Reading the Bible: Ordinary Reading (Part 2)
In the previous post we established that good Bible reading requires us read the Bible as God speaking to us in a manner that we can naturally understand. But how do we actually do that?
It’s harder than you might think. Over the years we have trained ourselves to read the Bible in an unnatural way, so we’re going to have to break some bad habits.
Read the book (not around the book)
This may sound obvious, but the first and most important rule for interpreting and appropriating any biblical book is to actually read the book. Our ability to read well is often disrupted by a multitude of distractions, and those distractions halt reading. So read the book as it was meant to be read—that is, in a steady stream without pauses or breaks. You need to immerse yourself in the text.
That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually harder than you might think. The “distractions” that I’m referring to—the distractions that will cause you to lose focus or lead you down the wrong interpretative path—are not all environmental or circumstantial. I’m not really talking about avoiding the annoying thing your kids are doing right now, or the weird noise coming from the radiator. I’m talking about the typical things we do as we read the Bible. Notes. Commentaries. Internet searches. Word studies.
Those things are good, don’t get me wrong, but they will short circuit the reading process. You can use these things later. Don’t start with the commentaries, or the introduction in your study bible. Ignore the notes. As a general rule: don’t read other things while you’re reading this thing. Don’t let other voices distract you from this voice. Give the author of the book you are reading the respect of being heard, rather than talked about.
Actually, the problem is bigger than you think. As long as we’re talking about distracting things that change or short-circuit ordinary reading, let’s talk briefly about how most versions of the Bible are printer. It’s full of little bits and bobs that change the way you read. Sections headings. Footnotes. Cross references. Introductions for each biblical book. Red lettering. Text boxes with explanatory information. Let’s not stop there, because even if you take all those things out of it, those verse numbers and chapter numbers are not original to the text either. What is more, they break up the text into little chunks (often arbitrarily), and we do not naturally read in little chunks, we read in big chunks. You read ordinary books section by section, not word by word, but all the footnotes and verse numbers condition us to read the Bible verse by verse.
So I’d like to recommend buying a $20 book that will change your life. A Reader’s Bible. A Reader’s Bible removes all these secondary distracting bit. They are available for many of the most popular translations. You can get an ESV version here, or an NIV here. The first time you open it you’ll notice the difference. It looks like an “ordinary” book because all this extra stuff is removed, and I can almost guarantee you that it will change how you read. Anytime I’m preaching through a new book I start by reading that book in my reader’s ESV. This is also my go to for devotionals and personal reading. Obviously for bible studies and sermon prep I will need the verse numbers, but start by reading the book the natural and ordinary way. A reader’s bible is great for that.
Another great tool is the audiobook. Now that may not, at first, seem all that “natural.” The disciples and earliest Christians didn’t have audiobooks! Ah, but they did! Remember that for many thousands of years the expectation was that these books would be first read aloud. For most individuals in the church—whether the earliest recipients of a given epistle, or the average church congregant prior to the modern era—the only access one had to Scripture was through public reading. Actually, the Bible itself witnesses to this. In Revelation, for example, John opens by blessing the one who “reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (1:3). John’s expectation is that this would be heard, and (probably) all at one in a single sitting. John expects that your access to his work is through someone reading it to you, and may they and you be blessed by it. So grab an audio bible—there are great free resources online—and push play.
Read it All at Once, in a Single Sitting
Push play, and don’t rewind, fast-forward, pause, or stop until you get to the end.
As we mentioned above, we are conditioned to read the Bible in small bits rather than big bits. We pull it apart, slice it up, divide it into pieces. We only study it after it’s been dissected and cut up into its component parts, and then we wonder why it seems lifeless. Again, there is a stage in the reading process where this is appropriate and helpful, but this isn’t the way we ordinarily approach communication, and so we shouldn’t start here.
As you read, don’t back up. Don’t stop. Keep going. You might not understand this word or that verse or even whole paragraphs, but don’t be discouraged. You can always go back later and ask those kinds of questions. First get a sense of the forest.
Again, audiobooks are a great way of forcing yourself to do this. Stephen King, in preparation for writing a sequel to one of his previous books, stated in an interview that he went back and listened to the audio recording of the original book. He found it fascinating. The audio version forced him to be swept along with the narrative. He didn’t have time for nitpicking, for questioning, for details. He was the passenger, and could do little more than enjoy the ride. In other words, he was forced to receive the tale as one of his readers might read it. He couldn’t say “oh, I should have used this word instead of that word.” As such, it was perfect preparation for the sequel because it reminded him of the ethos and feel of the world he created, and thereby enabled him to jump back into the world for its sequel.
Read forwards. Don’t go back. Until you’re done.
Theses are a few of the steps we can seek to utilize when learning to read the Bible with maximum profit. In the last post in this series, we will consider the final skill.