There are so many ways people read the Bible. I met last night with a small group of Christians who love Israel and want to learn more about reading the Bible as a Jewish book. Issues about how we read the Bible came up in the conversation. It became apparent to me that many people could learn from a few very simple pointers about more productive ways to read the Bible.
Our text for the evening was Revelation 1:7, which is a text I may say more about this week. The nice thing about Revelation 1:7 is the way it alludes to three earlier texts in the Biblical corpus without directly quoting them. It may be an interesting exercise for you to read Revelation 1:7 and ask yourself, before checking the “answers” below: what three texts from the Hebrew Bible lay behind this verse?
If you said Daniel 7:13, Zechariah 12:10, and Genesis 12:3, you are correct!
At my synagogue, when we discussed the same text, I had a relatively easy time ferreting these references out of the congregation. Sitting in a circle of Christians I drew a total blank.
I don’t for second believe that this involves anything intrinsically wrong with Christianity in general. I do think it points out something amiss in the world of popular Christianity today.
The Bible, quite simply, is no longer read as a story, but as a reference book.
Think about how we read a dictionary or encylopedia (or wikipedia for those who don’t remember printed encyclopedia sets). We look up a point here or there. We might follow a chain of free association thoughts to various places. We read them piece-meal, in a disjointed fashion. The intertextuality or interconnectedness of knowledge is generally lost.
Scot McKnight made a very similar point in his book The Blue Parakeet (see my thorough review from about 2 weeks ago). He noted a number of less-than-productive reading strategies employed by people on a regular basis. I will repeat my summary of his list below:
1. “Morsels of Law,” which is the approach that sees the Bible as a collection of laws. These folks would assign the Bible in the public library under 320 (Political Science) or 340 (Law).
2. “Morsels of Blessings and Promises,” which is the approach that sees the Bible as a collection of inspirational thoughts. “No one,” says McKnight, “has yet composed a Wrath of God Calendar,” though many have produced calendars of “God’s Promises.” These folks would assign the Bible in the public library to 150 (Psychology) and 158 (Applied).
3. “Mirrors and Inkblots,” which refers to those who see themselves in the Bible and who view things rather like an inkblot: it means what it means to you. McKnight notes that some look at Jesus and see a Republican or a Democrat. These folks would assign the Bible to 158 (Applied Psychology) or 126 (Self).
4. “Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind,” is the style of Bible reading that seeks to put all the answers into one grand system (called Systematic Theology). The problem is this approach ignores “problem passages” and skips over the context of the story all too often to gain another piece of the jigsaw puzzle. These folks would assign the Bible to 110 (Metaphysics) or 120 (Epistemology).
5. “Maestros,” are those who read the Bible dedicated to the teachings of one or two great teachers. They ask, “What would Jesus do?” at every turn in reading the Bible. McKnight laments that in actuality evangelicals and many Protestants have actually passed over Maestro Jesus for Maestro Paul. Only one voice in the Bible really has any authority and other voices are muted. These folks would assign the Bible to the biography section, either 227.06 (Paul) or 232.092 (Jesus).
Why did I draw a blank from these Christians talking about the Bible? I attribute it to a few unhealthy habits of modern Bible readers:
-Many church-goers (and I have little doubt this applies in various synagogue settings, though in a different way) only think about the scriptures used in the sermons they hear once a week. One small text per week selected by a speaker whose goal is (to some degree) to entertain or keep the attention of his or her audience, is no way to learn the Bible.
-When people do go beyond the once-a-week sermon text method, the next most popular choice involves some form of skipping around: randomly reading texts, turning to texts that are familiar again and again for comfort, following a list of promises or interesting subjects, and so on.
-And as I realized last night as I discussed this with the small group, even when people follow a Bible reading plan, most people fail to read the Bible in order. One-Year Bibles and reading plans published in various places often encourage a mixed plan of reading: a little “Old” Testament and a little New, maybe even mixing in some Proverbs and Psalms. The assumption behind these reading plans is clearly: “People will be bored if they read the Bible in order, especially reading the ‘Old’ without any New Testament reading to help them keep up interest.
But the Bible is a conversation that moves forward. Later writers are constantly referring back to earlier writers. Matthew is having a conversation with texts in Hosea and Isaiah and Numbers. Chronicles is having a conversation with Kings and Deuteronomy and Psalms.
The only way to know this is to read the Bible correctly: in order. The order in the Hebrew Bible or in a Christian Bible (they are slightly different) is fine.
Here is a simple Bible reading plan:
1. Get a bookmark.
2. Read 3 or 4 chapters a day in the Bible starting at the beginning.
3. Use the bookmark to keep your place.
If you like, you can print that plan out in a fancy, extra-large font and carry it around. Maybe I could sell it on a religious trinket in bookstores. Maybe it could be called the “Leman method.”
Well, as you are more than intelligent enough to realize, I didn’t invent it. And I hope more people will consider doing it that way. It has the virtue of being simple and it is the best way to read the forward-moving conversation as it rolls along.