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Reading the Bible for its own sake

This is an article I wrote for the national Baptist magazine (NZ) this month. I had to write 5-700 words that were provocative but not controversial and also served to be a little personal, so people could get to know me... let me know what you think.

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My two year old daughter, Charlotte, often requests songs at bedtime. Sometimes she makes up titles that she wants me to sing. If I can, I try and find a song that fits the title she has made up. Sometimes, especially with the more wacky titles, I have to improvise an original. The other night she asked to sing “pray.” Well, I know there is an MC Hammer song by that name but it isn’t really a bedtime number, and I can’t rap. But I did remember an old children’s song, “read your Bible, pray every day (repeat a few times)... if you want to grow.” Charlotte enjoyed it and has asked for it again since. Now Charlotte does pray every day but reading is a little beyond her just yet. However, singing that song has made me think about how, although I have always known that I should read the Bible every day, for a long time, whenever I did read it, I often wondered what I was supposed to do with it.

I think the problem for me stemmed from the expectation that every time I read the Bible I should be receiving some sort of message from God, some radical new insight into God’s will for me or something. Of course if this actually happened everyday it would be both exhausting and confusing. Recently I asked our church youth group what sort of book the Bible was, (which is a trick question, it’s not a book it’s a library!) and the answers ranged from a book that predicted the future to an instruction manual for our lives. I then pointed them to some of the more awkward and confusing passages of scripture (e.g. Leviticus 15 or Psalm 137) and asked how those fitted into their idea of what the Bible was. It was great to see the lights come on, especially as those same lights had only come on for me relatively recently.

So much of our difficulty in reading the Bible comes from it not being the book we think it should be. When we read the Bible with our own idea of what the Bible is our Christian growth can get stunted. It is not our holy horoscope. It is not basic instructions before leaving earth. It is not God’s thoughts on every little detail of my life. It is not the Christian version of Nostradamus’ prophecies. It is not even a theology textbook! If God had intended it to be any of those things then surely it would have turned out different. Bible reading that will help us grow starts with reading the Bible just for its own sake, without preconceptions or agenda. What you will discover then, is that the Bible is so much more than you thought it was. So much more interesting, deep, powerful, strange, dangerous, surprising, and inspired, than any book you or I could have come up with.

So, for what it is worth, here is my suggestion for what to do with the Bible. Get to know it. Don’t put pressure on yourself to turn every verse into a word for you right now. Take it easy, explore the nooks and crannies. Don’t jump from one verse to another but read big chunks. Don’t be afraid to spend a week, even a month or more, just getting to know one intriguing part really well. Don’t be too quick to find answers to the questions the text raises, instead sit with ambiguity; wrestle with God’s word. Don’t explain away the bits that don’t fit with your theology, instead let them challenge and provoke you. Find the unpopular passages of scripture and befriend them. Most-of-all, read what it actually says, instead of worrying about what it might say to you.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in applying the Bible to our lives, that it should guide our theology, and that it gives us hope for the future; but this way I think we stand a better chance of being transformed (and grown) by God’s word rather than accidentally conforming the Bible to our own ideas of what it should be.

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