’Cause some of us just aren’t into reading.
Just about every Christian teacher—myself included—tell Christians they gotta read the bible. ’Cause they gotta. We all do.
We live in a biblically-illiterate culture, folks. Bible references are like that old children’s game of “telephone”: One kid whispers a message to another kid, who whispers it to a second, who whispers it to a third, and so on round the room… till it gets back to the first kid, who discovers the message changed an awful lot in transmission. Our culture has done the very same thing with bible quotes.
- “Loving money is the root of all sorts of evil”
1Ti 6.10became “Money is the root of all evil.”
- “Don’t judge lest you be judged with the measure you measure others”
Mt 7.1-3got shortened to “Don’t judge,” and drops the real lesson, about inconsistency.
- “The lion will lie down with the lamb” is the over-shortened version of
Isaiah 11.6, where a wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, and lion and calf respectively live together in sin. Wait, not in sin. It’s a metaphor for peace, although vegans have their own ideas.
- “Pride goes before a fall” is the short version of “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Pr 16.18Parallel ideas, so at least it wasn’t bent into the wrong idea.
- “The eyes are the windows to the soul” resembles Jesus’s teaching that the eye is the lamp of the body,
Mt 6.22, Lk 11.34but likely come from someone other than Jesus, and got mixed up with his teaching.
- “Spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t even in there, although disciplining your kids and giving them a paddling when necessary is.
Pr 13.24, 22.15, 23.13-14, 29.15As is the instruction to be merciful like our Father, Lk 6.36so it would appear we should spare the rod, lest we frustrate our kids with our lack of compassion. Cl 3.21
Then there are “bible quotes” which aren’t from the bible at all.
- “The Lord works in mysterious ways”: William Cowper wrote something similar in a hymn.
- “Cleanliness is next to godliness”: Something John Wesley used to say.
- “To thine own self be true”: William Shakespeare. This is some advice from the less-than-moral Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet, as is “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” another quote routinely mistaken for scripture.
- “God helps those who help themselves” is properly “The gods help those who help themselves,” and comes from Aesop’s fable of Herakles and the lazy wagon-driver. Not only not bible, it’s not even the right religion.
- Same with “This too shall pass,” which comes from Attar of Nishapur’s fable of a king given a ring which would make him happy when sad, sad when happy—because “This too shall pass” was inscribed on it.
- Lastly, the sinner’s prayer, the seven deadly sins, the Apostles Creed, the catechism (assuming there’s only one catechism), even hymns—none of that stuff is in the bible. You might know this, but pagans don’t, and you’d be surprised how many Christians assume they’re in there somewhere. Same with the vows for the wedding ceremony, ’cause ministers read ’em out of a little black book which people assume is the bible. It’s actually a prayer book.
Need I go on, or have you got the idea?
See, our culture claims to respect the bible. And certainly goes through the motions of respect: We swear oaths on it. We claim to believe it, that everything it has in it is absolutely true, that it’s our favorite book ever—whether we can quote any of it or not. We post verses from it on Twitter and Pinterest. We tattoo ’em on ourselves. We try to get the Ten Commandments memorialized outside courthouses (even though the courts are forbidden by the U.S. Constitution from enforcing the “No gods before me” and “no carved idols” commands
To be fair, we don’t read much anyway. We prefer light reading. Heavy stuff—and the bible is loaded with heavy stuff—makes us squirm. If only the bible were a bunch of easy-to-digest bullet points (like we treat it)! Instead it’s this seriously big-ass volume, no matter how small we physically try to make it by using tiny type and thin paper. It’s got 60-some books and letters in it, and it’s so theologically dense, pastors can preach entire sermons based on a single verse. (Padded considerably with anecdotes and shout-outs to their friends in the congregation, but still.) It’s so hard.
So we don’t bother to read it, take our preachers’ word for it as to what it says and means, and exist in this comfortably numb fog of ignorance. It’s why we’re so awed whenever somebody quotes a little bible: “Oh, that’s so profound.” Yes it is. But half our awe is ’cause it’s so unfamiliar; this is the first time we’re hearing of this stuff. And not gonna get any more familiar if we keep looking at the bible as this impossible mountain to climb, which we’ll never read because it’s just too daunting. Easiest to just look at it from afar.
This is why our culture, regardless of how much it respects the bible, doesn’t know it. Can’t answer basic bible trivia. Can’t tell you who was whom. Can’t recite the names of the 13 apostles (they think there were only 12, and Paul was one of ’em), the 13 tribes of Israel (again, they think there were only 12), list the Ten Commandments (that number they get right), nor list the 12 minor prophets. Can’t even pronounce Habakkuk (which’d be /ha'bak.kʊk/) or Haggai (and he’s /hag'gaɪ/).
If we’re gonna get religious about following Jesus, we Christians, at the very least, gotta get religious about knowing our bibles. We gotta become biblically literate.
Are you reading it?
Obviously the first step is to actually read a bible. But you’d be surprised how often Christians try to “get to know” the bible without ever actually reading it. (Well, okay, maybe you’re not surprised, ’cause you’re one of them.) Instead they read other books about the bible, or articles like this one, and try to glean info rather than go to the source. They’re looking for a shortcut. You know, like when high schoolers read Cliff’s Notes instead of the book.
If you had a lazy high school teacher, you could get away with solely reading Cliff’s Notes. My own go-to shortcut in high school was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nowadays it’s Wikipedia. (No, I don’t use Wikipedia to source anything I publish—it’s a temporary shortcut. I know better.) But that was high school. Here in real life, if we’re really gonna follow Jesus, we need to learn some actual bible. The cribsheet version won’t cut it anymore. Not only is it inadequate preparation, it’ll often lead us astray. Seriously. The things popular Christian culture teaches about bible is based on way too many misquotes and out-of-context scriptures. Too much wishful thinking. Too much projecting our own ideas upon it. Too much poorly-passed-down theology. Too much Christianism.
So there’s no getting round it: Read your bible. Find a bible-reading schedule and follow it. Get an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand translation, and get to reading. If you’re more of an audiobook person, that’s totally fine; listen to an audio bible. Either way, get cracking on it. You’re not gonna get biblically literate without the bible.
Okay. That’s step 1. Step two is getting expert help when we need it, and that requires a whole separate article.
How often must we read it?
Most bible-reading plans are daily. Sunday, read a few chapters; Monday, read a few more; Tuesday, more; Wednesday more; and so on. Every day. Some of them give you the occasional day off. Whenever I put a program together, I give people (and myself) Saturdays off. That way if we missed a day, we have some room to catch up with the schedule. And if we didn’t, we get a day off.
But this idea of daily… well, if you’re not a reader, and a lot of us aren’t, it’s gonna irritate you. Every day? We gotta read the bible every day? For life? Forget that; let’s go find a religion which doesn’t require any reading. The Vikings weren’t even literate; maybe Wotan is the god to follow?…
Silliness aside, I get why the idea of daily bible-reading is a massive chore for a lot of Christians, and why they claim they read it every day, but only ever open their bible to tuck bulletins into it after church services. (Assuming they even bring it to the services. Or keep the bulletins.)
Look: If you’re not a reader, it’s okay. (I do wonder what you’re doing on this blog, though. I get downright wordy on a regular basis. Bible chapters are way shorter than my articles.) Must you read the bible every single day? It wouldn’t hurt… but no. You can read it less often.
You do need to read it though. That’s why I’m hesitant to say, “Read it every other day,” or “twice a week,” or “six times a month,” or give some rate for people to keep up with. Give some people an inch, and they’ll never read the bible again, and stay just as biblically illiterate as ever. We’re trying to fix that problem. If you read less often than daily, you’re simply gonna fix it slower. That’s why more reading is better.
So if you’ve chosen a less-than-daily reading rate, that’s fine. You’re actually doing better than most Christians. But stay consistent at it, and keep it as frequent as you can. Read longer, if possible. Meditate on your reading more. Make some effort to memorize verses. Work on the quality of your reading, if you can’t handle quantity.
Regardless, read your bible.