When You Study the Bible for a Living
A few weeks ago my community group at church discussed this question: What is your relationship with scripture right now? I thought about it for a while and said, “It’s complicated. Scripture can feel like my job sometimes.”
I study the Bible for a living. A lot of my freelance work over the years has been in the religious publishing sector. Right now, I contribute monthly to a women’s devotional site. I am working on a study guide for a Christian book releasing next year, and I blog weekly for a Bible study company. All of this work entails reading scripture, studying it, interpreting it and applying it in a way that will connect with readers. And for all of it, I am paid.
That’s normal, to get paid for the work you do. But it gets weird when the paid work centers around a faith I already have. A book I already read and already try to apply to my life. It is strange to monetize my faith in this way. To incorporate it into my business.
I am writing for clients who have specific audiences and content needs. A writer’s job is to connect with her readers, so I try and write in such a way that will do this. I package the Word. And this can make it feel like I am a marketing rep for scripture. It feels strange. Not wrong. Just, strange. And I wonder if it can take from the mystery and beauty that is figuring out faith.
Whenever I begin studying a passage of scripture, I start with questions. I actually write question marks in my Bible by words or verses I don’t understand. Sometimes these questions are easily answered by looking up a cross reference or another version of the Bible or reading a commentary, and I write down that answer after the question mark in the margin. But sometimes, those question marks remain there, alone. I don’t find an answer. Or, I find 15 different ones because nobody seems to agree on what this particular thing means.
I have a lot of questions about the Bible.
But when I am writing about the Bible for my job, I am usually not hired to raise questions about the Bible. I am hired to actually do the opposite, answer them. Help explain this complex and at times difficult to understand text. I am supposed to write as if I know exactly what it means, not only for me, but for you too. And to be honest, sometimes I just don’t. For this reason, I feel incredibly ill-equipped to be writing about scripture and wish I could stick to scrawling numerous question marks across my old NKJV.
This week my church wrapped up a series called Catechesis: What the Church Has Always Believed. It was a great opportunity for us to ask questions about Christianity and to be honest with ourselves about what we actually believe as far as the pillars of our religion. At the end of this week’s message, our pastor talked about how communal our faith is, and always has been. The church is not a place where we go and listen to the one person who has it all figured out and will tell us what this all means. The church is a place where we work out our faith together. Sometimes our friend is very certain about an aspect of the faith while we are not. That’s OK. Sometime we are very certain about one thing while our friend is not. That’s OK. The point is not to make sure we have it all figured out all of the time. The point is to work together to understand, listening to one another, to scripture, to the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps this is why studying the Bible for a living can make me feel uncomfortable. I know, deep down, that I am still figuring this stuff out and that when I write about it, it can appear as if I already have it figured out, as if I am not still in process and that my Bible is not still full of question marks. And to be honest, I can sometimes fool myself into thinking I do have it figured out. People are paying me to do this. Other people are reading my stuff. Clearly, I can consider myself some sort of authority. But the truth is, I can write with certainty while feeling very uncertain. And I can write with clarity, while feeling very unclear about a topic. This is because I am a professional writer. I am not a professional Christian. Nor do I want to be.
I want to start looking at my Christian writing not as an attempt to help explain the Bible to people, but as an attempt to do what my pastor talked about on Sunday: a way to work with the church body toward an understanding, together. Rather than feeling the pressure to find the answers, I want to give myself permission to hold onto the questions, confess when I am uncertain, and write from a more honest place. I think this will help open my faith back up to me, taking what I like to stifle with study and knowledge and turning it over so that I can again see its mystery and beauty.
I think you’re onto something Andrea. I have felt this too (I am also a full-time writer, both in my own name and for mostly Christian clients). I have by no means figured this out, but I have begun to stumble towards a more satisfying relationship with scripture.
A while ago, I went through a few years of a churning kind of renewal. Not an explosion of new faith—more of a simmering, crockpot kind of second conversion, where God just slowly cooks you. During that time (this came after 7 years of theological education, winning my seminary’s highest award for Hebrew exegesis, and serving in multiple churches), I simply saw that all my relationship to the word was to use it. It was a tool. I had been patterned to use it for the benefit of my communities, without ever stopping to question if the thing before had a life of its own (which, of course, it tells us itself that it does: “living and active…”).
It struck me: there were words for “using” a living thing—and all of them were exploitative. I was doing stuff with the Bible—and doing it so well that it was doing nothing to me. Yes, I was paid for all this, but the issue had absolutely nothing to do with the exchange of money: I would have commodified the Bible for free! The problem was with what I thought the Word was and for. The problem was that I saw myself and the bible in wrong relationship to one another, and that I saw the bible as being for me, when really, we both were serving a purpose larger than either of us. When I saw that many of the verses about seeing but not perceiving/hearing but not listening were true of me. I became briefly (read, for like, a year) terrified. I was the man in James who looks into the mirror, then turns and forgets his face. I knew what it felt like to have ears but not hear. And it had felt FINE. For years.
Bottom line: The Bible’s depth, mystery, horror, joy, confusion, resolution, and all its other happy and haunting qualities were restored to me when I began to approach it as a thing the Holy Spirit had given a life of its own.
My hope is that we both notice that your excellent question at the heart of this post is likely here to point us to an opportunity to grow in love for the person of Jesus, by the Word turning around in our hands to act upon us. Moving from a tool to a living and dangerous thing, whose only mission is to divide soul from spirit, flesh and bone, so that the light can get into us.
Wishing you well in Jesus,
Ugh, and like every true writer I now see every typo in the above comment as if it was written in fire on Belshazzar’s wall. Spellcheck, Paul!
Hello Andrea, I was wondering how you got into this business. I actually would LOVE to do this as my living. I was wondering how to go about getting my foot in the door. What all degrees were required for this? I find that the only time I feel fulfilled in the least is while I am studying, cross referencing, researching my bible. I spend at least 10hrs a day in the word in some form. So, if I could get paid to do that, that would be wonderful!
Wonderful and eye-opening! Thank you for your transparency and honesty. I will take that Witt me as I begin this journey of being a paid writer of Bible-content. The Holy Spirit will definitely guide us .
I, too, like Amber, would like to know how to get into writing bible-based content for a living.
I currently have a blog where I post Bible studies weekly or bi-weekly. Any insight you can provide is truly appreciated. Thank you!
*I will take that “with” me. Typing on my phone and forgot to proofread like Paul said lol.