Friday, 6 February 2015

On Bible Study Questions

“I never knew the book of Jeremiah was so funny!”
I’ve long been dissatisfied with ‘comprehension’ Bible study questions, the kinds of question often framed like: ‘Look at verse four; what is Paul saying here?’ And so, whenever I’ve been responsible for devising Bible study questions for small groups, I’ve tried to ask questions that require a bit more from the participants than a simple ability to read English. Sometimes these questions work well; other times, they fall flat. There’s one question I remember asking in a small group setting that was probably more appropriate for an undergraduate Old Testament Theology essay (‘What is the significance of the cultic imagery in Psalm 133?’). And this week, I facilitated a study that was meant to build on a recent sermon (not preached by me) in my local church, the aim of which was to show that Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh is fulfilled in Jesus. Here are two of the four or so questions I crafted and asked:

How do you understand the phrase ‘you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Exod. 19:6a)?

Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17). What do you think Jesus meant by this? And how do his words here compare with Paul’s in Romans 10:4?

To be honest, I think these are fair questions to ask. But as the study transpired, and as I tried to gauge people’s responses to the questions in the wider small group setting, it became increasingly clear to me that the questions may not have been targeted in the right way. On reflection, I see that the questions as I’d structured them were designed to lead the study participants to certain conclusions (but not a single, definitive conclusion) about the relation between Jesus and the Mosaic Law. Again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the questions as such; but the problem I now perceive with them – and potentially with any pre-packaged Bible study materials – is this: By supplying a Bible study group with prepared questions, the leader runs the risk of negating any questions the participants themselves may have about the Bible text(s). Moreover, a set of prepared questions may even convey the sense that only certain kinds of questions can be asked of a text.

This raises all sorts of questions for me. If the point of a Bible study is to explain what’s going on in a particular Bible passage, then a ‘proper’ teaching occasion might be more appropriate. But if the point of a Bible study is to help participants engage with the text, then it might be best for the leader to be familiar with (the latest) scholarship on that particular text so that, when the participants bring their own questions to the text, s/he is at least equipped to know how those questions might begin to be addressed by the text. Of course, it’s quite possible that the participants themselves won’t have any questions to ask of the text, in which case it might be better simply to have silence than fill the aural void with a cacophony of irrelevance.

Anyway, I’ve already written the study questions for my local church’s small groups to use next week; but for my group, at least, I might not ask any of them at all.

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