How (Not) To Read the Bible

In April 2018, fashion magazine GQ posted an article titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read” and listed the Bible in their number 12 spot.

Obviously, “the editors of GQ” are not the gatekeepers of literary excellence (Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye are also included on the list), but one sentence stuck out to me as somewhat truthful and revealing.

About their choice, the editors of GQ write,

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it.”

And in a sense, they’re kind of right.

In the U.S., nine out of ten households own a Bible, and the average household has three. By most metrics, it is the most published and purchased book of all time. And yet,  most U.S. adults open their Bible on their own less than three or four times a year

So, why the disparity?

For starters, the Bible is pretty intimidating.

66 books, assembled over thousands of years, diverse literary genres (some that don’t really exist anymore), and not to mention all the emotional baggage a lot of people associate with the Bible and Christianity, make it a formidable beast.

But I think the reasons run a little deeper than that.

Maybe it’s a result of familiarity and burnout – especially if you were raised in a Christian home. Or maybe you’ve been told to expect an enlightening spiritual experience every time you sit down for a “personal quiet time” and the silence goes both ways.

Intentionally or not, we’ve either been taught or absorbed ways of reading the Bible that have sapped it of its mystery, beauty, and power.

And it is only by recognizing our incorrect assumptions that we can begin to reorientate ourselves around a vision of the Bible that is nourishing, honest, and transformative.

#1: Read It as a Self-Help Book

While many Christians wouldn’t consider themselves followers of the Prosperity Gospel (a version of Christianity that promises material blessings like wealth and health), we often approach the Bible with a prosperity gospel mindset.

In With, minister and speaker Skye Jethani writes,

When the Bible is primarily seen as a depository of divine principles for life, it fundamentally changes the way we engage with God and his Word. Rather than a vehicle for knowing God and fostering our communion with him, we search the Scriptures for applicable principles that we employ to control our world and life. In other words, we actually replace a relationship with God for a relationship with the Bible.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

Follow these Biblical principles to become the leader God created you to be.”
You can be debt free and on your way to financial freedom using these Biblical truths.”
Being single is tough. Here’s what the Bible says about waiting for Mr. Right.
Are the End Times near? Know the signs and prophecies to prepare yourself for Armageddon!

These advertisements turn the Bible into a product that is meant to be used by you to create a better life or gain control of the world around you.

Jen Wilkin, teacher and speaker, calls one of these perspectives the “Xanax Approach:”

The Xanax Approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Whether aided by a devotional book or just the topical index in my Bible, I pronounce my time in the Word successful if I can say, “Wow. That was really comforting.”

This approach to the Bible may sell a lot of books, devotionals, Bible studies, and home goods in Christian bookstores, but it needs to be called out for what it really is: Consumerism.

And this can be especially difficult for those of us who were raised within households where Bible stories like Jonah & the Big Whale were read alongside childhood classics like The Tortoise and the Hare.

When we exclusively isolate specific stories from the Biblical narrative to communicate moral lessons, we’re creating fables. And that’s why so many of us can’t help but read the Bible as some sort of “life application” treasure hunt.

And, eventually, that well will run dry. When we approach a Bible story as if we already know “the point,” our engagement level drops. Our brains shift into autopilot. Once we believe we’ve already “figured out” a particular passage, our reading becomes obligatory and static.

No wonder we’re bored.

Does the Bible contain comforting verses? Absolutely.
Does it contain wisdom for living a full life? For sure.

But, more than that, it’s a story that traces the harsh realities of human existence and the surprising ways in which God breaks into that story to offer hope and meaning.

And there’s nothing boring about that.

(For a crash course in the literary designs in the Bible, I highly recommend The Bible Project and their beautifully-rendered videos on YouTube).

#2: Ignore the Historical and Cultural Context of the Text

In How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write,

Because God chose to his word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity; each document is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written (and in some cases also by the oral history it had before it was written down).”

The Bible wasn’t written in a cultural vacuum. The authors of Bible were deeply influenced and embedded in the cultural realities of their day and age.

For example,

  • Deuteronomy is structured to mimic a “Suzerain-Vassal,” a treaty between two unequal parties common in the Ancient Near East.
  • Lamentations is a miserable collection of dirges (“funeral songs”) written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at the hands of the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.
  • Song of Songs is a love poem loaded with graphic sexual imagery supposedly penned by King Solomon to one of his many wives.
  • The Gospel of Matthew – written to a Jewish audience – documents Jesus’s life in such a way to reveal Jesus as the new Moses.
  • The first three miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John are a direct challenge to the three major gods (Dionysus, Asclepius, and Demeter) of Asia Minor – the audience for John’s Gospel account.
  • First Timothy (Paul’s letter with those eyebrow-raising passages about women being silent in church and being “saved through childbirth”) is written to an apostle at the church in Ephesus – a Greek city overrun by the fertility cult of Artemis.

Our historical and cultural ignorance can be a massive disservice to our understanding and application of the Bible. Behind every line of Biblical text lurks an entire world foreign to our modern eyes.

We lose Jesus’s Jewish worldview, the mythic qualities of the creation account, and the rebellious critique of the Roman Empire that makes up the bulk of the book of Revelation.

Diving into the cultural background of the Biblical narrative keeps our perspective focused on the Bible, not ourselves.

The Bible isn’t an answer book to all of life’s questions, but a little historical context can help determine which instructions are applicable to our modern world.

For example,

These are really tough questions. And to be answered adequately, you need to examine the cultural and historical context of each passage.

If we don’t, it’s becomes too easy to abuse Scripture and use the Bible to oppress and judge other people.

(The most accessible resources for understanding the cultural context of the Bible are the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, NIV First-Century Study Bible, and the IVP Biblical Background Commentary (OT & NT)).

#3: Read It to Confirm Your Theology or Worldview

For an attentive reader, opening the Bible can be akin to stepping into a theological wrestling ring.

The Bible is huge, so if you go hunting for a verse or passage to back up your theological, political or religious worldview, you’re probably going to find it.

In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans writes,

In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.”

Humans are drawn to patterns, order, and consistency. And when we try to develop comprehensive theologies to help us fit every Biblical puzzle piece into a cohesive whole, we’re going to be left frustrated and indignant.

Or you’ll become a theological bully who can’t understand why everyone else can’t see everything the same way you do (and you’ll ignore the Bible passages and teachers who clash with your “airtight theology”).

Overreliance on a particular theological framework forces answers to questions the Biblical authors might not have even been interested in asking.

In The Blue Parakeet, scholar Scot McKnight writes,

God could have revealed a systemic theology chapter by chapter. But…what God chose to do was to give to you and me a story of Israel and the church, and we have a series of authors who tell that story and who contribute in one way or another to that story as the plot unfolds.”

Studying the Bible is less about acquiring theological knowledge and more about the journey God guides each of one of us through as we become more like the people Jesus teaches us to be.

Therefore, the measure of your theological orthodoxy shouldn’t be the amount of knowledge you’ve deposited in your brain but the level of transformation you’ve allowed it to work within your life.

In A Bigger Table, John Pavlovitz writes,

If your theology isn’t connected directly and visibly to your daily living and if it doesn’t saturate the relationships you engage in, then it’s merely a theory; noble, beautiful, powerful theory, but theory just the same.”

Is your personal study of theology making you into a more loving, compassionate, gracious, Christ-like individual? Or are you becoming more defensive, reactionary, and combative toward people who don’t share your point-of-view?

It’s important to have firm values and beliefs, but you shouldn’t feel shocked or offended when you discover that someone else has reached a completely different conclusion on the same Biblical passage.

And when we do encounter someone with a different theological framework, we shouldn’t react as if we’re encountering an enemy.

Ask questions. Learn to say, “That’s interesting. Tell me more,” instead of immediately leaping to attack. And listen with the intent of understanding.

You might learn something.

Addendum: A Better Way

In The Meaning of the Bible, scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes,

The Bible is many things to many people – an ancient literary masterpiece, a cultural artifact, an authoritative scripture for Judaism and Christianity, even a weapon in the culture wars. A library of diverse literary forms including stories, songs, proverbs, laws, and prophecies, the Bible is an enigma to some readers and a delight and inspiration to others.

So, what now?

How do we transform the Bible so it becomes a “delight and inspiration” rather than “an enigma?”

I hesitate to offer blanket recommendations, but here are five brief recommendations I’ve found developed a more heartfelt fascination and love for the Bible.

Read It for the Human Story

Maybe you’re not totally onboard with the “Bible as the inspired word of God” thing. That’s okay, I still think the Bible has a lot to offer the most skeptical of readers.

Unlike most ancient historical narratives, the Bible was not written by the victors or the dominant culture. It’s an oppression narrative written and compiled by a minority people group struggling to maintain their cultural identity during one of the most volatile eras of human history.

The Bible has resonated throughout the centuries and cultures not because it presents an idealized version of the world or faith, but because it’s bracingly honest about the fallibility of human nature, the impracticality of law-based religion, and the cost of spiritual devotion.

(If you’re skeptical about the Bible, pick up a copy of Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet, Peter Enns’s The Bible Tells Me So, or Rob Bell’s What Is The Bible?)

Read More Than a Few Verses

The Bible was not written with chapters and verse numbers. Those were added in 1550. While it creates a helpful index for reference, the “versification” of the Bible brings with it some unintended consequences.

In The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight writes,

Dividing the Bible into verses turns Bible into morsels and leads us to read the Bible as a collection of divine morsels, sanctified morsels of truth. We pause for each one to see if we can get something from it.”

Follow one character through their entire narrative arc, not just the parts you’re familiar with or make you feel good.

If it’s a letter, read the entire letter first before you dive into individual chapters and verses.

In other words, listen to the whole album, not just the radio-friendly singles.

(Buy a “reader’s copy” of the Bible, New Testament, or Gospels – a version of the Biblical text that removes all chapter and verse notations for a seamless reading experience)

Read (Please, Just Read Anything)

A lot of our spiritual apathy is a result of trying to apply Vacation Bible School-level understandings of God to seminary-level questions about life, the universe, and everything. And we fail – miserably.

Never before in history have we been inundated with so many resources for Biblical literacy and theological development.

Read John Piper, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard and A.W. Tozer.
But also read Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, John Perkins, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Campolo, and Peter Rollins.

Try to avoid camping out in a theological echo chamber for too long. And make sure you’re not just reading thoughts about the Bible written by white dudes.

Read authors who disagree with one another.
Reads books written before you were born.
Read books by authors who are dead.
Listen to podcasts. Challenge yourself.

Forge a spiritual path that isn’t built upon the ideologies of one particular tribe or speaker.

It’ll be so much more rewarding than watching The Office for the eighth time on Netflix.

Pray and/or Meditate

The Bible is hard.
So, you’re gonna need some extra help.

Pray for guidance as you navigate this ancient and mystical text.
Pray for a transformative experience. Study the rich history of saintly prayers.

(Pick up a copy of the classic Book of Common Prayer or the evangelical version).

And if praying freaks you out, then meditate upon the text.

(If you’re new to “Biblical meditation,” I highly recommend the Lectio Divina method)

Read In a Group

You weren’t meant to read the Bible alone.

I’m not telling you to abandon your devotional time, but make sure you’re talking about what you’re reading it’s not going to stick.

Find a group of people to discuss, debate, and encourage one another as you make your way through the text. And if your group is in the habit of always agreeing with one another, it may be time to mix it up and add some new members.

One thought on “How (Not) To Read the Bible

  1. After being “Bible-bashed” in a fundamentalist religion for half of my life, I now prefer liturgies and contemplative worship. Great article though.


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