A small group is reading the Gospel of John; the format is that the group reads one chapter a week and then meets to discuss it. For some of the group it is the first time they have read John from front to back; for others…well…it is possible to read something and not read it – it’s happened to me more than once and hopefully it will keep happening.
We are in Chapter Two, Jesus is at a marriage in Cana, the wine has run out – Mary wants Jesus to do something about it, Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” The question arises in the Bible study, “What did Jesus mean by that statement?” The eyes of those who have Study Bibles leave the Biblical text and begin reading the explanations of Jesus’ statement. I’m dying inside. I’m not going to say anything, at least not this night, maybe later, maybe some other night, but not this night. What can I say that will make sense? The group likely won’t understand me anymore than most people reading this will understand me; it will simply be one of Bob’s quirks, impractical, weird, strange. Study Bible’s have the answers, what’s the problem with that? Get over it Bob.
I’m dying inside because the beauty of John’s Gospel, the adventure, the journey of discovery is being denied to not only the man asking the question, but denied to the group as a whole – no need for discovery, no need for mystery, no need for pondering – the data is right there in the Study Bible notes – and that’s what we’re after…right? Data, information; more information, more data. Forget the motif of John, forget the themes, forget connecting the rhythms and points and counterpoints – forget the music of John – just give us data. The questioner is robbed – he need not ask again, the answer has been given, it’s right there in the Study Bible notes.
I finally mention that he’ll see the idea of “hour” and “time” again and again in John – I even fast forward to John Chapter 17 where Jesus says, “Father, the hour has come.” I do it to hold out some hope, some expectation, that there just might be more than the Study Bible’s two or three sentences of explanation. The theme of “hour” and “time” unfolds in the Gospel of John, it is a journey laden with jewels that the traveler can experience as way markers in the ministry of Jesus Christ, deep with mystery; why does Jesus say this here? Why there? What does He mean? What’s going on? Questions, questions, more questions – questions designed to draw us into a journey with Jesus Christ, questions to challenge us and bring us out of our earthly-minded thinking – ha! But no questions need go unanswered, no mystery need remain without clarification – the Study Bible plays the role of intermediary – even though Protestants often pride themselves on having no mediator than Jesus Christ.
Harsh? No, not really. What is harsh is to interpose data in place of an encounter with the Scriptures – that is harsh; and it looks so innocent, benign at worse – a faithful teacher at best. But wait, faithful teachers do not give all the answers, faithful teachers develop their students, faithful teachers challenge, faithful teachers stretch their students – see Jesus in the Gospel…He’s not giving all the answers, in fact He is saying things that make no sense at times, He is acting in ways that are not conducive to surface understanding…what is His problem? But wait Jesus, we can help you by providing ready-made and accessible answers – we’ll make good Christians for you – trust us.
Then there is the piecemeal fashion in which we approach the Bible. Would we watch a movie by freezing every scene while we consult a dictionary as to the meaning of every word? During the first fifteen minutes of a movie what if we were to insist on answers to every seminal reference or illusion as opposed to allowing the movie to come to us, as opposed to actually experiencing the movie? Yet we think we can read a few verses here or there, or even read a chapter this week and then one next week and so forth and somehow retain the ebb and flow and contours of a Biblical book – it can’t be done. Now to read it through and then read it again and then to read it again and then to freeze this scene and that scene as we ponder how the scenes relate to the entire movie – well there is hope there, there we have possibility – but we don’t teach like that, we usually don’t preach like that (developing and retaining context) – little wonder we have folks who have “read” the Bible for decades and yet can’t tell us the story of Mark or John or Acts or Philippians; but they can tell us the storyline and memorable scenes of a favorite movie or share the details of a biography or novel.
Study Bibles with interpretive notes, when used as the Bible of first resort, when used as the primary reading Bible, protect us from the text of Scripture, no wonder we don’t reproduce.