Friday, October 02, 2009

Bible reading habits

From J.I. Packer:
Reading the Bible

Let us read the Bible then — if we can. But can we? The truth is that many of us have lost the ability to read the Bible. When we open our Bibles, we do so in a frame of mind which forms an insuperable barrier to our ever reading it at all. This may sound startling, but it is not hard to show that it is true.

When you sit down to any other book, you treat it as a unit. You look for the plot, or the main thread of the argument, and follow it through to the end. You let the author's mind lead yours. Whether or not you allow yourself to "dip" before settling down to the book properly, you know that you will not have understood it till you have been through it from start to finish, and if it is a book that you want to understand you set aside time to read it in full. But when we come to Holy Scripture, our behaviour is different. In the first place, we are in the habit of not treating it as a book — a unit — at all, but simply as a collection of separate stories and sayings. We take it for granted before we look at the text that the burden of them — or, at least, of as many of them as affect us — is either moral advice or comfort for those in trouble. So we read them (when we do) in small doses, a few verses at a time. We do not go through individual books, let alone the two complete Testaments, as a single whole. We browse through the rich old Jacobean periods of the Authorised Version, waiting for something to strike us. When the words bring to our minds a soothing thought or a pleasant picture, we feel that the Bible has done its job for us. It seems that the Bible is for us not a book, but a collection of beautiful and suggestive snippets, and it is as such that we use it. The result is that we never read the Bible at all. We take it for granted that we are handling Holy Writ in the truly religious way; but in truth, our use of it is more than a little superstitious. It is the way of natural religiosity, perhaps, but not of true religion.

For God does not mean Bible-reading to function simply as a drug for fretful minds. The reading of Scripture is intended to awaken our minds, not to send them to sleep. God asks us to approach Scripture as His Word — a message addressed to rational creatures, men with minds; a message which we cannot expect to understand without thinking about it. "Come now, and let us reason together," said God to Judah through Isaiah (Isa. 1:18), and He says the same to us every time we take up His book. He has, indeed, taught us to pray for divine enlightenment as we read — "open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law" (Ps. 119:18); but this is a prayer that God will enable us to think about His Word with insight, and we effectively prevent its being answered if after offering it we make our minds a blank and stop thinking as we read. Again, God asks us to read the Bible as a book — a single story with a single theme. We are to read it as a whole, and as we read, we are to ask ourselves: what is the plot of this book? What is its real subject? What is it really about? Unless we ask these questions, we shall never reach the point from which we can see what it is saying to us about our own individual lives.

When we do reach this point, we shall find that God's real message to us is more drastic, and at the same time more heartening, than anything that human religiosity could conceive.

1 comment:

  1. [J.I. Packer] When you sit down to any other book, you treat it as a unit. You look for the plot, or the main thread of the argument, and follow it through to the end.

    And what does the formatting of those "any other book[s]" look like, anyway? Does it look the same as the formatting in a phone book? When you open a phone book, do you "treat it as a unit...look[ing] for the plot [and] the main thread of the argument"? Or do you instead skim through it, looking for isolated bits of information?

    I'm convinced that visual cues matter more than people realize. Find a single-column, paragraphed Bible -- in other words, one with the same formatting as all the other books that you read (as opposed to the books that you reference) -- and see if it changes the way you approach the Bible.