Monday, June 21, 2010

A Modest Plea for Bible Reading

From time to time people who know of my appreciation for C. S. Lewis will ask me if I’ve read some recent book about Lewis. I always say the same thing: “No. I don’t read books about C. S. Lewis; I read Lewis.” There is this idea afoot that secondary literature (writings about other writings) is somehow as good as, or even perhaps more valuable than, primary literature (the writings themselves). And so, as a result people read biographies or “studies” of C. S. Lewis, thereby intending to understand his “thought,” rather than going straight to the “horse's mouth,” so to speak, and reading Lewis’s own writings themselves. “You’ll learn more Plato from the ‘experts’ than by reading the Symposium; you’ll learn more Homer from the textbook on ancient Greek literature than by reading the Odyssey.” I don’t much think so.

I’m sure some of it is merely the result of feelings of inadequacy. “How could I possibly know as much as the experts about Homer or Plato or Lewis?” Some, no doubt, is the result of indolence. It’s easier to let the experts do the hard work and boil it all down to a few “scholarly paragraphs” which can then be lifted and dropped in an appropriate context as if I had done the work myself.

But nowhere is this tendency more pervasive and insidious than in reading the Bible. Years ago, I was teaching at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, and I had gone home to South Florida for a holiday. While I was there, at church one Sunday someone came up to me and, knowing that I was a seminary professor, asked what I thought about Experiencing God (a “Bible study” course popular in the churches at the time). I said: “I don’t have an opinion; I haven’t read it.” The person looked shocked and said: “What do you mean you haven’t read it? Why, I thought that’s what you’d be teaching in the seminary!” Said I, “No, we still teach the Bible in the seminary.”

I’m constantly amazed at the lengths to which Christians will go to avoid reading the Bible, preferring just about any “study” or “exposition” or “inspirational writing” to the Bible. You go to a “Bible study” these days and there is precious little reading or study of the Bible itself going on at all! They’re studying Rick Warren or Beth Moore or whoever is perceived to be “trendy” or “relevant” at the moment. I observe that many, appropriately enough, don’t even call them “Bible studies” anymore. “I’m attending a Beth Moore study.” Precisely. Again, in my judgment the causes are the same: inadequacy and indolence. Some feel inadequate to move into a collection of writings composed in a world and a culture so vastly different from our own, so they look to the “experts” (credentialed or self-styled) to negotiate the distance for them. Others just don’t want to work that hard.

But the real tragedy is that the Bible, when given a chance, is not nearly so inscrutable as many seem to think. If one would just sit down and read a Gospel from beginning to end as one would any other story, the plot, the characters, the setting, and the message come through with surprising clarity. Even Paul’s letters, which Peter said were “difficult to understand” (2 Peter 3:14-16), nonetheless speak with striking relevance across cultures and through centuries when given a chance to speak for themselves.

And so, here’s a novel idea! Why not, at your next Bible study, actually study the Bible, rather than books about the Bible? Leave the “experts” and the “inspirational speakers” standing out in the hall and instead invite Matthew and Paul and John and Luke to your Bible study. Just read the Bible and see if it doesn’t make more sense than all those books about the Bible that are trying to “explain” it to you. I dare you!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

This is a great post! May I use this post on the website of the church that I pastor? I am encouraging people to read the Bible everyday and I think this would be an encouragement to them.

Michael A. Jordan
Pastor, Mount Vernon Baptist Church
Axton, Virginia

R. Wayne Stacy said...

I would be honored.

Pax Christi,


Anonymous said...

Thank you! Here is a link to what I have posted on our website.

John Meunier said...

I love the line about teaching the Bible at seminary - especially the word "still."

Thank you for this post.

John King said...

I think this is one of your best posts. There has been some discussion of late that Christians no longer share enough common beliefs to the extent that we now must speak of Christianities. To all Christians who want to emphasize differences, I always ask them to read the Bible with me. Book by book, all they way through each book at a time. They usually have many objections. Too hard, too many different interpreations...... When they are done with the objections, I invite them. Let's start with Mark....all the way through. Many times I get the question, "How many verses? Or, how many chapters?" My answer is, "The chapters and verses are not part of the Bible." Lets just start together. My hope is that by the time we reach Jesus on the cross that we will both see the Son of God.

Roger Lovette said...

Wise words Wayne about the Bible.Keep writing...Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks, Roger. I enjoy your stuff too! Read it regularly.

Pax Christi,