Neglected, dusty, and crisp—3 descriptives that aptly describe the Bible that sits motionless from the bookshelf in many American homes. It rests just low enough on the shelf to be noticed, yet remains high enough to go untouched. Recent estimates purport 3.9 billion Bibles have been purchased over the past 50 years. Ben Irwin, a creator of the Community Bible Experience, rightly suggests a vast difference between “best selling” and “most read.” Too often our shelves hold our Bibles more than our hands do.
Much has been said on the topic of biblical illiteracy within post-Christian society. Pastors are scrambling to motivate their congregations while theologians are bewildered by its neglect. In contrast to many recent voices, we do not merely have a how to read Scripture problem. It’s much more foundational than that. We’ve lost the vision as to why the text matters in the first place.
So lets begin with a presupposition over and against our functionally agnostic/deistic, (post)enlightened, 21st century, social media savvy, multi-tasking, sophisticated society:
God is loquacious.
The Scriptures begin with God preaching into the formless void. A.W. Tozer believed, “Scripture is the inevitable outcome of God’s continuous speech.” Even the periods of God’s ostensible silence communicates a message. The 3 shifts below are hardly comprehensive. However, they suggest 3 subtle, yet significant imperatives congregations should make in reclaiming Scripture in both personal and communal contexts.
Shift 1: From “Read Your Bible” to “Know Your Story”
At the height of modern evangelicalism, the pastor’s directive to read the Bible was received by eager and compliant congregations. That moment has passed. But we now inhabit a time obsessed with story. Providentially, I believe the Scriptures speak directly within a story-centric milieu.
Generally speaking, Scripture is unfolding a cosmic redemption that begins with, “Adam, where are you?” We are born into narratives riddled with brokenness, identity confusion, and eventually, death. As we age, we attempt to rediscover our true selves through performance, achievement, and experience. Therefore, the real crisis is that by our teens, we inevitably live from multiple scripts drafted by society. Thus, we live from multiple stories depending on the context we inhabit (e.g. work, church, social, etc.). It’s a split persona of sorts. Yet, note this is not the same as bearing different roles such as employee, father, daughter, and friend. One can hold various roles while remaining grounded within the same script. The problem is not bearing different roles. The problem is living multiple scripts; various storylines. And this yields an identity in flux.
To give an example, for those in the performing arts industry, you recognize how detrimental it would be to recite the script of Newsies while performing Shakespeare in the Park. Notice the root word of Scripture is Script. Scripts matter. We live from them, and they ground our stories into a larger narrative. The Bible records a history of God wooing humanity to join the eternal Script that transcends brokenness, identity confusion, and death.
The Scriptures unfold a truth-tale that is better than any other story in human history. It is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and renewal. This script grounds us in a lineage of radical grace and love discovered in Jesus. No longer must we forge our way to become someone. God’s stamp of identity is upon us, and we are free to live without striving, anxiety, and self-actualization. That is a story worth knowing, that is a story worth telling, and that is a story worth living. To read your Bible is to learn the script of the story God is writing.
Shift 2: From Duty to Devotion
Reading the Bible is first a relational practice before it is a religious one. Our primary impulse when engaging Scripture is to engage with the Living God—to open a conversation rather than complete a task on the daily checklist. Therefore, Scripture invites us into a historical conversation God has been having with creation. In his commentary on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann stated, “Devotion to the Scriptures does not consist in the flat response of obedience to a code of commands. Rather, a full existence of trust in and loyalty to a covenant partner… an interpersonal, interactive communion and not simply compliance with a set of rules.”
Do you imagine the average person in your church views Scripture the way Brueggemann suggests: interpersonal, interactive, communion? Probably not.
The term “Testament” (such as the Old and New) means “Covenant.” The recovery of this term is paramount because a covenant is an invitation into relational intimacy based upon promises by 2 parties. This means God, through the Spirit and the Scripture, relates to the Church as a covenantal bride, and not a transnational pawn. Recovering our engagement with Scripture as relational/devotional is imperative within a church culture steeped in religious duty.
Shift 3: From Impromptu to Intentional
Several weeks ago I asked my staff what spiritual practices have formed them most in the past year. Each of their answers depended on this reality: Intentional Time. Whereas I highly recommend reading/hearing Scripture in the “cracks” of life—on the subway, in the car, between meetings—the more we leave our spiritual vitality to the spontaneity of the day, the more likely it is to get couched out by competing options. We calendar nearly everything these days. So why not calendar daily time with God in the Book?
Henri Nouwen believed discipline is “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” Often we permit our “space” to fill up with lesser loves and ostensibly urgent requests.
Imagine two plausible scenarios tomorrow morning:
Scenario 1 – You awake to an incoming text message (or 12). After immediately responding, you then follow all your notifications devolving into an abyss otherwise known as “social media.” You then follow that up with a quick glance at email requiring “immediate attention.” Before you know it, you’re first move of the day is to work from bed.
Scenario 2 – You take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s advice to be “silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word.” Instead of responding to demands of society as the first move of your day, you could create space in an effort to attend to the God who is drawing you into a story that will never fade—a story that will equip you to to live out the various roles for which you are responsible. Scripture opens that conversation, and it is designed to inform all the conversations into which you will enter throughout the course of your day.
Like any relationship, engaging Scripture is not always spectacular, but is slowly transformative. May your efforts to intentionally and devotionally pursue the text open up new ways of reclaiming the wonder of joining God’s story.
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