Studying the Parts to Understand the Whole

A few years ago I read an annotated version of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Sometimes I struggled with disrupting the flow of the story to read the notes. But the notes added so much to understanding the story, they were worth it in the long run.

I read recently an article where someone brought up this difference between reading for pleasure versus reading an annotated version of a story, stopping to read every footnote. This writer brought out the disruption of this type of reading. She pointed out that we don’t read regular books that way (unless we’re in school reading an assigned text), so we shouldn’t read the Bible that way.

There are times we should just read a particular passage as it is for pleasure, with no cross references or footnotes. But there are other times we should study it out in depth. It isn’t either Bible reading or Bible study. We need both.

Some people read and study in tandem. They’ll read one passage devotionally and study another, possibly to prepare for a group Bible study. Others will take turns: they’ll read one book of the Bible all the way through, then do a Bible study project on another book or topic, then read another book of the Bible through.

When I first started using a study Bible, I wasn’t sure I liked reading a verse or two and then stopping to read the footnotes sidebars, and charts. It did seem more halting and fragmented than just reading the passage. But the extra material did aid in understanding the passage.

Instead of reading a verse and it’s footnote one by one, sometimes I read a paragraph at a time, then look over the footnotes. Or, if there is a lot of footnote information for each verse, I’ll read each footnote after its verse, and then go back over the last few lines of text just to put it all together.

Then, beyond just the notes in a study Bible, there are commentaries, Bible study guides, and a whole slew of other Bible study materials with which to dig into a passage even further..

Let’s see if I can illustrate the benefit of study in another way. I was not exposed to classical music much as I was growing up. I remember one Girl Scout trip to a symphony, a couple of performances of Handel’s Messiah in school or church, our pastor playing excerpts of Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio in a high school assembly. I remember thinking the pieces were nice and enjoying a few of the songs more than others (especially “He, Watching Over Israel,” based on Psalm 121:4, from Elijah). But I didn’t get much more than that from the pieces.

Then I went to a Christian liberal arts university which wanted to teach us more than academics, so we were exposed to various kinds of classical music concerts, Shakespearean plays, etc. During my junior year, I asked a sophomore music major roommate to help me pick out some classical vinyl albums marked down to $3 at the bookstore that she thought I might enjoy. I grew a bit more in my appreciation of classical music.

But it wasn’t until my senior year in college, when I had a class called Music Appreciation, that I really began to understand and then love classical music. We went era by era, learning what kind of music was produced by which composers in each period. We learned something of the lives of major composers. We listened to and took apart some famous works. We learned to identify the different themes in each piece, note their development, and trace how they interacted with each other. We’d have tests where the professor would play a few seconds of a piece of music, and we’d have to identify it as the first theme of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony (a melody which was later given words by one of his students and turned into the lovely song “Goin’ Home“). Some of the works we studied then are my favorite pieces today – New World, Hayden’s Surprise Symphony (and the fun story behind it), Smetana’s The Moldau, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and others. Listening to them again is like rereading a favorite book, enjoying and anticipating the flow. I came to understand and enjoy the whole much more by studying the parts. In fact, I haven’t added any new classical music loves because I haven’t studied any pieces to the extent I did then.

It’s the same way with the Bible. As we study the individual parts of a biblical book, we learn what the details mean, how they fit within the book itself, how the book fits within the whole Bible. We trace the themes and see how they intertwine. We’ll know and get more from those passages in ways we don’t know those we’ve only given a cursory reading. And each time we read that book, we build on what we know and appreciate what we remember from previous studies. Study might seem tedious in the midst of it, but it’s worth it when you put it all together. C. S. Lewis contrasted the difference between meditating on a single verse devotionally vs. working through a longer passage: “Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden (from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis).

Some days, even some seasons of life, like when young children are in the house, our Bible reading may be more like grabbing a quick protein bar instead of sitting down to a meal. There are many good reasons to read the Bible, and sometimes we’re greatly blessed from just reading a passage. While working on this post, I read Julia Bettencort’s great post about reading the Bible for pleasure. Some days our thoughts are already scattered, and focusing on and absorbing a single passage is more helpful than adding notes or references. But we also benefit from studying more in depth at times. Our study informs and enhances our general reading. It’s good to make time for both.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story,
Let’s Have Coffee, Share a Link Wednesday, Grace and Truth, Worth Beyond Rubies)

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8 thoughts on “Studying the Parts to Understand the Whole

  1. I agree, it’s good to read the Bible in different ways. I’ve done a Bible in a year plan which was really helpful in getting an overview, but it’s also helpful to slow down and zoom in on a single verse. I like the link you make with studying music too. I think many of my favourite classical pieces are those I’ve either played or studied in detail.

  2. GReat explanation. I connected with your explanation of studying classical music. Learning about the pieces brought it so alive. Just how learning more about a particular scripture brings it alive.xplanation.

  3. Barbara, I hadn’t thought about reading a study Bible in the way you described. What a great perspective! I enjoy digging deeper in books of the Bible. I’ve used concordances to study certain aspects of it, usually in preparation for teaching a Bible study. When I do that, I glean a greater understanding. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  4. I don’t know how many times I have read the book of Esther. But currently, my pastor is preaching chapter by chapter through it, and I am doing an Esther Bible Study. The depth of understanding is amazing! And I’m looking forward to reviewing an ARC next month of a new book called Hadassah!

  5. You describe the process so well, Barbara. My daily Bible reading is without notes, but when I’m memorizing a chapter, I meticulously read notes on every single verse. It’s both/and.

  6. Pingback: End-of-June Musings | Stray Thoughts

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