Learning the Story, Living the Story part 3: Don’t Read The Bible Alone.

Welcome to part three of my six part series on spiritual formation and the Bible. My basic thesis is this: We are formed by the Bible when we learn the story of God and live the story of God.

You can read part 1: Why We Don’t Read the Bible

and part 2: The Teacher’s Edition of Life

Let’s start with a story, shall we?

Ten years ago I was just finished with my sophomore year at the University of Oregon. Several people from my InterVarsity Fellowship spent the summer in Los Angeles learning about God’s heart for justice, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

One of the first things we did to get oriented to this new way of thinking (and it was VERY new to me) was to study Isaiah 58. I’ll give you a little snippet of the text.

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Now, I don’t know how clear that reading is to you, but this was how I interpreted what I read: God thinks his people are doing too much on the sabbath. They are working too hard doing all this “loosing bonds” stuff and “sharing their bread.” What they really ought to be doing is repenting in sackcloth and ashes. They should be bowing their heads. Isn’t that was is acceptable to the Lord?

I shared my brilliant observations with the group and to my surprise received about ten blank stares.

One girl, Laura, a Latina student from SoCal, kindly invited me to read it again.

Then the color drained from my face.

I realized that I had interpreted this passage to mean the exact opposite of what it actually said.

Thank God for Laura

And thank God that you don’t have to read the Bible by yourself. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t.

1) You Are Not As Smart as You Think You Are

That is not to say that you are an idiot, but let’s be honest, you ability to understand, interpret, and apply a book as complex as the Bible is limited at best.

My very first comment on this blog was a person telling me how I had missed the point of the chapter.

The Bible can be understood. It can be interpreted well. And it can be applied in a way that makes the world better. But do you really think that you can figure all that out by yourself?

I read Isaiah 58 and almost ended up doing the very thing God was warning against!

2) You Have Tons of Biases and Assumptions

Your experiences. Your Ethnicity. Your culture. Your geographical location. Your gender. Your tradition.

All of these things shape how you approach the text of the Bible.

Most of the time these things go unquestioned, particularly if you are part of the dominant or majority culture. “Of course this is what it means!” you might say.

Until you do a Bible study with someone from Kenya or someone who is a first or second generation Asian-American. Then you realize that there are entire worlds of meaning that you have never even considered.

3) Personal Reading is a Relatively New Idea

Most people throughout history didn’t know how to read.

How were they supposed to have quiet time? How were they supposed to spend time in the word?

Well, most likely, they weren’t. That is a luxury of an affluent and literate society. It also is a product of the individualistic philosophies of the Enlightenment.

So we shouldn’t act like personal Bible reading is the be all, end all of spiritual growth. I think it shouldn’t even be in the list of most important practices.

What do you think are the pros and cons of personal, individual Bible reading? Do you think there is any inherent irony in the fact that my whole blog is basically that?

part 1: Why we don’t read the Bible
Part 2: The Teacher’s Edition of Life
Part 4: Train Yourself to Read the Bible
Part 5: Context, Context, Context!
Part 6: The Word With Friends

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11 responses

  1. One of the things that drives me crazy is to sit in a Sunday School class. Discussion about scripture is being made and I hear something like this 15 times. “This verse means this to me.” And they are all different. And it can’t mean 15 different things. It means what it means. So, you have 15 different interpretations and some of those folks are daring you to tell them that theirs is wrong.

  2. I think one of the cons of the emphasis on personal bible reading is the way it can turn into a legalistic demand on people. There is this idea floating round that every Christian should be reading the bible on their own every day and that you are spiritually deficient if you are not doing that. I’m all for regularly hearing the word in some form but if this particular way of doing it is so very essential then as you pointed out how did Christians survive for the 1700ish years prior to mass literacy and printing? For some (and perhaps many) people, personal daily bible reading might be a helpful discipline but for some people it may not be the most fruitful option. Others might get much more benefit out of meeting with another Christian a couple of lunchtimes a week to read and discuss the bible together or some non-individual way of learning the word. Some people may find leaning more heavily on books or sermons for a while helps their learning more than fumbling through on their own. Some people (new parents ect.) may have lifestyles where there is legitimate difficulty in spending time alone bible reading every day. We should be encouraging people to use whatever method of learning bears the most fruit rather than guilting people into a model that may not be helpful.

    • I think many of the options you present could be very helpful. I would take one Scripture a week that you study really well with a couple of other people and then try to live out over every day reading something you don’t understand.

  3. Actually, what’s funny is that Isaiah passage is one of the texts for my Senior Exegetical Paper. And if there’s anything I’ve learned over the last 4 years at a Christian college, it’s that we should never approach a text as if we’re in a vacuum. Millions have come before us and millions will come after who’ve read the same thing – why wouldn’t we consult them?

  4. DEFINITELY:
    The scriptures were written for a corporate audience – I can’t t think of a single passage that was written for an individual (I almost said “Philemon,” but even then, there were a few other people that Paul wrote it to (Apphia and Archippus).
    There is enough heresy and weird thoughts that groups discover in the scriptures. Don’t leave me alone in the Bible, or else who knows what I’ll “discover…”

    And regarding your blog – you may study alone in your room/office, but are there other “voices” speaking to you? Commentaries, articles, Bible dictionaries, etc?

    • I do use commentaries sometimes, but, and I will write about this in a few weeks, I feel like presenting my findings to the readers is a form of reading in community. I don’t keep what I find to myself. I actually love it when someone has a different take on what I have read or what I have said about it.

      But some of my best posts of late have been when I’ve talked to my wife about what I am reading. She is also a Bible nerd.

      • That is one of the biggest reasons why I am blogging. It is my small way of sharing with others what I am learning in my Bible studies. And I know what you mean about talking to your wife. I love those little moments when my husband and I just stop what we’re doing and discuss a passage or idea for just a few minutes. A different take on what you’ve read can be a wonderful thing, as well as someone to bounce your ideas off of!

  5. This is one of the great advantages if the internet, and sites such as these. It provides the input that can help to unravel the meaning behind the words. One of the big problems with any Bible study is words, they may often get in the way of meaning. The answer is to expand ones understanding by exposing oneself to the understandings of others, but we often fall back only reading or listening to people we agree with. After all Jben, “you must be right because you agree with me”

  6. Pingback: Collaboration, Community and Christ « Deuceology

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