By The Rev. Kirsten Gardner
The word stirs memories of sunny afternoons spent indoors trapped by homework assignments asking me to describe the great outdoors. The irony. When I was invited to say something on the topic of study as pertaining to a rule of life, I thought it a great cosmic reckoning for all the times I had chosen the adventure outdoors over the writing assignment. See, I have a complicated relationship with the practice of study. I love to study, and I can get so distracted by it that I forget to write about it. Human nature is a funny thing.
Paul must have known much about human nature, our motivations and our hesitations. In his letter to the church in Rome he explicitly connects our longing for personal transformation with the necessary renewal of our minds, “so that [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Paul rightly recognized that the mind is transformed by that on which it is focused as he counseled the Philippians, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). The malleable human mind is shaped and reshaped by the objects upon which it habitually focuses. These objects are not exclusively books. Paul names four activities by which we ought to keep refocusing our minds: learning, receiving, hearing, and seeing (Phil 4:9).
Study as learning. Most things that appear self-evident are not. Let me explain. We tend to think of learning in terms of reading books. But, just because we know how to read does not mean we know how to study. We are distracted, listening to music as a show plays on TV, when we allow our eyes to skim over the lines of a devotional or a magazine. None of this constitutes study. Study demands a singular focus, patient endurance, and the exchange of ideas. To study Scripture means to enter an intentional journey of discovery, to read expectantly. Most of us when preparing to undertake a trip gather resources, speak to those who have gone before, and make our departure expectantly. Approaching the study of Scripture ought not to be terribly different.
Study as receiving. The concept of receiving presupposes two things: the humility of the recipient as well as the presence of someone from whom the recipient will be receiving. Our time of study is intentional and focused but it does not take place in isolation. As we bring secondary sources to the text under investigation, we are dialoguing with some of the greatest theologians in history. We don’t need to agree with them, but we do need to know what their commentaries have to say. We also humbly need to pay attention to what the text has to say. Self-evident? Not. I find myself regularly cautioning seminarians to “Let the text say what the text says.” As in other areas subject to confirmation bias, most readers of Scripture approach texts having decided matters of content and meaning before reading the first word. A posture of humility allows for the text to be the focal point of our study.
Study as hearing. Paul astutely recognizes the verbal component inherent in study. While books and reading are central to the nonverbal aspect of study, lectures and listening are integral to the verbal component. We learn by listening to experts. The Jewish blessing, “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi’s sandals,” best captures this sentiment. At the heart of this statement is a desire to walk so closely to an expert that one can hear everything that is being said. Which begs the question: Who are you listening to? Listening to and interacting with theological exposition ought to be part of our weekly study habits. Sermon illustrations lighten the mood, but they– as chaff– fail to satisfy.
Study as seeing. Observation is the necessary component that connects book learning and didactic interactions to application. The Pharisees had mastered book learning and instruction but they failed to make this vital connection to their lived reality. Jesus says about them: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). We can be so smug in our practice of study that we lose sight of the life-giving connection between the renewal of the mind and the transformed life. Let us continue to strive toward transformed lives through the renewal of our minds in order that we may be ready to love the one in front of us.