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Are you Reading the White Space?

I’m frequently struck by how often we deal with trivia in our Bible study. In some cases we might not call it “trivia” but we certainly are dealing with something other than the main message of the text–the stuff that is in black and white. We imagine what the characters might have said, we fill in the blanks from our own imagination, and sometimes we even become convinced that what we have imagined is actually the text itself.

Now I’m not against any of these procedures. I even recommend imagining the viewpoint of lesser characters when interpreting stories, for example. I’m also not opposed to studying the details very carefully. I’ve been doing so with 2 Corinthians 5:21, for example. The problem comes when we focus exclusively, or almost exclusively on those elements of the text that are obscure, or things that are not actually specified.

This hurts us in our spiritual walk in two ways. First, we become obsessed with minor matters. If the Bible writers had regarded these points as of utmost importance, it is likely they would have expressed them more clearly. Often when we are unable to produce an interpretation about which we feel confident, the problem is that we are dealing with something the original writer didn’t consider a key point. Second, however, we can become convinced that all of God’s revelation is obscure and difficult to understand, when in fact the majority of it is not all that mysterious and difficult.

How do we avoid getting stuck in the white space?

  1. Study larger passages. Rather than taking a single verse, take several. Rather than taking several verses, take a few chapters, or even an entire book.
  2. Include rapid, survey reading in your study. Many people come to the Bible with this special “holy” approach that suggests one can’t skim or speed read. But sometimes skimming is good for an overview before you dig in.
  3. Take breaks from the obscure stuff and study something more straightforward.
  4. Always be aware of tentative conclusions. It’s easy to become quite enamored of your own interpretation when studying on your own.
  5. Lastly, be accountable. Make sure that you have some way to hear objections to your own views and criticism of your approaches. This may mean attending a study group, publishing a blog, sharing in Sunday School, or even hearing a congregation criticize your sermon if you preach.

There is plenty of obscure stuff to keep you busy, but there is also plenty of clear stuff to keep you steady. Approach them in balance.

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