Many people are attracted to the Bible as a source of spiritual enlightenment. As with any book, most seekers of things spiritual open it to the first page and begin reading there. Unfortunately, too often they choose an antique translation and quickly grow tired of the thees and thous and other bits of Shakespearian verbiage that they found off-putting when forced to read the Bard in high school. Then, if they can get past that, or have been fortunate enough to find a nice modern translation, they will all too quickly find themselves lost in cultural settings that make little sense, facing bloodthirsty tribalism, dysfunctional families, and long lists of names that are unpronounceable. And so they turn away from it. Mark Twain once wrote about a Henry James novel that “Once you put it down, it’s almost impossible to pick up again.” And if we’re honest, countless people, both Christian and not, have similar feelings about the Bible.
Many churchgoers will make a New Year’s resolution to read through the Bible in a year. And maybe half who begin the year with such hope will have managed to keep at it through the end of January. But by now, most who began with such firm determination have abandoned the effort. Like the fancy exercise equipment bought at Christmas time, only to become clothes racks by March, so their Bibles now lay lost beneath stacks of People Magazine.
If so many folk have such negative experiences with the Bible, why is the Bible held in such high regard? Why has it had such an impact on Western civilization? Why do people continue to believe that they should at least try to read it?
Those of us who are theologians and Bible scholars need to be honest with people: reading the Bible is hard, and a lot of it is not as much fun as watching television or reading a novel by Stephen King. And parts of the Bible, admittedly, have as much action as the phone book.
Many years ago I went to youth camp with a bunch of junior high boys as their counselor. They were encouraged, while there, to read their Bibles. They would come back to their bunks and stare at the book and wonder what they should do with it, what part of it to turn to. It is, after all, a pretty thick book, especially for thirteen year olds. Finally, some of them asked me for where they should look.
I sent them to the more interesting parts, especially the parts that might appeal to their age group: stories of violence, war, and conflict. I had them read portions of the book of Judges, where they read the story of a man who burned his daughter as an offering to God, and another where a priest took his concubine, after she’d been raped by a mob, and cut her into twelve pieces. He then mailed off the pieces to tribal leaders throughout the nation, in order to motivate them into a civil war against the tribe of Benjamin—which the other tribes nearly exterminated.
The Bible, given its contents, should not be read naively as: “What we are seeing here is all good and righteous behavior and we should emulate these lives.” Do you read George Orwell’s 1984 as a description of how life should be—or as a warning of how the world might turn out if we aren’t careful? If you read a fable, do you imagine that there really are talking lions and bears? Do you think, when watching the Wizard of Oz, that apple trees get mad if you pick their fruit and can be goaded into tossing it at you if you make them mad enough?
Why is it that when people read the Bible, they lose all their common sense and forget everything they know about reading literature (or for our more video age, what they know about watching TV or movies)?
The Bible is not a list of does and don’ts, it is not a philosophic treatise designed to teach enlightenment or wisdom—though it has those things in there, on occasion. Rather, much of the book is stories, the lives of people and how God worked with them, despite the fact that they were quite ordinary individuals, or even (shocking but true) really despicable people. We can learn things from the stories in the Bible, even the violent and gory ones, just as there is more to Macbeth than just entertainment for an evening at the theater. God did not seem (despite what the puritanical would have you believe) to be limited in whom he could make use of. How bad a person was didn’t stop God from using him or her and possibly making them better people as a result. Sometimes the stories show us lives that are redeemed, others are stories of lives destroyed by bad choices.
Why do we ever imagine we can read the Bible without paying attention to the context, whether it is the point that the author is trying to make on the page, or the historical and cultural setting in which it was written? If you read Gulliver’s Travels without looking at the historical setting, you may find yourself entertained by the fantasy, but you’ll miss the whole satiric point. Or, to take a more contemporary example, if you don’t know what’s happening in the world and nation, how funny is Jay Leno or Saturday Night Live (well, okay, Saturday Night Live hasn’t been funny for a long time—but you get my point)? Do you always make sense of the comic strip Doonsbury? If you’re up on the news, you might—otherwise, you’ll definitely miss most of the point.
The same thing happens with the Bible. Divorcing it from its place, ignoring the nature of literature and literary presentation, treating it like a book of runes or magic incantations, or aphorisms to put on the pages of a calendar or to fill a Chicken Soup for the Soul poster is to miss most (if not all) of what is going on in the Bible. People do to the Bible, and ask of the Bible, things they would never do or ask of any other piece of literature. And then they wonder why they don’t understand it or wonder why it seems so irrelevant and boring.
So next time you open the Bible, see if you can discover why it has endured for so long as a part of western civilization, or why so many people devote their lives to the God who shows up in its pages. And as for reading through the whole thing, just remember: parts of it will be deadly dull. Other parts will be very interesting and enlightening. Keep in mind it was written over the course of more than a thousand years by over fifty people. You’ll find a lot of varieties of material, everything from genealogical lists, to pious poetry, from the letters that make up most of the New Testament, to adventure tales filled with blood and gore. Just don’t give up; reading it isn’t for wimps.