It seems pretty obvious the Bible is currently an underachiever. Despite remaining a best-selling title around the world, and being more readily available than at any other time in world history, vast numbers of people don’t read the Bible, don’t understand it, and therefore don’t know it. This includes people within the Church, not just those on the outside.
Pew Research estimates that less than 30 per cent of Christians in the world will ever read through the entire Bible. So, what’s the diagnosis for our Bible-reading famine? And how do we encourage Christians to rediscover a closed book?
The fact is, we shouldn’t be surprised at Bible (non)reading practices when we look at the nature of modernity’s Bible. Part of the problem is that we’ve turned what should be a banquet into fast food. Philip Yancey says we’ve created an entire culture of Scripture McNuggets and assumed they were nutritious. We snack on the Bible when we should be feasting.
We need the Bible
We need God the Father, we need Jesus and we need the Holy Spirit. But we also need the Bible. God sent his holy word and it does what only it can do. It tells us the story of Jesus. We can’t get that anywhere else. It tells us, crucially, where the story is going so our work is in line with his ultimate intentions.
Without knowing our Bible, we constantly run the risk of shrinking the story, or trying to control it so it ends up serving our own predetermined agenda.
The Bible is on a mission to move the creation in the direction of God’s ultimate purposes for the flourishing of life. This is what it means to say the word of God is alive. But here’s the thing: if we don’t hold up our end of the covenant with the Bible, if we don’t do right by it, we have it in our power to hinder the mission of the Bible.
And hinder is precisely what we have done. We’ve changed the Bible, grossly distorting its form and so misunderstanding its true character.
We pluck bits and pieces out of context and think that’s what it means to be biblical
The way we commonly try to apply it to contemporary life is largely based on cherry-picking the verses we like and ignoring vast swathes of the biblical material. We try to survive spiritually off a verse-of-the-day. We proof-text. We pluck bits and pieces out of context and think that’s what it means to be biblical.
How many believers who post Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’”, to their Facebook feed realise that those words are spoken to the Jewish community exiled in Babylon, or have read the 28 chapters preceding that feel-good verse? So what is the path to a revived mission for the Bible in our world? What must we do to begin upholding our end of this partnership with God? How do we turn the Bible back into a soul-nourishing feast for all of us?
Modernity’s wrong turn
For the promise of the Bible to be fulfilled, we must start to receive, understand and live it on its own terms. The way to get at this properly is to ask the two critical questions: “What is the Bible?” and “What are we supposed to do with it?”
The surprising truth is that our modern Bible has contributed to its own decline. The current form of the Bible that typically sits on our bookshelves is actually a modern invention. The Bible was not given to us as a reference book, filled with numbers big and small, footnotes, cross-references, section headings, red letters and all the other things we’ve poured into it. The result of all our modern artificial additives is a visually fragmented Bible, regularly distracting us from long, continuous reading.
Because the usual two-column modern reference Bible is the only one we’ve known, we simply assume, “That’s what a Bible is.” But form and function really do go together. What we see when we look at a Bible is the first signal to us about what we’re supposed to do with it. And currently, that signal is not encouraging us to read at length and in depth.
The invention of the printing press allowed large numbers of people to own a Bible for the first time. The Reformation then brought vernacular translations so more people could have the Bible in their own language.
Finally, the Bible essentially passed from the care and keeping of the Church to merchant booksellers, becoming a consumer product. And what Bible was being used for all this? Unfortunately, it was the new chapter-and-verse Bible that first appeared in the 16th century, with every numbered verse set apart as a new paragraph. The first Bible available to the masses was a modern reference book.
Of course, we can be grateful for the increased availability of the scriptures and the invitation to read them for ourselves. But given the historical context in which these advances occurred, especially individualism and consumerism, new problems were introduced as well.
The Bible has lost its voice in our world
Now it is commonly understood that the normal way to read and understand the Bible is in isolation from others. It used to be that there was no Bible experience for God’s people that wasn’t in community. But we’ve turned it into a solo endeavour, sitting alone and thinking the message is “just for me”. Consequently, the Bible’s intention to be a community formation book is lost.
Commodified versions of the Bible are now routinely packaged and sold to us in ways that meet our already-determined felt needs. In this environment, it is very hard for the Bible to say all that it wants to say.
After 500 years of the modern Bible, we find that it has lost its voice in our world; even, sadly, within many of our churches. So what is the way back to a full-throated Bible? How do we hear again the whole spectrum of its message and the grandeur of its story?
Recovering deep Bible engagement
The Bible is a gift. The creator’s greatest intention with the Bible is to invite us into its story. What God wants from us, more than anything else, is to make the Bible’s great drama of restoration and new life the story of our lives too. The appropriate way to receive a gift like this is to come to know the Bible deeply, to lose ourselves in it precisely so that we can find ourselves in it. In other words, the best thing we can do with the Bible is to immerse ourselves in it.
Feasting on scripture in soul nourishing ways – reading and living the Bible well – happens when these four crucial steps are followed:
1. A well-fed community has good access to a well-translated text presented in its natural literary forms
Bible societies and publishers have helped most of us have easy access to numerous quality contemporary translations. This is not our problem today. But it’s long past the time we recover more natural formats of the scriptures. The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writing, and the way to fully experience them is to first see these writings clearly represented in a nice, clean, additive-free, singlecolumn format.
What if stories, proverbs, songs and letters all looked like what they are? Once chapter and verse are removed, we are free to discover the Bible’s natural literary divisions. Matthew’s Gospel, for example, does not have 28 chapters, but rather five natural books in a new Torah presenting Jesus as a new Moses for his people. Readers should see these natural divisions, not the artificial ones, blind to literary features, that were added later. We need publishers to commit to providing elegant reader’s editions, not merely complicated reference editions.
2. A community regularly feasts together on whole literary units understood in context
There is a whole new world of community Bible engagement experiences waiting to be discovered in the Church. What if we reversed our priorities, putting Bible reading first, and Bible study second? What if we regularly gathered together in groups big and small to simply allow the scriptures to wash over us, immersing us constantly in their wisdom and light? What if God’s people learned the basics of understanding the conventions of the Bible’s different kinds of writings, rather than reading it all the same?
Knowing things like the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, the ancient letter form, and the characteristics of apocalyptic literature would help us receive the books that biblical authors actually wrote. Steady Bible feasting would open our eyes to a whole new world, allowing us to learn that the Bible speaks first to its original audience, set in a particular historical and cultural context. We will become grown-up Bible readers, knowing that the Bible is for us, but that it wasn’t written directly to us.
3. A well-nourished community understands the overall story of the Bible as cantered in Jesus
Once we are eating biblical books whole, we’ll be in a position to understand how the books come together to tell the great story of God, the defeat of sin and death, and the renewal of the world. We will learn that trying to apply little pieces of the Bible to our lives is nothing compared to realising that the Bible is inviting us in, all the way, to make its story the story of our lives.
When we enter deeply into its saving narrative we will find that not every word in the Bible is God’s final answer. The story moves along and more light is shed as it goes. We will appreciate that Jesus himself is the centre of the story, revealing most clearly who God is and what he’s doing. We will learn to read all of the Bible through the Jesus lens, seeing that his story is the place where it all comes together.
4. An energised community accepts the invitation to take up its own role in God’s ongoing drama of restoration through the power of the Spirit
Finally, once we’ve rediscovered the real Bible that’s been hiding beneath the modern apparatus and are now faithfully receiving God’s gift, we are likewise free to accept his invitation to become new communities committed to living out God’s story in our own world.
We will prayerfully enter the world of the text, asking for the Spirit’s aid in understanding. We will emerge from our Bible experiences knowing that our job is to do more than look up the right answers in the rule book. Now we will commit to creative fidelity as we become gospel players, improvising the story on the stage of our own lives.
Saving the Bible
The Bible and its mission in the world can be saved. The time is ripe for moving beyond the modern Bible and rediscovering the Bible that God actually gave us. More and more people are bored with what they think the Bible is. Samuel Johnson once said that the oldest books are still only just out for those who have not read them. We can rekindle imaginations. We can recapture hearts and minds. A new opportunity stands right before us – inviting people to experience the Bible after modernity.
If we remove the chains we’ve put on the Bible, then God’s word can be released to do all it was always meant to do in the world.
We can write the new story of the Bible. A Bible no longer ignored, but read. A Bible not experienced merely in isolation, but together with others. In the process we’ll rediscover how to feast deeply on a Bible rich and deep, full of surprises, brimming with God’s transforming power, known and loved by his people who go out and do its work.
Glenn Paauw is director of the Institute for Bible Reading. His book Saving the Bible from Ourselves (IVP) is out now