What do we think we are doing when we read the Bible? Why do we read the Bible?
These are important things for Christians to think about. Many of us read the Bible. Perhaps more of us believe we should read the Bible. But I’m not sure many of us have thought much about why. So why do you read the Bible? What do you think happens when you do? Why does it matter?
I’d like you to take a few minutes and think about your answer.
Now, what does that answer say about your view of what the Bible is?
To answer my own question…
I am looking for my place in the story. What story? The true story of the whole world. (1)
When I use the word “story” I do not mean fiction. I’m using the word story as in “the story of my life”, or “this is the story of how we found Jackie our cat”. I am using the word story to mean a narrative, a series of events told in a progressing fashion.
I think of the Bible as a story in several acts. Creation, sin, Israel, Christ and the Church. Others would add another act or maybe two.(2) The point is, we are part of a story with a beginning, middle and end. The Bible is the story of the ways God is at work in the world.
What I am doing when I read the Bible is learning the story. Learning the ways God is at work in the world. Learning the ways God works in and through people. Learning the ways people confuse and obstruct God’s plans. I am reading to understand my place in the story, based on the lives of my ancestors in the story. If I know where I have come from, I will have a clue about how I am to live. I read to discover faithful ways of living.
As Eugene Peterson puts it, “In our reading of this book we come to realize that what we need is not primarily informational, telling us things about God and ourselves, but formational, shaping us into our true being.” He also writes, ” Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives is such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.” (3)
When I say that I read the Bible to find my place in the story, I need to be careful. It is incredibly easy for me to turn the Bible from a story about God into a story for me. It’s easy to do. It takes some care to avoid treating the Bible as if it were written just for me and my edification. I need to be careful not to use the Bible to justify my actions or to reinforce my worldview.
What I try to be careful about is thinking, for example, that Joseph forgives his brothers so that I can learn the value of forgiveness. Joseph forgives his brothers because forgiveness is central to the reign of God. It is good if I can learn from the example of Joseph. But Joseph’s importance to “true story” exists independently from whether or not I learn something by reading it.
Most of us know this, but it is very easy for us to forget it and to act as if the Bible revolves about us. Just as the earth revolves around the sun, the Biblical story revolves around God and I find my place as a little part in the much larger solar system.
We are trained to be informational readers. We look for facts and rules and principles. We read for the bottom line and the take home message. But we read in a different way when we read the Bible. We use different skills, we set our agendas aside. When we read we enter, as Karl Barth said, the strange new world within the Bible. We are asked to leave our self justifying, fact seeking selves behind and enter an odd world where the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised.
I’d like to know, what do you think?
(1) I borrowed that phrase from the title of the book by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding your place in the biblical drama.
(2) Bartholomew and Goheen use six acts , Creation, Fall, Redemption Initiated (Israel), Redemption Accomplished (Jesus), The Mission of the Church and Redemption completed. N.T. Wright proposes the five acts I outlined above in his book, The New Testament and the People of God.
(3) Peterson, Eat This Book:A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. This book is one of the best books on reading the Bible you can find. I highly recommend it.