Some Observations about a Prisoned Bible

It was the first day of my Bible Study Methods class … in prison. After passing through all the security checkpoints, I entered a musty room filled with 40 convicted felons in white jump suits, ready to study the Bible.

During my first few years at Southwestern, I was fortunate enough to teach in our prison degree program. It’s a four-year intensive program in Bible and Christian ministry that resides at the Darrington Unit, a maximum security state penitentiary south of Houston.

I began the first lecture with an introduction to the inductive method of Bible study, but I didn’t realize they were way ahead of me. From the first days of incarceration, the Bible is everywhere. I recall speaking with one student who described how, after sentencing, he was locked in a cell with only a Bible for three days. For the first couple of days, he just sulked in the consequences of his sin and questioned the justice of the system. Finally, by the third day, beleaguered by loneliness and too many nagging theological questions, he decided, like Augustine, to “take up and read.” And read, he did. For hours. Just the Bible.

This experience is not unique and, in many ways, captures the place of the Bible in the prison culture. Their seclusion affords them the opportunity to read the Bible alone—over and over and over again.

As I began teaching them the Bible, I was surprised to find that there was little need to rehearse the events or characters of Scripture. They knew most of them by heart. I can recall many proudly showing off their Bibles to me, pages tattered and note-scarred. Countless verses marked up with circles and lines crisscrossing in every direction, like the frantic white-board drawings of a football coach at half-time.

The inmates can certainly acquire other books, just not very easily. And even if they pick up the latest commentary or Bible study, they have little extra storage space to hold them. So they simply read the Bible.

In the free world, as the world outside of prison is often called, we love to read books about the Bible like commentaries, study guides, or Bible backgrounds. We devour Christian living books and read everything about “biblical” love, marriage, sex, parenting, preaching, teaching, small groups, and church growth models. All good things, but not the sacred words of divine revelation. If we are honest, I wonder how much time we spend reading and studying everything about the Bible, rather than the Bible itself.

Not only is Scripture cherished and valued by these prison students, but before the end of my first few lectures, I realized that their context had already prepared them for the first step of the inductive method: observation.

At a break in the class, one of the students approached the podium to introduce himself. He started the conversation, saying, “So, how long you been married?” Taken aback, I said “How did you know I was married?” He pointed sheepishly to the ring on my finger, and I laughed, “Of course.”

We talked a bit about my family and his family on the outside. Then I cautiously asked him what else he could tell about me just from observing. He described how, in a prison culture, careful observation is your best friend. When I walked into that classroom, every one of them was sizing me up, analyzing my clothes, shoes, the ring on my finger, and even the leather briefcase I carried. They knew more about me than I ever imagined. I will never forget the end of our conversation, when the student remarked that good observation skills keep an inmate alive and healthy. I shared this story with the whole class a few minutes later and implored them to take all the observation skills honed through their years of incarceration and apply them to the Bible.

With this habit of observation, these students were well on their way to good Bible interpretation. As Howard Hendricks was fond of saying, “The more time you spend in observation, the less time you will need to spend in interpretation.”[1] They understood implicitly the importance of reading Scripture closely. Every word, every term, every syllable. This kind of close observation of Scripture has been described as intensive reading, where Christian readers explore “countless scripture details with an eye toward assembling a full and complete picture.”[2]

This is not to say that the prison students understood everything in the Bible rightly. Far from it. Just like everyone else, they came to Scripture with unique presuppositions shaped by their context and experience. It would take years of listening to them, reading their papers, and hearing them interpret the Bible to understand the ways their isolation from society shapes their interpretation in both positive and negative ways.

But in my experience, their struggle was not biblical literacy, but good Biblical theology. They knew all the lyrics of Scripture, but they, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), needed someone to come along and teach the theological melody that tied all the words together in Christ. But we would get to all that later in the course.

I wrapped up class that morning and walked out of prison, astonished that I’d just entered a world where the Bible and the Bible alone was cherished and studied and where they implicitly practiced careful observation. I was amazed at the way that the prison culture reminded me of these important virtues of biblical interpretation and excited about the rest of the course.
But before I did anything else, I decided to head home and just spend a little time reading the Bible closely.

[1]Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living By the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 39.
[2]John J. Okeefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 45.