By Jeremy Steele, United Methodist Communications
Let's be honest. We clearly believe that the Bible is the word of God and the source of spiritual life. Sometimes, though, it can be hard to understand. When that happens, we have a tendency to disengage from this powerful source of light. In those moments, it helps to have a tool to help unlock the meaning or simply keep us engaged. Once we understand the meaning, we can better communicate the message of each passage.
Here are some creative ways to help you do that.
Remember how you learned the parts of a story in high school English class? This same structure is present in many biblical stories. Read through a passage and then list some basic plot elements: setting, main characters, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
Identifying all of these elements can help you clarify the overall message of a story and see the application for your life.
Not every passage in the Bible is a narrative with conflict, climax and resolution. Much of the Bible (especially the New Testament) is in the form of a classical argument. Like the traditional narrative plot, the classical argument has a standard structure that can help clarify the overarching point of a confusing passage. You can make a similar list of the different elements you will find: background (the context relevant to the specific issue), thesis (the evidence for the claim being made), antithesis (refutation of the opposing viewpoint) and conclusion (the final wrap-up restating the thesis in light of the antithesis).
This can be particularly helpful for Scripture passages that primarily argue for a specific point of view with little attention to the opposing view. Once you can identify them both, the main point becomes clearer.
This method can be great when used with the first two ideas. Break the passage into eight or fewer discrete scenes and draw the key action of each scene paired with dialogue or important narration. This is all about exploring the passage by imagining what else is happening in the surroundings. What are the reactions of the other people? Do any props come into play? How are they held/used? How does the setting shape the scene?
Don't be afraid to use stick figures! If the passage inspires you to create something brilliant, you can always hire an artist to develop the concept.
The current trend of placing a catchy word or phrase on top of an image is not only fun, but can also help you explore the Bible. Imagine that you are encouraging people to read a specific passage of the Bible. What phrase would hook people to read more? What image both matches the theme of the verse, and inspires curiosity? Once you have an idea, you can use Photoshop, GIMP or one of many free online meme generaters to superimpose the text onto the image. You can also download an app such as Meme Factory, that's extremely easy to use. We created some meme examples that you are free to post wherever you like.
Don't worry; we're not arguing that you need to take several years of biblical languages to understand the Bible. However, translating the Bible into your context and vocabulary can make any passage come to life. The goal here is to translate every piece of the text into your current vocabulary. This extends beyond the words to the metaphors. If you don't know anyone who is a shepherd, think of an image from your life that conveys the same ideas and emotions and use that instead. Once you have finished translating the words and metaphors, review your work to see how close you can come to matching the overall feel of the narrative or rhythm of the poem or other passage.
Lifting a verse or two from the surrounding material can cause very erroneous interpretations and applications. This method helps you place any text firmly in its place in Scripture. Step 1 is determining the logical boundaries of a text. Often, chapters and verses are not placed at the most logical break points. Take a moment to determine a section's appropriate boundary.
Next, take a look at the "co-text" of those passages that come immediately before and after. How does this passage logically flow from the preceding material and connect clearly with what follows?
Finally, place it in its "intertext" in the larger canon of Scripture. This is where you try to find parallel passages in other books of the Bible and make connections (often by examining cross references in your study Bible) between the Old and New testaments. The goal is to ask how this passage is clarified by its place in relation to the rest of Scripture.
It is difficult to imagine how many billions of other words the Bible has inspired. Most of the time, our posture toward Scripture is to multiply the words; however, Jesus does the opposite. When asked for the greatest commandments, Jesus gives two sentences that he says summarize all of the law and the prophets. Two sentences. Sometimes the best thing we can do is get super simple. For this method, you boil down an entire passage to a single sentence. This can be fun to do with chapters or entire books. When taking a larger chunk, it is easiest to start by tackling several sentences or paragraphs first, then boiling down those summaries to a single sentence.
The entire Noah story might boil down simply to "Noah obeyed God." The 23rd Psalm begins with its own summary, "The Lord is my Shepherd." And you might find a summary of the sheep and the goats account in Matthew 25 in Matthew 22:37b-39 (NRSV), "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Far too often, we only engage our eyes when exploring the Bible. Next time you open the Bible, try to experience the passage before you with all five senses. What might you hear? Are there birds or waves or the crackle of a fire close enough to hear? Is it cold or hot? Is there sand between your toes or wind blowing through your hair? Are you close enough to the sea to taste the air, or are you getting ready to taste a meal? What do you smell? Do you smell livestock or flowers? Is the disturbing smell of sickness or death in the air? Once you build the scene through your senses, new pieces of the narrative come to life or are given deeper meaning, and the whole passage becomes very real.
One of the most ancient ways to experience the Bible comes through a practice called lectio divina(Latin for "divine reading"). The practice moves through four phases with an underlying confidence that God speaks to us whenever we read the Bible. The first step is to read the passage over and over, savoring each word and waiting for one to rise above the rest. Once a single word or phrase sticks in your mind, you begin to explore the word. What feelings, emotions or memories does it evoke? After a time of experiencing the word, it's time to ask and listen to God for the answer to what this word is meant to say to you. Why this word? What is God saying? Finally, use the word as a focus point to let go of every distracting thought so that you can rest in the presence of God.
For the crafty people, it's time to pull out your curvy scissors and glue sticks and get to work. Take a passage or verse and use all the tools at your disposal to illustrate it. You might decide to make the key word the center of your page or use pictures from your own life to convey the emotions behind the passage. The goal is to create a visual expression of the truth in the passage using as much crafty creativity as you can.
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Whether you use scissors or the classical story structure, breaking out of the box of your normal method for exploring the Bible can bring a new perspective to the Scripture, new life to your study time and new clarity to your teaching. Now it's time to close your browser and use one of these methods to explore the Bible.