Good Christians read the Bible, right? In fact, Good Christians have read the Bible all the way through… multiple times.
Many Christians have, that’s true. And yet in a couple decades of ministry, I’ve clearly seen that the sense of obligation that people have around reading the Bible all the way through is one of the hurdles that actually undermines people’s commitment to read the Bible at all.
In this presentation I suggest that reading the Bible through from cover to cover may not be the best way to go about it. I offer some reasons why, and some ways to read the Bible that you may find more helpful.
If you’d prefer to read this presentation, you may below the fold.
A bad experience with the Bible.
February is a month of frustration across Church world. Do you know why? Because that’s about the time when all the people who made a New year’s resolution to read through the Bible from cover to cover get bogged down in the swamp of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Anyone ever had that experience?
You started with such good intentions. You wanted to know your Bible better. You wanted to be intentional about your spiritual journey. You hoped to hear from God. But then you got lost amid the measurements for the tabernacle, the geographical survey of which tribe’s land started at the edge of which river, and how to present your grain offerings.
Do you even have grain? Will God take… instant Oat Meal packs as a substitute? As the weeds got deeper your good intentions ran thin. At this point people often set the project aside. Others will grit their teeth and power through it because Good Christians read their Bible. But maybe, if you’re honest it was hard to feel like anything spiritually meaningful was happening—at least until you got to the Psalms.
This kind of experience creates the belief that the Bible is just hard to read and confusing. Honestly, that’s a reasonable perspective. The Bible doesn’t read like any other book. That’s because the Bible isn’t actually a book.
Not a book?
I know. That may sound like a strange claim, since I’ve got one sitting right here, but it’s the truth. This leather-bound volume printed on gold-edged onion skin paper is not a book at all. When we come to it expecting to behave like a book, that’s when we find it really hard to read. That means that our mindset of expecting the Bible to act like a book hinders us from hearing God and growing spiritually.
It’s a Library!
So, if the Bible isn’t a book, what is it? It’s a bunch of books! It’s actually a library. The Bible that you’re holding is a collection. There are 66 books in most of our Bibles.
Here’s why I think reading the Bible from cover to cover is generally a very bad idea. Reading the Bible from cover to cover is sort of like walking into your public library and, because you don’t know where to start, deciding to start at the A’s and read until you reach the Z’s.
Or even more complicated, starting with the oldest in the Library, and reading them all in order of publication date. You’d never do that. It you are a voracious reader you might read every book in a certain section. In elementary school I read every single biography in our school library. But we were a tiny Christian school, with a tiny conservative Christian library. I think the whole section was less than 40 books.
But Libraries have all kinds of books. They have magazines. They have reference book like encyclopedias and dictionaries and almanacs. It has poetry, fiction and non-fiction. If you didn’t know this about the library, and you tried to read the Library from A to Z, you’d be lost, confused, bored, and overwhelmed. That’s exactly what happens for many people when they try reading the Bible from cover to cover.
They are trying to read the Bible as if it’s a single book that will all read the same way. But it’s not. It’s a collection of different books, written by different people, from different cultures and times.
- There are history books that tell about the experiences of the nation of Israel. Most of these are editorial history. They weren’t written by journalists recording just the facts. They were written in order to make a certain point.
- There are prophetic books, which are just collections of sermons (some of them are pretty scary, hard core sermons), sermons delivered to specific people in specific circumstances. They were recorded to bring God’s truth to those people in their situation, and give us an example.
- There are collections of civil and religious laws for the ancient nation of Israel.
- There are books of wisdom like Proverbs, where poems and aphorisms are collected to convey practical guidance for living.
- The Psalms, the longest in the collection, is a book of songs and poetry, most of which were written for use in public worship.
- Some of the books are letters. A couple were written to individuals; most of them were written to a particular group.
All of the letters were written into specific situations, addressing issues in those particular places and times.
- The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke & John—seem like biographies, but they aren’t modern-day biographies, concerned with presenting just the facts. Each Gospel was written to a specific group of people to teach something specific about Jesus in relationship to them.
- There are even a couple books that are a kind of literature called Apocalyptic. This is an ancient, symbolic type of writing meant to communicate hidden sacred knowledge, often in the face of religious persecution, where speaking things outright could get you killed.
Not only are there a wide variety of books in this collection. But some of the books themselves are made up of a variety of kinds of literature. Inside the very same book.
- Some books contain factual historical accounts of events that happened.
- Some have ancient stories that originated as oral tales, more concerned with big-picture truth than specific details.
- There are parables, which is a nice religious word that really means a fictional story meant to communicate spiritual truth.
- There are prayers and hymns.
- There are personal notes.
- There’s at least one grocery list.
The kind of book matters for how we read it.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Why does this matter, Marc? I just want to read the Bible, and hear from God. Why does all this historical and literary stuff matter. Isn’t it just a distraction?”
Here’s why it matters. You read different kinds of books differently, if you want to understand what you’re reading. Think about going into the public library again with all the different sections.
You’re walking up to the reference shelves. Maybe you’re interested in the average July temperature over the past hundred years. Or maybe you’re looking up the political ramifications of the Crimean war. Or maybe you want a synonym for the word, “Passive-Aggressive.” You’ve got something specific in mind that you want to know. You’re looking for a reference book that address that area.
When you find the book you’re looking for, how are you going to read it? Cover to cover? Slow and carefully, every line in sequence? No. You’re going to scan, flipping through the pages, looking for the information you need. That’s one way of reading.
Now think about heading into the fiction section. You want a great story that captivates you and makes you think. Once you pick something, how are you going to read it? You’re going to read it slowly, carefully one page after another, sinking into the story.
If you go into the fiction section and read those books like they are encyclopedias, you’re going to get confused. You’ll end up with inaccurate information. If you pick up an almanac and try to read it like a novel, you’ll struggle to find the plot. You’ll probably be bored and confused. But this isn’t news. You already know intuitively that you have to read each of those kinds of books differently.
What you might not have realized is that the Bible is also a library, and this same intuition applies. If you’re reading the Bible in order to understand it, (which I hope you are) then you need to start here.
But why are we reading it to begin with?
Oh, a quick aside, on why we read the Bible. I say, “If you’re reading the Bible in order to understand it,” because there are lots of other reasons why we read the Bible.
Some of us read it out of obligation. Good Christians read the Bible. Good Christians can tell you how many times they’ve read it through from cover to cover, right? No. That’s obligation and it does nothing for your spirit or relationship with God.
Some of us read the Bible because of legalism. We consider reading the Bible part of the cost of salvation and God’s favor. We suspect that God won’t really bless us if we don’t know the Bible. We secretly believe that people who can quote chapter and verse are a bit more committed than we are, a bit more respected by God. And so we read it, even if we don’t understand it, because we want to be on God’s good side. But that’s legalism and it undermines the spiritual value you might find in the Bible.
Some of us read the Bible because we need to be right. Something in our story has led us to believe that being right is a kind of security, a form of strength—maybe even that our being right honors and protects God. So we read the Bible in order to be right, in order to back up our theology, in order to have ammunition for arguments about what God approves of and what God doesn’t. Reading like this fills our mind with information, but it artificially inflates our spirit leaving us arrogant and self-centered.
Some of us read the Bible looking for hope. We believe in God, and we’ve come to see the Bible as a way God speaks to us. But the kind of Divine word we’re looking for is mostly encouragement. And so we stick to the highlights. We read the 23rd Psalm and 1st Corinthians 13, and the stories of Jesus. We like finding passages that sound like promises to us.
But this kind of reading is simply wish fulfillment. We have a lens we’re looking through. It’s like having a conversation with your significant other, but only listening when they say nice things about you. It’s not an honest conversation that leads to deep relationship.
If our purpose is to know God more and understand God’s word to us, then we need to read it to understand it, and that means reading the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be.
How does coming to the Bible as a Library change things?
So, whenever you’re reading a passage in scripture, you need to start with what it is — and that means understanding this whole Library concept.
See, all verses in the Bible are not the same. All verses in the Bible don’t carry the same weight. All verses in the Bible can’t be read in exactly the same way. That means each type of writing in the Bible requires a different type of reading and listening.
Here are four ways you can respond to this information.
1. Be Aware
Start by Being Aware of this fact. When you read the Bible, don’t expect it to all read the same. Expect to bring different reading skills to different parts of the Bible.
Without doing anything else, this awareness will to something important: It will help you let go of any guilt or baggage you might have around… not loving every, single part of Bible. Doesn’t that sound freeing? Have you ever heard a preacher say that before?
Well, let me say it again more clearly: It’s OK to not love every single part of the Bible. You’re not supposed to love a list of instructions for constructing a building. You’re not supposed to love a geographical survey of a land you don’t live in. You’re not supposed to love passages that detail horrendous treatment of people. You’re not a bad Christian for noticing that different parts of the Bible impact you differently. They should impact you differently. Because they are different kinds of writing, with different purposes.
2. Notice the Genres
Next, notice the Genre when you read. Genre is the technical term for all these different kinds of writings. A genre is a certain form of literature with its own assumptions, conventions, and style.
Think about writing letters. If you wrote a personal letter to a close friend, that letter is going to use different vocabulary and style from a formal cover letter for a job application. These are two different genres of letters.
Even if you don’t know much about the genres in the Bible, you can tell some basics. Is the text you’re reading in a letter? (If so, who wrote it, and who was the audience?) Is this text in a book of poetry? (Well, poetry uses symbols to communicate truth. Metaphors, smilies, comparisons. We don’t expect poems to convey science.)
Very often, your edition of the Bible will have an introduction page before each book that will give you some background information. If they don’t tell you the genre outright, you can often find clues here.
You can discern clues in the text itself. When you read a verse, look at the verses around it. Is someone telling a story? Are they reciting history? Or are they clearly telling an illustration? Does the passage seem to be a sermon or a poem?
Just noticing these things will begin to shift how you read the Bible.
3. Learn about the Library
Then, learn a bit more about the Library. You don’t need to become a Biblical scholar in order to read these different genres. Just knowing that they exist puts you miles ahead.
But I can tell you from personal experience, learning about this stuff can open the Bible up to you in a profound way. If you’re ready to go a bit deeper, an excellent starting point is Gordon Fee’s book Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth. I’ve recommended this once already. It’s easy to read, and will introduce you to the different genres and how they read differently. There’s a link on the home page of the church website to get a copy.
4. Relate to the Bible as a Library
Finally, when you think and talk about the Bible, Relate to it as a Library. You commonly hear people in church say, “Well, the Bible says…” This statement is always incomplete and often misleading. It’s a claim of authority without being clear about the source. It makes just a little bit more sense than saying, “The Library says…”
This statement subtly implies that every part of the Bible is the same, speaking with exactly the same voice, and carrying the same weight. This just isn’t true. It doesn’t matter how conservative or how liberal of a Christian you are. The words of Jesus are not exactly the same in meaning and significance as the geographical survey in Deuteronomy. They just aren’t.
So, let’s be honest and accurate. Let’s say things like: “In the book of Hebrews we find…” or “The Apostle John wrote…” or even “Jesus said…” when you are quoting the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels.
This doesn’t mean that scripture’s not inspired. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t clear themes and messages that come through all the books of the Bible. It doesn’t mean that these ancient writings can’t speak to us today. Instead of seeing the Bible as a single monolithic whole, we come to see scripture differently. God is big enough to have used different people in different times and cultures, writing in different genres, to communicate truth to us.
Learning this isn’t an obstacle to faith. It doesn’t have to undermine our belief in the Bible as inspired. In fact, I suggest that this view is more in keeping with God’s character.
The Library is more in line with God’s Character!
As a young child walking into my dad’s study was a compelling, fascinating experience. It was a small square room. In the middle of the room was a large metal desk, the sort you imagine in a principle’s office. All four walls, encompassing the desk, were book shelves. The first shelf was the floor, and then it went all the way up. The only break in the shelves was the window and the door.
The shelves were covered from wall to wall with books. It was certainly multiple hundreds of books. It could have been a couple thousand volumes. It was like a room built of books. It smelled of books. The books insulated out the outside noise creating a silent sanctuary. I spent hours browsing those shelves.
My dad was a pastor, so of course, there were multiple series of commentaries and other reference books. There was a selection of different Bible versions. There were books on leadership and marriage and parenting. There were books of theology. There were college text books. There were books on topics my dad was researching. Books on Backpacking and Photography and the Mountains of Colorado. There were biographies and histories and a really cool book called Character Sketches, with hundreds of 2 page spreads with a pencil sketch several paragraphs detailing what we know about every character in the Bible.
Almost all of the books were marked up — underlined, energetic asterisks in the margins, scribbled notes on pages. Some of the books were worn, clearly read over and over again. Surveying the books on the shelves in my Dad’s study sketched a picture of who he was. Each book — with certain lines underlined and passages starred — was a puzzle piece giving insight into what was going on in my Dad’s mind and heart.
There weren’t all the same. There was no single volume that said definitely, “This is your dad’s view on every important subject.” They weren’t all religious. They didn’t all share the same viewpoint. And yet, taken together, they gave a remarkably clear picture of who he was.
Some of us want the Bible to be a single, unified, monolithic whole. We want sparkling clarity where every verse agrees with every other, and they all work seamlessly together to pain a perfectly clear picture of God and God’s will for us. That’s what we want, and we often treat the Bible as if that’s what it is.
But it isn’t that.
The Bible is a collection of books, written by a wide range of people, over a long span of time, in 3 different languages, shaped by different cultures, written in and written to countless different circumstances. Some of us fear that accepting this as true will undermine the Bible’s authority for us, or cheapen it’s portrayal of God and God’s will. But this is just not the case.
The Bible — seen as it is — gives us a remarkable picture of who God is and how God works.
God worked slowly, across time because God is not into coercion.
God worked through broken people in a broken world, because God does not require people to be perfect in order to be used.
God spoke through different people, using different types of literature, because God honors the individuality of humans God created, almost as if God loves every single one of us.
The words of the Bible tell us a story, but the construction of the Bible tells us a story too. That story is of God working gently through many broken people in a profound broken world, gracefully navigating through our human tools in order to reach us, draw us to Jesus, and give us new life. The Bible not only teaches us about grace; the Bible itself is an act of grace.