24 November 2021

Read your bible!

Just about every Christian teacher—myself included—tell Christians we gotta read our bibles.

’Cause we gotta. We live in a biblically-illiterate culture, folks. Heck, it’s darn near illiterate in general, because Americans simply don’t read. They read snippets; they read social media posts, or paragraphs, or really short articles, or devotionals whose daily reading intentionally takes up less than a page. Give them a long article to read, and about six paragraphs in, they’ll complain, “How long is this thing?” and quit. They’re not gonna read a novel, much less bible.

So the bits they do know of bible are entirely out of context. They’re individual verses, quoted to prove a point in a sermon, or turned into a meme and posted on social media. They’re the memory verses we use to defend ourselves: “No I don’t give to beggars, because if you don’t work you shouldn’t eat. That’s biblical.” It is, but again, context.

The bible references people know, are often a lot 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.

  • “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” 1Ti 6.10 got turned into Money is the root of all evil,” and is used to bash the wealthy, the ambitious, capitalism, and pretty much everyone who has more than us.
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged” Mt 7.1-3 got shortened to “Judge not,” and now we dismiss all sorts of behavior we’re supposed to critique, permit unrepentant sinners to take positions of authority… and miss Jesus’s real lesson, about inconsistent behavior. (Yep, Jesus said this. You’d be surprised how often people quote bible but don’t realize they’re directly quoting Jesus. You could be saying “Jesus says” instead of “The bible says”… although it’d have more impact if you knew what Jesus means.)
  • “The lion will lie down with the lamb” comes up from time to time when people talk about peace. But it’s a poorly-quoted bit of bible. In Isaiah 11.6 it speaks of a wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, and lion and calf respectively. Wild animals, and the domestic animals they usually attack.
  • “Pride goeth before a fall” is also a bit of bible that’s been abbreviated: “Pride [goeth] before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Pr 16.18 These are parallel ideas, so at least it wasn’t bent into the wrong idea. For once.
  • “The eyes are the windows to the soul” resembles Jesus’s saying that the eye is the lamp of the body, Mt 6.22, Lk 11.34 but Jesus is talking about a Hebrew idiom, “evil eye,” which meant greedy. If a good eye means light gets into your body, an evil eye means your body is dark. There’s nothing in the teaching about souls… and not every Christian is entirely sure what a soul is anyway.
  • “Spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t even in the bible. Not that it stops many a parent from quoting it in order to justify beating their kids. Yes, corporal punishment is found in the scriptures, Pr 13.24, 22.15, 23.13-14, 29.15 but so is the warning that if we don’t spare the rod, we’ll frustrate our kids by our lack of compassion. Cl 3.21 We’re meant to be merciful like our Father Lk 6.36 —something that’d sink in if we weren’t just cherry-picking scriptures to justify ourselves.

“Bible” that’s not even bible.

Same as “spare the rod,” there are plenty of “bible quotes” Christians regularly use which don’t come from the scriptures at all. They come from Christian popular culture, and people assume they’re bible because they simply don’t know what’s in a bible.

Like the words the preacher says in a wedding ceremony. A lot of preachers stand before the bride and groom with a little black book, reading the ritual from it—“Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband”—and assume the black book is a bible. It is not; it’s usually a Book of Common Prayer, or the ministers’ manual from the preacher’s denomination. Western wedding ceremonies are entirely a cultral invention. Back in bible times, when a couple married, the husband gave a dowry to the wife’s family, then they simply started living together and having sex. No ceremony needed—but people grew to figure since marriage is sacred, maybe there should be a ceremony. So we invented one. God didn’t.

Like the sinner’s prayer. The bible contains no such thing, which is why many Christians struggle to “remember how the sinner’s prayer goes”—as if it’s supposed to go any particular way. It really isn’t. We simply start following Jesus. But again, people figure there should be some magic spell which instantly makes people Christian, so we invented one.

Like the Apostles Creed. Which is entirely based on bible, so it’d be wrong to say it’s not biblical… but it’s not spelled out in the bible exactly like the creed has it. Same with the Nicene Creed and any of the other creeds. We composed those because we wanted to have a statement any orthodox Christian could say and mean, and any heretic would flinch at. Comes in handy. Still not in the bible though.

Like the seven deadly sins, which many a pagan thinks are totally in the bible. And yeah, the bible denounces each of these practices—but contains no list of deadly sins, nor even defines what a “deadly sin” is. I mean, there are sins which indicate you’re not headed for God’s kingdom, but we can always still repent of them; they don’t automatically doom us forever. Neither do the “deadly sins.”

Like various “bible quotes” which aren’t even bible:

  • “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.

Need I go on, or have you got the idea?

Biblical literacy.

Our culture claims to respect the bible. And certainly goes through all 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 10 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 Ex 20.3-6). But we don’t read it.

Those who do, 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! And we do our darnedest to reduce it to that.

But in reality 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 stretch a single verse into an entire sermon series. Padded considerably with anecdotes and shout-outs to their friends in the congregation, but still. The bible’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 claims to respect 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 first 13 apostles, nor the 13 tribes of Israel, 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 shortcut I use to track down better sources. 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 the bible, instead of properly drawing conclusions from it. Too much poorly-passed-down theology. Too much Christianism.

So there’s no getting round it: Read your bible. Find a bible-reading plan 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. We’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 many 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 so many of us claim we read it every day, but only ever open their bible to tuck bulletins into it after the church services. (Assuming they even bring print bibles to the services anymore; most prefer bible apps. As do I. Do people even 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.