him.  These people rebelled against God, and the God that created them and loves them wants to redeem them and restore fellowship with them.  This is accomplished ultimately through sending his Son, Jesus to die on our behalf.

“Break that down for me please.”

1) The story is about God not us.

2) We were created to be in relationship with him not so that we could do whatever we wanted

3) We have rebelled against the God that created us.

4) God is pursuing a relationship with all people.

5) This is being done now through His Son, Jesus.

So when reading, there are a few questions you can ask yourself.  Writing down the answers can be helpful.

What do I learn about God?

What do I learn about the nature of people?

How is God trying to reconcile people?

How are people who have relationships with God supposed to feel/think/act?

Old Testament: Does any of this point to/foreshadow Jesus?  New Testament: What do I learn about Jesus and his sacrifice for us?

Every passage that you read will deal with one or more of these themes/questions.  Take down notes on anything you notice.  There is no insight too simple.  As with most things, practice will make you better.  When you combine these kinds of insights with God working in your heart, you will notice tremendous spiritual benefits and God changing your life.

Soon you’ll be a regular scholar noticing all sorts of great insights into yourself, God, sin, people, etc.  You’ll be a literary genius.  (Did I mention Braveheart really is the story of Robert the Bruce? Ask me later.)

Understanding the Bible #1–Where to Start

July 5, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

A friend asked me recently a very important question.  They were wanting to introduce their children to the Star Wars movies–a noble goal indeed. They asked, “Where should we start?  Should we start with Episode IV since it was released first or start with Episode I and take them in chronological order?”  A deep and significant question.  I hope I didn’t minimize the significance of the question by how quickly I answered.

The answer, quickly given, was that they should watch them in order of release date.  This is the story of Darth Vader, although you would be inclined to think that it was about Luke.  Vader is the most evil movie villain, evah (read more here).  Then he turns out to be the hero’s dad and then, well you know.  Empire Strikes Back has perhaps the best plot twist of all time, with all due respect to Keyser Sose, dead therapists and Rosebud (Boom! Dated reference!).  You lose that plot twist by watching the 1,2,3, first and it’s harder to care about what’s going on in 1,2,3 if you don’t know who Annakin/Vader is.

A similar and, shall we say, more important question is where do I start reading the Bible.  In part there are two lines of thought that, ironically are the same as the Star Wars question.  Some say start at the beginning and read chronologically.  Others say start with Jesus, the centerpiece of the big picture story of the Bible.  If you are not a Christian and want to understand the story of the Bible, I would start with Jesus.  The best place to do that is the Gospel of John.  That is the fourth book of the New Testament.  Gospel means “good news” and in the Bible has become a title for four different semi-biographies of Jesus.  (I say semi because that is not their primary purpose.  Talking about Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection are their main goals.  3 years out of the life of a man who lived approximately 33 years).  The Gospel of John was written specifically to focus on the stories and sayings of Jesus that deal with people coming to faith.  So it is a great book for non-believers and new believers.

If you are a believer and know the story of Jesus, I’d suggest a more chronological approach–start at the beginning.  What I am going to outline here is starting with the books that tell the story of the Bible, the history books.  In future posts, we will break down the big picture story into sections and place all of the books into one of those sections.  For now, we will put together an approach to reading the Bible that will give you the big idea.

Genesis (Creation, Noah, Tower of Babel, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob/Esau-12 sons, most notably Joseph)

Exodus (Jews are slaves, God raises up Moses to free them and take them to a promised land)

Leviticus/Numbers (Warning! Can be tedious.  Lots of rules, lots of repetition. Story gets bogged down. Can be difficult to read.  Hang in there.  Jews headed to promised land, receive God’s law, rebel, are punished and have to wander around)

Deuteronomy (Don’t read the whole thing.  They are back to the promised land.  Moses giving them the law again.  Read Chapters 1-2 and then skip to Chapter 29 to the end)

Joshua (Taking the land, establishing themselves)

Judges (Living in the land…poorly)

I & II Samuel (God ruling the Jews through prophets, but they want a king, God gives them a king.  It doesn’t go well.  1st 3–Saul, David, Solomon)

I & II Kings (Note, these books are essentially repeated in I & II Chronicles but from a different perspective. Over simplification, but just read one pair for now. The kingdom is split into two, Israel (north) Judah (south).  It’s still not going well. It ends with both nations being conquered and exiled.)

Ezra and Nehemiah (The people are coming back from exile to rebuild Israel.)

Gospel of Luke (Jesus comes to Israel to restore the people and to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.)

Acts (The story of Jesus’s disciples who take his message to the world.)

We have left out some great books and great stories and great poetry, basically a lot of cool stuff that you absolutely should go back and read.  But once you understand the big story, the question of where and how do these other books fit will make more sense.

How much should I read?  That’s a great question.  However, it’s one we rarely ask in any other context.  “Hey, I checked out a novel from the library.  How much do you think I should read at a time?”  “Well, I don’t know.  Until you want to stop and then pick it up when you’re ready to read again?”  How about just read the Bible?  When your eyes/mind start to glaze stop.  When you pick it back up the next day (Reading the Bible every day is a great thing), review what you have read, remind yourself of where you are in the story and read some more.

I understand that the Bible can be challenging to read.  Understanding the story can be difficult and make take some time. You may only be able to read in small chunks.  I get that. This is a guy who doesn’t like blog posts to be more than 900 words, so I need

Understanding the Bible (Preview)

July 1, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

On occasion, I have been known to do a little math tutoring. Not only do I have two young scholars in my house, but also I’ll help random people in the church and such. What I’ve noticed is that most, if not all, people who say that they are struggling with math, know a lot more math than what they believe they do. Their problem is not comprehending the problem or doing the work. Their problem is what I will call math anxiety.

It’s similar to test anxiety and it certainly manifests itself during the tests. Math anxiety is when someone who is not naturally gifted in math or doesn’t like math declares, “Math is impossible,” “Math is stupid” or my favorite “Math doesn’t make sense.” I love it. The problem can in no way be me. The problem is math. Math is wrong. If math were right, then I would easily get it. Raise your hand if you’ve thought that. (Looking) Hey, everyone in my house just raised their hand. (I’m questioning if math acumen is genetic, or perhaps math-hating is the dominant gene. Looking at you HLoften).

I believe that we also struggle with Bible Anxiety. We have been convinced or have convinced ourselves that the Bible is impossible to understand. “I’ve tried reading it, and I just don’t get it.” “The Bible just doesn’t make sense.” I think pastors over the years have contributed to the problem. While on the one hand we say that you should read and study the Bible on your own, on the other we make it seem like you have to be a trained scholar with a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to truly understand it.

“Well, you make think this verse says blah, blah, blah, but that that Greek verb is an intransitive pluperfect gerund, and what it really means is wah, wah, wah.” While many of these scholarly insights are helpful, often there can be the unintended consequence of making reg’lar folk believe that they aren’t smart enough to understand the Bible. If cloften.com were a blog for pastors, there would already be a post entitled “Tone Down the Scholarly Rhetoric, Einstein.”

This is the beginning of a new blog series on understanding the Bible and before we really get started, I want to first say, “You can do it.” You on your own, with a pen, piece of paper, Bible and occasionally a dictionary, can understand the Bible. If you sat down and just read the Bible, you could get the basic idea 90+% of the time.

All you have to do is use basic reading comprehension. Things like understanding the subject, verb, descriptive words, if/then, cause/effect, etc. You’ll notice if there are ever sentences that are just fragments (See previous sentence), and there won’t be. You’ll ask yourself what is the point the author is trying to make, just like when you read the newspaper (Ha, ha, ha. He just said newspaper. He might as well have said papyrus). You’ll connect with characters and find the morals in stories, just like when you read novels, you know on your Kindle (Trying to reclaim cool points). Context will tell you the definition of words you don’t know or you will look them up in the dictionary, just like you always do when you read.

“Wait, wait, wait. Cloften this is the Bible. Bible is hard. The rules are different for the Bible. You can’t just read the Bible.” Right and wrong. (Another sentence fragment). You are right in that the content is more weighty and the source of the content is God. It is more important that you understand the concepts of grace and salvation, than whether or not you are Team Edward or Team Jacob (At least it should be).

However, it is still a book, a book with words, English words, English words you know, put together in sentences that you can understand. There will be parts you don’t understand immediately. Write down your questions and read some more. Some questions will be answered in the next passage. Others can be answered by friends when you get together and talk about it. (In a small group or Sunday School. It’s like a book club, but, you know, with the Bible.)

I’m not saying that it is as simple as “believe in yourself and go for it.” That’s why this will likely be a 20 part series. We need to understand what the major themes of the Bible are, how it fits chronologically, how the different books of the Bible relate to each other, understand the different genres, etc.  These are things that help us understand the Bible better.  These are not things that we must grasp perfectly before we should even start reading.

However, the biggest issue we have is confidence.  “I believe that God wants me to understand his word, and I am smart enough to read a book and understand it.”  You really can do it. I mean, it’s not calculus.