What is the point of reading the Bible?

1 02 2007

cover-page-for-report7.JPGRegardless of one’s theological flavor, most Christians would be comfortable stating they consider the Bible to be an important text. And yet recent research from the Bible Society suggests that the number of people regularly engaging with the Scriptures is low. The research notes that only 21% of the 2048 church attending participants read their Bible daily. 22% stated they read it at least weekly with the remaining 57% saying they either read the Bible[1] occasionally (35%) or hardly ever (22%). A similar study recently conducted in the US revealed that only 12% of respondents reported reading the Bible once a day or more often, with 66% saying they read the Bible less often than once a month or never.[2] My discussions with others in Bible ministry in Europe and Australia have also revealed the same alarming trend. So why aren’t people reading their Bible? For many, a typical day is packed tight with almost endless activity driven by lists of ‘to do’s’. To engage with the Bible amidst this orchestrated busyness requires that it be considered a priority. Establishing a priority involves an individual appreciating and understanding the value of the practice. Herein lies the rub, the Bible is neither understood nor appreciated by a majority of contemporary Christians to be given priority.

To discover why, we need to take a look at our cultural milieu, but before I do this, I want to spend a moment considering why I consider the Bible to be of value. J.H Westerhoff III states,

‘Unless the story is known, understood, owned, and lived, we and our children will not have Christian faith.’[3]

reading-the-bible.JPG

When we read the Bible we are not just undertaking an exercise in learning facts, but engaging in the process of being transformed. The Bible is a venture of the Holy Spirit, both in production (see 2 Peter 1: 20) and distribution (see John 1:14). Transformation takes time. It requires disciplined engagement over an extended period.

N.T Wright notes,

‘Reading and studying scripture has been seen as central to how we are to grow in the love of God; how we come to understand God and his truth more fully; and how we can develop the moral muscle to live in accordance with the gospel of Jesus even when everything seems to be pulling the other way.’ [4]

Transformation involves us aligning ourselves to the perfect will of God. Our cognitive and our emotional realms slowly move from a creature focus to a creator focus. This is not an instant, ‘shot of espresso coffee’, type experience but rather more like the slowly unfolding effects of a multi-vitamin as the Holy Spirit gently guides and transforms day by day. To carry the multi-vitamin image one step further, it exists so as to ‘fill the gaps’ of an impoverished diet. Matthew 4:4 records Jesus stating, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” A complete diet for a Christian should include engagement with the Bible. Where bread meets and sustains the physical needs, the scriptures provide essential sustenance for the soul.

Part of the problem is that the relationship between the Church and the Bible has becomeluther-in-front-of-church.JPG confused. The Bible today is by in large considered a product of the Church, and as such is treated rather poorly in being viewed as only one of the many tools available to achieve their aims. And so it can be easily relegated in favour of more ‘acceptable’ tools such as inspirational worship or entertainment driven preaching. As Samuel Escobar points out,

It was not the church that gave birth to Scripture but it was God’s Word in the apostolic preaching, recorded later in Scripture, that gave birth to the Church. If the church lives by the Word, ministry of the Word is at the heart of Christian ministry. [5]

The Bible needs to return to being viewed and understood as being at the heart of what we do, not just as a ministry, but of under-girding all of our ministries. The outworking of this involves, as N.T Wright notes, ‘prayerful listening to, strenuous wrestling with, humble obedience before, and powerful proclamation of scripture.’ [6] We thus start with engaging with the Bible and move to the practice of ministry rather than view Bible engagement as a ministry. All of what I have discussed above I believe is attributable to the cultural milieu each of us is immersed in every moment of their active day. According to the World Values Survey, New Zealand is considered to be amongst the most post modern, post Christendom nations in the world. In 1950 50% of primary school students were enrolled in protestant Sunday schools in New Zealand, by 1985 this had decreased to just 11% and today it would be even less. Neither the Church nor Christianity is viewed with the same level of respect as they were just 50 years ago.

To understand post modernism, we need to first consider modernism, the product of the 18th century Enlightenment. Modernism elevated both objective knowledge and the belief in progress. Facts and uniformity provided a clear set plan for growth and expansion. It sought to weaken the place of religion as it viewed the world in terms of quantifiable facts. Truth was a product of fact: if it couldn’t be explained with science, then it was questionable. By the 1950’s and 60’s the focus on only facts began to ring hollow as the quality of life did not ‘progress’. Thus post modernism was born in reaction to the modernist obsession. A more creative, free expression prevailed, where attitudes and feelings took precedence over facts and hard science.
New Zealand is amongst the countries where this shift toward self-expression has occurred the most. This post modernist shift has resulted in a general suspicion of institutions. As one young leader recently pointed out,

Young people are increasingly cynical of institutions. Parliaments and churches and universities and schools are increasingly seen as inadequate, inaccessible and irrelevant in their functions….these institutions are leaving and losing a lot of their relevance to young people.

church-and-modern-office.JPGThe post modern way resists absolute truth. The most common phrase associated with post modernity is, ‘deconstructing the grand narrative.’ Which suggests that overarching stories, accepted truths (such as, the authority of scripture) are pulled apart (deconstructed) and all their inconsistencies lay to bare. The ultimate result of this is relativism – where my understanding of truth, though it may differ (to your understanding of truth), is as equally acceptable as your understanding of truth. No one owns truth; no belief system can impose their point of view on another if all belief systems are acceptable. If it is true for you then it must be true. Post modernism also sees an emphasis on personal experience over facts; a preference for story, symbols, and tradition over logic, reason, and the scientific model (reaction to modernism); a reclaiming of beauty and goodness; and that reality is whatever you make of it – you make it up as you go along. So given that New Zealand is identified amongst the most post modern nations in the world, it is no surprise that the Bible has lost some appeal. The classic post modern question might be, ‘What relevance does the Bible story have to me?’

As well as the decline in valuing the Bible, post modernism has contributed to the practice of fragmenting the scriptures. This is the process whereby we expose ourselves only to those passages that support our particular point of view, or we seek a quick ‘scriptural fix’ to life’s challenges.

It can also be seen in churches where the portion of scripture read on a Sunday morning is reduced to a few (if any) select verses embedded in a sermon. [10] In selecting only fragments of the Bible we lose the sense of the complete biblical narrative. Without this context the risk is the Bible is ultimately reduced to a collection of clever sayings that compete in a marketplace of self gratification; hardly the formula for Christian maturity.

I believe the church is facing a crisis through the devaluation of our primary text. The time has come for the church to address this crisis in a way that facilitates engagement with the Scriptures, through engagement with the prevailing contemporary culture. One such approach is utilizing the internet. According to the Internet World Stats website,[11] as at Sept 2005, 76.3% of New Zealanders used the internet. Particularly popular are online communities exemplified by such websites as www.myspace.com , www.wikipedia.com and www.youtube.com . These work from a social network platform with content provided by numerous users. As the content is user-generated a vast array of niche topics are presented providing a generously inclusive community. For more information on this see my post, ‘Ministry Engagement with Web 2.0.’

These web resources create a dynamic, fluid community of differing views and opinions – the ultimate expression of post modernity. One possible approach to assist in promoting Bible engagement is through the development of a web presence utilizing this online community approach. The aim would be to provide a space where the user can make a personal connection with the scriptures. Practically this could either be through interacting with the present offerings or creating a new website that uses the online community paradigm. To engage this generation will require that we move away from the modernist maxim of: ‘though our offering may be boring or unpalatable it is ultimately ‘good for you’ to one that is prepared to offer an experience that is meaningful for the individual.

Mark


[1] The Bible version used is the New International Version Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

[2] Fan the Flame: A National Bible Advocacy and Engagement Initiative Phase I—Research Report, July 14, 2005 by Scripture Union
USA and the American Bible Society. p.17

[3] Will our Children Have Faith?,
East Malvern, Victoria: Dove Communications. 1976, p34.

[4] Scripture and the Authority of God, SPCK, 2005, p. 3

[5] Some Notes Towards Bible Engagement. Address given to Scripture Union International Council Meeting

[6] Scripture and the Authority of God, SPCK, 2005, p. 84

[7] The World Values Survey is a worldwide investigation of sociocultural and political change. It has carried out representative national surveys of the basic values and beliefs of publics in more than 65 societies on all six inhabited continents, containing almost 80 percent of the world’s population. The first global survey was conducted in 1990 with the fifth one being conducted at present. See http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/ (accessed Feb 2006)

[8] Alan Wu is the 21 year old chair of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition.

[9] The post-modern, post-Christendom phenomenon is most present in the Pakeha community (New Zealanders of British or European ancestry).

[10] Interestingly the traditional churches such as the Anglican Church continue the practice of the public reading of Scripture. [11] http://www.internetworldstats.com/pacific.htm#nz accessed on the 6th of December, 2006 [12] I acknowledge and appreciate the expert input from Dave Gardner and Stephen Nelson.

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12 responses

7 02 2007
Martin Thompson

Hi Mark!
Always love to hear your thoughts on these issues – am wrestling with them myself. I have put a link to this artcile on my blog which is set up purely to discuss Bible Engagement issues.

12 02 2007
Phillip Zamagias

Good stuff Mark. You would like Michael Horton’s book “A Better Way” – especially chapter 2 ‘ A Dramatic Script’. ISBN 0-8010-6468-6. BTW, congratulations! It’s good to see such a happy father. May your family continually know God’s blessing in Jesus Christ. Phil.

13 02 2007
bsnzceo

Thanks for the lead on Michael’s book. What in particular stands out for you in chapter 2? I do hope your ministry continues to fly mate!

Mark

15 02 2007
g

The problem I have with blogs is that they tend to gravitate the same type of thinking together.
So that (pardon the pun) you preach to the converted. One could easily be convinced that the above is ‘truth’ just because everyone is in agreement. (Imagine if 10 thousand people agreed.)
Are you saying reading the bible is a form of moderism? (something factual). My understanding is moderism debunked many bible’s myths. That was the clash of ideals.
Then that post-moderism has somehow taken away the bible’s authority in modern culture? I think that had already happened.

I think there are many parts of the Bible that need to be read through contemporary understanding/culture. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible not to.

This isn’t flaming, just a differant point of view.
g

15 02 2007
bsnzceo

Thanks for posting this ‘g’. I agree with your critique of blogs and as I mention on the ‘About brownblog’ page,

“This blog is a collection of thoughts that aren’t so much a lecture but a conversation. So I encourage you to engage. Disagree, add your own thoughts, put your own stuff down. I look forward to the dialogue. ”

Homogeneous content is like a slow dawdle, you eventually get somewhere but it takes forever. Whereas growth and development comes through friction. I have always liked the image of how the pearl is made: a grain of sand enters the oyster, iritates the creature, becomes a wound that eventually leads to a pearl.

So bring on the disagreement!!! Lets converse, work through the stuff, try to understand where each stands etc…

You ask whether I am saying the Bible is a form of modernism. I was attempting to say that postmodernity is a reaction to modernity. Actually both modernism and postmodernism have sunk their daggers deep into the authority of the Bible. One through reference to scientific method and the other through relativistic perspective.

I would be interested in you expanding your statement:

“I think there are many parts of the Bible that need to be read through contemporary understanding/culture. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible not to. ”

Could you talk some more around this?

Thanks.

Mark

15 02 2007
g

Of course! The bible openly condones slavery, misogyny & murder to name a few things off the top of my head which you (I hope!) ignore.
You read your bible through modern contempory culture glasses – In a nono second you read and put it into context of todays society. If you actually read everything at face value and applied it you would probably be in a totally different ‘place’ to where you are now.
(Mentally, spirtually and enviromentally)
You pick and choose which bits are valid.
That is a hard fact for this modern or post-modernist to see past.

15 02 2007
bsnzceo

Interestingly I read your post and then received an email that included the following quote:

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My god, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

Soren Kierkegaard

I wonder how he would understand the Old Testament? All the same, great words.

Mark

21 02 2007
brownblog turns one month old! « brownblog

[…] What is the point of reading the Bible? […]

22 02 2007
Jeff Weiesnbach

g,

I would be interested in knowing what refferences in the Bible condone Mysogyny and Murder. I have never read these, and see the Biblical text condemning rather than condoning both.

As far as Slavery, What is “allowed” in the Bible is far different than what the 16th-19th century world knew. This is an example of we as fallen humans “picking”, (or as Mark said above “fragmenting the Scriptures”), to support our own view.

The Bible must be taken as a whole. As the Articles of Religion state in Article XX, “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so bisides the sam ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.”

I would love to continue this discussion, Like you I believe Blogs should be used to challenge one another. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Christ’s Peace.

10 03 2007
From Scripture Union to the Bible Society « brownblog

[…] in early Feb I posted an article called: ‘What is the point of reading the Bible?’ in which I argue that the church is facing a crisis in that few Christians regularly engage with […]

30 03 2007
Making the front page « brownblog

[…] Christian newspaper, Challenge Weekly The author John McNeil checked out the blog and used the post What is the Point of Reading the Bible? as the substance of the article. Plus we had a good chat on the phone. I want to thank John for a […]

16 10 2007
Sally

The point of reading the Bible? It says in it’s pages that it’s inspired, ‘God-breathed’, so to my way of thinking that’s a good place to look to see if God’s heartbeat is there, particularly if I’m keen to catch that beat. To do that I’d expect to have to sit with it and let it soak in and ride with the tension of some things feeling right and others being not to my liking at all.
Many of us look to confirm our opinions rather than being stretched and challenged and transformed. Maybe Christians are scared to really engage with the Bible.

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