Sunday, September 16, 2012

partially hydrogenated bible study

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4

Who hasn’t had a love affair with junk food? Those enticing cellophane-encased delights whose appearance, smell and taste hold all the promise of a deliciously satisfying meal but none of the nutritional benefits…Oh, for the simple days of my nutritional ignorance, those blissful years of HoHo’s and Ding Dongs, when the words “partially hydrogenated”, “high fructose” and “trans fat” were part of some beautiful secret code I had no interest in cracking. But then some Johnny Raincloud broke that code, translating junk food labels into a recipe for diabetes and heart disease. And the unthinkable happened: Cheetos lost their binge-appeal. According to food activist Michael Pollan, these tasty morsels were not food, but “edible foodlike substances”.

Well. When you put it that way…

Yet some days I still find myself thinking, “How could something that tastes so good be wrong?” Yes, junk food seems right unto Jen, but the end thereof is nutrient-starved obesity.

Lately, it seems everyone is a nutritional code-breaker. Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter all buzz with the clean food convictions of their users. Lately, eating well is practically a religion.

Which brings me to my point: We take great care to ensure the nutritional content of our daily bread, but how concerned are we about the nutrition value of our spiritual food? Specifically, how hard have we thought about the content of our Bible studies?

There are endless shelves of them in the local Christian bookstore. They all promise to satisfy our hunger, but how can we know whether we are staring at shelves of Twinkies or organic purple kale? How can we tell which ones are solid spiritual food and which are “edible foodlike substances”?

Much like junk food manufacturers, Christian writers have been known to appeal to our senses to garner popularity. But the stakes for dining on spiritual junk food are high: like real junk food, superficial studies sabotage a healthy spiritual appetite and create cravings for teaching that appeals to our feelings or preferences. These are not studies so much as “study-like inspirational musings”. Yes, palatable para-studies seem right, but the end thereof is theology-starved spiritual flabbiness.

So take a minute to analyze the nutritional content of your current Bible study by asking these questions:
  • How much does it rely on storytelling? Humor? Empathy?
  • How much of the process of discovery is your responsibility?
  • Does it ask you to think hard, or just to feel deeply?
  • Does it emphasize theology or just morality? Does it point to the gospel?
  • Does its appeal lie in who wrote it, or in what it teaches?
  • Does it attach scripture to a topic, or does it address a topic as it arises in scripture?
  • Does it foster navel-contemplation or God-contemplation?
  • Does it include a preponderance of pithy quotes from other authors?
  • Does it rely heavily on paraphrases (the Message, the Living Bible, etc) instead of translations (ESV, NASB, RSV, etc)?
  • Does it deliver short bursts of inspiration or long brush-strokes of understanding?
  • Does it teach study skills or just deliver commentary?

Don’t miss my meaning: I am not implying that good Bible study never touches our emotions. Quite the contrary – I believe that the message of the Word is so beautiful that its faithful study will move you deeply and often. Without embellishment. Storytelling and humor do have their place, but their place must never be to manipulate. Their place must never be central.

If you’re beginning to suspect that your Bible study diet has been extremely flavorful but nutritionally lacking, be prepared for a bit of an adjustment when you move to healthier choices.  Consider again the physical parallel: When we begin to eat healthy things we find them to be bland at first. But over time we learn to prefer their taste to unhealthy options. The same is true of good Bible study. At first, we may still crave that touching story to drive home a point. We may not like finishing our study of a passage without a neat summary to tie up all the loose ends. But over time, we begin to appreciate the simple pleasure of applying ourselves to comprehending, interpreting and applying the Word.

So the next time you go shopping for enticing cellophane-encased delights at the Christian book store, do your nutritional research. Look for studies that hone your own skills as a student and that teach the beauty of the Word undiluted by sentimentality. Develop a taste for inductive Bible study. Treat yourself to a topical study for dessert after you’ve had a healthy meal of line-by-line instruction.

Here’s to your health.


  1. Perfectly said! You have so articulately stated what I have felt and wanted to share with other women in the church. Thank you for writing this post! I'll be pointing others to it.

  2. Jen,

    Extremely adept diagnosis, prognosis, and prescribed remedy. Dead on target, as usual. Robin and I hope we get to meet you somewhere along the Way.

    Chuck Bagby

  3. Well said! Just this morning I finished an 11 week study in Proverbs written by Kathleen Nielson. I realized that it is the first study I've done that consistently relied on the Word of God. No funny stories, no clever phrases - it just constantly pointed me to what God's word says and allowed it to convict and grow me. LOVED IT!!

  4. Ann, I just love this. I have been an inductive Bible study leader/teacher for four years and could not agree with you more. The most compelling evidence I've seen for deeper study is the transforming effect of the Word of God on my own life. I am not the same person I was yesterday and I barely recognize the woman I was four years ago. Great post!

  5. Jen, Please forgive me. In my earlier comment I mistyped and called you Ann. I am so sorry. Even though I apparently can't type, I loved your post. :)

    1. Kim, I laughed at this! Thanks for your kind words, to both Ann and me :)

  6. Jen, I am thrilled to happen upon your blog today. Even now as I type this comment I am also listening to your precise and well-articulated teaching from your 2009 More retreat! Precious...

    I so enjoyed this particular post on choosing "healthier and more substantive" Bible studies. This is a pet peeve with me, but you have articulated it so much better than I ever have. I especially appreciate your list of qualities by which you suggest we examine our Bible study choices.

    I send out a monthly newsletter to women's ministry leaders called Trail Talk. I'd like to include a link to this post in the next newsletter with your permission. My readership is about 150 women from all over the world. Would that be ok with you?

    I look forward to hearing from you on this and I also look forward to checking back in with you in the future. I think we are kindred spirits in many ways! Blessings!

    1. Kay, you are welcome to link to the post. I'm glad it resonated with you!