Behind Coffee With Paul stands the notion of conversational Bible study.
There is nothing mystical or metaphysical about this. It is just different from what most people do, and it takes a bit of getting used to. It is all about good Bible study habits. However, it is approached in a very personal way. So, this is not weird or some “new alien system” to be forced on Bible study. It is rather good, solid Bible study practice from a perspective of a “live conversation.” In this post, I want to explore the origins of this concept just a bit in my own transformation.
I have been trained in (and have taught for years) numerous highly technical biblical studies research and study skills. And I appreciate all of them. I am not here to denigrate them on any level or to report that I encountered a bright light that showed me the folly of academic study. Quite the contrary. For me, the academic studies were a great source of light and they remain so. In fact, one of my goals is to help all kinds of people to be able to tap into such things, even if they themselves are not scholars and don’t want to be.
And yet, a key for me was when I started viewing even my academic study time as a live conversation with the ancient author (no matter who the author was). At that point, as far as reading the Bible is concerned, several things started happening.
- The most noticeable thing was that the distance between the Bible and me began to melt away. Despite that many people think “academic approaches” to the Bible are the great Satan of the church, the problem is not academics. The problem was mere perspective in the use of such sound study tools.
- So, as I came closer, I then began see that I was not having just one conversation (just “my God and I,” you know, of pop-Christian lore); I was rather in a room where God wanted me to personally meet some people like myself. They were so important to him, that he wanted me to meet each one of them, one at a time. But this next thing bowled me over—he also wanted them to meet me! The idea that God loved me as much as Paul, and that he wanted the two of us to meet, was an exhilarating thing for me.
- And so once I met Paul and Matthew and John and the others (and all that goes with that)—all individually—and once I began to listen to each one on his own, carefully and in private, I could see why they sometimes did not get along so well. (And they did not! They did not always see eye to eye, and that does not come out simply in a story where Paul tattles on Peter.) But then I began to see that the more I depreciated their differences, and the more I closed my eyes to them and stopped up my ears, the more I washed out what distinguished them from each other, the more I felt like I had to “make them all say the same thing” even when they did not, and also the more I treated them as if they did not themselves really do anything, it was only God doing it (and so he could only speak with one voice)—the more I did those things, the more I was not listening to any of them, and the more I was, in actuality, depreciating God himself, robbing him of his ability to say to them: “well done, you are a good and faithful servant.” Not listening to the variety of voices means I was not listening to God. I was, instead, listening to other more contemporary voices.
- And then my kids came along. Nine of them altogether—hers, mine, and ours—and I saw so very clearly that trying to treat them “all the same” was not only a dumb idea but impossible, because they were all so very different. Actually, if I were to have tried to pass a rule that in every situation every child gets equal say, that I would have diminished every child in untold ways. Actually what was needed were many private conversations in which one child is allowed to express himself or herself. Only then are group conversations able to work.
- And so I began to see that these multiple conversations I was having with the various biblical authors could not be—must not be—regulated or forced to conform either to what another one said, and especially not to standard church or pop-Christian doctrine—not ever. The authors must always be allowed to speak for themselves, despite what (at least some of not many of) the late-great-planet-preachers were saying every Sunday.
- Now of course, it is true that group conversations can be useful and beneficial. It can be a good thing to compare what these authors might say to each other. But never until they have been allowed to fully express themselves first and until we are prepared to respect their individual integrity. Of course, this is hardly the path most taken. For what is almost universally taught is to drag them all onto the witness stand and make them speak in language that is foreign to them, answering questions they did not address, and then to add up what we make them say into a new and unnatural conglomeration, and then to force that horrific new hodgepodge onto the whole, so that whatever one says, they all must mean. This is truly the ultimate disrespect we pay to biblical authors—when we make them all say the same things in the service of what we already believe.
- I came to see that conversations had to be real and genuine, and that I had to be willing to allow them to say what was on their minds.
And in doing all of this, something marvelous happens: the pressure to make everything “fit” vanishes into thin air. For me, this was transformational, and this is why I wrote Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration: Faith in Pursuit of Conversation——to say that Christians don’t have to close their eyes when reading the scriptures.
In the end, allowing these authors to say what they say is a show of respect, not only to them, but to God who wants you to meet them, each one individually.