As someone who has been writing for half a century, I read the Bible differently to most people. Accepting it as our primary source for what God wants us to know about reality, I also can’t help peeking behind the words to its human authors. I read Isaiah and marvel at his soaring prose and shining images of restored creation. I read Jeremiah and identify with the reluctant prophet’s neuroses. I read Amos and James and smile at their homespun, earthy analogies.
Christians believe that the Bible’s authors wrote under divine inspiration. While we do not know exactly how that worked, it’s clear that the Spirit used the education, background and personalities of the individual authors. I note how Matthew, Mark and Luke, beginning with similar sources, choose material to fit their audiences. Then I turn to John and envision him plotting out his Gospel much as I outline my books, selecting key themes – in his case, Jesus’ “signs” – and weaving them into a thematic unity. (I’m sure he did the same for Revelation, though I can’t begin to decipher that cryptic book!)
Paul, the most prolific of New Testament authors, seems to adopt a new style with each of his letters. He fires a fusillade against the brewing heresies of the Galatian church, relaxes into warm praise as he addresses the Ephesians and Philippians, and fashions a masterpiece of logic in his letter to the sophisticated Romans. I know that writing pattern. I may rush out a heated blog against some political or environmental injustice but when I write for a magazine or newspaper I take my time, carefully researching the topic, editing and polishing.
For the past three years I’ve been writing a memoir, Where the Light Fell. As I tackled this new genre, I had to restrain from commentary and interpretation and simply present the story of my life. “You need more emotion – tell me how you were feeling!” my editor kept urging. Paul never wrote an autobiography, but in some passages he would bare his inner soul. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 tells of the apostle’s mental state that seemed to approach a nervous breakdown: “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die” (NLT).
While writing my memoir, I was struck by how biblical knowledge has waned in my lifetime. AngloAmerican culture was once Biblesaturated. Now even agnostics admit the cultural loss. Christopher Hitchens, hardly a Bible-thumper, wrote in Vanity Fair: “‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child’; ‘Eat, drink, and be merry’; ‘salt of the earth’; ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’ A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one.”
As I reflected on Hitchens’s surprising comment, I realised the subtle danger in viewing the Bible as a collection of pious phrases rather than as a cohesive whole. A professed atheist, Hitchens admired the words but rejected the underlying story that gave them meaning. We might say that he had biblical literacy but not biblical fluency.
Although I grew up in a religious environment opposite to Hitchens’, I too learned the Bible as a disconnected collection of phrases. I remember standing on a platform as a child to recite a series of unrelated Bible verses in order to win a free trip to camp. I also participated in “sword drills,” a kind of Bible Olympics in which the first contestant to locate an obscure verse and read it would receive points toward a prize.
I enjoyed the competition, and there’s certainly value in learning individual verses and their references. As a writer, though, I now cringe to think of someone opening one of my books to page 125 and choosing a single sentence, pulled out of context. But we often do just that to the Bible. Unintentionally, we have created an entire subculture around what I call “Bible McNuggets.”
Consider Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (NLT). Some careless readers (and prosperity-gospel preachers) infer this means only good things will come to those who love God. A few paragraphs later, however, Paul mentions some of the things he has endured: trouble, hunger, calamity, persecution, destitution, death threats. He concludes that none of these things, no matter how undesirable, will “ever separate us from God’s love” (v38, NLT). Context matters.
A THREE-ACT PLAY
Early in my career, I spent three years working on The Student Bible, which involved studying every chapter, verse and word of the Bible to develop a sort of beginner’s study Bible. That immersion informed everything I would go on to write about Jesus, prayer, grace – and other topics. And yet the real turning point came with my next project, when I read the entire Bible in two weeks, not three years.
FAITH MEANS BELIEVING IN ADVANCE WHAT WILL ONLY MAKE SENSE IN REVERSE
I was contemplating questions that eventually became the subject for Disappointment with God (Zondervan). Why does God sometimes intervene in human affairs and sometimes not? The ten plagues of Egypt liberated the Israelites from slavery but what about the centuries of bondage that preceded it? Miracles abound in the Gospels and Acts, but why don’t we see them more commonly today?
I traveled from my then home in Chicago to Breckenridge, Colorado, where I holed up in a friend’s cabin. I had brought along a suitcase full of books—and also a bag full of ski equipment, hoping for spare time for recreation. As it happened, I opened only one book, the Bible, and never left the cabin. It snowed heavily every day, blocking my driveway and, in truth, the Bible kept me too captivated to think of skiing. I began by searching for every appearance of the word “God” in the Bible, looking for patterns of direct intervention. Within a couple of hours, I decided it would be easier to start with Genesis and read straight through. In those two weeks, I got an overview of the Bible’s plot and became fluent in its underlying message. I began to see the story as a kind of three-act play, with the spotlight trained successively on the three members of the Trinity.
The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, focuses mostly on God the Father, the almighty creator of the universe and its trillion galaxies. God’s existence and power were on full display to the Israelites in the wilderness, who needed only to look at the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to remember God’s existence. There were no atheists among the Israelites: daily, they ate the food and drank the water that God provided. Nevertheless, only one person, Moses, dared to meet with God in person, and when he returned from those encounters his face shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil.
A major lesson stood out to me: God was the disappointed party, not his people. God had made a contract, or covenant, that guaranteed the Israelites would win their wars, never suffer famine and remain exempt from diseases and infertility – as long as they kept their end of the contract. In numbing detail, the prophets recounted their failure to do so and, in the end, a series of empires swept through the land, crushing their dreams.
After 400 years of sombre silence, the second person of the Trinity made an entrance, but not the anticipated entrance of a conquering Messiah but as a small helpless baby, sucking at the breast of a Jewish teenager. In his life and teaching, Jesus – the human face of God – showed us what God is like and what we should be like. The world rejected him and religious and political powers conspired to kill the man who threatened their entrenched systems.
In yet another plot twist, God transformed that seeming defeat into a victory. Jesus’ closest disciples had betrayed or deserted him, and yet his appearances after the resurrection convinced them all that a eucatastrophe (Tolkien’s word) had occurred: God’s Son had conquered death. Hopes revived that Jesus would now restore the nation of Israel. Instead, he cleared the stage for Act Three, the era of the Spirit. As Jesus had told the perplexed disciples, “in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you” (John 16:7, NLT).
Reading the entire plot at once, I saw the Bible as the story of God seeking to restore a relationship with human beings estranged from him since Eden. In his parable of the prodigal son, Jesus likened the story to a love-stricken father getting his family back. It turns out that the best way to communicate God’s love is human-to-human. Jesus did that in person, loving his disciples “to the uttermost”, in John’s words (NKJV). Next, Jesus turned the mission over to those disciples, commanding them to carry the message of God’s love and reconciliation to the ends of the earth.
THE BIBLE WILL HAVE LITTLE EFFECT ON A PERSON’S LIFE IF THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT IT SAYS
In a typically ironic style, God chose Saul, a man who had tortured Jesus’ followers, as one of the first missionaries. The renamed apostle Paul quickly grasped the new role of the Spirit, who would knit together “the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4), the actual presence of God in the world. Jesus in the flesh affected only a few thousand people in a tiny corner of the Roman Empire. Yet, for all its flaws and failures, the Spirit-led Church he left behind would establish outposts of his kingdom across the world.
Act One: an Israelite in Sinai perceived God as something like smoke and thunder – more likely to inspire fear than intimacy. Act Two: the invisible God took on a visible form; as Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Act Three: according to Paul, “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes” (Ephesians 1:4). We are the Jesus left behind. God’s family is restored at last.
A good play only makes sense after you’ve seen the final scene. We are still awaiting Act Four, when God once more moves in power to restore creation to its original intent. We have only hints of that, in the prophets’ lofty images and the book of Revelation. Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.
I returned from my two-week stay in the cabin aware that I had been viewing the Bible as a collection of concepts rather than an unfolding (and unfinished) story. Fortunately, in recent times, a new kind of Bible has emerged that helps with this. The Reader’s Bible strips away the chapter and verse divisions added in the mid-16th century. Eugene Peterson published his The Message in paragraph form and others have since followed suit. Immerse: The Reading Bible is the latest version to reach the market. Thousands of readers have found it refreshing and revolutionary to read the Bible in a form closer to the way it was written. (Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board for the Institute for Bible Reading, which publishes Immerse.)
When Jesus opened the scroll for his first public sermon, he did not say: “I’ll be reading this morning from Isaiah 61.” He carefully unrolled a long leather scroll and everyone present knew he had chosen just one portion from a multi-layered prophetic collection. (The scroll of Isaiah found at Qumran by the Dead Sea measures 24ft long and consists of 17 sheets of sheepskin sewed together by linen thread.)
I once attended a church retreat in which the guest speaker quoted from memory the book of 1 Corinthians – all of it. The recitation took over an hour, and I admit that at times my concentration strayed. Yet at other times I sat up straight and thought to myself, I’ve never noticed that passage before.
Even a book as complex as Romans was read aloud to its original recipients. As Tom Wright recounts in his book Paul: A Biography (SPCK): “Reading [Romans] straight through at a sitting, perhaps often, is something few modern readers attempt, though it is of course how it would first have been heard, when Phoebe from Cenchreae, having been entrusted with it by Paul, read it out loud in the congregations in Rome. She probably expounded it too, answering the questions that would naturally arise. It would then have been copied and read again and again, normally straight through.”
Wright notes that in ancient times, when literacy was rare, people encountered the Bible communally. Today, support and encouragement from others can overcome many barriers to Bible reading. I have travelled to places where new believers meet together and encounter the Bible for the first time, and I have seen how it can transform. Even teenagers can be encouraged to study the Bible regularly with friends!
In Vanishing Grace (Hodder & Stoughton) I tell of attending a musical in London. The Mysteries was a South African adaption of a medieval mystery play. Like the Bible, the play began with Adam and Eve standing naked on a blank stage. Then came Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and others, acting out the biblical story, all the way to Jesus. The actors sang in five different languages, accompanied by musicians who beat on tyres, oil drums and garbage can lids. In their version, Afrikaner policemen crucified Jesus, the champion of the poor and marginalised.
After Jesus’ execution, the theatre went dark and we all sat silent. Meanwhile, the entire troupe assembled onstage. As the lights came on, they burst out with joyous songs of resurrection. That secular, sophisticated London audience – few of whom ever attended church – leapt to their feet. They suddenly grasped the gospel message of good news, a flash of what Tolkien described as “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief”.
SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGEMENT FROM OTHERS CAN OVERCOME MANY BARRIERS TO BIBLE READING
The cycle was complete, I thought as I looked around at theatregoers waving handkerchiefs and shouting: “Bravo!” British missionaries had carried the gospel to South Africa. Now Africans were bringing it back, wrapped in their own cultural terms, to people who had mostly forgotten it.
In the West, even as our culture grows more biblically illiterate, we in the Church have both the opportunity and the tools to communicate the Bible’s story. Times of crisis bring spiritual hunger to the surface and, during the pandemic, thousands of unchurched people in the UK tuned in to online services.
The next step, for which we will need equal creativity, is to get people to actually read the Bible for themselves. The Bible will have little effect on a person’s life if they do not know what it says. It’s a big challenge, but the emergence of reader’s Bibles and a return to group engagement may be important steps in the right direction.