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31 December 2018

Why you’re not gonna read the bible in a year.

Well you’re not. Let’s be upfront about that. It’s because you’re doing it wrong.

January’s coming, and with it come a lot of new resolutions, many of which you’re probably gonna break; I already discussed why.

Among them will likely be a resolution to read the bible. The whole bible; not just your favorite bits. So you’ll grab one of the popular reading plans and get started. And won’t finish. You’ll peter out around March. Maybe sooner.

No I’m not just saying this out of pessimism. Nor lack of confidence in your ability to be self-disciplined. I’ve known plenty of Christians with plenty of self-control, yet for the life of ’em they can’t manage to get through the bible. It really frustrates them.

I know why, of course: They’re doing it wrong.

How do you read a book? Well, we first gotta assume you read for enjoyment. Many don’t. Therefore they’re already not gonna enjoy reading bible, ’cause they don’t enjoy reading anything. Their reading-comprehension skills aren’t gonna be all that great either. Reading-retention skills are also gonna be lousy.

Reading the bible has been known to be a wonderful way of getting people into the practice of reading for enjoyment. Zealous new believers will pick up a bible, find they can’t put it down, whip right through it… and soon after, seek something else to read. Reading the bible turned them into readers! But if the first thing you introduce these newbies to is a bible-reading plan, it’ll suck all the fun out of reading, and good luck getting them to realize reading can be fun.

Because the way bible-reading plans are structured, they are poison to reading comprehension. To reading retention. To natural pacing. To context. To enjoyment! They turn what should be informative and inspiring, into a chore. And people hate chores, and are happy to find excuses to get out of ’em. “Whoops, missed two readings. Oh well; guess I’ll start over again next January.” Then they don’t.

Bible-reading plans begin by making two massive mistakes:

  • They last a year.
  • They chop up the bible into 365 segments. (Or 366 in leap years, or 313 if they let you take Saturdays off.)

These are design features of the yearlong reading plan. And they are the very things which make the plans terrible.

It doesn’t take a year to read the bible!

Somewhere in an audiobook’s packaging, it’ll tell you how long it takes to listen to the book. Big thick books can take 100 hours or more. Little thin ones, 90 minutes or less. Ever checked out an audio bible to see how long it took the reader or actors to get through the whole of it? I have. On one of my audio bibles (David Suchet reading the NIV), is 83½ hours long.

Of the audiobook fans I know, nearly all of ’em have software which lets them speed up the recording. The narrators’ typical pace is too slow for them. Faster reading means they focus more attention on the book. Typically they speed it up 15 to 25 percent faster: An 83½-hour-long book can be completed in 72½ hours or 67 hours. And of course if they read it themselves, silently, they’d complete it even faster; but audiobook fans are usually doing something else at the same time (i.e. driving, jogging, chores) which requires some brainpower.

This being the case, one should be able to easily complete a bible in less than a month.

But whenever I tell people this, they won’t believe me. Because the bible-in-a-year plans are so common, so ubiquitous, people have it in their heads that it must take a year to read the bible. Why else would these plans last a whole year?

Because, I have to explain to them, bible-in-a-year plans were designed for people who don’t read.

Not people who can’t read; audio bibles were invented for them. But a whole lot of people don’t read for fun, for entertainment, nor as part of their job. They read very seldom, and very short pieces if anything. Twitter is more their speed. Bible-in-a-year plans were invented for them. Because once you slice up the bible into 365 readings, each of these readings take no more than 15 minutes to read. And even that is asking a lot of non-readers… which is why they so often quit by January or February.

If you regularly read TXAB you clearly have no trouble reading long articles. You might even read for fun. Reading for an hour at a time is no problem for you. Reading a book you really like, for two- or three-hour stretches, isn’t outside the realm of possibility. So for people who like to read, or people who don’t struggle to read, taking a year to read any book is outrageously slow. It’s as if you took a favorite movie, diced it into five-minute segments, and took 24 days to watch it. It’s actually kinda stupid.

So if you’re comfortable with reading, why follow any bible-in-a-year plan?

Okay, one reason which I’ve heard from multiple sources is, “My whole church is participating in a bible-in-a-year plan, and I want to keep up with them.” Which I totally understand—if your church’s bible studies and sermons and other teaching materials are keyed to where everybody’s at in the reading plan. If it’s not, what’s the point of keeping up with them? It’s like running a marathon, but you’re running really slow because you’re running alongside the small children, or the participants in wheelchairs. If they really don’t need you to stay behind with them (especially since you can always bounce back and re-read what they’re reading), why stay behind? Run for it!

Still, let’s say you are reading bible at a crazy-slow pace. Say, reading along with a non-sped-up audio bible. Let’s say you read for only 30 minutes a day, instead of a more natural hour or two. How long should it take you to finish? If you’re reading along with an 83½-hour audio bible, you should be done in 167 days. That’s less than six months.

Yeah. You could read the bible twice in a year. Read for an hour and you could read it four times. Read for 90 minutes: Six times. And, I remind you, I’m talking about audiobook speed; a really slow reading speed. That’s why reading the bible in a month is hardly outside the realm of possibility.

I’ve read the bible dozens of times. In different translations, partly so I can check out the new translations, and partly ’cause it doesn’t hurt to look at the bible afresh through an unfamiliar translation. Each of those times, it took me less than a month. Even when I skipped days. At my pace it takes me about 20 days to read a bible. You might naturally read just as fast. I remind you of those zealous new believers who plow through a bible in quicktime: They’ve dropped everything else so they can read the bible, and they’ll get it read in two weeks.

The people who create bible-in-a-year plans aren’t marketing to zealous Christians. They’re marketing to the lukewarm. They’re going after all those people who don’t read, who therefore won’t tackle a bible because it’s too big, too hard, too boring, too whatever. And if you’re seriously considering a bible-in-a-year plan, I naturally gotta question your zeal about reading it.

I’ve heard one pastor promote his bible-in-a-year plan by pointing out, “Each day’s reading will only take you 10 minutes. Don’t tell me you don’t have 10 spare minutes a day.” Well of course everybody can carve out 10 spare minutes a day. But clearly whatever they’re only spending 10 minutes on is far from a priority in their lives. Taking a 15-minute dump is a greater priority for such people… and y’notice they never seem to remember to take their bible-in-a-year reading into the bathroom with ’em, so they can at least multitask.

The bible in bits and pieces.

Back to that movie you’re watching in 5-minute segments. Why’s it a stupid idea? You can probably figure out all the obvious reasons.

  • For certain exciting sequences, you’re gonna want to watch it all the way through… and can’t.
  • For certain sequences that aren’t so exciting, but explain everything, you probably should watch it all the way through… and can’t. (And probably won’t even realize you should.)
  • Frequently one part of the movie references a previous part of the movie. But if it’s been a week or two since you saw that previous part, are you gonna remember the reference? Are you even gonna think, “Wait; shouldn’t I know this part?” and back up to watch that part again? (Have you even given yourself the time to do so?)
  • If it’s a really complicated movie, with lots of characters and storylines, how effectively are you gonna follow everything? It might be days before you get back to certain storylines.
  • Or if it’s a complicated detective story, how effectively are you gonna follow the plot?
  • Or if it’s a movie you don’t really wanna watch, but have to as an assignment, how effectively are you gonna follow anything?

All these issues, and more, come up when you slice a bible into 365 segments.

More, because they’re frequently not trying to follow the story. Unlike a movie, where you know the story’s gonna come to a point, people tend to treat big portions of bible like a bunch of commands or proverbs or teachings with no logical progression to them. Or treat the stories as if they’re all separate short stories, again with no logical progression to them. They’re never gonna see any progression because they’re only reading bible in 15-minute segments.

And if there’s no progression, their brains aren’t gonna sort them in any order of progression. That’s why people who read the bible in a year don’t remember much of anything they read: Their brains have been given a jumble of disconnected readings. You know how your brain remembers certain things so easily? Connections. Even if the connection is something odd, like “I read this bible passage in the train station; I’m never in the train station, so that’s why I remember it.” Well good; at least train stations will jog your memory of that particular bible passage. It’d be a lot more helpful if more practical things reminded you of it—like the subjects and topics introduced at the beginning of that chapter of the bible. Alas, you read those subjects and topics five days before, never connected them with anything before or since, and of course you’re not gonna recall them when you need them.

Dicing up any book into little readings is a terrible way to read it. Yet people do this with the bible, and figure it’s okay, because God won’t let his word return void—as if that bible quote has anything to do with retaining information, or reading comprehension.

Whenever I teach on Jesus, as TXAB’s regular readers already know, I’ll bring up the commands in the Law which relate to his teachings or practices. Whenever I do this with someone who’s unfamiliar with how I teach, most of the time they’re surprised: They didn’t realize these commands are actually relevant to understanding Jesus better! Part of the problem is they never read the Law; they never saw the point before, and sometimes believe Jesus nullified the whole of it. And part of the problem is if they ever did read it, it was as part of a bible-in-a-year plan. So they retained little to nothing of anything they read. It’s all gone from their memory.

The same is true of whole swaths of the bible. All of which can be valuable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training people to be righteous. (Y’know, I think that idea’s even in the bible somewhere. 2Ti 3.16) But it’s not recalled, much less memorized. And it all comes down to the way in which we read it: In 10-minute segments, following a plan designed for non-readers and the lazy.

Don’t read the bible that way! Ditch the bible-in-a-year plans.

The TXAB bible-reading plan.

As I said, I can read the bible in 20 days. I came up with a plan where you can read it within a month. But I’m actually not gonna promote that plan today. Instead I’ll just encourage you to read it at your own pace. Your natural pace. Read it like you’d read a novel you’ve been itching to read. Read it like a favorite childhood book. Read it for as long as you ordinarily like to read books—a half hour, an hour, three hours, whatever. Read it for real.


Click it
to get the hi-res printable version.

At left is a checklist. It lists every chapter in the bible. Check ’em off, cross ’em out, highlight ’em, or however you care to keep track of what you’ve read. This way you don’t have to read the bible from back to front. You can bounce around. You could read it in chronological order. You could read two books, switching back and forth between them, much as people do with two favorite novels; one in the morning, the other before bed. You can read a different psalm each prayer time, and read the other books at other times. However you read the bible, keep track of what you’ve completed… until it’s all the way completed.

If you skip a day… so what? You don’t have to read it every single day! (Doesn’t hurt though.) If you get behind… exactly what timetable are you “getting behind” on? You have no timetable. Don’t give yourself pressure if you don’t want any. Relax!

If you do wanna make sure you get that bible read, you can of course forego various other things till you’re done. Whenever I read the bible in January, I drop everything else I’m reading till the bible’s done. You could also drop other forms of entertainment till the bible’s done.

And you do realize you don’t have to start in January. You could start in February. Or at Lent. Or mark off some other month, like when you have your vacation time, as the month you’re gonna tackle the bible. Read it over the summer. Read the whole thing in August. As always it’s up to you.

But do read it.