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.

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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.

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