Reading the Bible Like Twelfth Graders

Yesterday, one of my students pointed me to the State of California’s Common Core Standards for reading for students in grades 11-12.

Here are a couple of them:

RI.11-12.2. Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.

RI.11-12.3. Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

What struck me as I read over this was, in short, that I’m trying to get my students to read the Bible like 12th graders.

Image: vichie81 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This is harder than it sounds. Not just for seminary students, but for all of us.

Our primary exposure to the Bible is in settings where learning to read given books as unified and developing texts is impossible.

In church, we worry about people losing focus if we read more than a quarter or a half of a chapter. For sermons, we focus on a pericope and take years to work through a book the size of Mark.

We memorize verses, but rarely paragraphs or chapters.

The standards I summarize above assume that in a unified text ideas will interact and develop over the course of the document.

Too often, our reading strategies for the Bible assume that we can plop down in any verse or chapter and know what there is to know.

Those two Core Standards might be another way of articulating what I want for my Narrative Theology project: I want a Christian community that will read the Bible, and help me better read the Bible, as though we are competent twelfth graders. Let’s learn together how the story of Jesus develops in the Gospels, how the argument of Galatians as a whole unfolds, how the cycles of Revelation tell and retell the story of the justice of God in the Lamb.

This is not an anti- or a-theological project, but like all my pleas, is for a better way of understanding our common, rich theological story.

The Core Competencies continue:

RI.11-12.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

Good readings recognize meanings of important technical words and phrases–in context, and as notions that develop over the course of a document. In Christian parlance, our texts can speak to theological points, but those have to be negotiated through the changing contours of composed arguments and stories.

And, good readings allow the author to speak:

RI.11-12.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

I will often say to those who ask for the advice that an undergrad who wants to go into biblical studies should double major in Literature and Classics. Learn how to read, and you will be a good reader of the Bible. Learn your history and you’ll have a better idea of what it’s saying and how it might be heard.

Not all of us (and I include myself in the “not”) are natural readers, who find it second nature to keep tabs on the development of an argument or story. It takes hard work. But it’s the kind of hard work that opens the doors to understanding in fresh ways the power of the stories, letters, and prophecies that comprise the big saving story of God in Christ.

9 thoughts on “Reading the Bible Like Twelfth Graders”

  1. Couldn’t agree more with this post.

    And, I got it half right: I was an English major. Coming into the field of biblical studies when “the Bible as literature” was a hot approach made the transition natural for me. Classics, however, was a field that was so not-hot that I didn’t even know it existed until I got to grad school. Sadly.

    Another useful aspect of being a literature major is that you will be introduced to the concept of hermeneutics, likely under the label of literary criticism or literary theory, but in either case the idea that there are different interpretive points of view from which a text can be approached and that these will have a significant (even determinitive) affect on what questions one asks and what answers one gets–that is an idea that should not be coming as a philosophical bombshell in seminary or grad school.

    Also very helpful: learning to write, especially fiction or memoirs. There is nothing that will attune you to the craft of writing a narrative than trying to do it yourself. The coincidence of taking “Short Story Writing” the same term as “The Gospel of Mark” in college probably has as much to do with where I am today as any other occurrence.

  2. Well done, Daniel.

    When I teach Sunday School, I try to get the class to engage with large portions of Scripture, and tie it in with the whole of Scripture as much as possible. It’s tough for many, but I think it’s worth it.

    Critical scholarship is to be blamed to a certain extent as well. Reading much of the Bible as unrelated documents or poorly-edited compilations strips away much of the unity. The Bible was written in community.

  3. Yes! This is great!

    I was talking with a pastor recently who likes Exegetical preaching. That sunday he preached and spoke as if each verse was completely independent of the one before and after it.

    I also studied chunks of Luke last month and finally got a sense of the big picture. It was so good for my soul and faith to see what Jesus was doing and how he was moving.

  4. This sounds great! Can we actually do this? Maybe set up a Facebook or Google+ reading group for people who actually want to go through the Bible this way and discuss what we find?

    I would be happy to moderate if the interest is there.

  5. I love this! This is exactly why, for my personal reading each year, I pick two books of the Bible and spend the whole year reading and rereading them. I read Galatians about 15 times straight through in January–allowing me to see how the “practical” section is really just a continuance of his theological conviction of freedom from the law.

    Thanks for putting this in such a plain–and funny–light!

  6. Love this Daniel. We are linking to this on our The Books of the Bible FB page. Your goals summarize ours in developing a Bible format that would encourage this kind of reading. Our core belief is that the physical form of the Bible text can either encourage or discourage deep, holistic reading.

  7. Excellent idea. The problem with most English Bibles, however, is that they have not been translated to reflect the larger literary units of the Bible, including pericopes, episodes, and paragraphs. The problem cannot simply be remedied by removing versification and formatting with paragraphs. The English itself needs to reflect the coherence and topic unities of the original biblical texts. Until we have English literary specialists having as much power on English Bible translation committees as well-intentioned exegetes, the situation will not change. I’m a strong supporter of the Books of the Bible approach to communicating the message of the Bible. But we need better English translations in this good format. Our translations need to read as well as the original biblical texts did. Then format will coincide with content and there can be greater biblical literacy.

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