If I complete my doctoral program within the anticipated time frame, I will have spent over 7 years in full-time postgraduate work in Biblical Studies. Every now and then, friends and acquaintances have suggested that perhaps all this academic study of the Bible is bad for the soul (and maybe the wallet, as well!). Since I was reared in ecclesial contexts that viewed the academy with suspicion, one of the most common words of counsel I have received is that I should make sure to spend some time reading the Bible devotionally, and not just academically.
It is easy to accuse those in the church wary of the academy of “anti-intellectualism.” But a good bit of the wariness is justifiable. During my 7 years in student ministry I have seen young Christians rocked and sometimes even derailed from their faith by the academic study of the Bible in university lecture rooms. These students have found the sacred texts of their religious tradition splayed out and dissected on lab tables sanitized from a faith perspective… and for some it was a shattering experience.
I am very grateful for the strong faith commitments of my theological teachers and mentors in my academic training. Thankfully, my own engagement with Christian Scripture has been strengthened with each course, each module, each lecture. I especially remember a moment in Dr. Norfleete Day’s course in Mark’s Gospel when I realized that these biblical texts are literary works of art, not just documents for proof-texting my theological points.
So what about now that I am a doctoral student in New Testament? How is my Bible reading affected by my academic studies?
I can say this: I am reading much less of the Bible now.
It is not that I am reading the Bible less; I am just reading less of the Bible.
During my years of full-time ministry I was reading large swaths of the Bible each week. For sermon preparation I would read quite a bit. I still preach fairly regularly, but most of my Bible reading as a PhD student amounts to an intensive regular focus on a small number of texts.
Right now I am writing a chapter on John 8-10. So I am regularly drowning in these three chapters. Since I have to (um, get to!) work in the Greek text, my reading is rather slow and the words and syntax take a while to sink in.
In the mornings, I am trying to work through a Psalm in Greek and then through a small section of Galatians. So each week I probably read one Psalm, two chapters in Galatians, and three chapters in John. It is not a very large sampling of the Bible.
Though I am reading less of the Bible, however, there are advantages. Having to read in Greek forces me to work slowly. I cannot rush through those verses as familiar, English texts. Having to engage the Bible from a different linguistic angle has helped my understanding quite a bit.
But I am also finding that these sacred texts are inexhaustible. As much as I read through John 10, I am still left mystified by depths I will never plumb.
And being mystified may be the best training a PhD student can get.