Tag Archives: Bible Reading

Report: The Bible in American Life

The Story: Surveys have found that nearly eight  in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God. At the same time, other surveys have revealed—and recent books have analyzed—surprising gaps in Americans' biblical literacy. These discrepancies reveal American Christians' complex relationship to their scripture, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated. To understand that paradox, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture conducted the first large-scale investigation of the Bible in American life.

woman-reading-bibleThe Background: "The Bible in American Life" is a national study by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. The purpose of the study is to understand better how Americans use the Bible in their personal daily lives and how other influences, including religious communities and the Internet, shape individuals' use of scripture. The project, according to its researchers, was driven by the recognition that, though the Bible has been central to Christian practice throughout American history, many important questions remain unanswered in scholarship, including how people have read the Bible for themselves outside of worship, how denominational and parachurch publications have influenced interpretation and application, and how clergy and congregations have influenced individual understandings of scripture.

The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the report include:

• There is a 50/50 split among Americans who read any form of scripture in the past year
and those who did not. Among those who did, women outnumber men, older people
outnumber younger people, and Southerners exceed those from other regions of the
country.

• Among those who read any form of scripture in the past year, 95% named the Bible as
the scripture they read. All told, this means that 48% of Americans read the Bible at
some point in the past year. Most of those people read at least monthly, and a
substantial number—9% of all Americans—read the Bible daily.

• Despite the proliferation of Bible translations, the King James Version is the top choice—
and by a wide margin—of Bible readers.

• The strongest correlation with Bible reading is race, with African Americans reading the
Bible at considerably higher rates than others.

• Half of those who read the Bible in the past year also committed scripture to memory.
About two-thirds of congregations in America hold events for children to memorize
verses from the Bible.

• Among Bible readers, about half had a favorite book, verse, or story. Psalm 23, which
begins, "The Lord is my shepherd..." was cited most often, followed by John 3:16.

• Bible readers consult scripture for personal prayer and devotion three times more than
to learn about culture war issues such as abortion, homosexuality, war, or poverty.

• There are clear differences among Bible readers consulting scripture for specific
reasons. Age, income, and education are key factors.

• Those reading the Bible frequently consult it on culture war issues more than two times
the rate as those who read it less frequently.

• Less than half of those who read the Bible in the past year sought help in understanding
it. Among those who did, clergy were their top source; the Internet was the least cited
source.

• Among Bible readers, 31% read it on the Internet and 22% use e-devices.

• Bible reading differences among religious traditions followed predictably the historic
divides between Protestants and Catholics, and between white conservative and white
moderate/liberal Protestants. However, reading practices defy some stereotypes about
certain groups.

The Danger of Forgetting How to Read the Bible

In the past month, I learned that two more Christian leaders whom I know have either tarnished or destroyed their ministries. Neither was a friend, in the full sense, yet I've been friendly with both men and respected their talents and the fruit of their labors.

young man reading small bibleOnce again, I wonder: How could a man who studied and knew Scripture and taught it faithfully to others, brazenly violate its most basic principle of love and self-control? Even as I ask the question, I know I'm liable to self-destructive sin too. Everyone needs Paul's admonition: "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). Self-aware leaders know that we can violate principles we thought we knew.

But how can we repent quickly and keep from hardening ourselves to God's voice as he calls us back to himself?

Leaders stumble for many reasons, and while I could argue that a zealous seminarian has little in common with a vain or depressed middle-aged leader, there is at least one common thread: My peers and my students can both stop reading the Bible as we should.

Technical and Devotional

A new Christian's Scripture reading tends to be naïve and devotional. New disciples devour Scripture, underlining word after word in their new Bibles. We often feel that God is speaking directly to us in every word.

After a few years, a budding leader's reading becomes sophisticated and devotional. We still feel that God speaks to us in the text, but as we learn basic principles of interpretation, we increasingly give our attention to Scripture's literary, cultural, and historical contexts. We own and use Bible dictionaries and commentaries. We know the translation strategies of competing Bible versions and begin to use that knowledge to get at the original text.

Most future church leaders go to seminary, where we become technical readers. We read Greek and Hebrew and consult scholarly sources. We respect the distance between our world and that of Scripture. Zeal to describe biblical history and theology grows. As we pursue what the word originally meant, we are tempted to neglect what it means today, to us.

When students become interns at a local church they remember that study should edify the church. We continue to read technically, but now we share our findings with others. We become technical-functional readers. Our reading may still be detached, personally speaking, but we store and organize our discoveries so we can offer them to others. While this phase may help us rediscover the proper use of Scripture, we may still be professional readers. We can present God's truth to others, while blocking his word to us.

Student and pastors need, therefore, to become technical, devotional readers. Here every exegetical skill remains, yet we also read like children, letting the word speak to our hearts again. We can find what Paul Ricoeur called a "second naiveté." We are both technically astute and spiritually receptive. Our study lets us to explain and apply God's Word to the church and to ourselves. Then we hear God's Word, so it does its work in us once again, so we purify our hearts, cleanse our hands, and walk in the ways of the Lord.

Four Accounts, One Savior

If you have ever tried to read about the story of Jesus' birth from one of the Gospels in the New Testament, you will have already discovered two things. First, no one Gospel tells you everything about the birth of Jesus. And second, some Gospels do not tell you anything about the birth of Jesus.

NativityWhat do we make of this reality?

One takeaway should be that the significance of Jesus' birth is best understood in the totality of his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Whether you have just begun to consider Jesus or already consider yourself a believer in him, let me encourage you to read through the four Gospels this Advent season to gain a fuller appreciation for the significance of his birth.

Here's a brief description of each Gospel's unique contribution to our overall understanding of Jesus, followed by a calendar for reading through them this December.

Matthew: The story of Christmas is rooted in history.

Matthew's account begins with a genealogy, demonstrating the birth of Jesus is not an isolated event but one rooted in history. In other words, the birth of Jesus is not the beginning of the story. To properly understand Jesus' birth, one must understand the history from which he came.

If we were to consider the birth of Jesus as an isolated event, we could conclude that Jesus is powerful. Surely the virgin birth would require divine power. When we learn from Matthew that the virgin birth was rooted in history and anticipated in prophecy, we learn that Jesus is not only powerful, but also faithful to promises made in history.

Mark: The story of Christmas requires our repentance.

When you turn to Mark you notice that he begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, not the birth of Jesus. John's ministry was a plea for Israel to repent. In Mark 1:14-15, we are told that John was arrested and Jesus began to preach the same message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." Repent is the key word for Mark. John preached it, Jesus preached it, and Mark wants all of us to remember it. Why?

We cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge the reality of our sin. Until we are willing to repent, all the details that surround Jesus' birth and life are rendered inconsequential. Otherwise who cares if it was three wise men or wise men bearing three gifts? Or whether he was God incarnate or an angel in human form? Mark tells us news he believes can change our lives. So are we willing to be changed? Are we willing to acknowledge that we are not as we should be? According to Mark, we cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge our need to be saved.

Luke: The story of Christmas invites our worship.

As you turn to Luke, you notice that he gives us the most details of any of the Gospel writers surrounding the birth of Jesus. When people announce that they will read the Christmas story, they are more often than not reading from the second chapter of Luke. It's striking about Luke's attention to detail how often he focuses on the worship that surrounded the birth of Jesus.

For example, in Luke 1:46, Luke could have simply said that Mary worshiped God. Instead he records for us details of how she expressed her worship in what we now commonly call the Magnificat. You will notice this detail again in verses 67-79 when Zechariah worshiped God. Then Luke tells us of the heavenly host praising God in 2:13-14 and the shepherds praising God in 2:20. When Jesus is presented in the temple, Luke tells us of Simeon's worship. Before, during, and after the birth of Jesus there is worship!

Much like the Psalms of the Old Testament, the details of these expressions of worship are not given to simply inform us of past events, but to invite us to join in their expression. When all the facts are considered, as Luke claims to have compiled them, one discovers that the Christmas story is not only true but also glorious.

John: The story of Christmas restores our relationship.

John does not begin with the birth of Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist, nor does he begin with the history of Israel. John writes, "In the beginning." The beginning of what? The beginning of everything! According to John, Jesus was with God and was God from before time began. These verses are key the church's understanding of the Trinity.

As it relates to the Christmas story, we affirm that Jesus was sent from God. The Creator is the Redeemer; the Judge is the Savior. John's account is similar to Mark's in that he makes the story immediately personal. Jesus is the unique Son of God who came into the world, so that you and I could become children of God as well (John 1:12-13).

One Conclusion

Four different Gospel accounts and one conclusion—Jesus is sufficient. Intellectually, according to Matthew, the Christmas story is rooted in history. Morally, according to Mark, the Christmas story requires our repentance. Emotionally, according to Luke, the Christmas story invites our worship. And relationally, according to John, the Christmas story restores our relationship with God.

Read the story for yourself.

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Advent Reading Plan

How Not to Read Your Bible in 2013

When it comes to daily (or not-so-daily) Bible reading, January 1 can be a welcome arrival. A new year signals a new start. You're motivated to freshly commit to what you know is of indispensable importance: the Word of God.

Yet this isn't the first time you've felt this way. You were entertaining pretty similar thoughts 365 days ago. And 365 days before that. And 365 days . . . you know how it goes.

So what's going to make 2013 different? What, under God, will keep you plodding along in April this year when staying power has generally vanished in Aprils of yore? From one stumbling pilgrim to another, here are five suggestions for what not to do in 2013.

1. Don't Overextend 

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars!"

This hackneyed high school yearbook quote is bad advice for most things, Bible reading plans not excepted. If you shoot for and miss the "moon" of six chapters a day, you won't quietly land among the "stars" of three. You'll just be lost in space.

It's better to read one chapter a day, every day, than four a day, every now and then. Moreover, the value of meditation cannot be overstressed. Meditation isn't spiritualized daydreaming; it's riveted reflection on revelation. Read less, if you must, to meditate more. It's easy to encounter a torrent of God's truth, but without absorption---and application---you will be little better for the experience.

As Thomas White once said, "It is better to hear one sermon only and meditate on that, than to hear two sermons and meditate on neither." I think that's pretty sage advice for Scripture reading, too.

2. Don't Do It Alone

When it comes to Bible reading consistency, a solo sport mentality can be lethal. Surely that's why many run out of gas; they feel like they're running alone. To forestall the dangers of isolation, then, invite one or two others to join you in 2013. Set goals, make a commitment, and hold one another accountable. Turn your personal Scripture reading into a team effort, a community project.

A daily devotional, too, can function as a helpful companion and guide. D. A. Carson's For the Love of God (Volume 1Volume 2) and Nancy Guthrie's Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament are two excellent options.

3. Don't Just Do It Whenever

Every morning we awaken to a fresh deluge of information. We've now reached the point where, I've heard it said, an average weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than Jonathan Edwards encountered in his entire lifetime. I don't know if that's true, but it sure makes me think.

It is imperative, then, to set a specific time each day when you will get alone with God. Even if it's a modest window, guard it with your life. Explain your goal to those closest to you, and invite their help. Otherwise, the tyranny of the urgent will continue to rear its unappeasable head. What is urgent will fast displace what is important, and what is good will supplant what is best.

If your basic game plan is to read your Bible whenever, chances are you'll read it never. And if you don't control your schedule, your schedule will control you. It's happened to me more times than I care to admit.

4. Don't Live as if Paul Lied

Did you know Leviticus and Chronicles and Obadiah were written to encourage you? That's what Paul believed, anyway: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 9:10; 10:6, 11; 2 Tim. 3:16).

What a sweeping word! Paul is going so far as to claim the entirety of the Old Testament is for you---to instruct you, to encourage you, to help you endure, and to give you hope.

Few of you will conclude Paul is simply mistaken here. Good evangelicals, after all, are happy to take inspired apostles at their word. But does our approach to our Bibles tell a different story? Do we act as if Numbers or Kings or Nahum has the power to infuse our lives with help and hope?

Whenever you open your Bible, labor to believe that God has something here to say to me. Whatever I encounter in his Word was written with me, his cherished child, in view. So pursue God's graces on the pages of Scripture this year. Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow everywhere await.

5. Don't Turn a Means of Grace into a Means of Merit

Your Father's love for you doesn't rise and fall with your quiet times. If you are united to Jesus by faith, the verdict is out, and the court is dismissed. You're as accepted and embraced as the Son himself. Period.

To be sure, you'll desire to hear and follow his voice if you're truly one of his sheep (John 10:1-30; cf. 8:47; 18:37). Not always and not perfectly, of course, but sincerely and increasingly.

So as another year dawns, commit yourself anew to becoming a man or woman of the Word. But don't overextend, do it alone, just do it whenever, live as if Paul lied, or treat means of grace like means of merit.

Your Bible is one of God's chief gifts to you in 2013. Open, read, ruminate, and obey. May you be ever transformed into the image of our incarnate King, and may he alone receive the acclaim.

See and Savor the Bible's Rich Layers

While celebrating my wife's birthday at a Brazilian restaurant we finished our meal with a wonderful dessert. A birds-eye view of the cake slice revealed a chocolate topping with a sweet glaze. But sticking the fork into the cake revealed something even more pleasing, something unexpected: layers. Layers of other desserty goodness that beckoned me to savor.

Even though our meals were finished, suddenly we weren't in a hurry anymore. Here was something artfully prepared with the finest ingredients. The layers mattered because their cumulative effect heightened the enjoyment of the food. The plate didn't feature some hodge-podge attempt at combining a little of everything and hoping the result worked out. The presentation and consumption was rich and satisfying because someone designed it that way.

Have you ever noticed how the Bible speaks about itself with sensory language regarding our spiritual palate? God's words are sweet like honey (Ps 119:103). Believers should long for the milk of God's word (1 Pet 2:2). Man doesn't live on bread alone but on each word from Yahweh's mouth (Deut 8:3). Taste that God is good (Ps 34:8).

Sometimes we might find ourselves rushing through Scripture. Maybe we're trying to meet a daily quota, trying to get to the next thing on the to-do list, or perhaps we're more interested in a passage still to come. So we rush. We hastily consume, take in a birds-eye view, with nary a prayerful pause or time for reflection.

We should be more patient as we read the Bible. There are layers to see and be savored.

The Authors as Literary Artists 

God's Word is a marvel. To read the Bible is to connect with literary compositions thousands of years old, divine revelation written down in stories and letters and poetry. But this inscripturated communication has not been hastily compiled. The Bible's human authors are literary artists. They wrote with intention and structure.

There's no book on earth like the Bible, and no text should be more savored. We should give close attention to the writers' rhetorical devices, intertextual echoes, explicit Old Testament quotations, and even the arrangement of the material. A surface read won't reveal the artistry that patiently laboring over their texts will. We must give to the Bible our time, our mind, our prayerful dependence for insight and understanding.

Seeing What's (Not) There

Spending time savoring the text will result in seeing what is there but may not be readily apparent. Insight must be earnestly pursued. "Think over what I say," Paul told Timothy, "for the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Tim 2:7).

Think about the arrangement of the first Gospel's opening chapters. Scholars have noted how Jesus embodies the experience of Israel as he comes out of Egypt (Matt 2:15, 21), goes through the waters of judgment (3:13-17), endures temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), and talks about God's law with authority (5:1-7:29). In the design of these opening chapters Matthew shows how Jesus is the new Israel, the true Israel, God's faithful and obedient Son.

Consider how Peter instructed Christian slaves to endure injustices incurred while living under harsh masters. He pointed to the example of Jesus, who had no deceit in his mouth (1 Pet 2:22), who bore our sins and healed our wounds (2:24), and who is the Shepherd of sheep formerly astray (2:25). Why is this language significant? It's still dripping from baptism in Isaiah 53. Peter draws upon explicit Isaian phrases of the Suffering Servant and holds them up to the eyes of literal suffering servants. This move is especially meaningful coming from Peter, who once rebuked Jesus for linking suffering to the work of the Messiah (Matt 16:22). The resurrection changed his hermeneutic (cf. his speech in Acts 3:18).

Reading the Bible Patiently

The layers of a text matter because the authors wrote and arranged their material from a perspective shaped by the Old Testament. Even the words of later Old Testament writers were molded by earlier biblical texts. Their minds were drenched in ancient images and stories and promises. Our goal should be to immerse our minds in these things too.

The method for a richer reading of the text calls for a more patient reading. This doesn't necessarily mean studying only small sections here, a few verses there. In fact, reflecting longer on larger sections of Scripture can bring more understanding as you gain a firmer grasp on the Great Story being unfolded. Reading, in one sitting, books like Revelation, Isaiah, and Ephesians is a valuable exercise requiring both time and prolonged focus. You don't always have to choose between reading widely and reading reflectively.

Peter Leithart illustrates patient reading with the example of music:

We cannot take in music in a moment. A chord gives us several notes at once, but a chord is not music, or not much music. To hear the simplest melody, we need to listen for at least a few seconds. And more complex pieces of music can take an hour or more to experience. . . . If we are going to listen to music at all, we have to give it time to unfold. . . . This does not appeal to us. We are often impatient with music, and we are impatient with texts (Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, 52-53, 55).

Reading the Bible Repetitively 

A patient approach to Scripture also involves repetitive reading, because the words of the text need to sink in deep. We especially need to read the Old Testament in order to fill our mental reservoir. From this reservoir we'll see later echoes of earlier Scriptures not only in the New Testament but in the Old. Whether or not you realize it, each time you read a text you're storing up words, and this mental---and spiritual!---deposit will help you read with more comprehension what comes later.

Reflecting on textual layers isn't a hermeneutical practice that denies authorial intent. It simply recognizes that authorial intent can be complex and doesn't always mean locating one valid meaning for a verse. With a layered reading the text isn't ignored but bolstered. Its meaning isn't deadened but enriched.

So savor the Scripture. Read it again and again, and think over what it says. Read widely in the Bible, yes, but also deeply, and by that I mean patiently, carefully, with the discipline of reflection that repays dividends of insight. Taste and see that the text is good!