“I’ve done Luke’s gospel. Maybe I’ll do Joshua next.”
To some this is a curious sentence, but not to others. If you’re the kind of Christian that studies the Bible hard, you can be tempted to tick off various books that you’ve read for yourself, heard a sermon series on or read a book about. The contents page of the Bible becomes a ‘to do’ list. In this article, I’d like to examine why this is, on balance, a Bad Thing.
As a culture, the West is still living with the effects of the Enlightenment which gave us the methodical, scientific approach. This is great for researching cures for diseases. It has its place in Biblical scholarship too. But it is a questionable pattern for a devotional life, both private and public.
My Own Private Devotions
The idea of a private devotional life is, in itself, fairly new but is now prevalent in all areas of the church. When it comes to styles of worship, the question always comes down to personal preferences in liturgy and music. Moreover, we’ve managed to make the Eucharist into a private moment between ourselves and God, rather than a family meal symbolising Christian unity and communion with each other.
Some of us pore over the text of scripture as if it’s a code to be cracked. But this is not how scripture has been experienced by most people in history. It is easy to forget this when most of us have access to the text of Scripture in our own language in books and on our phones.
Although the printing press gave us books from the 1450s, entire printed Bibles were still extremely expensive for centuries. The Bible is a very long book to publish, errors cannot be tolerated and paper was still very expensive. Family Bibles were not just a symbolic gesture of unity around the word, but a practical and financial blessing that meant the next few generations would not need to stump up the money for their own copy.
This meant that most would experience the Bible, and the liturgy, with other people in a public setting in church every Sunday and on Holy Days.
This historical reality is not a surprise to God. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. His Spirit caused scripture to be written with public reading in mind. Scripture is a script to be read aloud, heard, collectively experienced, perhaps more than to be privately read and studied.
Our current attitude to learning has undoubtedly been shaped by the way we educate children. Previously, rote learning was everything. Memorising facts, names and dates is rather handy, and younger children find it easier than adults. We should be making the most of that. But equally, there’s no point in knowing that Magna Carta was signed in 1215 if you don’t know what it was for (and that she did not die in vain).
The government has never been under more pressure to improve educational standards in the UK. This means devising exams in a way that suits multiple learning and teaching styles. Some do not cope well with exams, and it is fair to argue that testing someone on Geography should not also be testing their ability to write English under timed pressure, hence the rise of coursework.
Even though I wasn’t worried by exams, I remember being relieved that I would not need to sit O-Levels. Two of my older sisters did them, and they sounded hard. While I was at school, these hard-sounding exam-based O-Levels were replaced with more user-friendly, draw-some-nice-maps-and-colour-them-in-as-coursework GSCEs. Decades later, we are living downstream from that new approach to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.
If we take this approach to the Bible, dicing it up into chunks and ticking them off when we’ve ‘done them’, we fail to appreciate them fully, or even partially.
Or we launch into a plan to read the Bible in a year – so that we can say that we have read the Bible in a year. What use is that if we have rushed to get it done? What is the value if it has become a chore?
We are to meditate on all of scripture all our lives. We are to tie the words to our wrists and write them on our doorposts. We are to memorise them and savour them. Sing them and recite them.
What Lucy Read in Narnia
The Bible is no ordinary book. It’s not a series of folios like the complete works of Shakespeare, fascinating and impressive though they may be. The Bible is more like the Magician’s Book that Lucy reads in CS Lewis’s sublime, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The book is almost reading her, revealing her character, her wants, her desires and her fears.
Do we see the Bible as a book to be mastered? Or a means of being mastered by the Spirit, and changed into the likeness of Christ? In our hearts, and our heads, we know it is the second one.
But our wills, bent by the Enlightenment, and hard hearts make us want to ‘master the text’, making it possible to know much about Christ, and the idea of salvation. We tick off the books that we’ve read, and cracked - and don’t really need to read again. Maybe we want to read the whole Bible - or at least to have read it.
But do we know Jesus? Scripture is not an end in itself. Jesus is Lord, the centrepiece of Scripture. He calls us to learn from him together with our brothers and sisters in the Church as we build the Kingdom of God.
For a bit more chat about CS Lewis and the arts, listen to the latest episode of Cooper and Cary Have Words in which we chat to Randy Newman (not that one), author of Mere Evangelism. In fact, now you can watch it on the YouTubes. Tell your friends?