I was excited to see this new book from the team at Fuller Youth Institute, How we read the Bible: 8 ways to engage the Bible with our students. Unlike other books in the FYI series, this one is less tied to the findings of a research project and more a distillation of author Matt Laidlaw’s years of Bible teaching ministry with young people. I’m encouraged to see more and more practical books like this one that are staring down the crisis of biblical illiteracy among young people and offering practical ways forward for youth ministry leaders. Another book mining the same vein is Andrew Zirschky’s Teaching Outside the Box (which I’ll endeavor to review in a future post).
There’s a lot of wisdom in Laidlaw’s book. It’s clear that we’re reading the accumulated wisdom from someone who has himself wrestled with the place of the Bible in his personal life as well as in his ministry with young people.
The thing I appreciated most in Laidlaw’s message is implicit throughout the book – you can’t lead where you haven’t gone. In Laidlaw’s words, “If you want the young people who have been entrusted to your care to have a deep and meaningful relationship with the Bible, that that starts with you” (p.28). Each chapter concludes with two sets of practical tips. The first set (“Try this… in your life:”) is for youth leaders – before you think about how you might apply these ideas in your ministry you first need to apply them to yourself. Laidlaw knows what I’ve also witnessed: that lots of young people have no confidence to use the Bible in their own Christian lives because their leaders have no confidence to use the Bible in their own lives or in their ministries. “And when opening the Bible actually seems too scary, the temptation is just to play more games and eat more snacks” (p.24). So, if you’re a youth leader, then this is a great book to remind/inspire/enable you to get into the Bible for yourself.
The second great contribution of Laidlaw’s book is the number of practical tips for engaging the Bible in youth ministry. Examples of Bible engagement with young people are scattered throughout the book, both in the “Try this… in your ministry” lists at the end of each chapter as well as in other ministry experiences described along the way. It’s obvious that these examples are drawn from the lived experience of someone who has stuck with youth ministry long enough to get good at it.
Among the gems to be found include:
- Tips for how to build a culture that aims at “normalizing reading the Bible” in your youth ministry (p.30-31);
- “Four crucial questions to help students consider what the Bible is asking of them” (p.51-54) – a set of self-reflection questions that will serve leaders as much as the young people you lead;
- Suggestions for how to ask questions that “invite young people to consider another way… to cultivate an individual and collective imagination for what life could be like” (p.103);
- the “Spirituality of asking questions” (p.149. “Answers often end the conversation. Questions often lead to growth”). Laidlaw describes a Bible study format with young people that is almost exclusively focused on drawing out more and more questions of a biblical text;
- A set of questions to use to evaluate the effectiveness of your Bible teaching ministry that focus on how young people are engaging with the Bible rather than just asking whether they’ve mastered the content of the message (p.218-219).
Best of all is the list of suggestions for helping your youth group respond to times of great personal or national tragedy. Laidlaw structures a time of community engagement that ties together the pain of suffering and the promise of the gospel. Point 6 is gold, and almost worth the cost of the book on its own!
So yes, there’s a lot to like about this book, and there’s a lot here for youth leaders to learn from and implement in their ministry. If you flick through my copy of the book you’ll often find a ‘Yes!’ or a tick scrawled in the margins.
But there are also quite a few places where there’s a “Yes, but…”.
Laidlaw opens the book using the image of a map as a metaphor for the ways we generally approach the Bible. The same way that people generally make maps with their home at the centre, so too we tend to approach the Bible in one particular way that is most familiar to us. The map image is meant to encourage us to travel a bit and see new places, to approach the Bible from different perspectives. I’m on board with the metaphor to a certain extent. Yes, the Bible is too complex and sprawling for us to be able to stipulate a simple set of steps to follow to unlock its secrets. I agree that “to suggest there is only one simple way to read [the Bible] is to risk killing its meaning” (p.223). There is more than one way to read the Bible just as there is more than one place to visit on a map.
My problem comes from the suggestion that any perspective we might bring to the Bible will be as good as the next one, even when those perspectives will be in tension with others. So for example, Laidlaw encourages us in chapter 3 to read the Bible as “Commands to obey”, while in chapter 4 he wants us to read the Bible as “A way to live” noting that “the way of Jesus wasn’t about keeping commandments” (p.97). Laidlaw isn’t ignorant of the apparent contradiction between these two chapters. Rather than backing away from the tension he urges us to recognise this as a tension present in the Scriptures and to resist the temptation to resolve that tension (p.105).
So my response is ‘yes, but…’. Yes, we ought not attempt to resolve the tensions between different ways to engage Scripture if such resolutions mean that we will dismiss any approach that is different to the approach that we’re most familiar with. But the alternative to sticking to your home-turf and never venturing into a new location is not simply to roam around willy-nilly with no way of holding each new perspective together with the others in a meaningful whole. Afterall, what will we do when we come across the Bible Code approach to reading the Bible? How are we going to decide that this is the Bible engagement equivalent of finding ourselves in a toxic waste dump that is perhaps not a wise place to pitch our tent for the night? We don’t only need a map, we need a route to follow.
Where Laidlaw talks about keeping the 8 (and other possible) approaches in “balance” (p.106), I’d rather pursue how we might consider how various approaches to engaging Scripture might be theologically integrated. The aim isn’t to ‘resolve’ tensions in order to dismiss all alternatives (though there might be some alternatives that need dismissing, or at least hanging clear warning signs around), but rather to find a way that will enable us to make theological sense of how the different approaches relate to each other.
As I read I found myself asking, ‘why should a young person read the Bible?’ Laidlaw raises this question once on p.108, in the instruction to “create an evangelism approach that highlights why following Jesus is the best possible way to live”. But apart from raising the question, there’s no clear reason given for why anyone ought to read the Bible, why anyone would choose to follow the way of Jesus.
I think what is missing is a consistent understanding and application of the Big Story of the Bible. Laidlaw addresses the idea of Big Story in chapter 5 “A Story to Engage”. He emphasizes the unity of the Bible, with an overarching story moving forward in one direction and outlines a number of variations on the big movements of Creation—Fall—Redemption—New Creation (p.117). But the main emphasis in the chapter is that the story of redemption is driven forward by the two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” (p.122). Now these are two very important questions, and two questions that the Bible offers potent and potentially life-changing answers to. The problem is that they’re questions of analysis not movements in a narrative. These are abstract questions, timeless questions.
The Big Story in scripture is time-bound and purposeful: a story that begins in the Garden and draws us to the City by the way of the Cross. Laidlaw is spot on in reminding us that “the call of the Gospel is to live our story within God’s great story” (p.121); but doing so means entering into God’s action in the world, finding our part to play in the divine drama. To do that well we need to work out who we are and who God is. They are questions that enable our participation in the story; but they’re not the whole story.
Missing the overall narrative means that Laidlaw often diminishes a narrative about God’s involvement in history by distilling it into a timeless principle. So the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, the great narrative turning point where God chooses to restore blessing to a fallen world by working through one chosen people, becomes just the principle “if you don’t go you won’t grow” (p.5). The great moment of covenant renewal in Genesis 15 becomes “God’s redemptive work in the world involves gazing at the stars and the sand, and receiving a greater vision for who we are and who God is” (p.116). The life of David misses the significance of his role as the King of Israel and is simply a picture of “a God who is gracious and faithful to a man whose identity is a mixed bag of passion, giftedness, beauty, and brokenness” (p.127). Again, Yes, but… The story of God’s action is more than personal identity, it’s about movement toward a goal, a goal that is advanced in God’s choice of David as king as this looks forward to the kingdom of Christ and the new creation to come.
There’s a way forward within Laidlaw’s own argument: “Let Jesus be your guide” (p.214). When we look at how Jesus read the Bible we see his ministry as the fulfillment of a long-term plan, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). When Jesus engages the Bible with his students “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:17). Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” reminding them how he had taught them “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44-45).
By charting a course through the Bible that follows the contours of the Big Story we are able to integrate all eight perspectives on reading Scripture that Laidlaw commends.
- The Bible asks something of us, inviting us to obedience to God’s commands, to imitate the way of Jesus because the Bible invites us into a story of covenant love. We are invited to obey God because we are offered the promise of God’s gracious love in the gospel of Christ.
- We enter into the physical reality of the biblical stories because the Big Story is not an abstract disembodied philosophy but the history of God’s action with human people in this world.
- We ask questions upon questions because God’s chosen vehicle of self-revelation is a story that invites us into the intricacy of relationship.
- We take up the invitation to struggle with God in lament as the action appropriate to this story: empowered by covenant, called forth by the fall, following the example of Jesus, and drawing hope from the new creation.
- We meditate on individual words and phrases in lectio divina as these words and phrases come to us in the biblical story of God’s action with human people in this world.
Richard Rohr commends Laidlaw’s book saying, “This book will help people move from using the Bible only to gain information, and into a growing relationship with the Bible and a lifelong journey of transformation.” I agree wholeheartedly. This is a book worth working through and learning from. My suggestion would be to read it in conjunction with one of the books that lays out the Big Story (suggestions below) and think about how each of Laidlaw’s proposals finds its home within the unfolding drama of redemption.
Books on the Big Story: