I grew up with the teaching that reading your Bible every day was one of the key traits of being a faithful Christian. We called this “personal devotions.” Personal was key here. There are times when we are to be in community learning together and then there are also times where it’s “just me and God” and all the distractions of the world and those around us are diminished so that we can clearly discern what it is that God has to say to us through these pages of scripture.
I was better at practicing this personal Bible reading in some seasons than in others. I did alright at those “Read the Bible in a Year” plans. Typically, about 70-80% completion rate, which is high when you think about some of those genealogies and scornful lectures from Paul. I’ve also been known to apply the Holy Spirit Page Flipper, a name I’ve coined just right now to refer to the practice of flipping through the Bible and then, *as the Holy Spirit leads*, stopping to read whatever is on that page, knowing there is some nugget of wisdom or truth needed in my life at that precise moment. That’s a really fun and for-sure effective approach to Bible reading.
I don’t think I can overemphasize how important personal Bible reading has been regarded as a spiritual practice in the subculture I knew so well. It was in no way a stretch to use, as the litmus test for your spiritual life’s health, the consistency of your personal devotions. Spiritual points were gained if your devotions consisted of solo Bible reading and actually lost if it included the addition of study guides or commentaries. Don’t get me wrong, study guides had their place. Their purpose was for digging for the original author’s meaning, figuring out what was meant in the proper culture and linguistic context. In the realm of personal devotions, however, they are seen as a hindrance or obstacle to accessing the clear, unadulterated, transcendent Word of God. How is God supposed to speak to you through these sacred words if you’ve got some author telling you what it all means? Get out of the way, John Piper! That’s the Holy Spirit’s job!
As I consider this approach to Bible reading, I can’t help but think it’s all a bit superstitious. Well, maybe just stitious (thank you, Michael Scott). It assumes the Bible, despite clearly being a collection of books written and assembled within a historical, cultural and linguistic setting far removed from our own, is somehow capable of teaching us without us having to dig. We just need to wake up early enough each morning, grab our cup of joe, and begin reading. The Spirit will take it from there. It’s the cruise control of Spiritual disciplines.
I know that for most of us coming from my background, the response to this last paragraph might be “Yeah, so? What’s your point? The Bible IS a supernatural book! God WROTE it.” And I guess this is where I’ve found liberty over the past few years as I’ve moved away from this particular model of inspiration. That model being one in which the original authors just sort of sat there in a trance, allowing God to use them as a conduit to “breathe” his words on to a piece of papyrus. It may be that most people don’t really think this is how inspiration works, at least on paper (pardon the pun), but in practice, this is exactly how the Bible is treated. The sacredness of these texts come from the words being straight from the mouth of God. I just don’t hold this perspective anymore. I’m not denying scriptural inspiration, I just understand it differently now, which is a bit of a different topic for a different day.
There have been a number of factors that have caused me to reconsider this model of inspiration over the past few years, but perhaps the most prominent one has been my direct experience with reading the Bible itself. I have a BA in Theology, have spent the better part of my life reading and seeking to understand my faith and scripture, and I’m squarely in the Christian camp and yet few things have frustrated me as much as reading the Bible on my own. Why? Because, all too often, I. have. No. idea. What. These. Words. Are. Trying. To. Say. The Bible is really, really confusing. I have found that more often than not, just reading it *plainly* is an exercise in futility. It’s religion, as Bruxy Cavey describes it, at its finest. You’re reading the Bible for the sake of doing religion. Because without context, not knowing the language or translation history, not understanding the world in which these words were penned, we’re left with projecting our own limited understanding and experiences on to a 2000-3500 year old collection of books and expecting to access deep, transformative truths that will forever shape our lives. The best word for that approach, I think, is magic.
Earlier this week Andy Stanley was getting at this idea when he tweeted, “Religion reduces faith to magic. The illusion will eventually leave you disillusioned.” This “religious” approach to the Bible renders the Bible magical. It’s an Ouija board for religious people. I don’t think it’s a far stretch of reason to suggest one of the most significant contributing factors for the current state of affairs within the Western Church—particularly in terms of the lack of unity and ongoing dissension—has been the tightly held conviction that God speaks to us through our own, individualistic reading of the Bible. Wow, that’s a subversive statement if ever there was one. Regardless, this approach posits that scripture’s authority remains intact, yet any cursive look at churchy social media comment sections prove this is a recipe for disaster. Any time the authority of scripture is placed in the hands of you or me, that’s absolute. That’s divisive. That’s why there exists 45,000 official denominations within in the Church. Each convinced the Spirit led them into Truth, while all reading the same text. We put far too much stock into this model of Bible reading and it has wreaked havoc on the unity we’re called to (John 17).
The hard truth I’ve come to is that reading the Bible takes work. I mean, serious, concerted effort. You really have to dig deep to get at what the Bible wants to say. Step outside of the “Bible is magic” view, and this makes perfect sense: who on earth would take any other ancient book written in ancient languages, set in an ancient culture and approach it without doing the proper and necessary legwork to understand it in its proper context? It’s absurd. The chances of misunderstanding and misappropriating the words on the page are just too great. How much more so a religious text that proposes it has value for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness? A book that claims it has such authority is a dangerous and divisive tool in the hands of laymen. The Bible is certainly no exception and modern church history proves this over and over again.
So here’s my conclusion on the matter – at least at this point in my pilgrimage. Because I don’t currently have the capacity in my life to apply the necessary consistent rigor needed to properly read scripture, I leave it in the hands of those who do. The people in whose hands I trust this task to have dedicated their lives and careers to doing so. We’re fortunate to live in a time that allows us easy access to stand on the scholarly shoulders of those who have done the heavy lifting for us. That’s important. Our pastor, for instance. It’s literally his 9-5 to study and discern what scripture means and then to teach our community. I trust that. I also spend my morning “personal time” reading or listening to others who are able to teach the Bible in a way that draws out the deep transformative truths of scripture, bringing the words alive and helping me draw closer to Jesus. For those curious, over the past year or so I’ve been slowly yet thoroughly enjoying Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy; Rhonda and I have been reading and re-reading Steve Bell’s Pilgrim Year series together. I enjoy listening to podcasts by The Bible Project’s Tim Mackie or The Meeting House’s Bruxy Cavey. Also, Andy Stanley’s podcast is great for practical life advice and so I’ll crush a podcast of his every now and then. I sprinkle in a bit of Rob Bell and a whole lot of Pete Enns and I feel I’m getting the spiritual nourishment my soul needs.
This is not to say I no longer open the Bible and read it, it’s just that when I do, which is admittedly much rarer these days, I do so in one of two ways. The first is when I’m tasked with the responsibility of teaching the scriptures. Here I am not inconsistent with what I’ve been saying all along: reading the Bible requires digging. So, if I’m teaching it, you can bet there will be rigorous study applied. A personal-devotion-type approach to Bible reading when given the responsibility of training and equipping disciples is far too risky and, if completely honest, irresponsible. I don’t want to be on the hook for misleading others who are also trying to find how these ancient words can guide and direct their lives. So I do the word studies and I read what scholars have said about such and such a passage and I dive deep into the cultural context of things. And then at the end of it, I trust what I come up with to be something of substance that will help in some way for those listening. Of course, there’s a whole component of the Spirit’s work in this, which is another tangent I’ll leave be for now.
The second way I read the scriptures these days is within the context of community. Because although I no longer hold the view that the Bible has magical powers, I do contend it has a unique ability to read us as we read it. It seems to me this is best realized in the context of community. I’ve found that as each person brings their own lens into the reading, sharing from their own experience and vantage point what the Spirit might be saying through these words, that insights and inspiration emerge, teaching us about ourselves. This is a decidedly non-scholarly approach and its intent is in fact to not get to the absolute meaning within the passage. Instead, it’s simply using the words on the page as a tool, or a springboard, to deeper reflection on life as it comes at each of us.
This communal approach to scripture reading has been practiced very intentionally by our local church community during this pandemic. Instead of church-wide online gatherings over the past year, we’ve structured Sunday mornings to take place within small groups that meet over Zoom. We read a passage of scripture together and then connect with one another and grow together through discussion centered on the passage. These times have helped our faith flourish and have given us hope in some of the most spiritually dry seasons over the past year.
I recognize how seemingly controversial my stance on personal Bible reading is within the establishment. Virtually everyone (except my buddy Pete Enns, I might add) contends there’s a place for individualistic Bible reading in the life of the devout. I’m okay if you disagree with me; we can still be friends. Truth be told, this is all a work in progress. I’m not naïve to some of the pitfalls in the approach I’m practicing, but I will say that since I’ve been loosed of the pressures of having to read the Bible myself and trying to make sense of it, I’ve begun to enjoy the Bible more. And I like Jesus more, which is really the whole point of the Bible to begin with. And I think (I hope?) I’ve got a more level-headed approach to living out my faith in this world.
I dig that just fine.