Friday, December 5, 2014

On the reading of commentaries

I like to read commentaries. Commentaries are books written to explain books of the Bible. There is a whole world of commentaries that most of the world does not know about. They are a particular and peculiar genre of writing. Few people read them for pleasure. I can't imagine the authors get very rich writing them. Writing them is a a lot of work. Say, you are writing a commentary on the book of Luke, one of the gospels. As a writer who wants to be thorough, he or she would have to read dozens of other commentaries written over the years (since Bible times!) and a whole slew of learned articles in obtuse magazines that only other scholars read. This takes effort both to read your way through them and then to add something new to them. It has to be a work of love because, as I said, a writer of commentaries is not going to get rich by writing. Most of the human race will never know what he or she does for a living.

There are all kinds of commentaries and many of them are boring even if like me you like to read them. Some are useful if you want some explanation of some Greek or Hebrew word that is in the text you are studying. These scholarly tomes will break down the original languages and maybe provide some historical, cultural and linguistic context but nothing more. I think they are written for other scholars. Preachers and teachers are not going to slog through them or if they do - find scant pleasure in the task. Most people preachers preach to are not interested in the parsing of a certain Greek verb or knowing how many times it is used in the New Testament. As someone who has preached for many years I have done a fair bit of slogging and boring listeners with my second hand knowledge of Greek words. No one ever said to me, Pastor, I am sure glad you enlightened me to the meaning of that Greek participle.

In seminary we were taught that these commentaries that unearthed the bare essentials of the text were the best for preaching. They held the ore to be mined by the preacher and then he took what he excavated and made something of it. Trouble was even though the ore was valuable what was made of it could be mishandled and the final product misshapen. These commentaries looked good on the shelves but gathered more and more dust.

The commentaries I liked to read and still do are the ones with more life in them. The author takes the risk of interacting with his or her sources and applying what is in the text to real life. I know this is the task of the preacher but she learns how to do this by reading how others have done it. There are some great teachers who write commentaries. They tell stories, and reveal how the text makes a difference to them. They give insight into how the ore is meant to be used.

These are the commentaries that anyone in the church can read for learning and for pleasure! Yes, I meant to say that because they are enjoyable. Why should the word of God not be enjoyed? So, if you want to get started or restarted on this project of enjoying God's word here are a few tips.

Take some time when there are likely to be few distractions. Figure out what book of the Bible you would like to read with someone who has read all the stuff there is (or a good chunk of it) on that book and then read a short passage in the Bible. Take the commentary and read the section pertaining to what you read. Make a note about what you read and how it spoke to you.

There are several commentary series that cover the whole Bible. If you enjoy one book in the series you may enjoy more of them. One series I like is the "For Everyone" series. John Goldingay does the Old Testament books and N.T. Wright does the New. They are short and easily accessible "for everyone".

Other authors who I enjoy reading are F.D. Bruner on Matthew and John, Kenneth Bailey on parts of the Gospels and Paul, Fred Craddock on various New Testament books, and Eugene Peterson who has written on a number of Old and New Testament books.