Q: To be honest, I’ve never really read the Bible much and I want to get more into it. Do you have any tips or guidelines on how to go about this?
If you haven’t been reading for awhile, or you are just getting into it for the first time, there are some things to keep in mind before just jumping back into it. After you immerse yourself in it, there’s no end to the depths of it, and there are many very qualified people who wrote about the more advanced stuff. I particularly recommend “How to Read the Bible”, which is a small booklet by Father Matthew the Poor that is one of the best pieces I have ever read on this subject. This, however, is for those of us who are just hopping back into it at an older age.
I’ll start with general guidelines and thoughts, and at the bottom I’ll try and use an example to get your mind into it. I’m mostly focused on the Gospels because for someone who hasn’t been reading regularly, that’s the most important place to start, because it’s what Christian life is all about.
a) Make sure that you know what this book is.
That is, the Bible isn’t a history or science textbook, so don’t treat it like one. People have this bizarre attitude toward the Bible and I’m not sure why, given that we don’t do it to other religious texts or famous pieces of literature! For example, some people freak out that in Genesis it says that God created “those two great lights the sun and the moon”, and start going nuts with “The moon isn’t a star! See?! It’s Stupid! Bad Bible!” That’s lame. The Bible isn’t a science book. The person writing is writing as a person. To us, the moon is a light. Normal people take walks by the moonlight, they don’t say that they took a walk by the light of the sun which is reflected in the celestial body that we call the moon which is really a rock. Seriously.
The Bible is the story of our relationship between God and humanity. It’s the mind of God as revealed to us in time and space. It’s the movement between creation and its Creator.
b) Understand the Bible and where it comes from.
Try and understand the context in which it was written. As you get more comfortable with the Bible itself, start to try and understand the Tradition of the Bible and where it comes from. I’m saying this particularly because we live in an age that is obsessed with critical thinking. I’m not opposed to such thinking, but to think critically you need to understand critically as well. If a person jumps into the middle of a conversation and randomly criticises the members of the conversation, then he’s ignorant. Before going off on people, you need to understand what they’re talking about and the context of the conversation and where they’re both coming from as members of the conversation. You can’t just jump in and be like, “They’re so lame, they don’t even know [insert clever one-liner]” No, come to the Bible with an open mind, not with your own opinions to impose on the Bible, try and understand what is the Bible saying, not what you think it should say. If God is real, then I would think that His opinion on things is valuable, no?
c) Understand what “inspiration” means in our Church.
Unlike other traditions, we don’t believe that the Bible was ever dictated by an angel or God (unless otherwise indicated!). The Bible was written by many people over many years and they were not writing a piece of literature that they knew would be called the Bible. They were simply writing. We put it together and gave it the name Bible, which just means “bunch of books” in modern English. To us, inspiration is about a person writing, and the Holy Spirit was invisibly guiding the person and working through them in their own state, as they were! This is very important. The people writing were simply being themselves and often had no clue that there was something in their writing that was going to be prophetic (with the exception of the prophets, of course). So for example, David would be writing a a poem, and he could be just speaking from his heart while having no idea the Spirit was working with him, and that what he wrote would end up prophetic. That’s different than other prophets who were very explicitly prophesying. So understand that while you are reading because one of the most beautiful thing about the Bible is that the characters are very real and very human.
d) Do and don’t be critical.
It’s important to have a critical mind, so I’m not suggesting to turn your mind off entirely, that’s not the idea. But there’s a difference between reading something with the objective of saying “this is stupid“, and there’s another person who asks “What is this saying?” Open your mind!!! People scoff but it’s not a small thing that this “book” has changed lives for millennia. It’s not a small thing that so many prophesies could be made and come true. If that were to happen today people would be in awe, but for some reason specifically with the Bible we get all sceptical.
At the same time, question things! Yes, ask lots of questions! The Bible isn’t afraid of your questions! If you read commentary from many of the early church fathers, they were way more attuned to what appeared to be discrepancies and were very critical, so don’t think you’re the first person to have questions when you read. Questions are welcomed. But couple this with the understanding of inspiration to know that we’re not talking about infallible words of infallible authors. We’re reading to understand the message of the Spirit and to hear the mind of God, and to understand the history of the relationship between God and Humanity.
e) Focus on the message.
When first starting, focus on the message and save the super duper analysis for when you’ve gone through the content first and understood the spirit of the gospels. It’s good to understand the context, too, but but again, get the message first.
f) Where to start and how to do it
If you’re just starting or just getting into it, I think it’s important to start with the Gospels – any of them. My favourite is John but it’s important to go through all of them, they were written to different audiences and you can see that in the style.
i) Pray and ask for God to speak before you begin reading.
ii) When reading: really dive into it.
Step into the world of the Gospels and understand the whole thing going on – cultural context, historical context, everything! We’re in Roman Judea after an exile and after many world leadership changes (Assyrian, Babylonian, then Greeks then Romans), all of this is an important backdrop that has a meaning. Ask yourself who are the characters? Who are Levites? Who are Pharisees? etc…
iii) Don’t just get into context, get into the characters and MEDITATE.
Put yourself in the shoes of every person in the story you read and think “if some dude said this to me today, what would I think?” Then think back into their context, what would it have meant to this person? Then step back and realise that this isn’t “some dude”, this is God. What is God saying here, and is this the answer that I would have given if someone would have asked me what they think God thought of something?
For example, in the story of the Samaritan woman in John – the lady comes at noon to the well. That’s the hottest time of day! She’s coming at that time because she’s a social outcast (historical context), she wants to avoid people. Then note that Jesus goes out of His way to go to a land that was pretty much forbidden for Jews because they had become racist (historical context). He gets into conversation with this woman, and He’s letting her talk. He’s a good listener and He’s social, too (meditation). In fact, He started the conversation. When she says she has no husband, even though the lady is living in sin and has a rough life, Christ doesn’t say, “Yeah, you sinner!” He praises her for telling the truth! He tells her “you have well said that you have no husband because the truth is x, y, and z…” The lady’s perspective, “Whoah! Who is this guy? How does he know this about me? What the…?!” And then ask yourself, Would I have thought that about Jesus? Is this what I thought of God? He is not saying, as some would today, “Yeah, you’re living in sin and that’s terrible and you better repent because you’re going to hell!” Instead, He’s praising her for telling the truth, then chills and talks with her and gets her so happy and excited that she brings the whole town. Whoah – look, one of the ways to bring people to Christ is to experience the joy and love that comes from dialoguing with Him. That teaches you how people leave their encounters with Christ, it’s not in misery (meditation). Then meditate some more: Why would the whole town listen to some sinner woman etc… They have lives, she’s a basket-case, but they listened. Would you today listen to some random that runs into work and says, “Guys, check out this guy that I met today, this is crazy but…” You get the point. If you don’t get into it, you will just see words and be so dismissive, but these stories are testimonials.
So again, really get into the story and not just read superficially and say “yeah, that’s nice”. Then understand the message.
When He says, “listen, the time is coming where you will not have to pray in Jerusalem or on this mountain, but you will worship in spirit and in truth…” – what does that mean? Especially when up until then they were told they had to pray in a certain way and in a certain place, and that commandment had come from the religious authorities! So what was changing and why was that change coming? And what does it mean that there’s suddenly communion between Samaritans and Jews? That would have sounded messed up to them.
Get deep. Reflect. Meditate.
When they ask Jesus about paying taxes (to test him by getting all political), He’s not like, “Yeah, that’s lame, we’re above that.” He says, “Give Caesar what’s his and God what’s God’s. Yes, you’re a believer but you’re also a citizen!” Oh, so being a Christian doesn’t mean that I have to hate my country. I could go on and on. If you have trouble doing this, find yourself a good buddy who can help here and there, but I’m confident that anyone approaching the Bible with honesty and wanting to learn, will learn.
g) Meditation, Application and Frequency
When you’re done, don’t just slam the Book shut. Sit quietly for a little bit and think about what you have read, and ask yourself, How can I apply a principle from what I’ve read this whole week? For example, if you read the Samaritan woman that day, then why not think “Okay, for the next two days, I’m going to be as welcoming as I can to people that I wouldn’t usually associate with or who come to me that I would usually brush off.
Or, like our Lord Jesus, even if someone is doing something wrong or that annoys me or even wronged me, this week I’m going to look for the good in all those that I criticise. I will even complement them if possible. This is taking the Bible and living it so that the Truths of it can be experienced, not just discussed over tea and biscotti.
Try and and be honest with the Bible – don’t read it for a day and then stop. Read it daily, and try and read it at the same time each day so that it becomes part of your life, not an afterthought.
h) Some physical aspects of reading
Use a pen/highlighter. Underline things. Scribble notes in your Bible. Keep a journal if you wish.
I hope this is enough to help you get started. Many people have experience in this, so don’t be alarmed if others have other methods that help them get deeper in the Word that is different.
Press on, and may the Lord grant you grace.