The state of Texas, like many states, requires that all high schoolers pass a standardized test in order to graduate. For my generation, that was the TAAS test. My class was the last class required to take the TAAS test as sophomores, as the new test, the so-called TAKS test, would be issued to the next class when they were juniors instead. In an odd move, the school district tried to force our class to take the TAKS exam the next year anyway as a test run, even though we had already taken the TAAS, so my class decided to rebel and simply not show up. About ninety-percent of our class didn’t go to school in the morning for the test, and almost all of those students actually came at 11 a.m. to continue normal school. Our principal was not pleased, but we even made national news with such a stunt ;).
Anyway, I’m not a big fan of such tests, though they were not overly difficult and most people should have been able to pass them unless they had a learning disability, blew off school for years, had bad teachers, or slept through the test. However, if there is one thing these exams tried to measure that’s good, it was reading comprehension (though they did not necessarily measure it well). Similarly, standardized exams such as the SAT, the ACT, and the GRE all try to test reading comprehension skills as a pre-requisite for college or graduate school. While there are some who rail against standardized tests, this aim is perfectly reasonable because reading comprehension is incredibly important, for both careers as well as everyday life. Thus, in English class, we were often given boring things to read and were asked questions like these:
“What’s the main idea of the passage?”
“What does this word mean given the context clues?”
“What’s the main problem the passage is trying to address?”
So on and so forth. For novels, such as A Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Letter, they would try to make us do literary analysis, such as identifying plot points–the rising action, the climax, and the resolution–to go along with character analysis. Many Asian folks have taken this a step further and typically put their kids through those private SAT prep courses for further training in order to get them into an Ivy League school, something they can brag about to all of their friends at church ;).
Thus, most educated people in America were taught how to analyze what they read to at least a small extent. This makes it strange, then, that many Christians don’t think about doing this when they read the Bible, which is still, you know, reading.
Is the Bible unique? Of course; it’s God’s Word that was written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it was still written down in human language, using human rules of grammar, within a particular culture and time, and reflecting the personality and the aim of the authors (the Holy Spirit did not use such men as puppets when they wrote). Therefore, reading comprehension skills are very useful when reading any of the 66 books of the Bible, though they have varying degrees of difficulty. This is not to say that we don’t pray for illumination from the Spirit but only that we should use the mind God gave us and the skills he enabled us to learn in order to read Scripture in a more responsible, analytical, and ultimately faithful manner.
It’s kind of odd that churches often don’t train people for this or even teach like this. There are many preachers who barely analyze the text they’re preaching from and just go off and talk about whatever random thing they want, often completely whiffing on the main point of the passage and taking points right out of context. A frequent example of this is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” It’s common for Christians, particularly athletes, to refer to this verse as encouragement that we can do anything we put our minds to if we just have faith. It’s a macho sounding verse, but in reality, Paul is talking about endurance through hardship. In other words, such a verse comes from a context of weakness (at least in the eyes of the world) and persevering through trials because of the joy that God provides.
A similar example is the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Many take that as a self-help story of “How to defeat the giants in your life” when it’s about A) God’s deliverance of his people through one faithful man and B) The contrast of faith between David and Saul. But nobody calls this story “David and Saul with Regards to Goliath” because that is rather less fun and attractive to our culture which takes the story about how little guys can win if they just have enough courage.
It’s important for Christians, in order to honor God’s Word, to read it with full use of our faculties. That doesn’t mean that every single one of us has to carve through the text like scholars do or learn Greek and Hebrew, but it does mean that as we read, we ask ourselves some simple questions: What’s the author trying to say? What does this say about God and man? Given the main point of the passage, how would I apply that principle to my life? It would even be helpful to encourage our congregations to break down the text in their minds by clauses, take note of verbs, subjects and predicates, etc. (you know, grammar things they all learned in school). I think this would make devotional reading for many Christians much more fruitful, encourage them to do further research on passages they have a hard time understanding, and also help Christians teach in a more effective manner. It’s a way of reading and teaching that focuses on allowing the Bible to speak for itself and a good way to avoid slipping in our own points and emphases.