The Bible: Read it again, for the first time.
OK, I kind of highjacked that phrase, which I first heard when it was used to promote the souped-up 20th-anniversary versions of the Star Wars trilogy. But I think the slogan can be even more applicable to the Word of God.
I regularly find new truths, new insights, or even new information in Scripture passages that I’ve read or heard multiple times before. Sometimes this happens during formal Bible Study Time – in church or when I’m following a regimented Bible study of one form or another. But far more often, I’m struck by these truths when I’m reading la Biblia on my own, without any particular curriculum.
We’re allowed to do that, you know.
Sermons are awesome, and I think everyone should be part of at least one Bible study group. And it’s a great idea to follow a daily Bible reading curriculum – Karen and I use one distributed by the Canadian Bible Society on bookmarks (we’re almost always about a month behind, I should admit).
But there’s really no substitute for venturing into the text without a guide. Don’t start at Page 1 with a plan to move through it cover-to-cover like a regular novel, though – I’ve heard that most people who try that fizzle out before the end of Leviticus (I didn’t even get that far; Exodus felt too much like a novelization of some Charlton Heston movie).
I’m also not saying you should just flop the Book open at random and dive in and expect instant goosebumps. Choose a book of the Bible that you like, or believe to be fairly important, and read it from beginning to end – in as many sittings as you want (I rarely read more than two chapters at once, myself). I started doing that only a few months ago, with only intermittent regularity, and I’ve found the practice extremely useful.
But which Bible?
But before you even pick a book, you might want to pick a translation. There are a lot of them, and they may all be created equal, but they may not all be equally useful for you. My friend Richard, who’s even more of a word nerd than I am, swears by (but not on) the King James Version, complete with thees and thous and thys. He says it’s because he dislikes all the politically correct language in more recent translations, but I suspect he’s just showing off, and has an NIV hidden under his mattress ;).
If in doubt and if you’re a churchgoer, I suggest you find out what translation your church uses, and start with that one – just for the sake of consistency. My church, like many others these days, is all-New International Version (NIV), all-the-time, so that’s the one I use. But I’m aware that other perspectives can be really useful when studying the Bible, so I also read The Message.
The Message isn’t a translation as such, it’s more of a paraphrase, first published by an American pastor named Eugene Peterson in 1993. Unlike other paraphrases I’ve read, that translate shekels into dollars in the clumsiest fashion possible, Peterson preserves the ancientness of Scripture, while somehow weaving modern English idioms into the text. What an achievement! I wouldn’t put all of my eggs in The Message’s basket, but it’s an awesome supplement, to help make sense of baffling passages.
Some teachers suggest finding a quiet, serene corner of your house. A comfy chair you can curl up in with the Good Book. If that works for you, all the power to you.
But I like to do my independent Bible study online. I open two tabs in my Web browser to biblegateway.com – one in NIV and one in The Message, both to the same chapter of the book I’m currently studying. Then, I read a section – defined neatly by NIV headlines – in one, and then the other. Double dipping in this fashion takes right around twice as long as reading the passage once, but the perspectives gained by the multiple-translation approach are well worth the time. And there’s no prize for getting to the end of the Bible first.
Incidentally, Biblegateway contains 25 translations of the Bible in English alone, so there’s an abundance of options, if you like my approach but are lukewarm to NIV and/or The Message.
Which books, in Which Order?
I’m no expert, but a clergyman once told me that first-time Bible browsers might want to start with Mark, as its language is straightforward and its concepts easy to digest. So I started with Mark.
I’ve heard most of it before in church readings and Canadian Bible Society readings, but there’s something much more revealing about reading the stories in the context that the author had in mind.
‘Oooh, the Feeding of the Five Thousand happened right after the beheading of John the Baptist, and right before Jesus walked on water? Wow. I wonder how the death of John – his cousin and his Elijah – set the stage for these two famous miracles…’ That sort of thing.
After Mark, I decided to go with the next book chronologically – Acts. And again, I was struck by reading familiar stories in the context of how they’re recorded. Reading how the story unfolds, and seeing how these events set the stage for this speech or that experience is really useful. It helps put me in the story; helps me see the Bible figures as real people, not two-dimensional icons.
During my Acts study, my friend Matthew was doing a lot of bragging about his favorite Gospel – nope, not Matthew – John. So I decided to give it a try. I’m aware that John is set apart somewhat from the other three Gospels; John’s language is more flowery and laced with symbolism, for one thing; it contains no parables, for another.
And while Mark, Luke and Matthew more or less agree on the chronology of most events, John’s time line is different. For instance, John has Jesus clearing the temple courts in Chapter 2 – presumably near the start of His ministry. But the other three put it after Palm Sunday – very near the end.
Why is that?
I suspect it’s no accident, and I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t decided to pick up the book on my own. But I still haven’t come to any conclusions about why.
And that’s probably a good thing. When you explore the Bible without a guide, there are no quick and easy answers, like when you follow a Bible Study with a Cole’s Notes-ish companion book. Independent learners can always ‘Google it’ and inundate themselves with other people’s best guesses, but usually I prefer to let the text speak to me. If things aren’t neat and tidy and I’m unsettled, maybe that’ll be the first stage in growth.
Once I finish John, I think I’ll bite the bullet and read one of Paul’s Epistles.
I say ‘bite the bullet’ because I’ve often found Paul’s writing to be confusing and excessively wordy. He’ll start a topic, come to a point in the text that he feels needs explanation, and without any more warning than a comma, launch into an aside that takes the reader through three chapters’ worth of text. Then he comes back to his comma and continue on with his original point, with no apparent worry that we might not be following his train of thought.
Also, you can call him Paul the Wise. Paul the Just. Paul the Compassionate. Paul the Inspired. But you absolutely cannot call him Paul the Succinct. He takes a simple, straightforward concept and analyzes and explains and dissects and justifies it until he’s muddied the waters so badly you forget what his point is, which you didn’t need to hear in the first place because it’s self-evident. I think some of his chapters could be paragraphs, and some of his paragraphs could be three-word sentences. (Hmm, am I the pot or the kettle in this scenario?)
The trouble is, there’s a lot of wisdom in all that text, and I have a feeling that boiling it all down to get at the good stuff is well worth the trouble. Paul is a tremendous man of faith, a hero of the Bible. I love reading about Paul, but I really don’t care to read his writing.
Therefore, I think God wants me to do just that. I’d better get cracking.
Peace be with you.