“People assume that reading the Bible should be easy,” said Derek Suderman, adding, though, “That’s not the way the Bible works.” If they are to truly understand Scripture, they must be prepared to wrestle with it.
Suderman, who is professor of Old Testament at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., sees the story of Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabok River (Genesis 32:22-32) as a metaphor for studying the Bible. He presented his ideas in a seminar entitled “Wrestling with Scripture: The art of facilitating dynamic Bible study,” that was hosted by Mennonite Church Saskatchewan. The seminar took place at Mount Royal Mennonite Church in Saskatoon from May 17 to 19, 2016, with most of the 20 or so participants being pastors.
Suderman said people often tell him that their church has a problem with biblical literacy. “I don’t think we have a biblical literacy problem,” he countered. “I think we have a biblical engagement problem.” People don’t habitually read their Bibles, and when they do, they find the exercise is not life-giving, he said, adding, “We need to start with the idea of engagement. If you engage the Bible consistently, over time people will know their Bible better.”
In Genesis 32, Jacob appears at first to be wrestling with a man. As the struggle continues, the reader realizes he is wres-tling with God. The purpose of the struggle is to win a blessing from God. This, said Suderman, should be the purpose of Bible study. And, he added, readers should begin with the conviction that every passage—even difficult ones—might contain a blessing. Suderman pointed out that Jacob wrestled all night.
Likewise, Bible study takes effort and persistence. Jacob comes away from the struggle limping. With every step he will be reminded of this transforming moment. Similarly, as the church engages the Bible, it, too, is transformed. “Wrestling with Scripture is the goal of the church,” said Suderman.
“People have different ways of avoiding wrestling with the Bible,” he told participants. “Conservatives will say, ‘I’m just reading, you’re interpreting.’ ” But, he pointed out, “There is no reading without interpretation; every translation is an interpretation.” Liberals, he added, won’t show up at all, because they think the Bible is irrelevant.
Suderman also likened Bible study to going on a hike on which each participant might notice something different and draw others’ attention to it. “Often when we have Bible study, we want everyone to believe what we believe,” he said. “We don’t want to allow the group to actually have different experiences with the Bible.” He cautioned, “Just because you’re the one leading the hike doesn’t mean that you’re going to notice everything. There is a place for expertise, but the goal is to allow people to experience the hike. The purpose of the expert is to inspire others to gain expertise.”
Practising what he preached, Suderman led participants through a number of Bible studies, including an exploration of Jonah 3. In small groups, they identified and described the story’s characters, then illustrated, cartoon-style, the sequence of events. At the end of the exercise, he asked, “Did you notice how much laughter there was? Often we take the Bible way too seriously. We need to be invitational and embody how much we enjoy studying Scripture together.”
One way to help people engage is to ask questions. Closed questions—those with a predetermined answer—are good icebreakers, said Suderman. People gain confidence when they are able to answer questions like, “Who are the characters in the story?” or, “What does your translation say?”
Then the leader can start asking open questions—those without predetermined answers. Questions like, “How would you describe the characters?” fall into this category.
These questions, both closed and open, are directed toward the passage being studied. Finally, said Suderman, leaders should guide discussion with open questions directed away from the passage. These would be application questions such as, “How should this impact the way we live?”
In an hour-long study, Suderman said that he would spend about 45 minutes talking toward the text, then finish with a 15-minute discussion away from it. “The more time spent with the text,” he said, “the more enriching the application will be.”
Listening is another important component of engaging Bible study. An effective leader validates participants by allowing them to ask questions and writing their comments on the board. If a participant asks a question that’s not on topic, the leader might direct attention back to the Bible by responding, “What in the passage gives you that idea?”
Suderman lamented the church’s lack of scriptural engagement. “How is it that we’ve come to maybe 20 minutes on a Sunday and that’s the only time we read the Bible together?” he asked, saying, “I don’t think it’s enough.”
“I teach Bible for a living because I think it’s important,” Suderman added. “I don’t just think it’s important because I do it for a living.”