Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not

by George Clifford

For years, I, like most clergy, frequently and indiscriminately exhorted Christians to pick up a Bible and read it. No more. I have realized that this advice, although well intentioned, is usually counterproductive, causing more disaffection from Christianity and guilt than spiritual growth.

The Bible, written over a period of more than one thousand years, contains multiple diverse worldviews, all of them foreign to twenty-first century life in the United States. The person who genuinely wants to understand the biblical text benefits by beginning with good introductions to both the Old Testament and New Testament. These provide overviews of important historical, linguistic, textual, and literary issues. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries offer more specific assistance related to particular passages.

In other words, to read the Bible with even a moderate level of informed comprehension, a reader needs to invest substantial time and effort in acquiring the knowledge and skills that seminarians generally learn in their first year or two of biblical studies. In contrast to the pseudo-scholars with their interlinear versions, developing the linguistic knowledge to appreciate and ponder the text in Hebrew or Greek requires even more years of work.

Beginning when I was in seminary over three decades ago, I have frequently heard seminarians lament the alienation and disaffection that they experienced as they began their biblical studies. Devotional reading of the Bible had nurtured their faith and often played an instrumental role in the spiritual journey that led them to seminary en route to seeking ordination. Now their academic studies challenged, if not actually contradicted, what they believed was the Word of God they had previously heard in their devotional reading of beloved texts.

Devotional reading of the Bible naively presumes that a person, by reading the text, will hear God speak. Meaning depends upon the reader’s modern worldview, the plain sense of the English text, and the reader’s existing theological biases.

Devotional reading was the pervasive approach among Bible reading Protestants – whether mainline Church members, evangelicals, or fundamentalists – to whom I ministered in the Navy. These good people considered themselves Christians in spite of both their theological ignorance and (being kind) eccentricities. They invariably and insistently assured me that the Holy Spirit guided their reading of Scripture, leading them into the truth and the correct understanding of Scripture. They almost universally believed that consulting scholarly resources such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries disadvantageously increased the distance between the believer and God.

Yet the sad truth is that a straightforward, uneducated reading of the text, even with a supposed assist from the Holy Spirit, presents most readers with an unfortunate choice.

On the one hand, the reader may uncritically accept the text as authoritative and adopt an unscientific (creation in seven days; people walking on water), unhistorical (hundreds of thousands of slaves exiting Egypt; the slaughter of innocents), and theologically bogus (God ordering mass slaughter; women subservient to men) reading.

Thoughtful readers find this choice uncomfortable, even unacceptable. It jars with the rest of what they have learned. But their faith is important to them. So they divorce their faith from other aspects of life, naively privileging Scripture as true. These readers may believe that God moved differently in Bible times than God does today. Alternatively, they may accept the dissonance between their faith and the rest of life, adopting one worldview in Church and another outside of Church, without reconciling the two. These readers tend to focus on the parts of the Bible that appear most readily understood and most congruent with the world (e.g., people generally read and study the gospels and Pauline epistles more than the prophets or Leviticus).

On the other hand, the reader may set the text aside as incomprehensible. Some who choose this option will abandon religion as anachronistic in the modern era, implicitly characterizing the chasm that separates them from the biblical text and worldviews as impassable. Other readers will cling to their faith in spite of the Bible, rarely read it, and feel guilty about both not reading the Bible and not finding it more inspiring when they do read it.

Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church is complicit in giving people this unfortunate choice. In sermons, confirmation classes, and other venues – most recently, a campaign to get people to read the Bible through in a year – we regularly encourage people to pick up the Bible and read it. Bible studies typically consist of the blind leading the blind: well-meaning, devout believers telling one another what God is saying to them through a particular text. Lectio divina is similar: listen to the text and hear the Holy Spirit speak to you.

We have largely failed to offer the substantive religious education programs that would empower people to read the Bible informed by the benefits of modern scholarship. (The four-year Education for Ministry program from the University of the South is a notable exception to this generalization.)

If we really believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation (Book of Common Prayer, 513, 526, 538), then the Church needs to get serious about Bible study. Classes for youths and adults could offer the substantive introduction to the Old and the New Testaments similar to those in seminaries but appropriately geared to level of academic achievement.

Ironically, encouraging devotional reading of the Bible, with its implicit promise of relatively effortless access to God, devalues Scripture and insultingly presumes that people lack the intellectual ability and spiritual commitment to engage in serious Bible study. As a constructive alternative, the Church could develop and promote a resource that presents the text alongside outstanding scholarship. William Barclay in his popular, although flawed, Daily Study Bible attempted such a project. Better yet, groups of Christians, after completing introductory studies, might gather for Bible study with commentaries, Bible dictionaries, historical references, and other resources.

Reading the Bible with understanding is hard work; perceiving God’s light is even more difficult. Dumbing down the process demeans God’s people, alienates many, and forms a dead church in the image of biblical literalism rather than the living God.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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