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Reading Scripture Well

An Interview With David Nelson

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to interview the Rev. Dr. David Nelson, one of the North American Lutheran Seminary’s adjunct professors who works full-time as the acquisitions editor for Baker Academic. Our conversation ranged from what it’s like to work on both sides of the academy—as a teacher and as a player in scholarly publishing—to the importance of reading for the life of a Christian. As we talked, Nelson and I soon landed on a topic that interests all of us at the NALS: how best to communicate the Gospel in our 21st-century, Western context. Below you’ll find a snippet of that conversation.

Crofts: For many students, wonder how best to teach Scripture to our parishioners. The question is how my training in, say, figural reading and specific homiletical theories can reach parishioners when they actually function in a society that’s based on a completely different perspective and vernacular?

Nelson: My hunch is that this is no fault of their own, it’s the fault of pastors. Many people in our churches today, they understand or they’ve heard or they’re familiar with just little portions of the Bible. Who knows why they’ve focused on these passages? They saw them at a football game or they read it in a book that they picked up at a bookstore or they saw it on social media. They’re familiar with just these little chunks here and there, and what goes missing is a sort of wholesale understanding of what Scripture is all about from beginning to end. They also haven’t been taught how to understand Scripture. And how to understand it is, of course, a complicated phenomenon that requires us to know a bit about where the Bible came from and how it developed and how it reflects the cultures behind it. Added to that, we also need to know a bit about how the church decided that it should be these texts and not all of these others that constitute the authoritative canon we pass on from generation to generation and how to grasp its meaning for us today. In my own experience, it seems like many people want to focus on a few verses on hand and then rush immediately to the question of application, to what it means to me personally. 

I’ll tell you a funny story. Many years ago, I taught a course at a big university on how to understand the Bible as literature. The very first question I asked the class—and I did this every semester for nine semesters—I wrote up on the whiteboard, “What is the Bible?” And then I would take a survey of all of the different answers that were coming from the students. At least 95 percent of the answers every single class was “The Bible is God’s roadmap for my life” or “The Bible is God’s little instruction book for me.” Seeing this, I would ask, “What if,” and I tried to do this gently and pastorally, “What if the Bible is about telling you the story that you are a part of instead of giving you some utilitarian or heuristic tools to figure out your own story. What if you are a part of a story that transcends your own story, that fits you into this bigger thing?” And that opened up a way of talking about the warp and woof of Scripture, talking about it as a canon of what we need to hear, a canon that contains the story we’re a part of. That’s a totally different way of understanding what the Bible is all about and how to receive it in our churches and in our lives. Barth was right when he said that we don’t come to the Bible asking it questions. Rather, when we come to the Bible, it asks us questions. It calls us into question and confronts us with the story of God showing up in the person and work of Jesus Christ and at Pentecost. This is the reality that imposes itself upon you. What are you going to do about it? That’s what Scripture is all about. 

Crofts: What were some of the reactions of those students and other people you’ve had conversations with about this very different way of approaching Scripture. Did you see them find hope in that? Or was it daunting? 

Nelson: It was both at precisely the same time because that is what Scripture is all about. When you’re opened up to a new vista and a new way of understanding, on the one hand, it’s awesome. But at the same time, it’s very daunting because suddenly we realize that Scripture is not something we can grasp like, say, a cookbook. We can’t say of the Bible, “Let me just open it up and follow a recipe and, boom, I made soup.” Scripture is something that profoundly disturbs and disrupts our own existence when we’re reading it well, and that means it’s way beyond our control. 

There’s a word we toss around a lot in Christianity, one we don’t think about enough. And that is the word mystery. We think of the word mystery, and we think mystery is about solving a problem. If we could just find the right clues, we could figure this mystery out and solve it and move on with our lives. But what a mystery is is a never-ending pursuit. A mystery gets more mysterious. The eternal decrees of God and how they were enacted in Christ Jesus are a true mystery. 

That’s not something we can really lay our hands on and really understand as we plunge deeper and deeper into it. We ought to come away from reading Scripture going, “Wow, that’s unsettling,” all the while knowing that true joy is in that moment of being unsettled and finding comfort there. And so that’s what would happen in that class. Some students slept the whole time but the ones who really paid attention—not to me but to Scripture—went back to Scripture saying maybe I should listen to this in a new way.