Keeping It Together: How To Read the Bible

I know a couple of students who have started the year with the goal of reading through the whole Bible in one year.

In my experience, most people who set out on such a journey will miss a day, try to catch up by reading for the day they missed and the current day, miss two days, skip over the readings they missed and resume on the current day, and finally get stuck and give up in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, or Joshua.

They might (or might not) save the date to start up again with the New Testament, but if they do, they will usually get behind, get lost, and give up again somewhere between the books of John, Acts, and Romans.

The students I'm thinking of had enough enthusiasm about the idea to buy a Bible that is organized with a specific plan -  readings separated out in 365 days of 15 minute readings. But their problem (and the problem for most people who try to read the Bible at all) is that for all their zeal they lack a framework that holds all the seemingly loose pieces together.

It's like trying to ride a bike with no handlebars, or trying to guess the phrase on Wheel of Fortune without knowing the category or turning over any letters. Or it's like trying to put together a 500 piece puzzle without access to the picture on the top of the box. Each of those scenarios can easily slip into feelings of frustration. However, bikes come equipped with handlebars, Wheel of Fortune offers the category and allows the contestant to guess several letters that may be part of the phrase, and puzzle pieces come in a box that has the finished picture on the top.

Let's stick with the puzzle analogy for a second. If you're working on a puzzle, the first thing you do is get the edges in place. That way you know that whatever piece you come across - no matter how funky or odd it appears to be - it fits within that frame. At the moment it might not be obvious how it fits, but at least you know that somehow it belongs in there.

The Bible is full of names, places, laws, songs, and events that were shaped in a different era from our own. Some themes and characters are repeated, while others are mentioned and never mentioned again. If you have a basic framework though, you can keep it together because you know that somehow it all fits within the edges of the picture.

Still though, this can be incredibly challenging to modern readers. Of course, we all know that you read a phone book differently than the Declaration of Independence, and both are read differently than novels and newspapers. But when all those writings are found intermingled in the pages of a bound book with "Holy Bible" on the cover (often with letters printed in golden foil) it can be quite confusing.

Fortunately several books have come available in recent years that call attention and offer solutions to this challenge that awaits readers of the Bible. Among them are:
God's Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy
The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God by G.K. Beale
The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright
The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen.

I think Bartholomew and Goheen are particularly helpful in offering us some handlebars to hold on to while trekking in the biblical text. They say:
"God chose a people [after the rampant sin of Genesis 1-11] to again embody God's creational purposes for humanity and so be a light to the nations, and the Old Testament narrates the history of Israel's response to their divine calling. Jesus comes on the scene and in his mission takes upon himself Israel's vocation. He embodies God's purpose for humanity and accomplishes the victory over sin, opening the way to a new world. When his earthly ministry is over, he leaves his church with the mandate to continue in that same mission" (page 13).

I would simply add that it's on this stage that the letters and treatises (which are chock full of details, encouragements, instructions, rebukes, prayers, and warnings) come together to form the New Testament.

So if you're one of the brave ones hoping to make your way through the Bible this year, remember the handlebars of the big story: Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church, Consummation. And even though the Flobots sing about "riding a bike with no handlebars," I would suggest holding on to the handlebars when you're peddling through the Bible.

Related Posts:
Book Review: Improvisation by Samuel Wells
"Gardens & Thorns" (sermon from the series called "Echo")


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