“Show patience towards everything in your heart that has not been resolved and try to cherish the questions themselves, like sealed rooms and books written in a language that is very foreign. Do not hunt for the answers just now – they cannot be given to you because you cannot live them. What matters is that you live everything. And you must now live the questions. One day perhaps you will gradually and imperceptibly live your way into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Mark Harman [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011], 45-46.)
Last night in my girls’ small group, one of my 7th graders suggested, “We should just call ourselves the Curious Christians.” Indeed. Over the past couple of months, my small group has come to consist of nothing but questions. And while I cannot claim credit for this phenomenon – at the very least, the Holy Spirit and my brilliant young women themselves have significantly more to do with it than I – I can, at least, trace it back to one particular Wednesday night.
John 3 was the text – you know, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus from whence arises Everyone’s Favorite Bible Verse. But the discourse itself is long, dense, and complicated. After reading through it, I asked, “Okay, did everybody understand that? Any questions?” They all nodded their heads. Yes, they understood. No, no questions. “Really?!” I asked. A few began to waver: “Well, there were maybe a couple things I didn’t understand.” I tried a new angle: “Cause I don’t really understand much of it at all.” At this point, the whole group confessed: “Yeah, I didn’t understand any of it either.”
At this point, I passed around a stack of index cards and pens and asked them each to write down a question they had about the passage. It took them an entire 5 minutes to come up with one question. And the first one I got was: “What does this entire passage mean?” I had them try again. Be more specific this time, I told them.
Then, the questions started to flow: Why did Nicodemus come at night? Does Nicodemus ever come up in the Bible again? Who are the Pharisees? What does it mean that Jesus is God’s son? As we delved into them, more questions arose: If Jesus is God, when Jesus died, does that mean there was no God for three days? Where did God come from, anyway? Why do we believe Jesus was God? Why don’t Muslims believe that? How different is Christianity from Islam, anyway, since we all trace back to Abraham? The next week, there were more. “This may be an irreverent question to ask, but…” “I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask this, but…” We left the text far behind and ended up in a discussion of the Trinity. It was like the floodgates had opened.
Asking questions is just what we do in small group now, and every single week I go home bursting with excitement and amazement at the way they’re engaging. Sometimes they stay in the text, and sometimes they go far afield. I try to just go with it and be okay with the fact that “the Spirit blows wherever it pleases” (Jn 3:8, ha). Overall, I’ve noticed that their critical thinking skills for wondering about Scripture have deepened substantially in just a few weeks.
We get vocabulary questions: What is stoning? What is circumcision? What is adultery? Well, if you don’t know those things, you’ve missed a substantial part of what people are arguing about in the text. So if you’ve heard this story your whole life but never knew what it was even about, how can you understand it?
We get historical questions: One week, when we were talking about Jesus claiming to be the Messiah, a question was: “Had anyone else claimed to be the Messiah before? Because if so, that may be why everybody was like ‘Oh yeah right.'” This was from a 17-year-old. This is seminary exegesis level work.
We get wondering questions: From John 8 last night: “What do you think Jesus was writing in the sand?” “Do you think the woman did go and stop sinning?” Wonder is such an important part of learning to meditate on Scripture, so we wonder about them together.
We get questions about what’s not in the text. Another of my favorites from last night was a 7th grader’s question: “Where was the man she was having an affair with? Why didn’t they want to kill him too?” This is some really strong critical thinking for a 12-year-old. Think about what had to happen in her mind for that question to come out. First, she reads in the text that the issue was an affair. Then, the recognition that it takes two people to have an affair. Then, the realization that the second person isn’t mentioned in the text. Then, the association that his absence means they don’t care about his sin. Then, the implicit question about why the woman is blamed and not the man – which led to a conversation about the ways they experience that reality even today. At the end, when we talked about what we could learn from this story, someone offered, “Jesus doesn’t blame women more than men – he treats them equally.”
When we first started, it took them 5 minutes to even come up with a question. They simply didn’t know how to ask questions of Scripture. Now, they jot down questions while we’re reading. More than one of them.
They’ve also become amazing at answering each other’s questions. If it’s a historical question with a factual answer, I’ll usually answer it. But if it’s a wondering question, I turn it back to the group and just ask, “What do you think?” The more I’ve asked that, the more I see that questions are asked to the whole group, not to me. And they deliver.
“Why did the people want to kill Jesus?”
“Hmm, that’s a good question. What do you all think about that?”
“I think they thought that Jesus was trying to trick them. That he was lying about being the Messiah.” (7th grader)
“I think it’s also because they wanted to hold onto their power, and he was challenging that.” (8th grader)
Why don’t our young people know how to ask questions?
I remember learning to do exegesis in college, and I had a similar experience to my youth group girls. A professor told us to write five questions about a passage for our homework. I read over the text and, like the girls, thought I had no questions. I read over it again. And again. And suddenly there were at least 15 things I had questions about. So why don’t our young people, at least at first, know how to ask questions of Scripture?
First, I think when young people are implicitly (or explicitly) taught that they “shouldn’t question Scripture” – meaning that Scripture is authoritative – I think it gets conflated with the idea that we shouldn’t ask questions about Scripture, and it stifles their ability to even understand what they’re reading.
Second, I think it’s really tempting for us as teachers to read a passage and then highlight the important things that we think they need to know. But the teens themselves are the experts in what they need to know. If you just teach what you think is important and hope it sticks, it often doesn’t. I know JP and I have tried to teach on theological topics like the divinity of Jesus, and they didn’t remember any of it. But when we have a discussion about it based on their questions, they’re deeply invested and thus deeply engaged.
So in light of all this, I offer a few “best practices” for encouraging questions in Bible study.
First, no question is off-limits. I mean that. None. Not awkward questions, not scary questions. Of course when someone asked what circumcision was, I felt awkward and hoped nobody’s parents would be upset that we talked about it. But just as quickly I realized how damaging it would be if I acted awkward, snickered, or told them to ask their parents at home (which a Sunday school teacher did to a student when I was in middle school). What kind of message would that send? That their question was stupid? And do you think the girl who asked would ask another question next week? Probably not. And if somebody asks whether Jesus was really resurrected or something similar, I don’t think the best answer is “of course.” The best way to answer, I think, is to say, “That’s a good question. What do you think? What do the rest of you think?” You can, of course, add at the end that you personally believe that he was, but then you haven’t shamed them for asking, and thus kept them from asking important future questions.
Second, intentionally leave space for questions. As you can see from the story of the first Wednesday night, related above, when you ask “Any questions?” – and I know you can hear the tone in your head – it kills questions. Instead of asking it as a yes-or-no – “do you have any questions” – ask it as an open-ended question: “What questions do you have?” And then wait at least 20 seconds before moving on. Not even joking. Count it out while you wait. Twenty seconds. Introverts certainly aren’t going to bare their soul to you in the panicked second-and-a-half of silence between “any questions?” and “okay, moving on.”
Third, have them write down their questions. That way, even if someone doesn’t feel like sharing, they’ve still done the homework. They have a question they can carry in their heart, ask later, google the answer to, etc. They don’t get to check out of the conversation, even if they don’t feel like talking.
Fourth, questions are more important than answers. I have told them this explicitly, and I practice it. If an answer doesn’t exist, as in a wondering question, I don’t say “we don’t know” and leave it there. I say, “That’s a great question. What do you think?” (You might be noticing a pattern. I say those two things a lot.) There are some questions, too, that just can’t be answered factually. Questions like “what does the death of Jesus mean” have be to stewed on and chewed on for an entire lifetime. To those I say, “That’s a really important question. Keep thinking about it.” I try to remind them to “love the questions,” as per Rilke’s quote above.
So fifth, let them answer each other’s questions. De-center your authority. Turn it back to the group and ask, “What do you all think?” That way, it can truly become a discussion rather than just a Q&A with the teacher. If you do this enough, you’ll start to see them make eye contact with people other than you when they ask. And if a 12th grader kindly and thoughtfully answers the question of a 7th grader, maybe the 7th grader can ask them another question sometime, and boom, you’ve got a mentor.
What other suggestions/strategies/best practices do you have?