UNLOCKING THE MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE: Guide to Biblical Interpretation. By Sharon Warner. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008. viii + 86 pp.
I learned much of what I know about Christian education from the author of this book. Any lack of knowledge or proficiency in any particular area of Christian education that I may have, however, needn’t be blamed on her efforts, only on my own stubbornness! You see, Sharon Warner was my Christian Education professor back during my college days. I must say that I wasn’t always receptive to her leadings, but that was then, when I was bit less mature and a whole lot more conservative. Today, Sharon Warner is Professor of educational ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary. With the issue of my connections with the author out of the way, I must say that this is a most helpful and much needed adult study curriculum.
In the very first sentence of the "Descriptive Summary," Sharon makes it clear why this study guide/book is needed at this moment in time.
"This study is intended to help people in the church learn how to become better interpreters of the Bible."
Sharon starts from the premise that we can and should improve our skills as interpreters of Scripture. She goes on to say that this is a process that we each engage in every time we deal with the Bible, what we need, however, is to become "more thoughtful and skilled in our work of interpretation" (p. vii).
We may live in a land that is "Christian," and the Bible may be a perennial best seller, but we also live in a land full of biblically illiterate people. There are innumerable translations and versions available to the consumer. They come in any number of colors and sizes. We have red letter editions and green letter editions. We know bits and pieces of Scripture, but too often take it out of its literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
Indeed, despite the plethora of options for biblical study, Stephen Prothero has demonstrated that despite America’s religious identity and the fact that millions revere the Bible, very few know what it says or understand its meaning. This is bad not just for the church, but also for the nation. Because the Bible is often appealed to in defense of or in support of this or that issue or agenda, being able to interpret it and apply it responsibly is an important skill. That is why Prothero believes that schools should teach classes in world religions and reading the Bible.
While I agree to a large extent with Prothero, my greatest concern has to do with the people in the pews, the people who listen to sermons and read the Bible, and yet find the Bible difficult to understand and use responsibly. Reading the Bible is not an easy task, even though there are many wonderful modern translations and study helps. Reading the Bible responsibly – and that’s my greatest concern -- takes great care and determination. It requires that one dig below the surface and ask questions that aren’t always given to easy answers.
This is where Sharon’s curriculum comes in. Its very focus is on teaching people how to handle scripture in a responsible way, which is an important antidote for the church’s illiteracy. Rather than being a content study, this relatively brief resource is an attempt to introduce serious Bible readers to the tools and principles of biblical interpretation. It is a foundational curriculum, one that will enable bible readers to understand the historical and literary context of the Bible. It will help them choose translations and wrestle with difficult texts. It deals with canonicity and theories of inspiration. It invites the participant to consider the fact that we all bring our own perspective to the study of Scripture. Once we understand how to best read the Bible in a responsible manner, then we can move on to read specific books of the Bible or engage in devotional study of the Bible, something like approaching scripture through something like lectio divina. What this congregationally-tested curriculum does is help the serious student of the Bible bridge the 2000-year gap between our day and the days of the biblical writers. To understand what the text says to us now requires that we have an understanding of what it said then.
The book is composed of two primary parts. The first part or section is the ten sessions. These are laid out in such a fashion that the leader has everything he or she needs to lead an hour-long study session. You are provided a list of materials to be used, given the words to say, and the guidelines to lead activities. Part two, is a series of appendices that provide handouts that range from articles from biblical scholars to translation comparisons of specific texts to charts that detail synoptic theory or the origins and development of the Pentateuch. Having recently lead a lengthy study of the Bible that focused on historical critical and literary methodology, I was impressed by these resources.
Mainline Protestants have been leery of the Bible. They’ve seen it misused and fear its impact. For many it seems dated and unusable. But, if we make use of resources such as this, we can reclaim the Bible and hear in it a word from God. But we must do this responsibly, and Sharon’s study book is just the place to start.