The Christian Publishing Show is the podcast for writers who want to advance Christ’s kingdom through excellent writing. Whether you’re writing Bible studies, dragon fantasies, devotionals, or cozy mysteries, you can advance Christ’s kingdom through your writing.
But what does it mean to advance the kingdom through writing? How can authors do it?
When we abide in Jesus and meditate on his word, the natural result is that the life of Christ will overflow from our hearts into our writing. The more we read and study the Bible, the more it reflects in our writing. If you read the Bible enough, it will start to leak into your writing.
But be careful! If we misunderstand the Bible, our misunderstandings get amplified through our writing. We could even unintentionally lead others into error.
A better understanding of scripture will improve our writing. But how do we learn to understand it better?
I interviewed Christian author Carolyn Rice. She hosts the Abide in Jesus podcast and has written five books, her latest being Healing the Father Wound: A Women’s Bible Study Through the Gospel of Mark.
What does it mean to “correctly handle the word of truth,” and why is it important?
Thomas: What does it mean to “correctly handle the word of truth,” and why is it important?
Carolyn: Correctly handling the word of truth means reading the Bible in context and realizing that it was written to a specific audience at a certain point in history. The Bible cannot mean to us what it couldn’t have meant to the original audience.
Thomas: We can’t read into it and make it say what we want. Is Christianity a buffet where you pick and choose what you want and customize it to your preferences? Or is it a standard to which you submit yourself?
Is God in control, or are you in control?
People in the New Age movement pick and choose the elements they like. Many Christians have adopted that thinking and are picking and choosing as well. When they come across a passage they don’t like, they say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean that,” and they wave it away.
But Christian orthodoxy means we submit to God and obey his word whether we like it or not. We follow what the Bible instructs us to do and to believe.
What advice do you have for an author who wants to study the Bible better?
Carolyn: I suggest gathering some Bible study tools. I love BlueLetterBible.org (supported by donations) and Bible Gateway Plus ($4.99 monthly subscription). I prefer using Blue Letter Bible because it’s simpler and less distracting.
How are online Bible study tools different from a regular Bible?
Thomas: How is BlueLetterBible.org different than a regular Bible?
Carolyn: Beside any scripture you look up, you’ll see a blue “Tools” button, which gives you a menu of Bible study tools. The first one is the Interlinear Bible tool, where you can find the Greek and Hebrew meanings of words in a particular verse. You’ll also find a Cross Reference tool, a Bible dictionary, and various commentaries.
Thomas: Commentaries are important because they give you access to the doctrinal knowledge of Bible scholars who’ve gone before us.
Christian doctrine is settled. We’ve had 2,000 years to read the Bible and learn to interpret it. If you discover a “new” doctrine, I’d caution you to be very suspicious of it. If you disagree with all the saints who’ve gone before, that’s a big red flag.
Every once in a while, someone like Martin Luther helps Christians see where they’d gone astray. But rather than starting over with a doctrine, he just rewound and drew from Saint Augustine. Luther was an Augustinian monk and relied heavily on Augustine’s interpretation of the scriptures.
When you read the saints who’ve gone before us, you may be surprised how little Bible commentary has changed over the centuries.
A friend of mine used to listen to podcasts of ancient sermons. He got translated versions of sermons that were 1,000 years old or older. He told me, “They’re not that different from the sermons we have today.”
Christianity doesn’t change much. Commentaries help you determine whether you have an orthodox understanding of a passage.
Carolyn: In Bible college, we learned commentaries help you check your work. You study the passage on your own first but then consult commentaries to check your work. Commentaries also give you additional ideas of what angle to take with your writing.
Case Study: Proverbs 18:22
Thomas: I remember using a similar Bible study tool when I was a single man.
I was wrestling with Proverbs 18:22, which says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and gains favor from the Lord.”
My friend and I were curious about the Hebrew meaning of the word “find.” In English, “find” has several meanings. You may “find” or discover a $5.00 bill as you’re walking along the road. But you can also actively search for something and “find” it.
My friend and I were wondering which meaning Proverbs 18:22 employed as it related to finding a wife. I was wondering if I should be actively searching or just living my life hoping I’d find a wife along the way.
If I remember correctly, about half the occurrences used the discover meaning while the other half used the search meaning. I remember he closed his Bible and said, “The results are inconclusive.”
I realize this is a terrible example because we didn’t ultimately find the answer, but it caused us to get into the scriptures. It also gave me the confidence to know I wasn’t sinning against God by searching for a wife. I was trying to “find a wife and find a good thing.”
Carolyn: When you use the Blue Letter Bible’s Interlinear tool, you can scroll down to find every occurrence in the Bible where that Greek or Hebrew word is used and its various meanings.
Why do I need to use the Interlinear tool?
There aren’t enough English words to directly translate all the Greek and Hebrew words. Blue Letter Bible will show you where the words are different and how it’s used in English.
Thomas: Sometimes, you’ll have multiple Greek words that translate into one English word. You’ve probably heard that there are four Greek words for the English word “love.” In Greek, the four words are used in various contexts and give more detailed meaning to the passage. But in English, we always translate those words as “love.”
Another issue is that English doesn’t allow for the plural “you.” Here in Texas, we’ve solved the problem with the very useful “y’all,” but you won’t find that distinction in the English Bible. That means that when the scriptures say “you,” we don’t know immediately whether the writer was talking to an individual or a group.
The classic example is Revelation 3:20, which says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.”
That passage uses the plural form of “you.” It’s the church. It’s not an individual opening the door of their heart. Understanding the Greek usage helps shape our understanding of the passage.
Carolyn: Yes, and I love checking cross references as well. In college, we were taught to let the Bible interpret the Bible. When we look at cross references, we can see how words were translated in different passages and translations. Every Bible translation starts with the Greek and Hebrew.
How do I use the Bible to interpret the Bible?
Thomas: Allowing the Bible to interpret the Bible is even better than asking what the saints of old said about a passage. It’s better to ask what the Bible has to say about that passage. How would I find that out with a tool like the Blue Letter Bible?
Carolyn: Under the Cross Reference tool, you’ll find a list of words it’s cross-referencing. If you are studying John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” you would find the word “God” and “gave” and all the cross references to those words. They’re all grouped together.
Thomas: If I was looking for the Bible to interpret a specific verse, I’d want to know Jesus’s interpretation of that verse. Is there an easy way to find that on Blue Letter Bible?
Carolyn: I’m not sure about that. I do know that the Naves Topical Bible would take you to certain high-level topics like prophecy.
What are some different methods of Bible study writers can use?
Thomas: When we’re reading the Bible and applying study methods, what are your thoughts on different study methods like chronological reading, topical book studies, or reading the Bible in a year?
Carolyn: I think all the methods are amazing, and every one of them shows me a new angle of the passage I’m studying.
If I did a biographical study, I could find everything I wanted to know about Joseph, the son of Jacob. As you read through the scripture, you’d get general first impressions about Joseph. After that, you’d make an outline of his life. You won’t find every single detail of his life, but you’ll learn what he did that illustrated biblical truth in his life. You’ll also be able to see what he did wrong and how his decisions impacted his life.
You could also study character qualities like peace, integrity, or patience. You’d start by studying each occurrence of that character quality. You’d find that list of occurrences in a Bible concordance like Strong’s Bible Concordance, which is another important study tool. Then you’d study each of those verses.
What is Strong’s Bible Concordance, and how would I use it?
Thomas: What is Strong’s Concordance, and how would I use it?
Carolyn: A Bible concordance is like a dictionary in that you can look up a topic, character, or word, but instead of finding a definition, you’ll find a list of every scripture where that word, character, or topic appears.
Strong’s Concordance is one of the most comprehensive. It’s available in print, and it’s a large book, but it’s also available on Blue Letter Bible. Strong’s Concordance also provides a reference number for each Greek and Hebrew word, and you can look up the meaning of that word in the back.
How do you combine your Bible research and study with writing your book?
Thomas: You’ve written five books now. What is your approach to combining research, writing, and Bible study to inform the writing of the book?
Carolyn: I view writing a book like building a house. A house is built on a foundation, and a book’s foundation and frame is the Bible. Everything else in my book can be filled in with my own experiences, research, and interviews.
How do you give your book a good foundation?
Thomas: How do you give your book a good foundation?
Carolyn: I start by studying the Bible.
A Bible study teacher who wrote Bible studies once told me, “When I studied the Bible to write, I used about 20% of what I learned to put into the book. The rest of the study was for me.”
That was so helpful to hear because, at the time, I was struggling with wanting to include all my accumulated research into one book. For my last book, Healing the Father Wound, I studied the book of Mark, and I loved it. I had piles of notes I wanted to include in the book. When I realized I couldn’t include it all, I had to choose a theme for the book. That’s where a tool like Publisher Rocket helped me find the angle I wanted to write the book from.
Thomas: Publisher Rocket (Affiliate Link) helps you find out what’s currently popular with readers. It would help you determine what parts of the book of Mark would resonate with the pain readers are experiencing currently. When you align people’s needs with scripture through your book, people will want to buy your book.
If you want your book to impact people’s lives, you must work to make it a book they want to buy and read by addressing a need that resonates.
The foundation of a house isn’t supposed to be seen. It functions to keep the house from falling apart. Your research lays a strong foundation for the 20% that readers will see in your book. If your research is faulty or incomplete, the foundation of your book will be weak and less effective.
How did you approach Bible study for your book?
Carolyn: When I wrote my book on forgiveness, I started with a topical study. I looked up every verse on forgiveness. Then I found synonyms for forgiveness in a thesaurus and looked up verses on those synonyms as well.
- I studied and meditated on each verse.
- I used BlueLetterBible.org to look up cross references.
- I defined keywords and looked at commentaries.
I had pages and pages of notes about forgiveness, so when I read back through them, I could see several themes that kept emerging. I numbered each theme so that when I went through my notes, I could put the corresponding number by the information that correlated to a theme.
My themes were:
- What will happen if we don’t forgive?
- What happens when we do forgive?
- How do we forgive?
- Blessing our enemies.
- Praying for those who persecute us.
Then I used the story of Joseph to illustrate those themes. I did a biographical study of Joseph as an example of what forgiveness looks like in a Bible character.
Each theme became a chapter. I outlined it according to the Word of God, and then I researched. I read other books. I talked to people, and then I filled in my outline with that other research, but it was all based on scripture.
Thomas: You explored each theme in a chapter of your book. Did you have personal examples to help illustrate those points and connect them with your life and people you know?
Carolyn: Yes. When I write books, I apply the same method I learned in Bible college for writing a sermon:
- Start with a story.
- Determine your main point.
- Include other supporting points you can elaborate on.
- Give a call to action.
Thomas: I love that as a method for a topical book, but some books are more topical than others. Your book is a study of Mark, but it also has a topical theme.
Did you approach your Bible study for that book differently, or did you use the same approach?
Carolyn: I approached that one differently. I read the book of Mark several times and pulled out the themes. Then I studied each chapter of Mark individually. My book was based on John 14:9, where Jesus says, “When you see me, you see the Father,” so that was the theme of my book.
Mark is known as the action book, so when I studied each chapter, I noted how Jesus’s actions reflected who our Heavenly Father is.
What other methods have you used for writing books?
Carolyn: I wrote a devotional called Lord Heal My Heart. It was kind of a topical study because it focused on verses about love and how God loves us, but I also pulled out points and wrote a devotional on each of the verses. Instead of building a frame, each verse stood by itself as the subject of a single devotional reading.
What kind of Bible study methods do you suggest for fiction writers?
Thomas: What would you suggest for a fiction writer? They’re not necessarily starting with the Bible, but forgiveness may be a theme in their novel. Fictional characters sometimes have to forgive other fictional characters, and sometimes they don’t.
One of your themes was, “What happens if we don’t forgive?” You can show that in a story about one fictional character who chooses not to forgive another, and as a result, they both experience the real-world ramifications of that decision. That’s one way a novel can reflect real life.
In some ways, the Bible is a glimpse into understanding real life. It helps us cut through the enemy’s lies and the lies we tell ourselves about how the world works. The Bible helps us understand how the world really works and makes our novels believable.
Carolyn: Yes. I talked to a novelist at a writer’s conference, and he said every story in the Bible is a story about a character who experiences a change. He encouraged me to study that character in the story. The character who underwent the change provides a great picture of how people can change. And fiction writing is always about a character with a problem who experiences a change.
You can use biblical examples of how that happens in your writing.
If you outlined your novel, you might outline it according to what happens to a Bible character. You wouldn’t even have to mention that the character or conflict comes from the Bible, but you can still paint a picture of a Bible character.
Thomas: Case in point, Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. Tolkien was very passionate about that. He was also a very devout Christian who studied the scriptures. That’s why you see elements of the Bible in the characters he created. He couldn’t help but be a Christian as he was writing.
The most classic example is the way Jesus is portrayed in the Bible and how it influenced Tolkien’s characters. In the Bible, Jesus is described as a suffering servant, a returning king, and a powerful miracle worker.
Those are different but true portrayals of Jesus that capture different aspects of his personality. In Tolkien’s book, he has a returning king named Aragorn, a miracle-working Gandalf, and Frodo, the suffering servant.
As you read, you can see how the Bible influences the characters he created. I think it made his characters better because that Christian influence didn’t turn off secular readers. Regular secular readers love Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn even though they’re inspired by specific aspects of Christ.
Tolkien’s story becomes a gateway to explain Jesus to someone who doesn’t know him. You can say, “He’s like Frodo in how he suffers. He’s like Gandalf in power, and he’s kind of like Aragorn too.” You can actually present the gospel through the Lord of the Rings if you want. It’s not a one-to-one allegory like Lewis used, where Aslan is Jesus. Lord of the Rings is more subtle, and the Christian worldview still shines through.
What advice do you have for a writer who knows they need to study the Bible more?
Thomas: What advice do you have for somebody who knows they need to study the Bible more but is struggling to do it?
Carolyn: I would say start small. Start with 15 or 20 minutes. Don’t expect to get everything at once because the Lord gives us nuggets. He meets us where we are.
I also recommend trying different methods. You might like one method more than another. You might get more out of a topical study than a background study.
Thomas: Different methods may work differently for different books too. If your book is topical, or you are researching themes for your novel, you would study the Bible differently than if you were writing a Bible study on the book of James.
I struggle with this too. I know I need to be in the scriptures more, but it’s tough with three small children. I know that’s not a good excuse, but one thing that has helped me in the past is listening to the Bible as a podcast.
There are many Bible podcasts where somebody reads the Bible in a year. If you listen to the podcast for a year, by December, you’ll have read through the whole Bible. Some podcasts are more focused, and others include teaching at the end.
I’ve listened to the Daily Audio Bible, but there are many others. If you like listening to podcasts, a Bible podcast could be a great way to get the Bible in you. It’s not the same as studying, but it’s a great way to get an overview.
Many of us are tempted to read our favorite passages repeatedly. If we’re not careful, we will ignore large portions of the Bible that are also inspired.
Reading or listening to the whole Bible in a year is also a great way of forcing yourself to read Leviticus. There is incredible wisdom in Leviticus, but you’ll never find it if you never read it.
Carolyn: It’s a great practice to read the Bible as a whole, so you get the big idea of what the whole Bible says. That way, when you study more deeply, you’ll be less likely to take something out of context.
What’s the difference between studying the Bible and reading devotionals?
Thomas: What’s the difference between Bible reading, devotional reading, and studying the Bible? I’m asking as somebody who’s never really read a devotional. I read My Utmost for His Highest when I was in college, but I’ve never been much of a devotional reader.
Carolyn: Devotional reading is a great place to start. It’s a great encouragement, and it helps you in your walk with God by giving you a different way of looking at things. Studying the Bible for yourself allows you to think for yourself instead of just reading what someone else got out of it.
They both have benefits, provide encouragement, and help you live for Christ.
Thomas: My biggest challenge with devotionals is that they typically only reference one or two verses, and I suspect those verses are often taken out of context. I like to read the whole chapter to find out if that verse works in that context.
Some verses stand alone, but for others, you need the context of the chapter or book to properly understand what it’s saying.
For example, I’ve never understood how to interpret Jeremiah 29:11. If you read the book of Jeremiah, you don’t want most of the verses to apply to you because they’re about God’s judgment for bad deeds. But everybody loves Jeremiah 29:11 because we want to believe God will prosper us.
But does that apply to Christians? If it does, do all the other passages about God’s judgment and anger also apply to us? How do you negotiate that to figure out what applies to the specific audience and what applies to us?
Most books of the Bible are written to specific audiences, and yet they have general applications as well.
Carolyn: When you’re reading a book of the Bible, you need to remember who it was written to, and you can find that in the introduction. If your Bible doesn’t include introductions, you can find an introduction to each book of the Bible on BlueLetterBible.org. The introduction will tell you who it was written to, who it was written by, and usually when it was written.
Read with those details in mind. Some parts of the Bible were written only to Israel, and some were written for all of us. For example, Paul wrote the book of Ephesians to certain people in Ephesus in the first century, but we can apply his instruction to our own lives as well.
Thomas: A book like Song of Solomon may have several applications. It can be read as a how-to guide for husbands and wives to love each other because it describes the romance between a husband and wife.
Jewish scholars also see it as the romance between Israel and God. Christian scholars sometimes see it as Christ and the Church. It’s possible that it was intended for all three audiences. We can understand Christ’s love for his church through the Song of Solomon’s description of the relationship between a husband and wife. That’s not a stretch. Jesus used marriage as a metaphor for Christ and the Church.
How do we know we’re reading it correctly?
Carolyn: Again, I would go to the commentaries and check your work. As you develop applications or points, make sure you check your work, especially if it’s content you’ll share publicly. Check Bible commentaries, dictionaries, and all the different tools. The Bible doesn’t change, so find tools that will help you check your work.
Thomas: As you check your work, you’ll probably discover that 300 years ago or more, another Bible scholar had that same brilliant flash of insight you just had.
You may realize a saint or scholar had the same idea. Or you may realize you’ve believed a heresy that has already been addressed in a historical council.
I want Christian books to have good, sound doctrine because I’m a Christian. But as a marketer, I also want books to be doctrinally sound because heretical books don’t sell. They just don’t resonate with a Christian audience.
If you call your book a Christian book, readers expect it to conform to Christian orthodoxy.
You can sell a heretical book, but you can’t sell it as a Christian book to Christian readers because Christian readers won’t want to buy it. Christians don’t want to buy or read a book on how to be a better gnostic. Some authors sneak it in, but the more mysticism or New Age ideology that sneaks into the book, the less it will resonate with Christians and the less likely they will be to recommend it. That means, there is also a financial incentive to be orthodox with your writing.
What mistakes do authors make when studying the Bible?
Carolyn: One mistake is to study only one passage without studying the passages around it. Always keep the passage in its context.
Remember that you are reading a letter from a person to an audience. A podcast listener wouldn’t take one sentence out of this interview and make it mean something we didn’t mean when we were talking. That’s what people do when they take verses out of context.
Thomas: That’s right. It’s not good for marketing. It’s not good theology, and it’s not good for your soul either.
Connect with Carolyn Rice and learn more about her books at CarolynsBooks.com.
You can listen to this episode How to Advance Christ’s Kingdom Through Your Writing on Christian Publishing Show.