This is a personal review of a recent resource produced by the Bible Society called ‘The Bible Course‘. I hope it’s helpful to others either considering running it, or those looking for new teaching material for their churches.
One of the greatest challenges I face as a preacher and small group leader is helping people to ‘join the dots’ of the Bible. The sad truth is that many Christians simply do not know their Bibles as well as they should, and many only experience it on Sunday mornings in worship. This is far from ideal. The lectionary can be a great aid to preachers but it can also leave people feeling confused, wondering what on earth is happening in the readings. Generally, we are all right with the gospels, because the stories are fairly well-known and come in nice bite-sized chunks. However, I am repeatedly told that people simply do not understand the Old Testament passages, without a great deal of explanation. Even the epistles – which were, of course, really meant to be read in one sitting – can be hard. Someone described hearing parts of Paul’s letters as like walking into a pub halfway through a fight!
I was delighted, therefore, to learn that the Bible Society had produced a new resource expressly designed to give people the ‘big picture’ of the Bible: ‘The Bible Course’. Instead of focussing intensively on a few verses or even a single book, it takes people through the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It aims to show them the arc of its narrative and how the different parts inter-relate. I have just finished leading the Course for the first time at Barnes Methodist Church and am delighted to report that it really exceeded all my expectations.
The course is based around a high-quality video presentation by Dr Andrew Ollerton, who apparently developed it originally to help people in Cornwall new to the Christian faith. He is a very well-informed and engaging presenter, who greatly helps the whole course to come alive. It is accompanied by a booklet (also good quality), which contains useful notes, an overall plan of the series and a series of daily readings for participants. The films can be downloaded free from the Bible Society’s website after you register but the booklets must be ordered by post. They are not expensive, though, and our church simply footed the bill for everyone.
The course divides the Bible into eight sessions:
- Introducing the Bible
- Creation & Covenant
- Exodus & Promised Land
- Judges & Kings
- Exile & Prophets
- Jesus & the Gospels
- Acts & the Church
- Revelation & Review
Each session is then presented in the same format:
- a welcome from the host (in this case, me), with suggested ‘warm-up’ questions
- a 15 minute teaching video
- discussion time
- another 15 minute teaching video
- time for personal reflection
In practice, we did not always follow this strictly. We found that the video prompted so many questions that we generally had another discussion time at the end as well!
At the end of the course, our group had a feedback discussion, where we reflected on what we had learned and our feelings about the course as whole. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
A good overview – Everyone (including me) felt the course had definitely achieved its stated purpose. It had really helped give folks an overview of the Bible as a whole, “not just a random collection of books,” as someone put it. The timeline of the Bible that Dr Ollerton had created, and which was used throughout the series and the booklets, really helped people put the different parts together and understand the genres of literature we find in the Bible (prophecy, history, etc.).
Excellent for the Old Testament – People felt the course had particularly helped their understanding of the Old Testament. This is undoubtedly the part of scripture that confuses people most and about which I tend to get the most questions. It was inevitably quite a challenge to fit everything into four sessions and the latter half of session 5, which had to tackle everything from the Exile onwards, was the only part of the course that felt hurried. However, people definitely emerged from the course with a much greater understanding of how the Old Testament was created and how it relates to the New Testament.
Good for all levels / ages – The course is primarily aimed at those who are newer in faith and, as the writers say, it would be good for those who had recently done an Alpha Course or similar. The group I led was mainly composed of people who had attended church for most of their lives. I wondered if the course would be too easy for them but apparently not. They all found a great deal in it that consolidated existing knowledge and extended it. They liked the tools the course gave them to interpret scripture on their own, and to think about things like context and application. One participant, who has studied her Bible for decades, stated that she could, “happily watch it all again,” which I thought was praise indeed!
Conviction – We all felt that one of the greatest selling points of the course was the infectious enthusiasm for the Bible that Dr Ollerton and his co-host brought to it. They were clearly absolutely convinced of the importance of scripture and of its message of good news, and they convinced us! The stories and examples Dr Ollerton gave were relevant and accessible. There were also a number of good personal testimonies about the power of scripture to change people for the better.
Good quality – Vitally for me, the whole course looked and felt professional. Sadly, so many church publications look rather dated and cheap, but this one was unashamedly modern and attractive. To paraphrase General Booth, I see no reason why the Devil should have all the best publicity!
Different interpretations – My greatest fear starting the course was about the particular interpretation of the Bible that the course might carry with it. Coming from a liberal background, and knowing the general tenor of some Bible Society productions, I wondered if it might be theologically very conservative, with unhelpful assumptions about certain controversial aspects of faith and practice. I am pleased to report that, with a very few exceptions, this was not the case. Dr Ollerton clearly comes from a different place on the theological spectrum to me, and to many of my church members, but he spoke with great enthusiasm about his own convictions and did not attempt to denigrate others’ views.
The only warning point I would really make about the course, flowing on from this, is the important role of the host. My group felt that it had been very helpful to have a course leader who made it clear from the outset that different people had different views on some subjects, and encouraged free-ranging discussion. We actually found the videos helpful for provoking debates about issues such as miracles and faith healing, which revealed a range of responses. It was vital, though, for people to be given permission to disagree with the presenters’ views and with one another, while recognising that we all valued the Bible in our own way.
It also might have been helpful for the course to have mentioned how different interpretations of the Bible have arisen over the millennia. The course unashamedly presented the Bible through a particular hermeneutic, reading all scripture through the lens of Jesus. Had time permitted, it would have been good to have mentioned some of pitfalls of such an approach, and to have mentioned some modern perspectives on Biblical interpretation, notably perhaps feminist readings and the insights of Liberation Theology. I recognise, though, how easy it is to criticise, and how hard the producers had worked to squeeze everything into only eight episodes.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend this to all churches and Christians. So many house groups and Bible study groups I know struggle desperately for good material, and I think this could be a real God-send for them. I would even say that every church should consider running a course like this at some point, if they are serious about helping people understand their own scriptures. I shall finish with the response of one of my older members, who gave the course his highest praise:
So many courses are like the Doxology. During, it’s all, “Glory be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” but afterwards it’s, “As it was in the beginning…”. This one, though, will really change us all, I think.
Amen to that!