LEARNING AND LIVING SCRIPTURE: An Introduction to the Participatory Study Method. By Geoffrey D. Lentz and Henry E. Neufeld. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2010. ix + 116 pp.
The Bible has been for some time, the best selling, but least read book in history. It is no secret that while the Bible remains influential in western society, the people, including church people, have little understanding of its content or meaning. Survey after survey confirms the observation that we are a biblically illiterate people. Despite that reality, all manner of social and cultural claims are made upon the scriptures that are holy to both Christian and Jew. The problem is that there is little hope that this tide can be turned. Our school systems are not in a good position to fill the void, in large part due to political activists with religiously motivated agendas. At the same time churches are finding it difficult to attract audiences that are willing to commit themselves to serious biblical study. Indeed, preachers find it difficult to attract audiences that wish to truly engage the text in a responsible manner.
We face a dilemma as a society and as a Christian community – how do we resolve this problem of biblical illiteracy? The good news in all of this is that there are a number of resources out today that could be of help. There are up-to-date translations, study Bibles, commentaries, dictionaries, and more that can aid the serious student of the Bible. One needn’t be trained in the languages or have advanced degrees to do serious study, one simply needs a commitment and guidance, so that they can tackle what is an ancient text that has stood the test of time. Yes, it has been misused and abused, but its value remains strong. What is needed is a method that will serve the student well.
Henry Neufeld is a publisher and Bible teacher, with degrees in the biblical languages. He developed a program called the Participatory Study Method, a method that Neufeld describes as “designed to invite people who wish to study the Bible to become a part of the community of faith that produced the texts we now have as scripture by studying them empathically and with an aim to learn and grow spiritually” (p. iv). Neufeld then set up a publishing company, Energion Publications, to produce study guides and other resources, that would aid would be students of the Bible in their study. In this book, Neufeld joins with Geoffrey Lentz, a United Methodist pastor, to write a manual that would introduce interested people to this method. It is a method that can be used in both personal study and in group study. It is intended to bring together the devotional use of scripture with an intensive engagement with the text as a historical, literary, and theological document.
This introductory manual is divided into two sections. Section one, entitled “Learning,” provides an introduction to the Participatory Bible Method. The second section, entitled “Living,” provides an introduction to the genres/literary types that one would encounter in reading and studying scripture. In each of the chapters found in section two, the authors introduce readers to the way in which one would read and understand those parts of scripture that would be defined as story, history, parable and allegory, poetry, letters, prophecy, visions, and wisdom. In each chapter, one is given both description and exercises that allow one to engage the text in an appropriate manner.
Returning to the first section, the authors provide an introduction to a method that is firmly based in the principle of “Lectio Divina,” though in this method the intent is to look not simply at a small passage of scripture, but an entire book. This is not simply a devotional methodology, but it is assumed that one will read the text with God – with prayer involved at every point in the process. The authors note that it is their conviction “that Bible study should be about experiencing God.” That is, it’s not just a matter of learning about God or learning doctrines, but experiencing relationally the God revealed in scripture. Thus, study of the Bible is not the end game. An experience of the presence of God is the intent of the process. That said, deep learning is part of the process. It is not an either/or situation. They assume that in order to truly experience God through biblical study you should seek to understand the text in its context, using the best tools available.
The method as laid out in the book involves these steps: Preparation (making sure you have the necessary resources at hand before you begin), Prayer, Overview (reading the passage through at least once, but preferably three times, to get a sense of the text, along with checking out the historical context of the book under consideration). From there the study moves to what they call “The Central Loop.” This is the point at which the student dives deep into the text. It is here that one seeks to meditate on the text. As one seeks to understand the text, the student will go through a repeatable process that begins with the study of the background, moves to meditation, questioning, researching, and comparing. To get the best sense of the text and its application to life, one will go through the process several times. From this process, the student will move on to sharing what they have learned and experienced in handling the text. The authors suggest that this final step is part of the “contemptlatio” experience. With regard to the step of sharing, the authors write that this step includes not only sharing what one has learned, but also involves living out what one has learned. Chapters four through eight take the reader through each of the steps, again providing exercises that one can do as individuals and as groups, so that they might understand and make use of the method.
The book is written in such a way that it can be a useful tool for a wide variety of Christian expressions. The authors take a moderately conservative approach to the text, but one could make good use of this method even if one was much more liberal than the authors. The key element here is the attempt to integrate prayer and meditation with deep and even critical biblical study. They don’t assume that prayerful reading is contradicted by healthy questioning of the text. If one were to engage in this kind of study, then the unfortunate illiteracy that plagues the church might be overcome.