Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Can You Study This Book Too Much?

Tuesday with Michael Spencer
From 2008 and edited by CM

I’m not a literature scholar, but I play one in the classroom several hours a week. That is, when I’m not teaching the Bible to kids from all over America and the world, I teach AP English. Mostly Shakespeare and poetry. The interaction of the two brings some stimulating questions to my mind from time to time.

For example, can you study a text too much?

Let’s say that you came to my house and I had 1500 volumes of books, almost all on Hamlet and related subjects. Extensive reference materials. Everything ever written about the play. Interpretations and commentaries and more interpretations. A small ocean of Hamlet.

You noted that I read Hamlet systematically every day. You noticed that I gave talks on Hamlet and wrote may pages of articles and comments of my own on Hamlet.

One day you begin reading some of my work on Hamlet, and after a while, a thought crosses your mind. Eventually, you look me up to ask me the question that’s presented itself.

Do I believe that everything I see in Hamlet is really there? Or, by studying Hamlet to the extent that I have, do I run the risk of having a lot more to say about Hamlet than is actually in Hamlet? Have I studied a text to the point I’ve lost the perspective of simple, direct meaning in pursuit of what only scholars can know?

In other words, if Shakespeare came into my library, read my articles and listened to my lectures, would he say “Spot on. Keep at it?” Or would he say “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding? Where did you come up with this?”

Can you study a text too much? Too deeply? With too much background? Too much insight? Finding way more than is actually there in the text?

Here’s another turn of the screw for me. I teach Bible Survey, and it’s a four quarter class. That’s basically 36 weeks, five hours a week. 180 hours. Now many of my students are absolute beginners. (The ones that aren’t are given the option of an advanced class.) Many are from other religions and cultures.

I don’t need 180 hours to teach the basic story and message of the Bible to my beginners. I could do it in 9 weeks. I could do it in two weeks actually.

Sometimes when we’re off in some of the less relevant parts of the Bible- the various goings on in David’s family for example- I am genuinely concerned that the main message is getting obscured in all the other material I am teaching. I’d love to teach that “seminar” and keep the main thing the main thing. The rape of Tamar is a fine story and it’s part of our sinful history, but do my Buddhists need to know it in the same course with the gospels?

I have other concerns as well. Preachers find things in the Bible all the time that I don’t think are there. They call them “principles,” and they look great in a book or PowerPoint, but I’m just not very convinced.

Into this I can throw a lot of other people who pull rabbits out of the Biblical hat for a living.

Does the Bible say all those things that people say it says about politics? Environmentalism? Morals? Raising kids? Success? Prosperity? Health? The future? Global warming? Sex? Scheduled infant feedings? Pokemon? Harry Potter?

Some say that the Sermon on the Mount approves of civil unions between gays. Really? I’ve heard it said that there’s a “Jesus diet” in there. Hope it works better for me than it did for them, by the looks of things.

Is all that theology I keep hearing from the theological types really all there? I don’t mean there in some form that you can remix, cook, stir, add, microwave, season and serve as whatever dish you want. I mean is what the prosperity teachers see in all those books really there? Do you need Barth’s dogmatics to explain the Bible?

Are all of our political and social agendas really in the Bible? All the psychology of Biblical counselors? All the science of the creationists? All the distinctives of the various denominations?

Now I have as much admiration for lifelong Bible study as you can have. I’ve given the study of the Bible years of my life and the major portion of my education and energies.

I know it has riches and transforming power. I know it is a full library of doctrine and a wonderful collection of law, literature and liturgy.

I believe it is God’s inspired word. It’s authoritative for my faith.

But I suspect we’ve looked too closely, and seen a lot that’s not there. I believe we find, arrange, display, demonstrate and defend a lot that isn’t really plainly taught in scripture. I am afraid the Bible is a Rorschach test for many people, and what the see isn’t clouds. It’s rabbits and a train and…..

I believe that if we take the Bible as literature, we would be able to say something like this:

The Bible is an extensive collection of literature that, when taken together, presents the story Christians call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians believe this book is inspired by God and interpreted by the Spirit of God, but it remains a book written by human authors and understood primarily in the obvious ways we approach any literature. The message of the Bible answers the biggest, most important and most vital of life’s questions and proclaims God’s saving message to all persons. The rich literary contents of the Bible can occupy anyone with much study, but in its basic message- its essential, Christ-centered message — there is a remarkable directness and brevity. You do not have to be an expert on first century Judaism or the sociology of sacrificial systems to understand the Bible. The message is ably summarized in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament. Even a child can understand it, believe it and live it.

If we leave the impression that the Bible needs an army of PhDs, thousands of brilliant preachers with multiple degrees each or a library of commentaries to be understood, proclaimed and applied, we’re distorting the truth.

Thank God for all the knowledge we have about the Bible, but we’re not gnostics looking for the “secret message” in between the lines. It’s a book, with a plot, a story and characters. Read it — or skim it with some help — get the New Testament message clear, and you are good to go, grow and live.

In fact, what we need is more reminding, recollecting and repeating of the Bible’s message, and less addition to that message.

Study it less? Maybe. Maybe live it, live out of it, communicate it and teach it more. But what we’re looking for in the Bible is fully and completely there in the one Paul said he always preached — Christ Jesus: the crucified Lord.

34 thoughts on “Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Can You Study This Book Too Much?

  1. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ? Bilbo Baggins


  2. “When everything is Equally Important, NOTHING IS IMPORTANT!”
    — paraphrase of Syndrome from The Incredibles


  3. We read the Bible through Christ, not Paul.

    On Wartburg Watch and other Spiritual Abuse blogs, a common criticism of “Young, Restless, and Really Truly REFORMED” New Calvinists is they read the Bible through Paul (and later Puritans), not Christ.


  4. What if “plain reading” ends up with three conflicting interpretations for every two readers?
    Every one of them SCRIPTURE(TM)?

    They say when various church councils were establishing the NT canon, Apocalypse of John (i.e. Revelation) got argued over a LOT. A lot of fear that people reading it “plainly” and going off on Weird Tangents. I understand that Orthodox Jews do not introduce a student to Daniel (and similar prophetic material) until they are 30 years old and have already built up familiarity with ha-Tanakh. Again, to keep from going off on Weird Tangents. Whereas during my time in-country, they STARTED with Revelation as “plainly read” by Hal Lindsay.


  5. But whose false interpretations ? Mine,yours or someone else’s?

    All too often “Thine, NOT Mine!”


  6. Such doctrine encourages all of Scripture to be looked on as equally important in elucidating the story, when some parts are in fact more important than others – though this, too, is an interpretive stance.

    This is a tremendously important observation, but one that many Christians are stubbornly resistant to.


  7. I guess it is the obvious point, isn’t it? Sometimes I end up chasing my own tail in circles; this is one of those times.


  8. “you acknowledge that you are not just reading the Biblical texts as stories, but as stories (and other literary modes) that you are going to use as sources for Christian theology, belief, worship, and practice.”

    Isn’t that rather the point? 😉


  9. Of course, no one should expect the Church to apply a primarily literary reading to the Bible. If we use the tools of literary reading, it’s to plumb the sources of theology, belief, etc., that the Bible provides us. But when we approach the Bible intending to use it as a source for these things, we must expect that others will do the same, and perhaps find meanings and interpretations different from our own.


  10. Yes, as long as you acknowledge that you are not just reading the Biblical texts as stories, but as stories (and other literary modes) that you are going to use as sources for Christian theology, belief, worship, and practice. This religious use is something the Bible has in common with the texts of other religious traditions, but not with Shakespeare. This is a significant difference between religious and non-religious texts, and makes the way we approach them, and what we take from them, very different.


  11. “you can provide a theological answer by saying Christ connects them, but then you have ditched a primarily literary reading of the Bible in favor of a theological reading”

    In fairness, that is exactly how the NT authors use the OT, so it’s not exactly like we are innovating when we do so.


  12. I understand your point, CM, but the Bible is not unified as a composition the way that a short story or novel is. It is not a single work. The many component parts may point toward different meanings and interpretations, some mutually contradictory, and I think some of the parts in fact do this in many places. It begs the question: what connects these various components? Now, you can provide a theological answer by saying Christ connects them, but then you have ditched a primarily literary reading of the Bible in favor of a theological reading. I think Michael in this post is switching back and forth between the two kinds of reading without respecting the distinctions between them. A literary reading can be privately meaningful, and even idiosyncratic, in a way that a theological reading cannot, at least not without distorting the character of the text. Michael wants it both ways, but I don’t think you can have it both ways.


  13. Sorry, Christiane – it’s much more specific (and Judaism-specific) than “Jesus is divine and as the new King is Lord of all.” Nope. Though Bishop Barron mentions it very briefly in passing, his point is not my point about the point of Paul’s/Peter’s Good News 🙂 Read the actual text of each sermon and see where it is the speaker stops “for effect”.



  14. I think this is right. There has developed over the years an entire Biblical approach called Narrative Theology. You leave aside questions of intent (which we can never know) and historicity (which is always debatable) and read the text the way you read, well, any story. The characters come alive in your mind and through the power of our active imagination we can enter into their world. Like any other form of literature what get from the text will be affected in large part by what we bring to it. And that’s not a bad thing!


  15. I think Michael made a good point, in that Scripture does not contain “the answers to all of life’s questions”, as some people claim. Sometimes its words are plain, and we can read them plainly. Other times – maybe most of the time – not so much. A holy book is going to be cryptic. However, my first impression of the post was much like Robert’s. I sensed what Michael was trying to do – and I’m not sure he was successful in doing it.

    I think a large part of the problem is the Evangelical doctrine regarding Scripture – that it makes claims Scripture itself doesn’t support. Michael understood that, but it was still hard for him, I think, to pull himself away from it. Such doctrine encourages all of Scripture to be looked on as equally important in elucidating the story, when some parts are in fact more important than others – though this, too, is an interpretive stance.

    If the OT was so plain to the disciples (which one assumes, since they were immersed in the story through Jewish ritual), why did they completely not get the meaning of the Redeemer’s death until Christ began explaining it to them on the road to Emmaus (continuing, as is taught in my faith tradition, throughout the 40 days he spent with them before the Ascension)? And why, if it’s so plain, did Jewish people not stampede to become part of the 1st century Church? (Although we do have an interesting note in Acts that many Jewish priests came to the faith.) They couldn’t understand without the interpretation that Jesus (and then later his followers) opened to them – if they were interested in hearing it. One of N.T. Wright’s gifts to us is explaining to us in his first 3 Christian Origins “big books” the groundwork of why they might have become interested in hearing it.

    As for plain reading and Paul’s teaching, one of the most eye-opening things toward the end of my journey in the Ev. Wilderness was when I read all of the sermons in Acts (except Stephen’s speech – it was about something else) to find out what (mostly) Paul was proclaiming as “the Gospel”. What was the high point of those sermons? (Hint: It actually bears little, if any, resemblance to what people who tend to use “gospel” as an adjective would say “the Gospel” is.) Seeing what that high point was in Paul’s speaking cleared up a lot for me in his writing.



  16. Hamlet is a play. It’s chiefest point is the effect for its audience when it is performed, not necessarily what Shakespeare was expressly thinking of when he wrote it.
    Likewise for the Bible.


  17. No. I think what Michael is talking about is understanding the Bible as a story, with truths emerging as we listen to the story.

    That is very different from those who tout the “plain meaning” of scripture about various things. Those people’s “plain meaning” conclusions always end in ways that are convenient for them. And they often weaponize their favorite scriptures.

    Stories don’t do that. They take you unexpected places and show you truths you might find uncomfortable. They unsettle you and challenge you. They make you look at yourself. They don’t give you proof texts to use against those who might approach things differently.

    I’ve been visiting imonk for about a dozen years and think I still remember Michael’s approach.


  18. at the most important days of the Jewish liturgical year, a song is sung, this

    “Our Father, Our King”

    this is to emphasize that the great God of the Universe is also as so close to each of us as a father . . . .
    you don’t need a translation listening to this to understand the substance of its meaning

    we ‘read’ the sacred Scriptures, but then something sometimes happens outside of our own doing and our own understanding, like listening to the Alvinu Malkeinu and you sense the meaning in your heart before you ever know of the meaning of the words, such is the yearning of the human soul for its Creator/Father

    we can ‘know’ the Holy in ways that resonate with something in our beings that is beyond our literal understanding
    and the sacred Scriptures can also tap into that part of ‘who we are’ as made in the ‘image of God’


  19. sometimes it is beneficial to ‘listen’ to the Bible being read aloud

    there is a difference between reading for oneself and listening to something being read to you . . . . . a different way of taking in information that requires a different way of processing the information

    same with SEEING visuals that represent various incidents in the Bible

    or with WALKING along the same paths and shorelines that Our Lord walked

    or with KNEELING at the places that mark the happenings told about in sacred Scripture

    what Michael Spencer said, THIS: “live it, live out of it ”
    there has been too much of ‘the Bible says’ by those who would speak for it their own interpretations and yet whose lives tells us that they have little understanding and even less regard for the teachings of ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified’

    there was always a profound gravitas reflected by those teachers of sacred Scripture who followed this sage advice attributed to St. Francis of Assisi::

    “Preach the gospel at all times; If needed, use words”


  20. To use the overused Freud statement–Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The bible is about Jesus, the Gospel. Jesus, Son of God, Savior to all who believe in Him. Was Hamlet crazy or was he onto to the truth, the answer lies within yourself. I believe M. Spencer point is a good one or as “they” say you can beat the horse to death. At the end it is a matter of faith and you do not find faith in a book. You could read every book about Christianity and still be back at the starting point, do you believe on faith or do you want the Bible to validate your belief with 100% certainty or have someone else validate your faith?


  21. I am by no means an expert on how the early church mothers and fathers or Jewish rabbis read the scriptures, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop at “plain reading”. But that is the starting point.


  22. But whose false interpretations ? Mine,yours or someone else’s. Michael wrote a great article that speaks of a unified thread running through the Bible that anyone can read and understand. Maybe the problem is that we are all running around like Pilate yelling what is truth ? A lot of talk about experts but who are they ? Are they not the ones that tickle your fancy. The experts we agree with are only the ones that align with our own views. The problem with the wilderness is that people used to practice silence,prayer and fasting. Now we argue, talk over others, and have to play the devils advocate on every plain reading of everything. It’s time to be still before the. Lord and listen not pontificate.


  23. I think you misread, Robert. Michael said, “The message is ably summarized in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament.” We read the Bible through Christ, not Paul.

    Also — I don’t think this piece is contrasting the perspicacity of Scripture with the need for scholarship.

    Instead, it is advocating simply reading the Bible as literature with a discernible plot in contrast with the kind of “Bible study” that is trying to dig out what he calls “rabbits out of the biblical hat” — the kinds of interpretations that people make to “make the bible relevant” or to find the “key to the scriptures” in some doctrine or worldview.

    This is a peculiar habit in the evangelicalism with which we were both familiar.


  24. But the bad habit of individual interpreters that has been standardized by Protestantism is one caught from the earlier, pre-Reformation Church. Both the individual interpreters and the conciliar Church catholic interpretations resist the necessary input and guidance of experts, or subvert that input to their preferred interpretation. The Church cannot arrive at satisfactory interpretations of Scripture when it cordons itself off from the input of scholarship, or when it tries to neutralize the import of that scholarship.


  25. > making it easy to understand and interpret even for readers who are
    > not expert in its original languages

    Yep. My take away from paying attention to how people talk about and use Scripture, and the serious teachers, is that “The Bible” *** CAN NOT *** be plainly simply understood.

    For example: “””there in the one Paul said he always preached – Christ Jesus: the crucified Lord””””

    Which means? There is so much packed in there. Because without a “Why?” what sense does it make? Honestly, after a non-trivial amount of study it still is not all that clear.


  26. > but we’re not gnostics looking for the “secret message” in between the lines

    Or are we? A great deal of Biblical Scholarship, at least the kind one hears on Christian radio, answers this with a resounding “YES!”.


  27. I think it is telling that Michael goes to Paul to provide the lens through which to interpret the rest of the NT and Bible. This is the standard Protestant prioritizing of Paul as the decoder of the Gospels that was supposed by the Reformers and their progeny down to the present day to lead to a substantially unified and agreed upon reading of the New Testament and Bible, and agreement about what “the Gospel” essentially entails; except that it hasn’t, and actually has led to tremendous disagreement. As Dana repeatedly affirms, interpretation is everything, and interpretation is not a private matter but one formed and guided by the whole Church; you can’t arrive at that necessarily conciliar interpretation reading your Bible alone in your study, and discerning its supposedly “plain meaning”. And you can’t do it without experts informing the Church what the language it finds when reading and interpreting the Bible meant in its original linguistic, social, and religious settings.


  28. Isn’t what Michael is supporting here is that there is a “plain reading” of Scripture, that Scripture possesses the quality of perspicacity, making it easy to understand and interpret even for readers who are not expert in its original languages, the cultural and religious context in which its various parts were written? Isn’t this idea tremendously unpopular among the writers and commenters here at iMonk at this time, and doesn’t it run counter to the myriad, contradictory “plain readings” of Scripture by “plain readers” over the centuries that have led Christianity into such disparate interpretative ghettos? I know that’s not what Michael intended, but that seems to be what his idea here is supporting, however unintentionally.


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