When writing research papers students are frequently warned against using secondary sources. If one must use a secondary source, one must be certain that it’s reliable, and indicate the actual source. Scholars get in the habit of using primary sources as often as possible.
But in spirituality, I notice that many people tend toward the secondary. Particularly in Christian circles, many people today prefer to read books by modern authors that deal with scriptural concepts. They are not just one step away, such as reading a commentary or other expository work, but several steps away, reading a book about Christian living, for example, that claims to be built on a scriptural foundation.
Now I don’t have a problem with reading books about spirituality and spiritual experiences by modern authors. But what does surprise me is that so many Christians claim to follow the Bible and so few actually read and study it for themselves. Frequently in teaching Sunday School classes or weekend programs I’ll read from a passage, or have someone in the class read, and then ask people for their thoughts on a particular point. Inevitably someone reads a note from their study Bible and presents that as the answer to whatever question I asked.
There are many study Bibles, and they don’t all agree. I want to ask each person this: “What do you believe that means?” Now I’m not suggesting that experts aren’t helpful. They can be. But in the end a person needs to know what he or she thinks, and how that thought relates to the text. I recall a number of times when people have brought me a passage from a commentary or a note from their study Bible and asked me just how it was that the presumably expert commentator got what they said from the text on which they were commenting. In many cases I have to respond that I have no idea. As far as I can tell, the text says one thing, and the commentator says something else.
Even more frightening to me is the tendency of people to catch me in the hallways of the church and ask Biblical questions. I don’t mind being questioned, but I do mind it when people expect a one sentence answer, and I am very concerned when they simply accept what I say without checking further for themselves. I know that at least in some cases the answers are never checked, because I’ve gotten them back several generations removed in other classes.
The point of this rant is to make two major points:
- If you believe the Bible contains, conveys, or is God’s word, then you need to actually read the Bible and not just books about it, or distantly derived from it.
- If you are going to read the Bible for yourself, you’re going to have to take the time to actually read it, study it, meditate on it, ask questions about it, share it with others, and get input.
All this is going to take more than five minutes per day, and it will require you to say “I don’t know” from time to time. People don’t like it when I say “I don’t know” because they feel that if I don’t know after the amount of time I’ve studied, not to mention reading Hebrew and Greek to which they attach excessive importance, how will it be possible for them to ever know?
You can consult experts. They are most useful in providing background and connection information, but they are also very valuable in checking your own positions against the work of others. They provide a kind of accountability to your scriptural interpretation. But in the end you need to study for yourself, and move beyond the bounds of what others suggest you study.
(For suggestions see the pamphlet I Want to Study the Bible.)