When I was eight years old, I was given my first real Bible. It was one of those cheap, mass-produced “award” Bibles with a faux leather cover and a page inside to write my name, the date I received the Bible, and from whom I had received it. And, it was the King James Version.
I remember that Bible, with the red edges on the pages and the itty-bitty font. I wish I still had it, but after the taping and retaping of its pages and binding many times, that Bible eventually found its way into the bottom of a trash can. (It felt sacrilegious to me at the time, and still doesn’t feel quite right all these years later.) While it would be insincere to claim that THAT Bible is what sparked the desire in me to become a pastor, I do sincerely believe that holding God’s word in my hands at such a young age had a profound impact on me and the choices I have made in my life. I’m grateful for that Bible and for the family and church family who gave it to me and encouraged me to read it.
But, as grateful as I am to have been exposed to the Word at such a young age, I am also aware that the way I was taught to approach Scripture resulted in far more shame around my Bible-reading habits than in a deep love for finding God through the words He has given us. Maybe the first bit of trouble was the translation itself. The King James Bible is a work that’s importance would be impossible to truly describe—but it may not be the most accessible version to hand out to kids in early elementary school. And, within that decision itself—to encourage children to read the KJV—there was a far more dangerous message lurking: it is more important to READ the Bible than to UNDERSTAND it.
By the time I was ten years old, I had developed serious guilt around the issue of how much Bible reading I was doing. I had internalized a message that Christians were supposed to read through Scripture in a calendar year—at a pace of about three chapters a day, which in the KJV felt more like ten—and failure to achieve that lofty goal had direct implications about my spiritual walk and commitment to Jesus. Inevitably, I would get on track for a few days, then slip a bit (which led to reading six chapters the next day) and eventually give up because the task was too daunting. And, in the midst of my struggles to perform what I believed was a basic aspect of my faith, I don’t recall ever hearing someone say that my focus shouldn’t be on total pages read, but on understanding and transformation.
From my vantage point, I don’t believe that the majority of churches today are teaching people that they must read three chapters of their Bible a day or face the wrath of God, but I do believe that many churches still place a greater value on Bible reading than Bible understanding.
What’s the problem with focusing on reading instead of understanding? The transformative nature of Scripture is minimized and our propensity to re-author Scripture is maximized.
In other words, we naturally read Scripture and filter it through our own categories and experiences, creating a meaning from a passage that aligns with the world as we already understand it. And as long as we, as pastors and church leaders, continue to press people toward reading rather than understanding, we will continue to produce Christians who misunderstand and misapply Scripture. We will continue to contribute to a Church that is missing a real encounter with the Word of God.
So, what is the alternative? It’s one thing to name the problem and identify the negative outcomes of a culture of reading over understanding, but how can we help people move beyond their inclination to re-author Scripture and instead experience the wild and wonderful world described and explained in Scripture? How can people approach their Bibles in a way that will lead to transformation?
One way is to teach people about recurring themes of Scripture. An example of this is the theme of “Exodus.” Many (Most? All? One can hope…) Christians know that Exodus is the name of a book in the Old Testament, but it’s so much more than that. The Exodus becomes a prevailing narrative for the people of Israel that informed how they understood themselves and how God communicated with them. When Israel was in dire straits, they called out to God and He delivered them—that’s the “Exodus” part—from slavery in Egypt. Following the Exodus, Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years until finally moving into the land that God had promised them generations earlier.
Those themes—God’s deliverance, freedom from Egypt, freedom from slavery, 40 years in the wilderness, the promised land—come up again and again in Scripture. And when that theme comes up, it gives us a deeper insight into the meaning of a text.
A quick example: At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by the devil. An example of re-authoring this passage may be that as I read I think of times in my life when I was tempted and then I consider how Jesus didn’t give into temptation, which leads me to decide that next time I’m tempted I won’t give into temptation, either.
But, what’s really happening is so much bigger.
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness are intended to call us back to thinking about Israel in the wilderness. And, just as they were tempted and tried in the wilderness—Jesus was as well. Jesus is embodying the story of Israel because Jesus is—as he will say himself, later in the Gospel—the fulfillment of Israel’s purpose. At the end of Israel’s 40 years, they entered the promised land. The Kingdom where God was the King. And, Israel was intended to be a nation set apart—a light to the world.
As the fulfillment of that purpose, Jesus becomes the light of the world and calls us—his body—to be lights as well and to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Simply reading the passage leaves me with a moralistic teaching about resisting temptation, while understanding the theme of Exodus helps me connect dots across Scripture to see a fuller picture of what Jesus set out to achieve in his life and ministry.
When we have a fuller understanding of the themes of Scripture, we find ourselves swept into the stories themselves, being transformed by the words of God to live out those stories in our own lives.