Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bible Reading: Less is More

Psalm 119:105
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light unto my path. 

There is no debate that, as Christians, we are to have some sort of a relationship with the bible. The question though is: what sort of relationship?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This Word then becomes flesh and dwells among us; Jesus Christ. And in regard to Jesus Christ, the Word, the Son of God, we read that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17).

So Jesus, the Word of God, comes not to condemn but to save.

At the same time, we have this other thing often referred to as the word of God; the bible. And yet for many, the relationship with this word of God is often one of condemnation, guilt, and confusion. Not because they're reading and finding the text a source of rebuke or challenge or correction. Rather, it is because they are not reading it and feel guilty.  

And rightly so! Right? After all...

Bible reading is like breakfast, you may not remember what you had, but it keeps you going…

A bible that is falling apart is usually owned by someone who isn’t...

Dusty bibles lead to dirty lives…


I'm not so sure.

For lots of people, myself included, this picture is a pretty good representation of what I understood a relationship with God to look like when I was growing up. 

 The Quiet Time

The technical term was: The Quiet Time.

Supposedly, a relationship with God was outworked via a weekly small group, Sunday church, and one's own daily "quiet times." If asked how many “quiet times” you’d had in the last week, the correct answer was seven. Anything less than seven likely meant one was backsliding. Though in saying that, six was often acceptable with Sunday church letting you off the hook when it came to the "Sunday quiet time." 

January the 1st was the most exciting day of the year when it came to "quiet times." Partly because you could almost guarantee the last half of the previous year would have been a "quiet-time-dessert-of-nothingness." Obviously less than ideal. More than that though, January the 1st meant new stationary! A fresh start with a brand-new journal, new highlighters, new pens (black, blue and red), and if you really wanted to take things up a notch, maybe even a new translation of the bible. It was like the first day back at school for the year and you were ready to write nice headings and underline everything. 

Ideally a "quiet time" was quiet, 30 - 60 minutes long, distraction free and uninterrupted. One would likely be following some sort of bible-in-a-year plan and the reading of the text would be devotional. One would read waiting for a scripture to "pop," for the logos word of God to become a rhema word of God to you and your life and situation. Bible reading would be followed by prayer. 5 minutes per day the first week, 6 minutes per day the second week, 7 minutes per day the third week etc. You'd get stronger and stronger, CrossFit Prayer, though CrossFit hadn't been invented. You'd pray for your church, pray for your family, unchurched friends, the future, The Prayer of Jabez etc.

There is not necessarily anything fundamentally wrong with any of this. At times I've found this practice to be incredibly life-giving. It's intentional, it's God-honoring, it's a discipline, it refuses to squeeze God into the margins, it prioritizes the bible as important in one's faith journey and helps one to become familiar with the bible. I've experienced God speaking to me directly as a passage of scripture I'm reading has indeed "popped" and come to life for my situation circumstances.

At times though it is nothing but a source of guilt, condemnation, confusion and "tick-box" religious duty. 

One feels guilty when they miss a quiet time.

One feels guilty when after a week they are 4 chapters behind in the bible-in-a-year plan, when after a month they are 28 chapters behind, when after 3 months they are 180 chapters behind, and when after 6 months find themselves once again struggling away near the end of Leviticus knowing that the book of Numbers comes next! Oh well. there is always a fresh start in January and all my new pens and highlighters have been lost anyway. And once again there is a sense of failure. 

One feels guilty when they read but nothing goes "pop."

Without too much effort the process becomes condemning rather than life-giving. And, all too often, completion of the "quiet time" is more about appeasing one's conscious (tick off the religious duty for the day), than it is actually about connecting with God in some meaningful way.

On top of this, we've two other realities to consider. Firstly, the whole "quiet time" idea is built around reading and some people just aren't readers. And then secondly, of all the books to try and get non-readers to read, we give them the bible. Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman literature may not be the easiest to tackle! The bible is a tricky book! What’s average Joe reader to make of Leviticus, Job, Ezekiel, Revelation?

The bible is thousands of years old.

It was written in Hebrew in the Ancient Near East. 

It was written in Koine Greek in the Greco-Roman world. 

It was written by a whole bunch of different authors, to a whole bunch of different people, for a whole bunch of different reasons.

It is full of ideas, stories, turns of phrase, and imagery that meant a particular thing, to particular people, at a particular time. 

All of which is really important information in trying to work out what the Bible is getting at sometimes.

The bible is a tricky and complex and challenging book. The bible is hard work.  

The old "quiet time" doesn't really include much space to sort through issues of genre and socio-historical context. Proof texting becomes a lot easier. Find a verse and let it "pop" out to you in order to prove whatever you'd like to prove. 

Take Philippians 4:13 for example. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. A great verse for Tim Tebow before he plays NFL, a great verse as you run into an exam you haven't studied for, a great verse as you launch a new business venture, a great verse as you set out to hitch-hike through war-torn Syria. (Of course no one would ever do that, but if they did, you can bet they'd be the kind of person to quote Phil 4:13). 

It's a great verse but it has nothing to do when any of these things. It's about Paul having learned to find contentment no matter if he has a lot or if he has nothing. Riches or poverty, he can live in all circumstances in a God honoring and righteous manner, through Christ who gives him strength.

Proof-texting can be incredibly dangerous. After all, the bible is so big, so vast, so complex, and written over so many centuries in all sorts of contexts, that you can find a "proof text" for pretty much whatever you want. Indeed, throughout human history wars have been fought, slavery institutionalized, woman treated as property, capital punishment celebrated, and ethnic cleansing enacted all based on the misuse of the bible. A verse or passage of scripture supposedly went "pop" for someone and away they go. 

And so we give this hard, difficult, tricky, ancient book to people who don't really read books at the best of time, not since school, not even a novel, not even the newspaper, and wonder why it sucks the life out of them and fills them with guilt rather than serving as a life-giving way of connecting with God. 

In fact, if you've read this far in this blog post, you are doing better than most people do these days. The internet has destroyed reading. People click from one link to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next. Slow, careful, deep reading is a lost art. Personal reading is at an all-time low, and thus we shouldn’t be surprised that Bible reading is for many at an all-time low.

Well actually, personal reading isn’t at an all-time low. 

I exaggerate. 

The truth is that by-and-large mostly through history humans have been illiterate.

In fact, for the most part Christians haven’t historically had access to their own Bible let alone the possibility of “quiet times” where they could read four chapters a day and get through some Bible-in-a-year reading plan. Christians only started reading the bible "personally" in the 1500’s and even then it took a hundred years and more before Christians started to own their own bible. (And then look what happened... but that's a different story). 

This should be an instant source of comfort. Especially to those who aren't readers, but also to those who find the practice of a "quiet time" to be draining and guilt-laden rather than life-giving. There are other ways of relating to God and relating to the bible. It hasn't always been "quiet times" and it hasn't always been all about reading. We've 1500 years of Christian history without individual bible reading. The point of which isn't to do away with individual bible reading (necessarily), but rather to think more carefully about how we can relate to the bible in life-giving ways. 

More than ever Christians need to be "bible literate" but we should perhaps realize the pathway to bible literacy across the board isn't likely to be more individualistic bible reading. Especially when we consider that we are all wired to connect with God in different ways. 

We won't go into it in great detail, but numbers of different Christian authors have looked at the ways in which different people are wired to connect with God. Christian Schwarz in his book The 3 Colours of Your Spirituality offers nine different pathways that people find meaningful in regard to relating to God. We shouldn't be surprised that different folks on different pathways find they each relate to the bible differently. And the church should make space for this! 

Scripture-driven: These folk love the idea of the "quiet time." This will be incredibly life giving to them, energizing and rewarding. If you are a scripture driven person, and you are still reading this post, you might have found yourself protesting the whole way through. "Quiet times" will be your thing.  

Doctrinal: For doctrine orientated people, they'll appreciate the idea of adding in commentaries to their reading, adding in resources that explain how various traditions have wrestled with scripture and come to make sense of it. They'll be wanting to find "truth" in the bible that is meaningful to "life." 

Rational: Rational type folk tend to start with "life" and then have questions for the bible in light of their experiences of life. They search for "truth" in light of "life."

Sharing: Sharing people are more interested in telling than in reading. They love to share with others that which they have learned and come to a revelation of.

Mystics: For the mystic the bible can be a frustrating barrier to connecting with the Divine at times. An unnecessary intermediary. Mystics can be loose cannons though. Here the bible as God's word becomes a healthy anchor point in life. 

Sensory types and Enthusiasts: Less reading and more experiencing, doing, and engaging suits the sensory and enthusiastic types. Why would you lock yourself away in a room for a "quiet time?" Roll your sleeves up, get out and be the light of Christ in the world, or find the light of Christ in the world.

Sacramental: For sacramental type folk, they are more interested in having communion, sharing a meal, being in nature. "Why more learning about the cross and communion? Have communion, don’t you see that until you take communion it's naught but ideas? As you take communion it comes alive!" They laugh at folk who sit in their rooms reading about the heavens declaring the glory of the Lord and instead buy a telescope and go camping. 

The long and the short of it all is that we’re not all going to relate to the bible the same. We do have to figure out how we are going to relate to the bible though. 

So rather than just more individual "quiet time" type bible reading, here are a few bullet point ideas that might help you in your relationship with the bible. 

1.      We worship Jesus not the bible.

The bible is not a member of the Trinity. The bible is not God. We are followers of Christ not of the bible. Certainly the bible is a great gift to the church in its serving as a signpost pointing to the Word of God that is Jesus. We follow Jesus.

2.      The bible is the word of God that points us to the Word of God.

The bible is helpful in that it points us to Jesus, Jesus who is the inherent, infallible, holy Word of God. Sadly though some people miss Jesus in how they follow the bible. The bible becomes a weapon, a way of crushing others, a heavy weight, a burden, a self-help manual, keys to success and motivation

3.      It’s about bible living not bible reading.

The question is not, have I read four chapters of the Bible today? The question is, have I loved God with all my heart and soul and mind? Have I loved my neighbor as myself? This is what it is all about and you know enough of the bible to get stuck into that for the rest of your life. This in itself should do away with guilt and condemnation. You don’t have to tick the box of 6 or 7 “quiet times.”  Try and tick the box of “doing my best to be like Jesus in the world.”  Of course, you won’t always be able to tick this box. We all blow it from time to time. Find grace and forgiveness in these moments though, not guilt and condemnation.

Having said this, we of course need God’s word to be continually shaping our lives. Of course, of course, of course.

4.      Read the Bible in community.

The Bible wasn’t written to you, nor was the bible written to me. It was written for us but not to us. It was written to particular communities, at particular times, and for particular reasons. These communities would wrestle together to make sense of God’s word to them. Academics, laborers, stay home mums, business people, teachers, teenagers, the elderly, those experiencing heartache and loss, those thriving in life. Scriptures were always worked out in community. 

So, if you are not a reader or not someone inclined towards the scripture-driven or doctrinal pathway, then it is really important to be in a church community that is scripture-driven and has a passion for sound doctrine.

For you though, your bible “reading” may in fact end up being a lot more "bible listening" (as others preach and teach and explain), "bible watching" (as you look at how others in your church community live out the bible in their lives), and "bible conversing" (as you talk with others in your community, ask questions and wrestle with the text together).

It's not all about reading! Listening, watching and conversing maybe the pathway forward for you when it comes to bible literacy. 

Some super spiritual type people might like to declare that this is problematic as you’ll only ever have “second-hand revelations of God” rather than “first-hand revelations of God.” They might declare you to be cutting corners. Don’t worry though, this is stupid for a couple of reasons. Firstly, unless you a reading in Hebrew or Greek you’re already relying on the work of others and it is already second-hand. You have already cut a corner. Secondly, if something is a revelation to you, it is a revelation to you! Any revelation you have is always a first-hand revelation to you. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a revelation.

5.      Less is more, join the “slow Bible” movement.

If you are going to read in community, well the reading gets a lot slower. It is always faster to do something by yourself, of course. It isn’t always better for you though. Inviting others into the conversation will slow it all down, but at the same time has the potentially to bring it all alive.

Invite a couple of friends into conversation. Read the same book of the bible together. Meet up for coffee to discuss.

Invite an expert into the conversation. It is pretty easy to get your hands on really good commentaries. Academic. Pastoral. Everyday life application. You can decide how deep you want to go.

Obviously, this is more reading so it isn’t going to be for everyone. If you are a listener or a watcher or a conversationalist, try to listen to those that read deeply etc.

More reading slows it down. Here though, please understand that less is more. Don’t try to get through the bible in a year. Stop. Try to get through a couple of books of the bible each year and add in an appropriate commentary on each book. Add in some appropriate conversation partners. You’ve got years of doing this ahead of you so slow down.

Tom Wright has a series For Everyone that’d be a good and easily accessible entry point. A basic commentery on every book of the New Testament by one of the world's leading biblical scholars. All written for the everyday reader though. Buy them as a set, buy them one-by-one. 

Maybe rather than a commentary, read a couple of books about the bible. A little bit of understanding of how it works can be a game changer!

Try The Drama of Scripture by Bartholomew and Goheen helps you to understand the big story and narrative arc of the bible. It is excellent. Or perhaps The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns. Enns is laugh-out-loud funny and looks at the dilemmas that come with some of the tricky bits of the bible and the unfortunate ways we have tried to work our way around them. The New Testament Story by Ben Witherington is a great introduction as to how we even came to have the New Testament. Them, Us, and Me by Jacqueline Grey is helpful with the Old Testament, what does that have to do with our lives today? A great book. 

Less is more!

Join the slow bible movement.
After all, anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

6.      Don’t mistake the bible as a flat text, not all is equal.

Give privilege to the Gospels, the stories of Jesus, the Epistles to the church.

7.      Always read in light of Christ.

8.      Remember that the goal in our reading is that we’d be more like Jesus. 


Matthew Martyn said...

AGAIN Jospeh.
So so good. helpful.....and now stolen!!
ha ha.
Thank you

Joseph McAuley said...

You are always welcome Matt!

Anonymous said...

Cheers Joseph, this has been encouraging. Regards, a fellow guilty quiet time missing Bible reader ����

Anonymous said...

Hey Matthew. Can you steal something that has been given freely?

Anna McLoughlin said...

Wow this blog and the other blogs about the wall are phenomenal. And ridiculously freeing.
I hope you get published because I will definitely be buying the book. Thanks for sharing.

Joseph McAuley said...

Hi Anna, I'm glad you found it a blessing. Maybe a book one day. Who knows...? Thanks for the encouragement!