Reading the Bible

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

In my time in the Christian Church, ie 43 years, I've heard some pretty stupid things come out of the mouths of preachers. Back in the day, for example, I was once taught that all music in a minor key was evil. And there was a pastor who taught, albeit briefly, that peacocks and owls were "of the devil", whatever that might mean. I've heard various specific dates for the end of the world promulgated, and listened as people have debated, earnestly, the precise order of events in the last few years of the late, great, planet earth.  Lately, of course, there has been the one about the weight of sin causing the earth to have convulsions. All of these teachings were "Biblical", backed up in some ingenious way by Bible verses, and taught in "Bible believing" churches. Pastors can preach this nonsense, with a certain air of authority and without fear of contradiction because they are confident that pretty much nobody in their audience is actually reading their Bible.

For, the truth is, Christians, by and large, don't read the Bible, which is odd because of what we claim the Bible to be. You'd think, wouldn't you, that if we really did believe it to be the Word of God, it'd be pretty hard to tear us away from it. But the opposite is true; it's very difficult to get people to pick it up, even those who have a whole  line of Bibles on their bookshelves. Some of us read bits of the Bible, but that's not quite the same thing. We who regard ourselves as serious about the Bible may dip into it regularly, perhaps even daily, but generally have some pattern of daily Bible study in which a few verses of scripture are chosen for us, and presented to us with a commentary usually longer than the passage being commented on; we are, in other words, being told what to read and what to think about what we are reading.

There are some stereotypical ways of using the Bible in the church, which, even though they are glosses, do carry a bit of weight. At the Evangelical end of the theological spectrum, the use of the Bible in sermons often involves a smorgasbord of texts being taken from all over the place and scattered throughout the message in order to back up the ideas that the preacher has arrived at by other, non Biblical processes. At the polar opposite end of the spectrum are people who may have deep knowledge of those few parts of the Bible which they studied intently during their theological education, but who show no sign that the Bible is, for them, a source of personal guidance and enrichment. In between, we in the established denominations follow a lectionary, which is yet another exercise in selective reading, moving cyclically through the same little bits of the Bible year after year after year in a semi-connected way.

All of these ways of approaching the Bible rest on the assumption that reading it is a daunting task: that there are parts of it which are puzzling, or even downright offensive and are best left alone; that the language is odd and the concepts contained in the language odder; that we can't be trusted to form our own opinions about what we may encounter in its pages. Which is all true, at least partially but our piecemeal approach to the Bible means that we are ignorant of context and ignorant of the narrative flow not just of the Bible as a whole, but also of individual books or even chapters. And the narrative, the great story of humanity and God encountering one another with ever evolving levels of challenge and understanding, is the principal treasure which the Bible has to offer us.

Which is why all people serious about the Bible need to make, at least once in their lives, and preferably more frequently than that, a great pilgrimage. They need to sit down with a version of the Bible which is accessible to them and, beginning at Genesis 1:1, read the thing right through to Revelations 22:21, in the same way that they would read a novel or any other kind of book. It's not an easy task. There are 31,102 verses in the Bible, if you don't count the Apocrypha,  so reading it in a year would require reading an average of 85-86 verses a day, or about 3 or 4 chapters. But while it is not an easy task - what great pilgrimage ever is? - reading the Bible through from cover to cover will give some powerful spiritual benefits:

  • You will "own" the Bible in a way you never have before.
  • You will be surprised at how entertaining it is, at least in parts. 
  • You will be able to put the whole Biblical narrative into context, and see the great unfolding story as it unravels over the centuries of Biblical history.
  • You will be confronted with the very obvious errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the text. The best cure for Fundamentalism is for people to actually read the Bible.
  • You will be confronted with the whole range of human experience, and with their struggles to discern and understand God
  • You will, consequently, have to rethink for yourself, in what way the Bible is the Word of God. 
  • You will find for yourself the truth contained in this ancient narrative.
  • You will find a connection with the divine which you never expected, manifesting itself in  ways which surprise you, and in places where you never thought it would be possible. 
  • You will be inoculated against the twaddle of preachers.
This is a pilgrimage, and should be treated as such. It is a journey which seems daunting but can be achieved if one step is taken at a time, day after day until journey's end. I have traveled this way many times, and beginning this Advent, I am doing it again. There are specific reasons for my doing this, and I will talk of them soon, but for now, I invite you to join me as I travel, in this new year,  from Eden to Patmos.


Elaine Dent said…
Ok, I read the bible through as a teenager---maybe 50 years ago. Somehow it permeated my being and changed my life, channeling it down surprising directions I could never have foreseen at the time. I never stopped reading it, piece by precious piece. But maybe it is time to read it straight through again, hard parts and all. A little accountability and encouragement would help in the face of this daunting endeavor. I confess there are other things I would rather read through---in fact, I have a whole list of "to-read" books. On the other hand, it would indeed be healthy to cut back on reading the facebook posts on the political news on the North American continent :-/. Besides I always love a pilgrimage. And I'm in an in-between place. I think, maybe, possibly, hesitantly, you can count me in.
Alden Smith said…
C S Lewis suggested that the reading of the OT and NT should be approached not as one single type of writing but rather as a multitude of types - Creation myth, poetry, law, history, revelation, prophecy and first person reportage. But of course even taking this advice it is still a problematic journey because we can’t take on the requisite cultural and educational mindset that shaped the interpretations that people of these times would make.

There are some historical facts which I have found useful in forming my own ideas (in terms of the New Testament) concerning notions about “The Word of God” a cult like term which seems to propel some believers into ‘deifying’ the New Testament.

The way the NT is often referred to by some, seems to imply an idea that a voice from heaven spoke, the Gospel writers went into a swoon and hastily transcribed the whole outfit in one sitting with their busy quill pens. I think this idea goes against the historical record.

It is a historical fact that from the first century Christians professed faith in Jesus Christ and his Church and its teachings - not in the unfolding and evolving NT writings.

Jesus didn’t leave any written record. In the beginning the Gospel was preached around the shores of the Mediterranean by the apostle Paul and others orally. I find this fact alone has implications for the veracity of theological ideas regarding the meaning of the life of Jesus.

NT writings such as - Hebrews, James, 2Peter, 2&3 John, Jude, The Shepherd of Hermas, Letter of Barnabas, Teaching of Twelve Apostles, Gospel of the Hebrews, Revelation of Peter, Acts of Peter and the Didache and other apocryphal writings went in and out of use for centuries and not all of the above books made it into the final canon. It wasn’t until almost AD400 that the canon of the NT was settled, although still disputed by some............. I personally find these apocryphal writings very interesting and add something to the canonized writings rather than detracting from them.

Writings and pictures in the Roman catacombs show that from the beginning the early church (without a canonized NT) held beliefs regarding the Primacy of Peter, the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage, Penance, the Holy Eucharist, the Veneration of Saints and Martyrs, especially the Veneration of Mary, Prayers for the Dead, the Sacrifice of Mass, Purgatory etc......... Many beliefs and ideas that were thrown out 1500 years later at the second great schism during the reformation. Not all of these historical teachings of the church for 1500 years can be gleaned from a reading of the NT.

- The deification of the Bible happened around the time of the Protestant Reformation (A reformation as much for political reasons as it was for corruption in the church ). Jettisoning the Catholic Church, which had earlier split with the Eastern Orthodox Church meant that there was not much left except the NT writings and the old Testament (From which the reformers deleted a number of OT books). The well known result has been the fragmentation of the Protestant movement into thousands of sectarian churches for the simple reason that “The Word of God” is not as clear as one might think.

......... All of which is a long winded way of saying that I think that if a person is to partake in the reading pilgrimage that you are suggesting, I think it is important to also read in ever widening circles concerning the historical, cultural context that existed at the time of the early writers and how evolving theological and philosophical ideas have evolved and informed faith and belief over time. The two reading trails merge into one pilgrimage path, albeit a bit wider.

Kelvin Wright said…
Well, I guess the point I am making is sort of the polar opposite of the one you are arguing for. First and foremost the Bible is a story. Each book and each chapter is itself a story and each has a part in the larger narrative contained in the whole. Our trouble with the Bible is manifold: 1. we see it as big and daunting and beyond our scope to deal with; its as big and daunting ass an 800 km walk. By reading it through we find we own it; it becomes our size and can speak to us in its parts or as a whole. 2. We have atomised it. We read it in small parts, and usually with small parts from various places of the Bible lumped together, so Instead of a long connected story we treat it as a collection of oracles, each to be taken out of context and applied in any way we think fit. 3. We have intellectualised it. Instead of addressing us in all manner of ways we have reduced it to an interesting critical, that is to say rational exercise, and in doing so have made it tameable and malleable and manageable.

What I want to do is to read it once more without all that critical baggage; let it speak to me for what it is. I tell stories, including several ancient folk stories from various cultures. Some of them move me to tears at every telling, even though I have told them a thousand times before. Now, no doubt there would be much to be garnered from a careful cultural and critical analysis f the stories I tell; no doubt I could make some pretty astute guesses at what the original storytellers were trying to convey but would the exercise add anything to the owner of the story? I think not. And in fact such an analysis would run the risk of killing the story stone dead.

Careful scholarly work can help us understand context and add to meaning - if we have first read the text and know it. But christians haven't read the text. THEY HAVEN'T READ AND DON'T KNOW THE TEXT!!! In many cases they do the careful scholarly work as an alternative to engaging with the text. And we defer to the scholars by asking them what the text means rather than engaging with it ourselves.

I say, read it. Face its shortcomings and difficulties. Let it speak. Afterwards and only afterwards perhaps there are Biblical critics who can help you with the tricky bits; but if those scholars are not themselves people of faith - that is, if they are not people who are able to respond to the Spirit of God speaking through the text they so assiduously dissect - treat their words with as much scepticism as you would treat those of Brian Tamaki