Un-Learning to Read the Bible

The Bible is a collection of sacred writings—literature. To honor it for what it is—to live and read as if we truly believe in its divine inspiration—is to receive these writings as they were originally given: whole and unprocessed.
— Glenn Paauw

 

The Time I Didn't Know Any Christians

I became a Christian when I was seventeen. But since I didn't know any Christians at the time (or at least any that I liked), my conversion was a little unorthodox. 

At the time, I had lots of questions about God, sex, guilt, evolution, and a few other things. But since I didn't know any Christians, I decided to seek answers by reading the Bible. I mean, if God wrote a book, he would make it understandable. I wouldn't need some middle-man reading it to me like it was pre-school Story Time.

I had heard, though, that there were special ways of reading the Bible. It is a holy book. It probably needs to be approached a little differently. But since I didn't know any Christians, I didn't know the special ways of reading the Bible. All I knew was how to read it like a normal book—front to back. I wasn't too worried, though; I didn't think God would make His Book that different from every other book ever written.

I also didn't know how long one was supposed to read the Bible every day. Because the Bible is a large book, I knew that I would have to set aside significant time to finish it. But since I didn't know any Christians, I couldn't ask about the normal reading pace (probably, like, 30 pages a day, right?). I decided to read for about an hour every day. I could really immerse myself in the story and make significant progress at that pace.

The Time I Joined A Youth Group

So I'm reading the Bible. And I start talking about it at school because it's on my mind a lot. Eventually, I get invited to a church youth group.

Yes! A place to ask my questions! This is going to be awesome. I'm going to get to talk to people who've read through the Bible five, ten, twenty times already!  I'm going to have so many awesome discussions!

So in preparation for youth group I start reading like a madman. I don't want to be left out. I read through Judges and start plowing through 1 Samuel. I learn all about David. And not just David, but Saul. And not just Saul, but the spiritual condition of Israel. And not just Israel, but the actual thoughts of God about all of these people. So when I read the story of David and Goliath for the first time, I kind of lose it. It's an overwhelming experience. It's not a "highlight" of my Bible reading, but one of many integral scenes in a story that has captivated me. 

So I go to youth group and—no kidding—the youth pastor is talking about the story of David and Goliath. I was so excited that I actually blurted out something like, "Yes! I just read that today! That's in First Samuel!"

But the youth pastor did not share my enthusiasm, nor did he intend to enter a dialog at that moment. Instead, he humorously and lightheartedly informed me that I didn't need to be a show-off (he wasn't being a jerk, I promise) and continued the lesson—which had nothing to do with Israel's history, God's character, or the author's intention. Instead, he spent the next 20 minutes creating metaphors and "applying" the passage to our daily lives as high school students. His goal was to take us on an emotional roller coaster and—at its highest moment—leave us with a "takeaway." It was an effective method for keeping a bunch of children entertained.

I continued to attend this youth group throughout high school, but often questioned their perception of Scripture. To them, it seemed like a place to find inspiration. When I asked another pastor how long I was supposed to read the Bible every day, he said that you're supposed to read until you feel like praying. This could take—at most—30 minutes, but might only take 30 seconds. You weren't supposed to read the Bible to finish it, but to "get something out of it."

Ohhhh.

This mentality influenced my Bible reading significantly. Consequently, I began to make distinctions between "good" and "boring" books of the Bible. I started to dread reading certain types of books because it would force me to search more diligently for inspiration and good feelings. Any text that did not inspire me had little value. My time in the Word began to look more like "skimming" than reading, which was good because it allowed me to find the good verses more quickly.

The Time I Hung Out With Old Dudes

Around this time, I became good friends with a guy named Kenny. His grandparents lived down the street, so I would often hang out with Kenny at his grandparents' house. His grandpa was a sweet man who had a large library of Christian books. He would talk to me about the Bible and reference many of the books he had read. Sensing my curiosity, he invited me to join a Bible study he hosted with a group of older men (think: sixties and seventies). I sensed that he understood the Bible on an intellectual level—which is why I began reading it—so this sounded awesome.

As I started hanging out with these old dudes, I learned to view the Bible in a very different way. Our approach was to study the Bible topically. We would work through small booklets that would present a different topic every day. For each topic there would be a short list of Bible references, as well as a few paragraphs of good advice.

I began to see the Bible like a reference book that was meant to inspire applications. The Bible was a place to go for answers. It was meant to be immediately applicable. The mnemonic "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" made a lot of sense to me at this time. This was the type of Bible that I wanted.

I no longer saw the Bible was a collection of "inspiring" and "boring" passages, but rather like a big book of answers (without any questions, I guess). The key to reading the Bible was not to read until inspiration, but to decode it to find the proper applications. To do this well, I had to find the right books (like Kenny's grandpa had found) that would reveal the right answers.

So I accumulated a ton of books. I went to the Christian book store weekly. I read everything that Kenny's grandpa recommended. No question was too big for the Bible. The Bible was not a book to be read, but a textbook to be studied. The Bible was a haystack and the needle of God could be found as long as I had the right chapter and verse.

I was so wrong to believe that The Good Book was anything like a book.

The Time I Had To Un-Learn Everything

But wait...

Something feels off...

Let's recap the story and see if and where anything went wrong.

  1. Matt reads Bible like a book

  2. Matt is captivated by the wonder of God's Story (he even—kind of—likes Leviticus)

  3. Matt reads Bible like a quote repository of inspiration

  4. Matt is not inspired

  5. Matt reads Bible like a reference book of answers

  6. Matt's questions are not answered

Now, I hate to get all preachy, but I'm about to get preachy. So buckle up...

In my life as a Christian, the biggest factor in my growth has been my perception of Scripture. When I (accurately) viewed the Bible as a piece of literature that can be understood, I found both inspiration and answers; I also found God somewhere between 2 Samuel and Lamentations. When I saw it as a mysterious book filled with inspiration, quotes, and answers, I distanced myself from truth and questioned God's existence. 

When I was reading the Bible like a big book of happy quotes or a big book of answers, I wasn't reading it as it was intended. My "verse a day" and my "find the right reference" approach to Scripture allowed me to create the Bible in my own image. I decided the topics. I decided what was inspiring. The Bible was supposed to ease my thoughts. The Bible was supposed to help me understand my story.

But these approaches left no room for God's thoughts or God's story. I was trying to fit the Bible into my life, rather than fit my life into the grand narrative of the Bible. The error was simple but profound. All I did was stop seeing the Bible as a book with a story.

But why is it so common for churches and cool grandparents to talk about the Bible like it's not an actual book? I think it comes from the fear of reading it wrong. Since the Bible is unlike any other book, we don't want to talk about it like it's just another book. In our effort to guard the Bible's holiness (or "set-apart-ness"), Scripture becomes magic. It becomes a magical collection of verses that can uniquely inspire any individual. It becomes a magical 8-ball that can never be wrong, regardless of what you ask it. Unlike any other piece of literature, the Bible—in all of its truth and power—has become whatever an individual decides it is.

 Which is why I'm un-learning how to read the Bible. I'm reverting back to reading it like I don't know any Christians. Because that was when I thought the Bible was actually incredible. And that is why I became a Christian in the first place.