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Seven Arrows of Bible Reading

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
— Collect for Proper 28

This is one of the best-loved collects in the prayer book, and the only one that draws our attention to the liturgical action that occurs immediately after we pray every collect: the congregation listening to God’s Word read aloud. Cranmer’s prayer asks God to use his Word to help us understand and “embrace” the gospel of Jesus Christ more clearly, but the way he piles up five verbs in a row makes it clear that hearing is only the first of many steps involved in our relationship with Scripture.

After hearing the words, we need to read them as well. Then we must “mark” them, or underline key words and make notes about them. Then we are to “learn” them, by which I imagine he meant both to memorize their words and to understand their meaning. Finally, after all those steps of “chewing” on Scripture, we are to “digest,” or absorb them, such that they become a part of us — part of our minds, our hearts, our souls. Cranmer believes every Christian, with God’s help, can have a deep, complex, and meaty engagement with Scripture that leads to deeper understanding of the hope we have in Christ.

This 16th-century articulation of the steps involved in Bible study is ever relevant, even several hundred years later. Recently, while in the process of developing a new Bible study at our parish, I was searching for a method that would offer a simple yet engaging approach to Bible study, one with a series of steps that would help us understand and absorb God’s Word. I was hoping for the following:

  1. A method that could be applied to texts across the span of the Bible without needing to rely on a “canned” Bible study program or reading a book alongside the scriptural text. A lot of packaged studies have some element that feels “off” for our context — too touchy-feely, too academic, too dated, or, too focused on reinforcing a particular conservative view of womanhood or gender roles that are not common in my context.
  2. A method that did not require participants to complete “homework” between Bible study sessions. I have seen firsthand how this can discourage people from participating, particularly those who are newer to group Bible study or those with very busy lives. Given that this Bible study was intended for moms with school-aged or younger kids, requiring preparation could become a barrier to participation. I wanted to find a method or format that would enable women to walk in to Bible study with no preparation required and have a meaningful interaction with the text, with others, and with God.
  3. A format that was easily repeatable for the leader, not requiring an exhaustive deep dive to prepare every single week.
  4. An approach that provided the flexibility to integrate different methods of Bible study. Using a range of methods can prove fruitful for Bible study, such as looking at the text from a historical/cultural angle, a literary perspective, and a spiritual reading that focuses on how God is speaking to us through the text. I’d give bonus points for a method that could provide room for a simplified lectio divina approachor the African Ubuntu Bible study method.
  5. A method that people could learn to use for themselves rather than staying reliant on an expert. Episcopal culture tends toward a clericalism that keeps laypeople dependent upon the presence and education of a priest in order to understand the Bible. Above all, my hope for parishioners is that they would develop confidence in reading the Bible, understanding it, and learning to hear God’s voice through the pages of Scripture. This requires that the method be easy for people to recall and use on their own.

In the search for this unicorn of a Bible study approach, I came across the Seven Arrows of Bible Reading method, developed by Matt Rogers and Donny Mathis at Christ Fellowship Cherrydale Churchin Greenville, South Carolina. Upon closer analysis of this method through their book and their YouTube videos,

I found that their method had the potential to tick all of the items on my list. The method involves a set of seven questions, each accompanied by an arrow as a visual aid. The outline of them reflects my slight adaptation of a few of the questions to fit our Episcopal context and culture better, such as changing the word man in Arrow 5 to humankind.

 

I also prefer to use verbs that are more invitational in tone, such as modifying Arrow 6 from “What does the text demand of me?” to “What does the text ask of me? How am I being invited to respond to this passage?” During the past year, I have used the Seven Arrows method in Bible studies focusing on Old Testament texts, such as the stories of Ruth, Esther, and Joseph, and on passages from the Gospels. As I walk through the seven questions, I will share some examples of how these questions led to deeper reflection on those specific texts.

Arrow 1: What Does the Text Say?

This step allows the room to begin Bible study with a modified form of the African Ubuntu Bible study method. We listen to the text read aloud and then share a word or phrase that stands out to us without comment or discussion. Then we hear it read aloud again, followed by time to say more about the word or phrase that stands out to us. This second round of observations can include conversation, or can be limited to each person talking independently without others offering their comments.

Slowing down and hearing what the text actually says is a discipline for us in a time when we are accustomed to reading thoughts expressed in 280 characters or less (as on Twitter) and watching videos that are often as short as 15 to 20 seconds. We have to stop and attend, allowing our minds to take in what we are hearing. Listening to the same text read twice always leads me to new discoveries. Hearing the words or phrases that others have noticed often provokes the response, “I didn’t even notice that word!” Arrow 1 also helps us notice what the text actually says, rather than what we assume it says.

Placing this question first gives room for all participants to share their thoughts and feelings about the text right off the bat, instead of relying on an expert to tell them what the text means before they can begin to understand it. Beginning with this question carries the assumption that by stopping and listening carefully, we will all begin to make some important observations, which at this stage often take the form of insightful questions.

Arrow 2: What Did This Text Mean to its Original Audience?

This is a time in our study, as Matt Rogers says, to bring in the “tools and techniques that we would need to discover the original meaning to the original audience.” At this point I share some of what I’ve learned about the text from seminary classes and from reading over some commentaries. This can range from information about the text’s historical and cultural background, the literary form in which it is written, maps to clarify where this action is occurring and the significance of those locations, or the original meanings in Greek or Hebrew of key repeated words. It is also an opportunity to highlight and respond to key questions that emerged during Arrow 1 and need to be addressed and unpacked.

There is room within Arrow 1 and 2 to incorporate the Ignatian Scripture method called “gospel contemplation.” In the video that accompanies the second arrow, Matt Rogers encourages readers to “attempt” to read the Bible with more than just our minds, to envision what would it have been like to experience these stories … firsthand [and] to put ourselves into the story.”

If you’re reading the story of the prodigal son, imagine what it would be like to be invited as a guest to the son’s coming-home party thrown by his father. This sounds very similar to Ignatian gospel contemplation,

in which we imagine ourselves in the gospel reading and ask Christ to use our imaginations to speak to us through the text. Taking this approach to Arrows 1 and 2 gives room to teach yet another method of reading Scripture within the context of the Seven Arrows method.

Arrow 3: What Does This Passage Tell Us About God?

After looking at the background of the story, we turn to consider the main character of the story of Scripture — God. We ask what this text teaches us about God’s character, God’s heart for the characters, and the way that God works in their lives to bring about redemption. For example, in the Book of Ruth, we see God’s heart of hesed — lovingkindness — for outsiders and the widowed. In the Book of Esther, even without a single explicit reference to God, we see how God works mysteriously through people’s actions and circumstances to provide protection and defense for God’s people. And in the story of Joseph, we see how God can use what people meant for evil to bring about redemption and forgiveness — a message with deep parallels to the story of Jesus’ suffering and death leading to the great triumph of his resurrection. How does this depiction of God in the text resonate with or challenge our previously held view of God?

Arrow 4: What Does This Passage Tell Us About Human Nature?

We also consider what we learn about people from the text. Starting from the basic Christian anthropology that humans are made in God’s image and yet are marred by sin, how do the thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions of the characters resonate with our experience of ourselves and of others? In the story of Joseph, we see how anger, rivalry, and greed between siblings leads to broken relationships and grief. We also see how Joseph perseveres through great hardship and uses the gifts God has given him to bless the people around him, whether he’s in prison or at Pharoah’s right hand. What does it look like when humankind turns away from God and his ways? What does it look like when humans cooperate with God and his purposes?

Arrow 5: What Does This Passage Ask of Me? How Am I Being Invited to Respond to This Passage?

In the fifth step, we begin to make the connection between what we are reading and our hearts and lives. How is God speaking to us through the words of Scripture? Cranmer described Scripture as a place where we learn to embrace the hope God has given us in Christ. Is there a word of hope or truth here that I need to hear, given what I’m facing in my life right now? If I’m enduring a time of suffering, do I sense that God is with me, in the way that Scripture says God was with Joseph when he was in prison? Am I distracted and worried by many things like Martha and being asked to stop and spend more time with Jesus like Mary of Bethany? I believe identifying and internalizing those words from God is just as important a task as the more obvious form of application, which is to take action in response to the Scriptures. Is there a way in which I’m called to be like Esther, to use my position and privilege to advocate for others? Who is the “Ruth” in my world today, the outsider who needs welcome and support that demonstrates the lovingkindness of God? With this arrow, we ask how we can cooperate with God in the circumstances of our lives, so that we might “do all such good works as Thou hast prepared for us to walk in,” as the post-communion prayer so eloquently says.

Arrow 6: How Does This Passage Change the Way I Relate to People?

It is important that in reflecting on Scripture, we look not only to how it encourages and instructs us, but how it shapes our love of our neighbor. How does reading this passage affect my relationships and the way I conduct them? Is there a difficult relationship in which I’m called to show God’s love and forgiveness like Joseph, as difficult as it might be? How could Ruth and Boaz’s appreciation for each other’s steadfastness and lovingkindness spur me on to share with my loved ones what I appreciate in them?

Arrow 7: How Does This Passage Prompt Me to Pray?

All of our thinking, study, and conversation can be permeated with an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our hearts. However, turning to prayer as a result of Bible study is a step that is often overlooked, so I appreciate how this step ensures that we turn to the Lord in prayer in response to his Word. We bring before the Lord prayers that arise from our study, asking him to cultivate the soil of our hearts and grow within us the fruit of his Word. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, we ask God to guide us and show us how to respond to our study of Scripture today.

Again and again in the past year, these Seven Arrows have led our Bible study group into fruitful and profound conversations. Preparing for our time together has been fairly lightweight for me, since I have the structure of the Seven Arrows to shape our time. Consulting a few of my standby commentaries, including The Story of God Bible commentaries, the New Interpreter’s Bible commentaries, and the For Everyone series written by N.T. Wright and John Goldingay, has been sufficient preparation. The method provides a predictable structure for our time while remaining open-ended, enabling us to investigate the complexities and nuance of whatever text we’re studying that day. Its simplicity enables people to recall it and use it in their personal study instead of staying reliant upon a resident expert. And at its foundation is the belief that God will speak to us through his Word, showing us who he is, reminding us of who we are, and renewing our hope and faith in Christ.

Cranmer hoped and prayed that God’s Word, read aloud and studied, would not simply pass in and out of our ears and minds; he prayed that it would become spiritual food that nourished us as we digested it. I have found the Seven Arrows method capable of drawing people into a multi-step digestion of God’s Word, much like what Cranmer seemed to have in mind — a process by which the Word of God becomes a part of our hearts, minds, and souls, and in doing so ultimately transforms us from the inside out.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful contribution. On point two above only (‘original audience’), I cannot find a way to connect Ignatian spirituality (and how it handles scripture) with this ‘original audience’ idea, nor with the example of the Prodigal Son. As likely meant by the creators of the 7 arrows, ‘original audience’ on the latter score would be the retrieval of Lukan readership in antiquity, and so forth; the stock in trade of historical reconstruction. This is not the same thing as Ignatian ‘placing oneself concretely in the roles/persons of the story’ nor the example you give — both bypass the ‘original audience and/or ‘authorial intention.’

    What is definitely needed, is what you are seeking. Thank you for underscoring the need.

  2. Yes, like Dr Seitz, I agree that what you are pursuing is a sincere need.
    I wonder if 7 arrows could be simplified to 4, and thus remove the open-door to higher critical know-how poisoning the well of small group discussion.

    Left-pointing arrow: let’s hear that story again, in our own words
    Up-pointing arrow: what does this reveal about God
    Down-pointing arrow: what does it reveal about our human plight?
    Right-pointing arrow: what does it ask of me personally, going forward from this moment

    Cross that is formed by all four arrows: how does this text illuminate Christ and his saving death?

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