I’ve never taken a sociology course but one of the things that sociologists are helpful for is in pointing out the distinctive practices of groups. This is helpful because if you’re a member of a particular group, you often assume your own practices and rituals (your ‘praxis’) and are therefore generally unreflective about them. This is the case with the “group” called evangelical Christianity no less so than it is the case with any other group. Our own culture, set of narratives, and praxis all form the way in which we perceive both ourselves and the world. And inside this story that we inhabit we are often unable to critically assess ourselves.
One area where this has come home to me is in the area of personal Bible reading or what is usually referred to as personal devotions. This is a core practice of evangelical Christianity because we see it as a core spiritual discipline and an integral part of what it means to know Jesus and to spend time with him. This is wonderful and is at least one means of responding to Jesus’ prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:5)
However, precisely because the practice of personal Bible is so very good, I think that we as evangelicals are often unreflective in the way we go about it. Today I want to ask just one reflective question regarding our habits of Bible reading that I have been asking myself for quite some time. The question is this: Why does our personal BIble reading most often consist of short chunks of Scripture?
What I am not going to now is answer that question. Disappointed? I know. I’m sure that you’re really really let down. Now that we’ve got that over with, let’s move on to what I do want to do, which is this: I want to mention one way in which the way I read Scripture has changed drastically over the past three years.
Coming into seminary, I most often read the Bible like most of us I suspect do. I would read it in little chunks, perhaps a chapter or two at a time, or in the times when I was trying to do a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan in chunks of perhaps three to four chapters a day. Then during one class my professor stipulated that the students all had to read Ezra-Nehemiah (one book originally) five times before the next week, and that each reading had to be completed in one, uninterrupted sitting. Now with Ezra’s 10 chapters and Nehemiah’s 13, that’s 23 chapters in a single sitting. Up to that point I don’t believe I’d ever read that much of the Bible in a single sitting before.
You know what the incredible part was? As I recall, it took about an hour and fifteen minutes or maybe an hour and a half to do. 1.5 hours for 23 chapters. Not bad, huh? Later the same professor would force me to read Exodus five times, each time in one sitting. That’s 40 solid chapters in one sitting. And this “forcing” has changed the way I read the Bible. It has changed it forever.
While reading the Bible in large chunks is not mandated and while it is certainly not the only way to do it, let me offer three reasons why this is an amazing spiritual practice.
1. This is how the Bible was meant to be read.
Most books of the Old Testament were written to be read out loud in one sitting (there are exceptions like Proverbs or Psalms). For example, Deuteronomy as one extended sermon certainly was. The same is true in the New Testament. The gospel writers envisioned their works as a single story, and often there are thematic connections between the beginnings and endings of the gospel accounts that presuppose the reader is hearing/reading it all in one sitting. Paul’s letters were read out loud in their entirety to 1st century congregations. The epistle of Hebrews is possibly an early Christian sermon. Ezra read the Law out loud to the Israelites for hours upon hours (see Nehemiah 8)!
2. The stories in the Bible will once again become what they were meant to be, stories.
That is to say, the life of Abraham in Genesis 12-25 is one extended story. It’s meant to be seen, not as disconnected units where he gets called out of Ur in ch. 12, a covenant given in ch. 15, another covenant in ch. 17, etc. etc. but rather as a single narrative of one man’s life with God. The chapter divisions in our Bible which didn’t appear until late in the 12th century, while helpful for referencing, do us a disservice here. It is striking when you read the Church Fathers, for example, how much of Scripture they know and often how very inexact their quotations of it are. That’s because they’re often quoting it from memory! But they read the extended stories in the Bible for what they are, extended stories; not bite-size photos.
3. It really isn’t as intense as it sounds.
Given, we all have various levels of busy in our lives and at different times in our lives. But how many of us can remember staying up all night to finish a new Harry Potter when it would come out? We would read Harry Potter for 10 or 12 hours straight. And yet the idea of reading the Bible for 1 hour straight has become almost a totally foreign concept.
So there are three reasons to hopefully encourage you to try this out sometime. If you’ve never done this, take a spare hour (maybe even set your phone on an hour timer) and give it a shot. I think you’ll be surprised at the results.
In short: read the Bible in small portions, but not only in small portions. Just like eating, at times you need snacks and at times you need full size meals, even feasts. Try a feast sized portion of the Bible sometime. One of my personal goals for the near future (which I still haven’t done) is to read Isaiah (66 chapters) in one sitting. I’ve done the first 39 in one sitting, but never all 66. Hopefully someday soon!
By God’s grace, let’s make it happen. He will bless us in the reading.