Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Don't We Read Our Bibles?

Yesterday Pete Wilson asked his readers, "Why do you think more people don't spend time in God's Word?"
As it happens, this was one of our discussion questions at PRAXIS last night (expanding on the idea of the rhythm of devotional Scripture reading), and these are some of the reasons we came up with:

1. We don't understand it.
Most people just don't know where to start. The Bible tells us an incredible story, from Genesis to Revelation, with lots of little stories echoing that grander story hidden throughout, but most of us just don't how to get a handle on it. Even in modern translations, Scriptural language and concepts don't have many modern analogues, and in a culture increasingly raised on television, magazines, and the Internet, we just don't have the skills or the interpretational framework from which to start.

2. There's nobody explaining it to us.
Compounding the above problem is the increasing dearth of church and pastoral help with grasping and understanding Scripture. Evangelical church services are more and more entertainment-driven and Scripture is relegated to quick prooftexts under message points. We receive minimal exposure to Scripture in our worship services, and outside of them nobody is really teaching us how to read it, how to understand it, what it's all about, etc.
This is very much connected to . . .

3. Scripture is being touted less and less as central to the Christian life.
Our preachers don't treat it with any kind of reverence. The Bible is shown as "useful;" it is treated pragmatically. It is not the focal point of worship, merely an element of worship. It is not read publicly with as much passion as is put into videos, songs, dramas, illustrations, and message points.

4. It is wielded as a weapon against people.
On the flip side of the above two points, some people avoid Scripture because their only exposure to it are pastors, teachers, and other Christians who use it to thump others with. The Bible gets theologized, propagandized into a cattle prod to get opponents into certain theological camps. Or it is presented dryly, as purely academic, as purely informational, as mainly for "smart people" who really understand it. Who would want to read the Bible if their only exposure to it is from jerky theology nerds or pulpit-pounding preachers who look like they might throw it at you?

5. The Bible says things we don't like.
It makes us very uncomfortable. If we're reading it correctly. Nobody likes having their tables turned and the truths of Scripture have zero regard for our personal space.

6. "Experts" have eroded our confidence in Scripture.
Inerrancy, infallibility, historicity, reliability. Et cetera ad infinitum. The Bible wars and their soldiers have eroded even some of Christian culture's trust in the reliability of the Bible. Blame it on postmodernism or liberalism or whatever. More and more of us are viewing the Bible as outdated, applicable only to original cultures, historically or scientifically naive or specious, or just too "human" to be trusted as God's very word.

7. We are undisciplined and lazy.
Really profiting from Scripture, really experiencing its transforming power, requires the same sort of effort as any transforming practice -- focus, hard work, and consistency. Like working out or becoming proficient at an instrument, you have to do it a lot and for a long time. Western Christians -- heck, Westerners in general -- aren't exactly known for their discipline and tenacity. We like our Bible like we like everything else we consume: Lite, EZ, and as convenient as a drive-thru.

Those are just some of the reasons we came up with for why people don't read the Bible very much.


Sara said...

I'll offer you a flip side to that--people don't read their bibles because the conservative American church has pushed "devotionals" so much as something that we're "supposed" to do that people don't know how to approach it as something that they expect to find joy in. There are an awful lot of people out there who approach their "bible time" about like they would approach the daily slog on the treadmill or the latest diet--they have the sense that this is somehow supposed to be good for them, so they'll give it a go, but they don't expect to like it. Consequently they don't, and next time is harder . . . the idea that the scriptures could be read and explored in as many ways as there are people (and that there's not one CORRECT WAY TO READ THE BIBLE) is about as foreign an idea to people in our spiritually out of shape culture as the idea that a good long hike in the mountains or a game of pick-up basketball, or a day in the pool during the summer is the same as EXERCISE and that it could acutally be, you know, enjoyable.

Jared said...

Hey, Sara. Bitter much? :-)

I hear what you're saying, and part of the reason I missed out on so much joy in both prayer and Scripture is that very reason: a legalistic expectation of me to check it off my "get God to love me" list.

But Paul does talk about discipline not feeling good at the time, and there is something to be said for pushing through initial confusion and hardship to get to the joy beneath.

As far as there being no one correct way to read the Bible, that's probably a debate for another time. I obviously disagree, if we're talking about the truth of the Bible, not variations of study and such.

This post addresses reading Scripture for devotion -- as an act of worship and with the joy of the Lord -- because I think that is the way most lacking and most crucial among Christians today.

Sara said...

Bitter? Actually . . . no. :) But I've been surfacing from a fairly long, dry stretch during which any attempt to simply "buckle down and do it" (at least in terms of the thing that the American church has labeled "personal quiet time") has actually ended up making things worse . . . and I don't think that I'm alone. Believe it or not, I do understand--and I've had some excellent people explaining to me along the way. I've been fairly protected from people clubbing me, and experts have never intimidated me. Okay, so I will admit to being fairly undisciplined and lazy about many things in my life, but I don't actually think that's the point here . .. :) And I'm not disagreeing with you about the truth of the bible--the variations in study are precisely what I'm talking about . . .

You see, I was taught the "correct" way to do bible study. It involved earnest reflection on minute portions of scripture. (Don't read too much at once! You'll miss things! Certainly not more than 10 verses at a time! . . . as if any of us could ever get ALL of what any passage of scripture is on about on one go). It involved carefully charting things on individual sheets of notebook paper and . . . and . .

It took me years to realize that this is not how I read or reflect on ANYTHING else--that maybe I should look at the way my reading patterns have developed with my favorite novels and a few cues from those.

It's the expectation thing. When people say "devotional" or "quiet time" in much of the American church, it's very much a round hole. And being something of a square peg, I find round holes . .. irritating. It's because I have appreciated so much of what you've written that I'm commenting . . . far be it from me to deny the basic bread and wine of spiritual life in scripture adn prayer . . . I just think that the church in general has a long way to go in teaching adn affirming methodology.

Sara (Mrs. Rob Harrison)

Jared said...

Ah, I think I'm getting it.

When I say "devotional" I don't necessarily mean the one-size-fits-all quiet time format-type thing.

Have you read Gary Thomas's book Sacred Pathways? It speaks to the differing ways believers are wired up for discipleship. Pretty good stuff.

Ori said...

I'm Jewish, so what I'm going to write is relevant to the Old Testament and may or may not be relevant to the new. It's not fair to expect modern kids, or maybe even grownups, to be able to understand books written millennia ago without preparation. Without that preparation, it's not fun.

I'm working on a book to retell some of the stories in a way that will be fun for young adults. Having bribed them with the fun, I include background information to make it easy for them to read the original in the future.

If anybody is interested in seeing a draft, e-mail me as ori =at= simple =dash= tech =dot= com.

Sean Harrison said...

Hey, Jared. I enjoyed your post and wrote some reflections on it on the NLT Study Bible blog. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I think the main reason mahny Christians don't read their bible because they truly don't love the Lord. Why don't they truly love the Lord? They don't truly love the Lord because they truly are not saved.

When one is truly saved and has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit you Will want to read the bible because you want to know your First Love!

When I and others I know were saved in our adult years one of the first things we did was read the bible cover to cover. Why? Because the church told us to ...NO!..we did it and do it because we love Him!

In Christ


Pastor K said...

I'm sorry but I disagree with anonymous. Just because a person doesn't read the Bible doesn't necessarily mean they don't love the Lord. You need to be careful not to put everyone into the same category. I know many who as quoted here really don't understand what is written in the Bible. I had many in the church I was called to pastor simply because the previous pastor hadn't really taught the Word. Now I can say that the people are really excited about reading and studying God's Word because the now know how. It's like Sara's comment about looking at the ways she read her favorite novels. When I read a novel I find myself really engrossed in the story and in some ways become a part of the story. It's the same way with Bible reading and study. You need to put yourself in the story back in the time become a part of it. I teach inductively so it's like a CSI looking for even the most finite clues and witnesses to to tell the true story of whatever was going on at the time. I have found that instead of everyone going to sleep during my preaching/teaching people actually bring their Bibles and pencil and paper to take notes. And I might say that Bible reading has improved immensely in our congregation. We went from about 8% of the people reading and studying the Word to at least 60 to 70%. So I still have work to do for those who find time to do other worldly things in place of spending time with God but as the continue to catch on and find the importance of Bible reading and study I will continue His work. Sara don't make it a thing that you have to do, make it a thing you want to do. The Bible is our life's nourishment and food. Jesus called it the Bread of Life. So just like we pray over our physical meals start you Bible reading or study praying over our spiritual food. Believe me it makes a BIG difference. Hope this helps. God Bless all!

JuliusCaesar108 said...

Hmm ... this is such an old thread, I don't know how much of it will actually be read. That's fine, I'll post it anyway.

I'm going to be frank and honest: these messages about "read your Bibles" can be condescending and a detriment to the Body of Christ if one's not careful, by imposing a set of rules. When pastors assume the worst in their congregation by being bad Christians by "not reading the Bible enough, not praying enough" they are hurting and not helping their flock.

What is enough? By whose standards are you calling enough? Where in the Bible does it say to read your Bibles?

Am I discouraging to read Bibles - by no means! It is a gift considering its history. It wasn't even initially intended to be in the hands of the layman because each book had its original purposes, and can be helpful. But the Church is also very important - that's why people come is to be fed and to follow God, or at least some people go for that reason.

It's one thing to encourage their flock by depending on God, and using prayer and their Bibles as giving insight for Wisdom. But to use these things as rules are assuming that Christians are not doing their job, but worse, that Christianity is ONLY defined by doing acts of individual devotion to God (it's also important to have the Church to have participate communally in acts of charity and praise). This condescending message of not doing things "enough" is not from the Spirit of God, but is a message of guilt and condemnation from the evil one.

If you want to encourage your flock to do these two things tell them these are tools to help you in your walk with God, but don't insist them as a set of rules.

Thanks for reading,
God bless.