Why do we read the Bible so little?
The Bible is undoubtedly America’s most owned and least read book. The average American household owns three Bibles; a quarter of American homes own six or more (see here). One of the true tragedies, however, is how little the Bible is read among the evangelical Christian population. Almost every evangelical has their opinions about this or that in the Bible and has heard stories about Jonah, Moses, or Elijah; very few have ever actually read those stories for themselves though.
Now in saying that us Christians nowadays do not read the Bible enough, I am not saying two things. First, I am not saying that I am exempt from this charge. Second, I am not intending to set up a new legalism where we say believers need to spend X amount of time reading the Bible every day. I wholeheartedly repudiate such a notion. In fact, I am concerned that too often the evangelical idea of a “quiet time” gets turned into a spiritualized form of “God only loves me if I have a quiet time” legalism. More on that later though.
What I do want to focus on is the phenomenon of Bible reading and how it may relate to Bible publishing. Confused? Let’s clear up what I mean.
In an interesting article, former Bible publisher Ben Irwin has written about the modern proliferation of Bible versions and Bibles in general. The first point he tackles, and the only one I’m going to comment on is the idea of the “commodity” or the “niche” Bible. Think things like age specific Bibles (Teen Study Bible; Girls Life Application Study Bible; The Boys Bible), topic specific Bibles (The Apologetics Study Bible, The Archaeological Study Bible), and what the marketing world would call “interest group” Bibles (Comic Book Bible; The Soldier’s Bible; and even the Firefighter’s Bible). Nowadays we have a thousand different versions of the Bible and are reading it less than ever. This leads Irwin to ask, “What if the proliferation of Bibles is part of the reason we’re reading scripture less?”
Now I’m not against “niche” Bibles and I know that they have done a lot of good. What I am concerned about however, is how the “niche” Bible may be affecting our attitudes toward the Bible itself. In particular, is this phenomena of the “niche” Bible subconsciously turning us into consumers of the Bible, much like we consume fashion trends or movies based on our own interests and preferences? Does having a “Firefighter’s Bible” actually counter-intuitively lower how much we read the Bible?
More pointedly, do niche Bibles subtly encourage us to read the Bible to focus on our felt needs, rather than focusing on what the text of Scripture actually says and means? Does it reinforce our trend to read the Bible looking for immediate application without first putting forth any effort to understand what the text is actually saying?
While I don’t think there are definitive answers to these questions, I do think they’re worth considering. In particular, I am especially afraid that the sheer quantity of versions of the Bible that we have today does encourage us to read the Bible as a sort of self-help manual, written to solve all my problems and assuage my felt needs. If I’m not getting what I want out of Bible A, that’s fine, I can just go to Amazon and order Bible B. After all, this one has notes just for me.
At the end of the day though, this kind of Bible reading will never satisfy. In won’t satisfy because the Bible was not written directly to me (though it was written for me), and it does not always directly address my pressing felt-needs, like “How do I get a job?” or “Why doesn’t my boss like me?” Thankfully, however, the Bible does something much better. It tells us of a story bigger than our own little lives and it beckons us to be swept up into that story; a grand story of God redeeming all of creation through his Son. And it’s not that the Bible doesn’t deal with our needs. Rather it’s that it redefines our needs and shows us our true needs, in turn leading us to true “abundant life” through becoming disciples of Jesus (John 10:10). At the end of the day, that is the kind of Bible that is worth reading; that is the kind of Bible that will make all other books pale in comparison.
(Note: this is the first in a series of posts where I’ll be dealing with topics Bible-related. In future posts I’ll deal with the proliferation of Bible translations and how that is affecting the way we think about the Bible, and I’ll also give some thoughts on The Message and what it means to build our Christian life upon the possible quicksand of highly-interpretive translations.)