What Works: Reading the Bible

Get to know the Word of God

The other day I was reading in Acts 8 about Philip the Evangelist, my namesake, along with some study bible commentary on his history. Even though I was named after him, I have never read these passages before. I finally did because recently I began using a plan to read through the entire Bible in a year. 

I’ve led Bible studies, attended college-level classes on scripture, and heard hundreds of sermons about Bible passages. But until now I’ve never read it all — only the “popular bits.” Of course, I’d heard a sermon or two about Philip’s meeting a eunuch on the road to Gaza and baptizing him, but until now I’d never read about the rest of his travels or learned about his role in the early church. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t already know more about my namesake. How did this happen?

While daily reading of the Bible — often using a plan to cover it within a year or less — is very common in the evangelical world, it is a relatively novel thing among other Christians. For most, it’s just a lot to ask, I guess. And for Catholics, there is a long history of encouraging the laity to get the Word of God through the intermediary of a priest. There are, of course, the daily readings at mass — excerpts from the Old and New Testament, the Gospels and a psalm. Nowadays, the Catholic Church encourages people to read the Bible themselves. But old habits are slow to change. And even though anyone can read these passages from the Lectionary, they’re carefully selected excerpts, not the full text.

Engage with God through scripture

Many of my suggestions over the weeks in What Works have to do with one greater goal: increasing your sense of connectedness to God and the divine all around you: daily prayer, getting out in nature, honoring the Sabbath, meditation. And one of the best ways to enhance your sense of engagement with God is to engage with scripture, the Word of God, every day.

After all, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John:1-2)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “The Church encourages Catholics to make reading the Bible part of their daily prayer lives. Reading these inspired words, people grow deeper in their relationship with God and come to understand their place in the community God has called them to in himself.”

If you want to read the daily mass readings, or attend a Bible study class, or practice lectio divina, go for it. But I’m suggesting something else. Rather than skimming through the Bible, reading choice excerpts, read the entire thing: the obvious and the not so obvious passages, the juicy bits and the dry ones. While there might be times when you wonder why you’re reading a paragraph of, “so-and-so begat so-and-sos,” even that gradually makes the names more familiar. And you will be surprised by things all the time.

Rainbows promises

For example, the other day I read about how after the flood, God proclaimed that the rainbow was a reminder after it rains of his promise never to flood the entire earth again. (Gen 9:13-16) Isn’t that sweet?! I will never see rainbows quite the same way again. But I never heard this before because it’s not in the “popular” part of the Noah’s Ark story — it comes after the part where humans stop being vegans. 

I’m not saying you should read the Bible every day for the rest of your life, though it’s not a bad idea. But if you’ve never read the Bible through, make a commitment with me now to do it one time. I know I’ve said this about other things before, but seriously, which is more enriching to your life, 20 minutes of Bible reading, or a dose of some sitcom rerun or local TV news.

Feed your soul

Now this may be biting the hand that feeds me, but I have a very strong suggestion: If you are a Christian and have never read the Bible,  or a Hindu and never read the Gita, or whatever foundational sacred text exists in your religion or practice, put down whatever self-improvement book you’re reading right now and go read it. In the case of wisdom, new is not better. 

Why, you might ask, am I still writing, then? There is value in making things relevant, speaking to modern people about how ancient truth relates to their lives. I’m not putting down spirituality writers or Oprah or the role of sermons. But these things should be in addition to, not instead of, your direct encounter with the Word.

I don’t want to belabor this point, but there’s a sickness in the postmodern world that prefers a level of detachment, of abstraction. Instead of reading a book, people read a 20-page critique of it. Novels and plays intentionally take their audiences out of the story to acknowledge their cleverness in knowing it’s just a story. Political pundits and spin-doctors talk not about the merits of policies but about how the policies will play. Deconstruction is applied to everything, even food, to amuse the jaded palette. 

Don’t amuse your palette, feed your soul.

You don’t have to become a Bible thumper who can quote passages out of the air with their chapter and verse. But if you read the Bible through, and better yet, do it again and again over the years, it will change the way you talk about your faith and beliefs. You can read the modern self-improvement books later, but at least once, read the foundational document of your faith. Some things might make you uncomfortable. That’s OK. Better that you know the exact quote and context and are able to debate the issue intelligently. Other things will delight and surprise you. And most importantly, you will gain a broader and deeper understanding of the principles and ideas that lie beneath your spiritual practice. Is that worth a hundred hours or so spread out across a year? I think so.

In the sidebar are some resources to get going — study bibles, reading plans and mobile apps. I’d love to hear from you. Have you read the whole Bible through? How did you do it? Did you use a reading plan, or just start at the beginning and keep going? Anyone disagree and think it’s not a good idea? Talk to me. If you have other resources I didn’t mention, I’d love to hear about them so I can share them with others. Leave a comment below, or email me at phil (AT) bustedHALO [dot] com.