A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Immersive Rereading: Colossians


Any chance I get, I introduce students to a classic form of Bible study that I call immersive rereading. It’s a simple method that has been around for ages, and has gone by many different names.1 Immersive rereading may not be the most elegant name, but it captures the goal (become immersed in the message of book of the Bible) and the technique (read it over and over).

Choose a short book of the Bible and an extended span of days. For me this usually means a 4-6 chapter epistle and three weeks, because usually I get to assign this kind of work in an intensive summer course. A week would be far too short to get the benefits; a semester too long for most people to maintain their focus. This summer I’ve got about 30 students in Cambridge immersively rereading Colossians (4 chapters, three weeks).

Here’s the method:

On the first day, read the book carefully. Really study it for a while; set aside time to figure out the major moves and the flow of argument, key terms, and so on. We’re looking for basic Bible study, not at an advanced academic level, but with serious intention to understand what’s going on in the book. In the case of Torrey Honors College students this summer, they are reading well in preparation for a three-hour class session in which we will discuss the book.

Day 2: Read the book. That’s all. Don’t study it in depth; there’s no need to drill down at any point. Just read it with normal attentiveness, and pray for God to fill you with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so you can bear fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God. (See what I did there; slipped in a bit of Colossians 1 to begin aligning myself with the power of the text.)

Day 3: Read the book.

Day 4: Read the book.

Day 5: Read the book. Are you starting to get the point of the method? I really do need to emphasize that you do not have to study the book, or bring any new tools to it. Simply reading it each day is what delivers the immersive effects as the little book stretches out across your week(s). These rereads only need to take 10-15 minutes with a book the size of Colossians. In these first five days or so, you will in fact start seeing new things, because you’re already growing in your ability to sense how the entire book is implicitly present in each word and phrase. You’re already entering more deeply into the dialectic between whole and part, which is the soul of sound hermeneutics. Phrases that seemed like mere connective tissue may begin to seem like main points. Themes you initially thought were isolated to one or two places, where key words happen to occur, now turn out to be broadly distributed through the book even where the key terms aren’t there.

Day 6: Read the book.

Day 7: Read the book.

Day 8: Read the book. If you have the blessing of doing this exercise with friends, you might start to notice the communal benefits of group immersion. Even in the first week you’ll find yourself able to communicate deeply with people who are tracking along with you in Colossians fluency. You might say, “Look, we’re not just raised up ‘with’ Christ, but ‘together with’ Christ!” and your friend will say, “Yes! There’s so much more going on there than I thought!” And outsiders will wonder why your words to each other resonate with some mystic significance, since to them you don’t seem to be saying anything deeper than you could have said eight days ago when you read Colossians with understanding. And it’s true that if you’re a good student, you really did succeed in reading the book with understanding on day 1. You completed the assignment of knowing what the book says way back then. But immersive rereading is an embodied practice, a temporally extended indwelling in the text. No matter how good a reader you are (and you may be great; my honors college students sometimes show admirable powers of concentration and comprehension), you can’t experience in one day what you will be able to take in over the course of a week. You can’t cram immersive rereading (which is why missing a day and then catching up by reading twice is just dicey; it’s a wrong use of the tool). When you share this experience with others, you come to understand that you are moving through the vast message of Colossians together. Spiritually speaking, what’s happening is that the experience of immersion is having its effect on the way you mutually indwell God’s word. You are living out the command to let the word of God dwell in you richly, and it’s enabling you to speak to one another spiritually (Col 3:16).

Day 9: Read the book.

Day 10: Read the book.

Day 11: Read the book. Okay, somewhere around this point you’ll notice two things. One, you’re getting bored by the repetition. And two, you have developed an ear for exactly how the book sounds. You haven’t memorized it, but you know where everything is and you have a feeling for the rhythm of how it’s supposed to go. Now is your chance: with the right rhythm and the correct wording subliminally installed in your expectations, you can replace one of your rereads with a less literal, or even (yes I dare say) a less responsible translation. In fact, this is the safest time to pick up something like Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Peterson will say things like: “Just go ahead with what you’ve been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You’re deeply rooted in him. You’re well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.” And you’ll instantly know that he’s trying to take the actual words of Colossians 2:6-7 (“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”) and make them sound totally different on purpose. If you didn’t have Colossians well installed in your mind in an essentially literal translation, you might get mad at Peterson: how dare he say what isn’t there, and ignore images given by the actual words of the text! But with Colossians rumbling along in your mind, you can read Peterson as a wise preacher with decades of experience, paraphrasing as he goes along with you. Immersive rereading is a kind of safety filter in that way, and it can make handy helps out of what might otherwise be distorting distractions. (Reader, with these words I have endorsed Peterson’s The Message when properly used. And I can likewise recommend even wilder projects like the Pidgin Bible, the Cotton Patch edition, and more. But not the Passion so-called Translation; no cognitive safety net can catch you when you fall into that scam, and Colossians warns you against people who take their stands on visions they claim to have seen).

Day 12: Read the book.

Day 13: Read the book.

Day 14: Read the book.

Day 15: Read the book. Did I mention audiobook plays count as reading? Yes! Most readers will want to establish a foundation of reading the text on the page first, but audio recordings are ideal for this method.

Day 16: Read the book.

Day 17: Read the book.

Day 18: Read the book. Hey, do you know other languages, but not very well? Here’s your chance to use your terrible Spanish or French to read 95 verses of text that you already understand. Strange new insights will emerge as you notice how you’ve been taking some things for granted that are in fact features of your primary language rather than of the text itself.

Day 19: Read the book.

Day 20: The immersive rereading project doesn’t come with an obvious endpoint. I usually wrap it up when a summer trip comes to an end; three weeks is my standard runtime. Some students hate to break off the experience. For one thing they’ve learned the habit of daily rereads, and now can do it almost automatically. For another thing, they’ve installed Colossians in their minds, and are in prime position to learn more every day. They know that once they stop the immersive rereads, some mastery will remain but some of the charge will begin to fade. In a few months they’ll be people who used to have Colossians on the tip of their tongues. Much of their learning has been life-reorienting and has permanently set them in a direction they can continue to follow, but the actual magnetic charge of being loaded with Colossians can’t stay.

Some students feel not only saturated but satiated by this point. If they appreciated the experience, they may get excited about moving on to the next book, and the next. Immersive rereading can in fact serve as your main Bible study devotion for a season of life. If you’re used to a through-the-Bible or three-chapters-a-day kind of pace, setting aside August for Ephesians and then September for Philippians can be a great way to go deeper–obviously it’s a trade-off and you lose some of the breadth of reading through longer books.

Take up and reread!


1James Gray called it “Mastering the English Bible.”

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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