Learning to Read the Bible with Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”

Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" and a cup of coffee, The Orange Thimble, Tiong Bahru Estate, Singapore

Today, I re-read a book that had been a little hard-going for me when I was a wee one. But that’s the problem with trying to a book on how to read a book – you need a bit of a push to get you started on the trajectory.

Now, by surely no small amount of God’s grace in the intervening years, I’ve had enough experience of trying to do so, so that this re-read of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book was not only understandable; it also proved fruitful in learning how to help others to read.

And by “reading”, Adler doesn’t just mean deciphering the symbols to form words and sentences, but to understand the central thought of the passage/book, to see the thrust of the arguments and the subordinate points, to perceive precisely the shades of meaning.

The Bible is a collection of books, and can thus be chewed in almost the same way. It’s no surprise then, that much of what Adler says has been echoed by David Jackman at the Cornhill Training Course, or Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach in Dig Deeper, etc. None of these (just the lecture alone or guidebook alone) have been terribly helpful I’ve found.

  • The advantage of the Adler book is that it is able to articulate what exactly needs to go on in the reader’s head to be able to digest a book
  • What the Adler book does not address of course, since it is only concerned with books written by human authors and not the Bible, is (i) the one-story connection between the books of the Bible, written by different people in different countries over a vast sweep of time; (ii) the limitation of our fallen minds in comprehending the word of God; (iii) the need for the Spirit of God to illumine our minds so that we can grasp the revelation and have it shape our view of the world, and move our wills so we actually obey it

Oxford Degree Ceremony, Stepping into the Cherwell, Christian Ambition

Oxford Degree Ceremony 2015

After the Oxford degree ceremony, where we laughed dutifully at jokes, and clapped to see graduands! (emphasis and exclamation courtesy of Vice-Chancellor) trading up their subfuscs (or other lower degree academic gown) for a more appropriate dress befitting their improved academic status, I said my goodbyes and went to sit at one of my favourite spots by the Cherwell.

Across the path from that tree stump, there is a good view of Christ Church on the other side of the meadow. Christ Church Meadow, OxfordIt is a relatively quiet place to read and think without being bothered too much by humans, though the ducks get precariously close, eyeing up my roast beef baguette (Alternative Tuck Shop (24 Holywell Street)).

One can never sit next to a river without thinking of dear old cryptic Heraclitus’

ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν

ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ

He has other delightful fragmentaries, like:

Θυμῷ μάχεσθαι χαλεπόν· ὅ τι γὰρ ἂν

χρηίζῃ γίνεσθαι, ψυχῆς ὠνέεται.

(“It is hard to contend against one’s heart’s desire; for whatever it wishes to have it buys at the cost of soul” or similar.)

Christ Church Meadow, OxfordOn this day of formal official change, of another batch of bright-eyes-and-bushy-tails wandering out into the wide world, I was thinking of the people coming out of OICCU and St. Ebbe’s, and of all the new graduates keen on making a difference for the gospel in the world.

In a sense, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same) seemed the more appropriate quote of the day.

In the last few years of participating in church life in Singapore, this seems to be the sad progression of events in many (not all) of the lives of keen young male graduates:

  • they are utterly convinced of the power of the gospel for salvation and are wanting as many people to hear about the good news as possible. They love the Bible as the word of God and are adamant about its power for the salvation of souls, and its necessity in the growth of Christians. There is joy and energy and potential;
  • somebody earmarks them for leadership of a Bible study group or they enthusiastically volunteer for the job;
  • a few years down the road, they start to get inexplicably sensitive about their position within the group and/or vis-à-vis other leaders of other groups. They view everyone who isn’t unequivocally supportive of them as threats;
  • if they have managed to gather enough support around themselves, it is a matter of dissing the other leaders and promoting their own ministry, all in Christian terminology of course. If they haven’t, then the alpha male of the group rounds on them, savages them, and by the grace of God and the ministry of friends, they pick the pieces of themselves up from the ground.

David Jackman, with God-given wisdom from his years of ministry, spoke to us about Christian ambition in February 2014. I’ve posted this elsewhere but am regurgitating for my own nourishment (ewww…): scavenging duck by the River Cherwell, Oxford

“Is my ambition directed towards being a table server or a table owner?”

In Luke’s Gospel, the dispute amongst the disciples as to whom was the greatest (Luke 22:14-23) is ironically sandwiched between the institution of the Lord’s supper where Jesus tells them that he will be giving up his body and blood for them (Luke 22:24-30) – even the most privileged moments are tinged with self-seeking, and Jesus warning Peter that Satan will tempt Peter to deny Jesus (Luke 22:31-34).

Romans 12 tells us that the battle with pride is in our minds (Romans 12:2), and we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but to think with sober judgement, and in humility to count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).

There are two things likely to derail the disciples: (1) power; and (2) reputation.

The kings of the Gentiles operate through power and through power, they get their reputation. The proof of the reality of what we believe is in our actions. Do we actively seek to serve others? The warning in 1 Timothy 4:16 for him to keep watch on himself and his teaching isn’t just about ensuring that he can tick all the right boxes in the doctrinal statement. There are subtle things that can get hold of us and mar our effectiveness for the gospel.

Ambition is not wrong per se. Competitiveness is ingrained in children in school. But we must remember that we all play before an audience of one. We all want to do well – but for whom do I want to be the best? How much have I imbibed the city culture of being the top dog? Are we still thinking clearly about honouring God? Is my ambition directed towards being a table server or a table owner? Only God can give us the right desire.

All too easily, we can be as concerned as the world about number-crunching and customer satisfaction. We can worry about where we are in the pecking order. We wonder what we will be doing next – looking to get up a rung in the ladder. Has ministry taken the place of God?

An Aussie preacher was once introduced by an effusive young minister as the leader of a successful church that was growing year by year. “Yes,” said the Aussie drily, “we have about 2 million people in our congregation and more being added every day. We run successful conferences and workshops. This is why we don’t need God.” “Oh dear!,”said the alarmed hapless young minister, “what should we say to that?!” “Just sit down!” shouted a voice from the back. This sort of wrong ambition tends to be self-perpetuating.

How then can we have a sober estimate of ourselves?

  • remember that we are not the Christ (John 1:20). We may think that there is only one Jesus, but we surely are tempted to be that Jesus. We are not omnipresent. There may be plenty of people who have plans for our lives but are we concerned with God’s plan for our lives? Do we have over-zealous ownership over our ministry work? Do we not want other people to get into the same work? Are we following our personal agenda? Are we aiming to be super-successful operators?We can’t do it all. God sets us free to be ourselves – that is, humans who operate locally. Christ’s kingdom is not about outward success but the quality of a life lived in service of others. A small rural church recently had a young couple from a good London church join them. The young man was always accusing the pastor of not making good use of the young man’s gifts – he wanted to lead and teach groups as he had done in his old church in London. But where was the humility?
  • remember that only God can give growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). It is not our service that is life-giving. We are dependent on God. Whenever we are tempted to boast of our success, remember that we are only human, only servants. We are merely clay vessels, or disposable plastic cups. What is required of servants is to be faithful.
  • remember that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. The ultimate test is whether there is self-inflation as the result of knowledge. The test is the quality of our relationships – whether they are servant-ly. Love is demonstrated and re-kindled at the cross. That’s why we have, everyday, to come to the cross. Resurrection power is in the Lord Jesus.

We have to say every day that we are only people who serve. We serve for God’s glory, in God’s strength, through the cross of his Son. Otherwise, we will always be on the edge, always looking at other people, always frustrated.

Making Dumplings and Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Bible Reading / Bible Study / Bible Interpretation

What pedagogical approaches are there for teaching people to read the Bible for themselves? I asked several people as a small assembly line of chatterers produced dumplings for dinner.

making dumplings on the second day of Chinese New Year, Singapore(Dumplings, Chinese dumplings and other ones in the same skinned family – Latvian and Russian pelmeni eaten with sour cream and Mongolian Бууз (buuz) slick with the oil of boiled mutton and Georgian khinkali, are best contained a delicate membrane that just about holds the filling in but can be broken with a decisive chomp. Too thick a skin and poor granny might be chewing till kingdom come. Also, when chopsticks are the utensils of choice, the food needs to be bite-sized to avoid all sorts of ungainly contortions (or perhaps that’s just me).

Lucky Peach magazine’s recent dumpling obsession under the banner of Dumpling Month, has resulted in a nice cluster of anecdotal articles on dumpling diplomacy (complete with recipe for shui jiao), the familial socialising that comes with communal making of jiaozidumplings shaped to look like mice.)

Biblical interpretation is mostly about good comprehension skills, yet at the same time it is about God’s word being used by God’s Spirit as a sword for God’s people. So the first and most important thing about biblical interpretation is prayer – depending on God to enable us to understand what he is saying in his word.

But what about comprehension? How can comprehension be taught? Whether or not unique to the school programme I was in, but I don’t remember being formally taught to read or understand a passage. It was just something picked up as we went along.

An English teacher, while rolling out the dough, admitted that even in the normal education stream in Singapore, understanding a passage isn’t a priority in most Singapore schools. Rather, students learn how to ace exams by knowing how marks are allocated for certain sorts of questions. This might explain the dearth of constructive political-social discussions online and offline.

making dumplings on the second day of Chinese New Year, Singaporeugly dumplings

This is very preliminary sketch of things. Have to train a few groups in “Bible reading” and Bible study leading in the next few months, and typing things out helps me think. Wish someone else more competent could do it, but here I am. So, future me, here are some very vague, possibly confused, thoughts about how I might go about it. Please edit as mistakes become apparent:

Session 1 – Priority of God’s Word (Why do Bible study at all?)

Several people have suggested that we dive straight into the skills bit and skip all this “boring doctrine”. But I think that understanding the divine origin of God’s word, and the implications of that undergirds the whole of the human life. Most people would agree its priority in the Christian life, but what exactly does this mean?

There is so much to talk about, including:

    • the trustworthiness of the word because of its divine origins;
    • the necessity of the word because of our sinful creatureliness (cf. John 1:18 – cue cheeky question of “if Christ is the Word of God, then Christians are those who believe in Christ, not in the Bible” etc. Nope, false dichotomy.);
    • the sufficiency of the word to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and in us (1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:6). Therefore we focus on planting the word faithfully, not ensuring the fruit, eg. the experience the word should produce, the community that the word should gather, the repentance that the word might extract;
    • the power of the word to do this (2 Timothy 3:15-16);
    • confidence in the word – clarity and purpose (cf. reader-response);
    • the ultimate authority that lies in the word (cf. the Pie of Ultimate Authority); and
    • as a warning against bibliolatry, how the Bible is merely the means to an end and not the end.

Maybe Timothy Ward’s excellent Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God as set reading? Or some David Jackman? Jackman’s always good.

Here’s one facet:

  • Q: What is God’s plan for the world? His will and plan is, in the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
  • Q: Since we Christians are part of “all things”, how are we to be united to him? Once we were separated from Christ and far off, but have now been brought near and united with each other and in Christ through his blood (Ephesians 2:11-22). But that’s not all – we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit, build up the one body of Christ until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  • Q: What does God give us to enable the body of Christ to be built up? Bible (apostles, prophets), people to tell us about Jesus (evangelists), people to proclaim Christ/teach us about Jesus from the Bible (shepherds, teachers) (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  • Q: Why are these necessary for the building up of the body?
  • Q: Who builds the body of Christ?
  • Q: How do they do it?

-> Q: What does this tell us about the usual way God accomplishes his plan for the world?

-> Q: What then are we seeking to accomplish in our times of Bible study?

-> Q: Why would the idea that “everyone can make the Bible say anything they want” be blasphemous?

-> Q: What specific ways would this change the way we personally lead Bible study this year?

 When I was little, Bible study was a chore that you avoided the best you could. But the reality is that it’s not just necessary for growth as much our daily food and water, it’s also like sweet fresh water after you’ve crawled about in a hot acrid desert, or, when you’ve come in from the snow, stamping your feet and sniffling, a steaming pot of slow-cooked stew, rich with red wine, bobbing with tender beef chunks and good carrots and tomatoes .

working on God's word in the Bible with some reference material - Timothy Ward's "Words of Life", Andrew Sach and Richard Alldritt's "Dig Even Deeper", Andrew Sach and Tim Hiorn's "Dig Deeper into the Gospels"Session 2 +++ – Grammatical-Historical Bit and Expositional (Book) Context (What is he saying and why is he saying it?)

God chose to make his official communication through human agents, using human language, expecting human minds to comprehend the same…but not without hard work.

Ask an evangelical minister for book recommendations for a toolkit to interpret the Bible and you get:

As a young Christian, neither of the first two books worked very well for me. It was all very well to have a catalogue of tools to use and a few worked examples, but I still couldn’t understand how they were to be deployed. “It’s more of an art than a science.” they said. Oh thanks very much, I said then, could I have someone hold my hand please? (The latest in the Dig Deeper series is really very useful in this regard, I think.)

Many years on now, I find myself agreeing that it’s more of an art than a science. But let’s see how much of a process we can put on it to help others.

It is clear that to understand the Bible correctly, we need to understand what the human author of that particular passage is saying. God chose to work through prophets and apostles and they wrote at a specific time, to a specific people, in a specific situation.

So our interpretation would have to be two-fold:

(i) working out what the human author is saying; and

(ii) understanding, as far as is necessary, the historical context into which he is writing. working on God's word in the BibleQ: How do I work out what God, through a historical author, is saying?

Here goes an attempt at a process (although I suspect one usually moves back and forth between most of these points in any ordinary reading exercise):

  • read through the whole book once preferably, if you are distracted by such things, without editor-imposed headings and sub-headings
  • note any obvious themes, statements of purpose for writing
  • hypothesize a structure to the book (how the Gospel writers build their argument/evidence for Jesus as the Son of God etc, or for Paul’s epistles, perhaps his argument flow)
  • hypothesize a structure to the given passage
  • work through individual chunks to test hypothesis – bearing in mind the genre of the book or of the specific chunk, dealing with the grammatical stuff like nouns, verbs, tenses, cases, use of metaphors and idioms, and using the usual comprehension skills (eg. in Dig Deeper‘s terminology, “linking words”, “repetition”, “narrator’s comment”, “tone and feel”, “quotation / allusion”) or equivalent in the language in use for that study (Chinese? Tamil? French?)
  • work through the details – this is somewhat controversial in certain circles: my SLOB leader was adamant that one must not spend alot of time working on the details, whereas a lecturer at The School was convinced that the main point of what the author was saying was dependent on the details and the more elusive our understanding of them was, the harder we needed to work at them. I suspect it’s the more-art-than-science thing of knowing when to pursue the details and when to leave them alone because it is unlikely they will contribute much to the main point.
  • check hypothesis of structure to given passage
  • from the structure, hypothesise the main point, that is, the thrust of the given passage

Q: What do we do with the historical context and the expositional/book context? Check how the hypothesised main point might fit into author’s context, intended audience, and the overall purpose of the book as a whole. After all the breaking up of a book into passages for bite-sized studies is artificial.

  • How would this passage link to previous chunk?
  • How would this passage help to develop the purpose of the book (if stated)?
  • What would be missing if this section was not here?
  • Why is this here? What would change if this passage was moved somewhere else in the book?


Q: What does the passage say?

Q: Why is the passage saying this?

Q: Why is it saying it here?

Then come to a conclusion as to the main point of the given passage. Write what some people call a purpose statement – stating the aim of the human author in this chunk of the book. Ensure that it is a clear and specific sentence, not something that can be applied to any other part of the New Testament (eg. not “God loves you and his son died for you.”)

But we need to hold our horses – a nice succinct purpose statement is not the point of Bible study; responding rightly to what God has said is (see Session 4).

(Pedagogical approach-wise, wonder if, instead of doing endless exegetical exercises, we could just work through the text together with the leader modelling how he/she was thinking about it as we went along. Very NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) “pseudo-science”, but it’s certainly the way I personally learn best.)

not quite shashuka Session 3 – Redemptive-historical Context Hmm, it’s really artificial to break all this up into different sessions, but seeing that I have only an hour for each session…

All Scripture (and all of us) fit in somewhere on God’s timeline for the world. Knowing where our particular book fits in eschatologically would help us understand not only what God was saying to his people then, but also what he is saying to us now as we head towards the consummation of all that he has promised.

Loads of biblical theology (“the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible”) books to choose from here: Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture trace the storyline through the Bible with themes of kingdom and covenant, Michael You’s Read Mark Learn: Bible Overview studies at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and Thomas Schriener and D.A. Carson have a good number of books and articles on this between them.

Session 4 – Living in Light of God’s Word

The main point of the main point is to understand God’s word so that our minds can be changed and we can live differently. Michael You has said in several of his talks that broadly, there isn’t that much that God wants to tell us:

  • he wants us to acknowledge that he is God and we are not;
  • he wants us to see that reality is quite different from what we might think. Our baseline is usually that this world is all there is, will continue forever. But the world isn’t like that – God exists, he made this world, this world will come to an end, whether you like it or not, and Jesus will return to judge;
  • he wants us to change our worldview that shapes how we think and how we act. If we think that this world is all there is, then we want more money, and to get that we will decide on a well-paying job even if we have to work all days of the week. Even if we were brought up in a Christian family, most of us have a worldview that tells us that we have security because of the things of this world. But the reality is that this world is passing away and God wants us to want the new world to come. We must want what God wants, his goals, eternity, new creation.
  • God is not an arbitrary spoilsport. He cares for us with his infinite power and love and he wants us to be assured that we can leave our lives in his hands.

Our right response to God’s word will totally transform our lives. Will this work? Pray so. Now to get some dinner.