“If you want to understand what a particular verse of Scripture means you have to stop reading it. In fact, you should never read a Bible verse.”
This is how I have opened virtually every talk that I have ever given to would-be Bible students. The Bible is a collection, not of individual verses and aphorisms, but of books and letters. A Scripture is a complete unit; an entire book or letter, rather than a bite-sized Testamint™. Unfortunately, most readers don’t engage the sacred text any other way. More often than not, we are only interested in the “tweetable” bits.
Everyone has their favorite verses these days. We like the ones that look good on greeting cards, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. The “Commercial Canon” only includes a handful of these carefully chosen sweets.
Jeremiah 29:11 “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
John 10:10 “I am come that they might have life, and have it to the fullest.”
Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
These are always among the most popular. One wonders why the following verses are never found on key-rings or refrigerator magnets. After all, they are speaking of the same themes.
Deuteronomy 28:29 “You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.”
2 Corinthians 2:16 “We are an aroma that brings death.”
Isaiah 49:4 “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.”
Deuteronomy 28:65 “The Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart.”
Nah, we much prefer to read and record the fluffy parts. This manner of reading is both natural and appealing because it makes the reader the center of the conversation—original intent be damned. “This verse makes me feel that way.” “That verse spoke to my heart.” Such reading filters the Scriptures into predetermined categories of things that we already want to hear. The Divine Library is thus transformed into a break-room vending machine that yields just the amount of candy and cholesterol that you are craving at the moment. Like most bad snacks, this ruins the right kind of appetite. God’s people despising one meal while demanding another has a long, lamentable history in the Bible. We always seem to want to exchange that which is spiritually nutritious for that which is idolatrous.
Reading the Bible in such a fashion is more dangerous than not reading it at all. It is dangerous because it is deceptive. It is illusory. The reader, superficially lifting a McNugget from Mark or a pearl from Philippians, is deceived into thinking that what he is gleaning is understanding. What the skimmer is actually gleaning is a galvanized misunderstanding; an invincible ignorance. The text, isolated from its historical-grammatical context, becomes a pretext that forms a subtext foreign to the inspired substructure. Studying via versification never yields serious Bible students, only spurious ones.
As a result, the Bible never becomes a collection of books that we really know, the narrative we stew in, the words that shape us. Many give up reading altogether because what was falsely promised is falsely delivered. We expected that fistful of Flintstone vitamins from Proverbs to inoculate us against the world, the flesh, and the devil. When we lose our temper at rush hour we think that the problem was that we only took two chewables instead of three. Naturally, this ends in frustration. “The prescription must not be any good. I hid two quotes in my heart, after all!”
Our usual response to the problem is to compound it. Our motto seems to be: “Fight Biblical Illiteracy: Print More Bibles!” As though non-proliferation was the issue. The Bible has been packaged aplenty, but unpacked not so much. Recognizing that we are facing a flood, we break out the fire extinguishers.
It is assumed that the Bible must be the problem. So we color-code, camouflage, cross-reference, and add commentary until the text buckles under the excruciating weight of our marketing savvy. Perhaps, if I can get my hands on the latest study bible, decked out with dual-exhaust, side-mirrors, and “Jesus is My Homeboy” mudflaps then I will have more success reading my scripturettes. If at first you don’t succeed, buy, and buy again.
I humbly submit that we really don’t need the Bride of Christ Version for Unwed Mothers. We don’t need more Bibles at all; we actually need fewer Bibles, and we need less in our Bibles. 3-D maps are not the answer to this particular conundrum. The inspired text of the Bible is not defective, but we have buried it under mountains of minutia, boxed it in, wall-papered over it, neutered it, distorted it, individualized it, isolated it, misread it, oversold it, and misunderstood it.
My solution to our present dilemma is both simple and extremely difficult. Rather, it is simple to articulate but hard to do. Admitting the difficulty will actually serve us well. This will weed out the posers. Those only interested in easy are seldom interested in excellence. Simply put, we have to read the Bible—the whole Bible—as a whole; attentive to its literary structures, mindful of its historical situations, attuned to its grammatical voices, observant of its typological symbolism, and cognizant of its christotelic focus. We must stop kidding ourselves, the Bible is a complex and complicated book. The “Flip-Point-And-Pray” method will not avail much.
We must learn to read holistically rather than selectively. We must pay attention to the historical narrative that is enfolded and unfolded before our eyes. Those places and those people and those events are inextricably linked to our situation in the economy of the kingdom of God, but we must always maintain the proper chronology of horses and carts. We must know their story in order to know our own. A dehistoricized bible, pontificating to us from some point of safety above the fray of mortal troubles, is as unreal and unhelpful to us as a docetic christ, who seemed human but really wasn’t. To dehistoricize the text is also to dehumanize those contained within it. The destructive nature of such a proposal becomes evident when we realized that they are our fathers and mothers. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t been there.
This is a place where the lectionary, read in concert with the Daily Office, may prove beneficial. Reading large swaths of Scripture from across the breadth of the canon is one of the principle aims of our lectionary. This allows us to see how the various parts relate to the whole by actually reading them intentionally as parts of a whole. Read prayerfully, the Old Testament and the Psalms become as familiar and instructive as our favorite passages from the gospels and the epistles. What’s more, by reading them together we will begin making connections in places heretofore unimagined. The “big picture” will be clearer to us simply because we have enlarged our daily canvas.
The Bible is only satisfying to us if we accept it on its own terms. God prepared for us a feast of fat things; we cannot be contented to nibble around the edges. We are what we eat, after all. He composed a beautiful symphony; we can’t be “One-Note Jones,” only ever harping on one string. God authored the most riveting drama ever told; we can’t be the cad who just thumbs through the back of the playbill hunting for his own name. We must read the Bible as though it were the greatest book ever written—because it is. We must read the Bible as if it were the only book God ever wrote—because it is. We must read the whole Bible as though our lives depended on it—because they do.
A Bible filled with holes will always leave you empty; a whole Bible will never leave you at all.