Thursday, March 3, 2011

How important is it that we read the Bible?

As a teenager, I had the opportunity to attend a variety of church functions designed for youth. We brought our Bibles to meetings and retreats and were encouraged to follow the speaker as they read/taught from the Bible. Not a bad thing in and of itself. But there were many times that a healthy basket size serving of guilt was handed out in the form of "if you don't read your Bible everyday you are not serious about your relationship with God." I remember one particular service where the preacher said "If the first thing you do in the morning is get a cup of coffee or take a shower before you pray and read your Bible, then the coffee or the shower is your God!" I was 18 and less than convinced by his argument. This was the beginning of my questioning of the admonishment towards daily Bible reading.

I suspect that some already had an answer to my question before even reading this post. They will answer "it's very mportant!" "We need/must read the Bible!" I am not suggesting that people not read the Bible, but I would like to step back and take a look at Bible reading and ask , is it more important that we read the Bible or is it more important that we know it? I would like to think out loud for a bit.

According to a Barna group survey, 90% of American households have at least one Bible. Many have at least three. I suspect the number in some households is closer to 6 to 10 Bibles. But in spite of the proliferation of Bibles, knowledge of the Bible's contents has taken a dive. Every year we read a new survey indicating that although people say that they think it is important to read the Bible, in practice, they don't.

The situation has become worrisome enough to some that they have launched a blog to battle biblical illiteracy. Emanating from BIOLA University, the Good Book Blog is an attempt by 30 seminary professors to help people become biblically literate.

I began to think about this topic, not for the first time, as I set up a museum for the seminary's celebration of 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. I was struck by the fact that, until the reformation, most copies of the Bible were never intended for personal use. Many of them were impractical for the average person to use. They were often large volumes that were made for Cathedrals, not local churches or the individual Christian, but for the major centers of Christianity.

The truth is, the vast majority of people did not own a Bible. In fact, many churches did not have a Bible. Prior to the invention of movable type, Bibles were copied by hand, which means they were expensive. If your church had a Bible you were very lucky indeed. And it was probably chained to the pulpit so no one would steal it.

There is an interesting scene in the most recent movie about Martin Luther as played by Joseph Fiennes. In the film, Luther's mentor, Johann von Staupitz, asks him if he had ever read the Bible. Luther replies "no" and Staupitz says "most priests haven't." It is an uncomfortable reminder that the level of interaction that we have with the printed Bible is a relatively new aspect of Christianity. The Bible was not widely available and therefore people did not read it.

Yet the world was steeped in the Bible. Although they did not read it their world was full of imagery from it. Art work both inside and outside of the church reflected people's knowledge of the Bible. Churches may not have owned a Bible, but the carvings, frescoes and statues communicated the message of the Bible to the people. Art was the peoples Bibles. Although they could not read it, they were very aware of it.

But now we live in a world where we can have the Bible either on a shelf, on a computer screen or a phone. Yet knowledge or familiarity with what is in the Bible is low. I don't want to suggest that everything prior to the invention of the printing press was rosy. But it does seem that we are victims of our own progress. Since Gutenberg and the Reformation we can all own a number of Bibles. But we seem to know and understand it even less. And yet, to hear some, we should be reading it everyday and to not is something akin to sin.

While I am glad to live in an age when the Bible is available to almost everyone in every place, I wonder to what end. Has our obsession with the Bible (and I am speaking as a biblical scholar) led to its seeming irrelevance in our life?

What do you think? How important is it that we read the Bible as opposed to knowing it?


  1. Since the Bible is a living thing (for those who believe it to be the inspired Word of God), I think the best context for "knowing the Bible" is relationship. And the best way to teach the Bible is to live it, in my opinion. I have a natural attraction to the study of the Bible--but I know that makes me a strange anomaly compared to most people. To most people it is a confusing, cumbersome, even boring book. It comes to life as people live into its truth over a lifetime.

    So, Christians, pastors, mentors, teachers, parents; how are we doing? How are we integrating the Bible we know in our heads (or at least should) with the lives we live out in the world? Who are we "teaching"? Just some of my questions. People won't read the Bible until they see its truth in action. And people need good teachers.

    Good words, John. Thanks. And according to that preacher's criterion, coffee is definitely my god. ; )


  2. I grew up in a tradition which put a huge emphasis on KNOWING the Bible. It is a good goal but can lead to legalistic Bible reading or guilt that you aren't reading enough. Actually, I read the Bible almost every day from my teen years until my 40's because I felt "I should". Then I just stopped.
    At first, I did feel guilty but I also felt that a big burden had lifted.
    After several years of being 'on break',I am now reading the Bible again because I WANT TO. And I am benefiting from it.
    I still believe it is very important to read the Bible and KNOW what it says... but my motivation has changed. I guess that is the key.

  3. Like Dr. John mentioned, knowledge of the Bible is dropping. And this is true within the church and without. Yet, church leaders still encourage, cajole, condemn, and whatever else they can do in order to get folks to read it. Perhaps, as the good Doctor alluded to, we need to develop other creative ways of helping people learn what the Bible says without requiring all of the rote memory work.

  4. I grew up as a PK in a Baptist parsonage, so the Bible was a daily "staple" in my life. Today, at an advanced stage, I am so thankful for my early relationship with the Bible. I could NEVER have gotten through the untimely death of my 37-year-old son without the words of the Psalmist, and the story of Jesus weeping over the death of His friend, Lazarus, and the promises He gave to Mary and Martha. Now a Pastor myself, I stress Bible reading on a regular basis to my parishoners because I know the value of it's contents in my daily life.