2014 is proving to be a good year for newly published Christian women’s books, a genre whose weaknesses and shallowness I and many others have oft lamented.
Without even using the word hermeneutics, this book is a guide to exactly that. (But no worries, lovers of and trained students in hermeneutics, the author still pulls out and articulately teaches words and concepts such as metanarrative, exegesis, and Bible literacy.)
Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds is a clarion call to today’s Christian women to lay aside poor Bible study habits and to dig deeply into patient, purposeful intake of the full scope of Scripture, examining God’s Word word-by-word, and within context of The Big Story. Just like our culture is currently learning that this the case with food, the more processed your Bible study is, the less healthy it is for you.
Jen Wilkin encourages women to “put the ruffles in the back,” (you’ll have to read the book to learn the specific meaning of this one :)), to put away flaky bible study, and to realize that simply “doing devotions” or a “spending time in the Word” are often merely buzzwords that have not been further elaborated or adequately demonstrated.
Yet she writes without intimidation; her own words are neither lofty nor inaccessible. Instead, Jen writes as a skilled teacher, articulating with precision and simplicity, giving her readers a helpful framework for studying God’s word. This guide gives the reader specific steps to follow while simultaneously allowing freedom for individual seasons of life, speeds of learning, and the relinquishing of poor study habits.
Framework for Studying the Bible
After addressing the need for Bible study, Jen dissects several common, yet ineffective, ways we tend approach Scripture within the American Christian subculture: the Xanax Approach, the Pinball Approach, the Magic Ball Approach, the Personal Shopper Approach, the Telephone Game Approach, and the Jack Sprat Approach. (Check out this article for a more in-depth examination of each of these approaches.)
In going through each of these mistaken ways to approach God’s Word, Jen not only discusses how easy it is to treat Scripture carelessly, but how important it is that we take a careful, studious approach.
(While this is certainly not a diatribe-focused book, it is nonetheless important to address these errors. Because these approached have subtly become the standard and accepted methods, extra time and explanation must be given to evaluating each of them. Many of us have habitualized these methods to the point of needing extra effort to eliminate them from our Bible study methods.)
Jen builds a framework for good Bible study using her alliterated five-point outline. She urges her readers to study with:
Although alliteration is occasionally symbolic of shallow Bible study, in this case it’s a well-crafted pneumonic device.
Under these five foci, Jen addresses the importance of understanding metanarrative (the big-picture story of the Bible) and understanding the Bible as literature (focusing on an understanding of specific authors, the time of writing, the intended audience, the style of writing, and the purpose of writing).
As she explains within the section on Study with Process, Jen then gives the reader specific steps for approaching a passage and studying it in detail, listing the three main stages as:
Comprehension – “What Does It Say?”
- A Printed Copy of the Text
- Repetitive Reading
- An English Dictionary
- Other Translations of the Bible
Interpretation – “What Does It Mean?”
Application – “How Should It Change Me?”
- What does this passages teach me about God?
- How does this aspect of God’s character change my view of self?
- What should I do in response?
While she does give specific instructions, Jen nonetheless is teaching her readers to fish, rather than simply handing them pre-selected fishes. Or in the words of Jen’s opening analogy, she gives her readers a spoon to move their “mountains of Biblical ignorance.”
At the end of the book, Jen walks through James as an example of studying a smaller book of the Bible. (This is extremely beneficial, particularly for those who may not have had previous exposure to this type of Bible study.)
For the Hungry
Women of the Word is easy to read (can be read in just a few hours), but is also valuable as a Bible study companion — using it as a reference and tool as you learn to navigate exegesis of individual passages.
Christian women are hungry for God’s Word. In the absence of being taught how to feed ourselves or where to find the healthy food, women are turning to the ineffective approaches listed above, to false teachers, or to anyone who will claim to feed them. Others have been told that “spiritual meat” isn’t food for women, and some have become content with a diet of milk and watered-down Word. Yet we can’t expect a quick-fix: studying God’s Word takes discipline, persistence, and patience. And as we labor through the text, we soon realized we are being filled, we are growing, and our hunger is increasing.
Regardless of where you are in your spiritual journey or how much Bible study training you have under your belt (or your fluffy tights :)), I can guarantee that anyone who has a desire to study God’s word will walk away from this book better equipped to do so.
Does Every Passage Have Personal Application?
One minimal concern with Jen’s instructions for Bible study is found in the final step of making application.
(Specifically, my concern is grown out of the application she draws from Genesis 1-6. It would seem that her particular application from that specific text is a bit forced: “A person who applies the creation story can tell you that because God creates in an orderly fashion, we too should live well-ordered lives…” While we may indeed be called to live well-ordered lives, I do not believe this is something that can be drawn out as specific application from this text.)
Because her teaching is so specific and corrective elsewhere in the book, I think further clarification on this particular detail is warranted. Not every passage is going to contain specific personal application or even merit a specific, immediate response. Sometimes, the most specific application that can be wrestled out of certain texts will be to simply step back in awe of Who God is. Sometimes, and Jen does address this elsewhere (also listed in excerpts below), we are simply storing up a savings account of Biblical literacy for the Spirit to apply specifically at a later time.
Jen is careful to repeatedly point out that Scripture is not a book about finding ourselves, but about learning who God is. She is even careful to note that while, yes, we will learn more about ourselves the more we study God’s Word, it is only under the umbrella of coming to know who God is. When I understand who He is, I can begin to understand who I am in light of that.
And so, teaching or believing that personal application can be made from every passage can potentially lead to forcing the Scripture into a mold it wasn’t intended to be in, going back to the very error Wilkin is so concerned about in the first place.(The particular example that stands out as forced; I think Wilkin would agree with the previous sentence, but perhaps could do a better job in articulating this, especially in light of the ineffective approaches she lists.)
The Truth Will Set Us Free
This book is empowering for women who have been told that theology is the man’s work, or who have been relegated to studying only the “pink passages.” (Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, review here, also has a great, in-depth examination on this subject.)
The truth is that God desires all people — male or female — know Him for who He is.
A proper understanding of Scripture (and how to study Scripture) is absolutely essential for Christian women. Why? Because our Biblical theology affects our practical theology — how we live out what we believe before God and humankind.
Our understanding of who God is directly affects our understanding of the world around us, of ourselves, and how we view and treat the countless other people created in God’s image. And until we can dig deeper to understand who God is, we often leave ourselves with a very shallow interpretation of each of those areas.
If we’ve been taught that it’s okay to cherry pick the Scriptures, we end up twisting the Bible to say whatever we want it to say. If we haven’t understood the metanarrative of the Bible, we are unable to discern what is truth when we hear Bible teachers teach opposite positions.
It would behoove those in a position of teaching God’s word to others or leading a Bible study to read this book. In fact, Jen devoted her last chapter to addressing the particulars of teaching Bible study.
While this book is addressed particularly for women, this would also be a valuable resource in any man’s toolkit for studying Scripture. Given the dearth of Bible study teaching for women, my hope is that many pastors and other men would seriously consider reading this book, both to sharpen their own understanding of being people of The Word and for increasing their knowledge of available resources.
For those who are in a season of life that allows for only minimal (or, even no) interaction with the Bible, the author empathizes and is careful not to make rules that Scripture itself does not make. Rather, she writes with encouragement to endure and wait during such seasons. (A portion of such encouragement is included below, as the final excerpt.)
After reading this book, my hunger for further and deeper Bible study grew. This is a book I have long hoped would be written, and am thankful for this important resource in Women of the Word.
“It seemed obvious that if God had given us his revealed will in the Bible, I should be spending more time trying to know and understand it. But the task seemed overwhelming. Where was I supposed to start? And why weren’t the things I was already doing making the problem discernibly better? How was I supposed to move my mountain of biblical ignorance?
The answer, of course, was gloriously simple. The answer was ‘one spoonful at a time.’ Thankfully, someone gave me a spoon…
On the other side of the mountain of my biblical ignorance was a vision of God high and lifted up, a vision stretching Genesis to Revelation that I desperately needed to see. I have by no means removed that whole mountain from my line of sight, but I intend to go to my grave with dirt beneath my nails and a spoon clutched in my fist. I am determined that no mountain of biblical ignorance will keep me from seeing him as clearly as my seventy or eighty years on this earth will allow.”
“Within our Christian subculture we have adopted a catch-all phrase for our regular habit of interacting with Scripture: ‘spending time in the Word.’ Church leaders urge us to do so. Authors and bloggers exhort us to value it. But what should take place during our ‘time in the Word’ can remain a vague notion, the specific habit it represents varying widely from person to person.
The potential danger of this vagueness is that we may assume that our version of ‘spending time in the Word’ is moving us toward Bible literacy simply because we have been obedient to practice it. Not all contact with Scripture builds Bible literacy. Learning what the Bible says and subsequently working to interpret and apply it requires quite a different practice than many of those we commonly associate with ‘spending time in the Word.’ We cannot afford to assume that our good intentions are enough.”
“For years I viewed my interaction with the Bible as a debit account: I had a need, so I went to the Bible to withdraw an answer. But we do so much better to view our interaction with the Bible as a savings account: I stretch my understanding daily, deposit what I glean, and patiently wait for it to accumulate in value, knowing that one day I will need to draw on it. Bible study is an investment with a long-term payoff. Rather than reading a specific text to try to meet an immediate need, give the benefits of your study permission to be stored away for future use. What if the passage you are fighting to understand today suddenly makes sense to you when you most need it, ten years from now? It has been said that we overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten. Are you willing to invest ten years in waiting for understanding? Are you willing to wait a decade for an application point to emerge? Be encouraged that you are storing up treasure, eve if you don’t see or feel it in the short term.”
“For me, these seasons [of not being able to devote long periods of time to Bible study] have sometimes lasted for years — sermons and podcasts were a lifeline. Having a structured group study to go to helped keep me in contact with the Bible, but some months even that was too much to take on. Some months, just keeping body and soul together for myself and my family seemed to occupy almost every waking moment. I don’t consider those months to have been lost time or setback to my growth. They were times to employ patience, not with active learning of the Scriptures, but with waiting on the Lord. They deepened my desire for study. Some of my most fruitful times of teaching and writing occurred immediately after just such a period of waiting.”
Table of Contents
Disclaimer: I received an electronic advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for my review. But all opinions are my own.