Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bible Reading 1: Get out of It or Get It in Us

This post is about how we approach the Bible. I begin with a caveat and some historical background. I am, admittedly, writing in response to my upbringing. In my teen and early adult years, I spent much time in terrific, Bible-focused churches led by great, godly leaders. There was one thing, though. The more I grew, the more it bugged me. It was Bible reading. I have lived with a long-standing uncertainty about what is typically called “quiet time” “personal study time” or “daily devotions.” I affirm the supreme importance and value of constant engagement with God’s revealed Word. I know the wonderful intentions of those who told me to spend daily time with God. But, looking back, I see two things that bothered me. First, every problem one faced should be solved, sometimes exclusively, by more Bible reading and prayer.[1] Second, and more to the point, there was a prescribed method and mindset for Bible reading. It could be brief, if necessary, but it must be done daily, and first thing in the morning is the ideal time. Why? So morning reading can inspire and direct the day. This is a wonderful ideal. But for young, overtired kids who’ve not learned how to manage time, get enough sleep and certainly don’t rise refreshed and ready for a new day, it’s also a bit like trying to nail Jello to the wall (to borrow a phrase from one of our wonderful HS youth speakers). Not to mention the fact that, in a TV culture that taught us to hold information in our heads for three seconds and then forget it, the chances of my taking some spiritual truth with me throughout the whole day were extremely slim.[2]
I tried the daily reading method many times, after inspiring retreats or mission trips made me think I could do it. Eventually, the routine would fail. Lack of discipline? Yes. Perhaps I was also trying to work within an unfitting mold.[3] In college, I found a way to justify not using the daily devotion model: if I could read longer chunks (like my Bible profs told me was important, to get context) with greater focus by reading 2 to 3 times a week for an hour rather than 10-15 minutes a day, wasn’t that just as good or better? And if I was more awake and focused in the evening (life in college starts at 10pm and my average bedtime was 2am) then isn’t evening superior to the supposedly “fresh” time (sometimes as short at 10 minutes) between rolling out of bed and arriving at my 8am class? In seminary, study often did double duty as school work and personal devotion. This had drawbacks, but, thanks to my personality and God’s grace, it worked okay. Study feeds my soul.
Part of me still thinks I should and wishes I would rise early each morning to read and pray. I still don’t. I still struggle for consistency in these disciplines at other times. But with more years of reflection on this personal struggle, I’ve come to question the underlying motivation that seems to lie behind the generally-prescribed devotional method, and to wonder if that nagging prescription promotes unnecessary guilt.
We live in a consumeristic age. And religion is not exempt. This is noted often and by many, especially by observing how the church (indeed, the whole Christian subculture) mirrors the entertainment industry and markets religion to passive, comfortable consumers. It’s worth asking, as many have,[4] how this consumeristic faith compares with Jesus’ call to cross-bearing discipleship. More specifically, it’s worth considering how this environment affects our approach to Scripture and our aims in reading it.
The goal proposed, or presupposed, by some proponents of daily devotional reading is to get something from the text – some truth, story or proverbial statement – that will inspire our Christian living. The logic runs like this: I put in my daily devo time, I get inspiration for the day. Sounds rather transactional, like buying our daily bread.[5] Without denying the truth that God does, in fact, inspire us through his Word and often speaks directly to our current need, I think this mentality misses the mark. When the goal is merely to get something out of Scripture, we forget another, perhaps greater, goal: getting the Scripture into us. We need more than a morsel of truth to strike a heart chord each morning; we need to soak in the Story of Scripture until it saturates our soul.
The tidbit for today approach has three negative consequences:
1. It frequently leads to discouragement. What do we do when the text we turn to does not inspire? What if we are trying to develop the discipline (for that’s what it is) of reading of the whole Bible? Today’s passage is a long genealogy, a laborious architectural plan, or a slice of scrupulous sacrificial regulation? Were we filled and inspired? Probably not. Will we want to want to pick up the Book again tomorrow? There’s a good chance we won’t.[6] And missing a day[7] is the beginning of the end, especially on a through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan. If you’re a slow reader like me, it’s hard enough to read all the assigned chapters each day, let alone catch up on the two days I missed last week.[8]
2. It shrinks our canon. If we’re not following a plan, we tend to return, again and again, to our favorite texts. So we never read all of Scripture. We avoid the books that are equally inspired by God, but less inspiring to us. Their genre, historical-cultural distance or interpretive difficulty keeps us from mining their treasures. Until I started reading and studying them in seminary, the OT prophetic books were the unwrinkled (= unread) pages in my Bible. Why? Because they’re hard! Poetry in English is tough. But Hebrew poetry full of alien allusions and foreign place names, that’s too much! How can these texts inspire me if I don’t even know what they’re talking about (except, of course, for a few favorites like Isaiah 40)? However, if my goal had been to get the Word in to me, slowly and bit by bit, rather than to get something out of it, I might have been more motivated to press on through the prophets.
3. This perseverance would, in turn, help reverse a third regrettable result of selective reading, namely, misguided interpretation caused by reading texts (esp. NT texts) in isolation from their canonical context. When I started reading the prophets, I realized that this was what Jesus and Paul and all the rest were talking about too! It only makes sense that, since the OT was their Bible, they would speak in its terms. So the more the prophets’ words sunk into me, the more clearly I heard what they and their successors were saying.
Thus we’ve come full circle. Reading the whole Bible, and doing it even when it does not inspire, provides a context in which the whole Bible – our favorite texts and the rest – comes to have more meaning for us. Even Leviticus fascinates and pulsates with glory when we read it as part of the larger Story of a chosen family from a rebellious race (Genesis) who were redeemed from bondage by their covenant-keeping God (Exodus) and called to covenant faithfulness (Sinai), which, among other blessings, would allow the holy God to dwell among them (Leviticus 26:11-12)! If Leviticus is seen within that Story, as God’s gracious provision for sinful people to live in his presence and enjoy his fellowship, the details, though still difficult, become a bit more bearable and even beautiful.
As we read again and again and learn from wise teachers, the big picture begins to take shape in our minds. We get glimpses of the grand Story that inspire us to take up and read on. Foreign parts grow familiar, difficult parts make sense. The Word takes root in us so it can bear fruit through us. I read not just to get something for today, but to get the Word in my heart and mind so it is there when I need it.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. –Psalm 119:11
What are you’re thoughts on the daily devotions model? Does it work for you or frustrate you? How do mindset and motives affect our regular Bible reading? What should be our goals in reading?

[1] They were right that these are crucial elements in spiritual health, growth and wholeness and that they are the first things to slide when a person pursues sin, but there may be more factors at play and more holistic solutions.
[2] On this point, see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
[3] I’m fully aware of the anti-authority sentiments in this sentence and this post. I’m increasingly aware that I am by no means immune to the rebellious streak that blossomed in the 1960s and now characterizes America’s youth culture. I hope I’m learning to live in the tension between humbly learning from tradition and critically engaging past and present to find a more faithful way forward.
[4] E.g. Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1980; 2000).
[5] Daily bread, Jesus reminds us, is a gift we seek from the Father (Matthew 6:11), not a product we purchase. Reading scripture is a relational communion of heart and mind, not a results-driven religious obligation.
[6] There are, of course, some among us with extraordinary discipline, who thrive on the daily reading routine. But an equal danger lurks for them: routine can easily run dry. We may do it just to check a box, or worse, to tell others that we’ve checked a box. True, at least we’re doing it, but it doesn’t approach the joyful, worshipful experience that the quiet time promoters promise, so it too can produce discouragement.
[7] One might think of numerous other reasons for missing a day that would discourage a person who’s convinced that daily reading is essential: unexpected family emergency, illness, travel, etc.
[8] My defensive side wants to add: “Don’t even start with the ‘If you were really serious you’d make the time’ guilt trip. I’m a pretty serious guy, but that means I’ve got a lot going on. I try to do it all for God’s glory. Bible reading is one thing among many.” But I know there is some truth in that guilt trip and there is room to improve my priorities and practices. However, the point remains that life is full of unexpected event and competing demands, and “just making the time” is not as simple as some make is sound. If old habits are hard to break, new ones can be equally hard to begin and demanding ones can be hard to sustain.

No comments:

Post a Comment