Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to Read the Bible from Cover to Cover


Preachers like me are always telling people to read their Bibles. Personally, I think that even non-believers should read the entire Bible, if only for the sake of cultural literacy. Of course there is a small danger that reading the Bible might make believers of them. On the other hand, there is probably an equal danger that actually reading the Bible could cause a believer to lose faith. In spite of these dangers, I would encourage everyone to read the Bible.

I personally read the Bible through about once a year.

I know that the idea of reading the entire Bible is daunting for many people. It is a thick book and parts of it are difficult. I also know that there are many people who have tried to read the Bible beginning at Genesis 1:1 and given up by the time they hit one of those long lists of “begats” (e.g. Genesis 5) or the arcane Levitical laws dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy (see Leviticus 13 and 14).

Readers should probably know that both testaments of the Bible are front loaded with good stories and get progressively weirder as they go along.

With all of that in mind, if you would like to read the Bible from cover to cover, here are some suggestions that might help you reach Revelation 22:21.

Take it in small pieces. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Reading for 15 or 20 minutes a day should easily get most readers through the entire Bible (even with the Apocrypha) in less than a year. You don’t have to be legalistic about this. It is even OK to skip a day every now and then. Just keep in mind that the way to reach any goal is by taking incremental steps.

It’s OK to skim some parts. Really, it is. Those genealogies, for instance. If it says “Joe was the father of Fred and Fred was the father of Percy and Percy was the father of Jack,” the pertinent information is “Joe...Fred...Percy...Jack.” You don’t have to read every word.

This goes for passages like Numbers 7 as well. In that chapter the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel offer identical sacrifices one after the other. This is boilerplate. The only things that change from paragraph to paragraph are the number of the day and the name of the leader. It’s OK to skim this stuff.

Use a readable translation. My friend Matt says that there are more than 500 English versions of the Bible. Some of them are easier to read than others. I like the New Revised Standard Version that we use in church but I know that there are many easier-to-read translations for example, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation, and the Common English Bible. The point is, if you find one translation difficult, there is probably another that will suit you better.

A caveat: Don’t read a paraphrase. Paraphrased Bibles like Ken Taylor’s The Living Bible and Eugene Peterson’s The Message have their place. If, however, you tell me that you have read the entire Bible from one of these paraphrases, I will snort derisively in your general direction. I’m a snob like that.

Seriously, there are many good, readable translations of the Bible. There is no need to resort to a paraphrase. The time to read a paraphrase is after you’ve read a good translation.

Get some help.  A good study Bible can be a big aid to understanding the Bible. Introductions to the individual books of the Bible will set them in their historical context and make their message clearer. Footnotes help to clarify obscure passages. I still recommend Augsburg Fortress’s Lutheran StudyBible

You don’t have to read it in order. If the idea of reading four Gospels in a row doesn’t thrill you, break them up with other books of the Bible. There are many Bible reading plans available that might be helpful.

Do whatever it takes. When I read difficult portions of any text, I sometimes find that it helps if I read out loud. I don’t know why. I just know that it aids my understanding. If you find that standing on your head and whistling show tunes helps you read, then stand on your head and whistle show tunes.

Finally, enjoy it. Reading the Bible can be both pleasurable and rewarding. If you think it will be a chore, then it probably will. If you go into it with a positive attitude, you may find that reading the Bible is a lot of fun.

Martin Luther read through the Bible twice each year, probably including the Apocrypha, and probably in Latin, if not Hebrew and Greek. Martin Luther makes me feel like a piker, but then again, he didn’t have the internet to distract him. The painting of the woman reading a Bible is by 17th c. Dutch painter Gerrit Dou.