Stay True to the Bible Text

Stay True to the Bible Text

The art of intentional observation

Note: This article is excerpted from The Bible Study Handbook.

I have mixed feelings about video links sent by friends. I don't want to waste my time, even though there are many funny or interesting videos online. Perhaps I was bored or in a more relaxed mood when I received an e-mail that said, "You've got to see this." The link took me to a YouTube video called "Awareness Test." The video began with a lineup of young people, half dressed in white, the others in black. A pleasant male voice said, "How many passes does the team in white make?" Each team had a basketball and passed it to their teammates while the players wove in and out of one another like a complicated dance. I concentrated on the game and tried to count, but the ball was passing quickly and I soon lost track. Twenty seconds later, the narrator said calmly, "The answer is thirteen. But . . . did you see the moonwalking bear?"

What in the world is he talking about? I thought as the footage of the basketball game was rewound to the beginning lineup. This time, rather than concentrating on the ball and trying to keep track of how many times it changed hands, I allowed myself to look at the scene as a whole. Sure enough, from the right side of the screen, a person dressed in a bear costume stepped into the game. The bear did the moonwalk, a dance move made famous by the late Michael Jackson, while the ball whizzed by him on every side. It was a ridiculous sight: a costume you might see at a children's fair, a dance step from the 1980s and a frenetic basketball game played by a group of urban youth.

The video ended with a plain black screen and the statement, "It is easy to miss something you aren't looking for." My determination to do well on the awareness test caused me to miss an obvious feature of the scene. The moonwalking bear was in plain view the whole time, and yet I had failed to see it.

We Limit Ourselves

The video had been made to promote bicycle awareness, but its point is broadly applicable. When driving in a new place, we miss a beautiful landscape because we are preoccupied with finding the right turnoff. In visiting an art gallery, we barely notice remarkable pieces lining the halls as we find our way to the gallery of a famous painting. Our preoccupations limit what we are able to see or notice.

I believe this is particularly true when reading the Bible. Unless we train ourselves otherwise, most of us will come to the Bible looking to reinforce what we already think. When we read it, most often we are looking for a word of comfort, an illustration of a point we want to make, or evidence of a dearly held theological position. This tendency has had tragic consequences, enabling Western Christians, for example, to uphold and defend the practice of slavery for centuries. They came to the Bible with preconceived notions of racial superiority, and they found narratives and verses to support it. They seemed to be blind to the many other passages and ideas that would challenge both the practice of slavery and the worldview that undergirded it. Perhaps they were so focused on looking for justification of slavery that they missed the moonwalking bear.

Commit to Finding Truth

It's easy to point fingers at believers in other times and other places, and criticize them for their blindness toward issues that we think are obvious. But before we take the speck out of another's eye, we must first take the log out of our own. All of us are guilty of using Scripture to reinforce our dearly held views and practices.

It takes humility before God and other Christians to come to the Bible fully open to challenge or correction. Rather than approaching the Word seeking to justify ourselves, a humble posture assumes that we are ignorant and blind to many of God's truth and values. Daniel Fuller writes, "If one is to see things as they really are in a given passage, his mind must first be turned away from all preconceived ideas and biases as to the meaning of that passage. The way this is done is to become a lover of truth, regardless of the consequences." This will involve holding our convictions in an open hand, allowing the Bible to have its full authority in our lives. Truth must be our goal, even if seeing that truth threatens dearly held convictions.

The murder mystery novelist Agatha Christie's character Hercule Poirot embodies a commitment to truth at all costs. This makes him both invaluable and dangerous. Poirot is able to identify criminals that stymie the police, but in doing so, he inevitably uncovers family secrets and incriminating evidence about the rich and powerful. Christians who, like Poirot, are committed to truth at all costs are likewise both invaluable and dangerous to the church and the world. The Gospels make it clear that religious people and institutions do not always take kindly to those who challenge long-held practices and assumptions. Too often, stability and the status quo win out over truth.

The Art of Seeing

Inductive Bible study requires a commitment to the truth and a teachable, humble posture toward Scripture. Without them, we aren't able to do justice to the first step: observation.

Kuist wrote that observation is "the art of seeing things as they really are," the ability to recognize all the elements in a scene or text. Skillful observers, whether they are bird watchers or sports enthusiasts, have developed the ability to pay attention to a wide range of details. For example, my husband sees a hundred times more than I do in just ten minutes of a football game. He has learned the various plays, strategies, and positions. He loves the complexity of the game. Thus, when Jon watches football on Sunday afternoon, he is able to observe dynamics and movements to which I am oblivious. I, on the other hand, can only recognize when a thrown ball is caught or dropped. The rest of the action on the screen is meaningless to me. After a few minutes of watching, I usually pick up a magazine and tune out the television. Jon is happy to teach me more, but honestly, I'm not that interested in paying close attention. Both Jon's enjoyment and my lack of enjoyment are directly related to the quality of our observing.

As we consider how to observe Scripture fully, I find it helpful to think in terms of "attentiveness." Attentiveness is a posture, a way of carrying yourself in relationship to the world. Attentiveness implies careful observation, awareness, and perception. It involves being emotionally present and engaged, thoroughly conscious of what we are experiencing or reading. Robert Traina, author of a classic work on inductive Bible study, wrote that "to truly observe is to be mentally aware of what one sees. Observation transcends pure physical sight; it involves perception."

Turn Off Your "Automatic Pilot"

Have you ever been driving on the freeway and lost track of time? Your eyes have been open and you have seen enough of your environment to successfully stay between the lines and not rear-end the car in front of you, but you haven't been consciously aware of the act of driving. This often happens to me as my mind wanders to a problem at work or I begin planning tonight's dinner. I might notice mile marker 178 and then the next mile marker I am aware of is 194. Sixteen miles have passed but I haven't been consciously aware of my driving. I've been on "automatic pilot" and have failed to be attentive to my driving. I hate to admit it, but I have this experience when reading the Bible just as often as when I'm driving.

When driving on "automatic pilot" my eyes are open and my optical synapses are firing, but I'm only seeing in the most basic way. It's a risky way to drive because I'm not alert to potential obstacles on the road ahead or aware of my escalating speed. (Most of my speeding tickets are the result of being in auto-pilot mode.) Driving (and life) requires more than basic seeing.

Attentiveness goes beyond basic seeing by adding the will. When your will is activated, the "automatic pilot" switch has been turned off and you are fully present. Attentive reading enables us to grasp the depth and beauty of a skilled author. One of the reasons people are so excited about inductive Bible study when they first encounter it is the discovery of treasure in familiar passages. Once they learn how to observe well, they find that the Bible is incredibly rich. They might even be baffled that they have read it for so many years and yet missed so much.

A few years ago, I was teaching John 1–4 to a group of about a hundred Christian leaders. I pressed them to push themselves further in observation and to not be content with what they already know about familiar stories like the conversion of Nathanael, the wedding at Cana, or the woman at the well. One often ignored element of observation is counting, and so I encouraged them to pay attention to how John uses numbers. While we were studying the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, someone observed that she had been married five times. Another noticed that her jar is the seventh water jar in John's gospel (there were six at the wedding in Cana). I asked, "Why might these numbers be significant?" The group pondered a while, and then a woman in the back of the room raised her hand. She said, "We've mentioned that several famous Old Testament characters met their wives at a well. She's living with a man who isn't her husband, so that means she's been with six men. When Jesus offers her living water, is he offering to be the seventh man, the completion of what she's been looking for and hasn't found?"

At this point, the room erupted. We were so excited to see that the living water that quenches all thirst wasn't just an abstract offer, but was fleshed out immediately in her experience with Jesus "courting" her. Through that insight, the Holy Spirit spoke to our hearts of the fullness and completeness of Jesus' love for each of us. Being more fully attentive to the details in the text led us into a powerful experience with Jesus.

—Lindsay Olesberg. Taken from The Bible Study Handbook by Lindsay Olesberg. Copyright 2012 by Lindsay Olesberg.Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Top 10 Bible Studies for Small Groups

Top 10 Bible Studies for Small Groups

Looking for your next study? Consider these top picks by members.
What Type of Studies Should We Use?

What Type of Studies Should We Use?

Determine whether sermon-based studies or a la carte studies would work best in your context.
Create Sermon-Based Bible Studies

Create Sermon-Based Bible Studies

How to write engaging group studies that tie into your pastor's sermons
How to Stretch Your Dollar for Small-Group Curriculum

How to Stretch Your Dollar for Small-Group Curriculum

Great Bible studies can be expensive, but they don't have to be.
5 Mistakes That Ruin Small Groups

5 Mistakes That Ruin Small Groups

How to be an intentional small-group leader

Discussing God's Love

A quick study and activity for your next group meeting