By Benjamin Shaw
I can hear the answer now: Same way I read any book, one word after another.
I just re-read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and it got me thinking about how we read our Bibles. He makes a distinction between reading for use and reading to receive. Since he is dealing with literature, he’s really making the distinction between reading literature for the sake of the literature (reading to receive) and reading for some other purpose, such as learning truths about life, or learning a worldview (reading for use).
In some sense the Bible is literature. But I fear that most Christians never read it as such. They read it for use, to use Lewis’s category. They read it in bits and pieces. They read selected verses that they’ve drawn together with the help of a concordance so that they can do word studies, or investigate particular doctrines. That’s not necessarily bad. It is an application of Paul’s statement about “all Scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16ff. But the end result of such an approach can be that the Bible is never really seen as anything more than a mine of doctrinal or practical nuggets: verses that can be committed to memory for some memory plan, or pulled out in case of need, like the lists of recommended verses for different counseling situations.
That may be part of the explanation for why many sermons on the psalms seem to completely miss the psalm itself. The preacher has, instead of seeing it as a literary whole, seen it as a series of doctrinal assertions. It may also explain why many Christians have a hard time reading the Bible. They’ve been taught that they need to read it for use. But as they begin to read it, they realize that the only parts they understand are the handful of verses they’ve memorized. Even the Sunday school stories they learned are a lot more complicated than they remember them to be: there’s a lot more to Noah than a big boat, or to David than the battle with Goliath. And don’t even mention the prophets.
Another part of the difficulty is that the Bible isn’t written at a fifth-grade level. Yet folks seem to think that they ought to be able to understand it the first time through. I’ve been reading it regularly for over forty years and there are parts that only now I think I am beginning to get a real handle on.
So try this the next time you read the Bible. First, lower your expectations. There’s a lot you’re not going to understand. There’s even a lot you’re not going to like. Second, get a Bible without the chapter and verse divisions. When was the last time you read a piece of literature that had page-long chapters subdivided into verses? Then just read it. Read it for its own sake. Read it receptively. Read it the way you would listen to a friend tell you a story. You listen because you want to hear, not because you think what he says is going to change your life, or teach you something you didn’t know before. The Bible will do that, because it’s God’s word. But if you read it just because you think you must, you’re missing out on the joy of it.
Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article is taken from his blog,