“Not long after I became a Christian, I went back to the church in which I had been raised. Although it was considered a Christian denomination, Bible reading was never emphasized. As I entered the front door, Bible in hand, and made my way through the foyer, people looked at me as if I were some sort of extraterrestrial being. ‘Why are you bringing in one of those things?’ someone asked. I thought What am I supposed to carry? A coloring book? It dawned on me that of all the places that should welcome and foster a study of the Bible, it would be a church.”*
As Christians we are known as “the people of The Book.”
But are we?
Peter Gomes opens his first chapter in The Good Book with an admission. Very few Christians really read The Bible.
As a teacher of thirty-six years, I continually assigned readings out of textbooks and I got very used to facing students who did not read their assignments. I would throw out “softball” questions and see so many blank stares that I got discouraged. Sometimes students would lower their heads and when I saw the tops of heads, I knew what they meant: “don’t ask me.” As an adult Sunday school teacher, the same problem is common. I ask simple questions and it is obvious that class members are not prepared. The problem in a church is that adult Christians do not like being confronted with questions they cannot answer [it calls their dedication to their faith into question].
Gomes cites poll after poll that reports The Bible as a best seller but joke after joke to support the idea that we don’t read our “best seller.” I found it amusing that 10 percent of Christians polled thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Sixteen percent felt there was a book in The Bible written by the Apostle Thomas. Thirty-eight percent thought the Old and New Testaments were written a few years after Jesus’ death.
Let’s back up a bit and defend the ordinary person’s inability to read The Bible. It is a daunting task, to read a book that really is a library of books, written by many people over many years for many purposes. Also some books in the Old Testament are extremely hard to read [e.g. Leviticus]. Leviticus has endless details about rituals which seem so bizarre to today’s reader.
There are well-intentioned study guides for The Bible but it is hard to avoid guides that go the extremes. It seems that a lot of authors write on a second-grade level or expound on The Bible as one would who is trying to dazzle a group of graduate school seminary students. It is hard to find that “sweet spot” commentary that explains in an adult manner without overwhelming inquisitive Christians with too much information. Gomes is frank in his assessment: “Contemporary Christians tend to avoid complexity as being hazardous to their faith.”
Don’t get me wrong, The Bible is difficult to read and many have started The Book with good intentions only to get bogged down in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. My church** has touted a Bible study that has books, study aids and a series of films explaining the most sophisticated contemporary Biblical scholarship. But as one who worked with Christian Education for many, many years, people are just not that excited about dedicating nine months to a Bible study, meeting every week with assignments to read every day.
Gomes cites a pastor friend of his who admitted “The church is in bad shape when the only person who knows anything about the Bible is the pastor” . Today with all the devices that are there to divide our attention, we spend countless hours playing computer games, watching streaming services or scrolling through social media platforms. Read a book; “Nah, I don’t have the time.” Read The Bible: …[silence, we think to ourselves “Not a chance”].
Bible study actually involves the study of The Bible. Gomes writes that Bible study requires work, intelligence and discipline. Leaders of Bible studies need to be “encouragers” because making people feel guilty about their inability to read God’s Word is not the best way to get people to open their Bibles. Leaders of Bible studies need to keep their groups focused on Scripture. That may sound strange but many times I have asked questions only to find that students reply with a personal story. One personal story can stimulate another and another and pretty soon, Bible study becomes a session in Alcoholics Anonymous or some other exercise in healing and therapy. It is important to tie comments back to actual Scripture. It is important to do this in an positive way. Gomes knows that there is a place for support groups but to let a Bible study become a support group is a inappropriate. “To say a Bible study is a Bible study [when it is not] is to perpetuate a fiction.” .
There are a lot of great reasons to read a Bible. There are very few reasons not to not read it. We encounter God in those pages. The Bible is solace for a hurting person. The Bible speaks to our Holy Spirit, giving us life guidance, a sense about how to live a righteous life.
As I began this post with a story from Pastor Skip Heitzig, I end this post with another story from Pastor Charles Stanley. He tells the story of “Cousin Ed.” Cousin Ed has recently passed and in the process of executing his will, the executor calls you and informs you that your loving cousin has left you a considerable amount of money. There is one catch; you have to fill out a lengthy and complicated form. You get the multi-page form and begin filling it out and soon come to the conclusion that is so complex that you cannot understand it. What are you going to do? Are you going to call the executor and say I can’t claim the money. It is too hard for me to understand the form; I have to let my money go. No, you will find a way to fill out the paperwork; you will work hard to find a way to comprehend the form. You will get motivated. You know that it will benefit you monetarily.*** Will Bible study benefit you? Bible study will give you a purpose for living. Bible study will solve mysteries of life, like creation, suffering heaven and hell. The Bible gives you the keys to a successful life, a successful marriage and successful familial relationships. Should you get motivated to read it?
Is a there really a good excuse not to read The Bible?
I can’t think of any “good” excuses.
Let me leave you with this scenario. The pastor is in the pulpit and is reading his Scriptural text for his sermon. The congregation is looking at him, nodding their heads. As he is reading, a large percentage of the congregation is mouthing the words of the text. They know the Bible that well.
That church is in good shape. Almost everyone knows the Scripture; they know their bibles.
*Skip Heitzig Study the Bible and Enjoy It
**The Disciple Bible Study Series
*** Charles Stanley, The Wonderful Spirit-filled Life