Narrow = Shallow, Broad = Deep

What is the best way to learn the Bible? What gives the best bang for the buck? If you are going to engage in some type of Bible reading or study in the coming twelve months, what approach is most likely to yield the best results? I first became self-consciously interested in such questions during college. At that time I was being trained in the inductive Bible study method and taught to have a daily quiet time. The QT tended to emphasize a subjective response to God’s word, while the inductive study focused on learning God’s word.

Within a couple years, however, I found that if I simply read the Bible, using any time that I might have previously used for in depth study to read yet more, I learned far more and I learned it more quickly. I discovered that as I read the whole of the Bible, challenging passages gradually became less daunting. Paradoxically, I discovered that what I had previously considered a simplistic reading of the text led to a deeper understanding than my in depth Bible studying was able to yield.

That college experience no longer surprises me, though I think it runs contrary to the expectations of many evangelicals. Put most simply, I had discovered that the Bible is a book and that it was most fruitful to approach it as a wonderful piece of literature, replete with themes and plots that were carried through from one end to the other. Overlooked by many well-intentioned Bible study methodologies aimed at basic discipleship, the implications of God having given us a book, a unified piece of literature, are fairly straight-forward and known by almost any literate person. Books are meant to be read. They can also be studied, and such study can be tremendously fruitful, but the basis is a familiarity with the text. No literate person would expect to study in detail only the middle chapter in the most simplistic, plot-driven novel and gain much insight.

Familiarity with the Bible takes time. It is not simply a novel with a linear plot and simple characterizations. It is literature that builds words into larger structures that span the text. Thus, it takes a fair amount of broad reading to gain that familiarity that would normally be considered a precursor to in depth study. That is the source of the paradox. Normally, broad is associated with shallow, while narrow is associated with deep. When the subject matter is a fairly long piece of literature, quite the opposite can prove true. Diving deep without the knowledge to understand the themes and structures being displayed in a slice of the text will usually yield rather shallow and possibly misleading insights. Reading broadly (i.e. reading the whole Bible over and over) allows one to accumulate the knowledge needed to understand what a particular passage is communicating, thus yielding what would typically be considered deeper knowledge.

4 Comments

  1. Wyclif
    Jan 22, 2002

    I’ve tried a lot of things, with wildly varying levels of success. Everything from Navigators stuff (the Scripture memory cards), to Book studies, to commentaries…&c.

    This is going to sound simplistic, but I think it’s something we tend to overlook in our rushed, compressed culture of time starvation. I’ve asked a lot of people who had a mastery of Scripture what their secret is. The do differ, but one thing they all say is that they take the time to actually READ the Bible cover-to-cover.

    I think a good plan is to read the NT all the way through over and over again until the theme of every chapter becomes imprinted on you. Then the OT, all the way through. Avoiding breaking up the continuity of the text seems to give me a better understanding of the Biblical narrative and redemptive history.

    Also, I use the same Bible. The result is that sometimes I can find a verse I’m looking for just by its location on a page. Unfortunately…if the edition you use goes out of print, that ability goes out the window.

  2. joel w
    Jan 22, 2002

    I agree Jay and Wyclif, all the years of books, books, and more books, no matter how good, just seem to lead away from the Bible.

  3. scott cunningham
    Jan 24, 2002

    A campus minister recommended what you’re recommending Jay to me. He said that every year, he read the Lord of the Rings in its entirety. And every year, the details jumped out at him. A friend of mine said something similar, too, when she described going to camping in the same spot every season since she was a kid. She felt like she knew every nook and cranny and bush there as a result, and was sensitive to even the slightest changes. I try to have a quiet time, too, but primarily, I try to read it cover to cover. I’m on my second read. I tend to read very quickly in the more historical books (everything up to Psalms), but then I tend to want to take more time to study the Psalms, since that’s how I usually read poetry – very slow. I’m currently in Jeremiah, where I’ve been for a LOOONG time. The Prophets really bog me down, mostly because they talk so strange. It’s like reading Shakespeare.

  4. tim gallant
    Mar 29, 2002

    I definitely agree. I was not very disciplined in *how* I read Scripture until my first year of seminary. A few years earlier, I had started reading the NT through in a never ending cycle (the exceptions: I would only read one of the Gospels and move on into Acts, and sometimes I skipped Revelation). That was a start. But in sem I started doing something similar with the OT too. I have a much bigger “global perspective” on Scripture now, and the broader picture means that when I hear lectures, sermons etc, I learn more from them. (You see, it’s a myth that the more you know, the less likely you will learn from others. You will make more connections – perhaps even more than the speaker himself does.) So a big amen.