Four tips for reading the Bible

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Let’s start with a confession: I regularly find the Bible confusing.

Now, that by itself isn’t all that unusual. What complicates things is that I have a bit more history with it than most. I’ve grown up in church, have degrees from Bible college and seminary, and even work for a church where (and this is probably the kicker) my job is primarily to help other people read and understand the Bible.

After all that experience, you’d think I’d have a pretty good handle on the Bible. Also, you’d be wrong. These days, it seems that the more time I spend with it, the less confident I am of knowing anything at all. (In other words: God is really big, and the more I get to know him, the bigger I realize he is.)

That, however, got me thinking: what are the tips I wish someone had told me 25 years ago?

First, don’t go alone.

It might come as a shock, but the Bible wasn’t written for a modern American (or even Western) audience. At the most basic level, it is an ancient Middle Eastern book of narrative and poetry that is heavily cyclical. The same themes, plot points, failures, and successes are repeated over and over throughout the book.

Put simply, there’s no clear starting point. Even Genesis—seemingly the beginning of the book—has hints very early on of what will come later in the story. Later parts of the story are constantly referring back to earlier stories. The whole book assumes that you’ve already read the whole book—which is a problem if you’re trying to read it for the first time.

What we modern American individualists fail to recognize is that it wasn’t ever intended to be read alone. For the majority of its history, the Bible has been heard rather than read—and more specifically, it’s been heard in community. We were never supposed to read it without other people to help us interpret, give context, and apply it. Trying to read it alone makes an already complex story nearly unintelligible.

Second, don’t read to finish.

In America, we are trained to read straight through a book, finish it, check it off our to-do list, and move on to the next thing. Doing so couldn’t be farther from how the Bible is designed.

In ancient cultures—especially cultures with strong traditions of oral history and storytelling—stories are meant to be heard and pondered, over and over. In essence, the Bible is ancient Jewish meditative literature. As I mentioned, the book is cyclical—themes continue to show up over and over, and (more importantly) it is designed to be reread, discussed, and remixed into new situations and conversations.

The idea of “finishing” the Bible would have been absolute nonsense to early followers of Jesus.

Third, start with the beginning and the end.

Spoiler alert: the Bible isn’t about us.

One of the basic principles for understanding any book is to pay attention to the key characters. If one character shows up in the story repeatedly, then that character is probably pretty important. When it comes to the Bible, there is only one character that shows up throughout the whole story, and it isn’t us. We don’t usually think of it this way, but the Bible is far more a story about God than about us.

That matters because it changes how we read it, and nowhere is that truer than in the first two and last two chapters of the Bible. It is in these four chapters that we see the design, power, and heart of God without the interference of evil, mankind’s choices, or anything else. We see the desire that he has for a relationship with his creation, and his determination that at the end, when all evil is dealt with and the world is made right once again, that he will have that relationship he desires.

Sorry to give away the ending, but the book is two thousand years old. You’ve had time.

Finally, use your imagination.

I know—it’s a weird thing to say. After all, imagination is how we end up with strange visions and doomsday cults. Bear with me. I’m not talking about the “invent whatever you want the Bible to say” sort of imagination.

What I’m talking about is what we all do naturally during really great movies, TV shows, or that beloved novel from childhood. The best stories cause our brains to disconnect momentarily from the immediate world around us. We forget that our foot hurts, that we had the argument with our boss earlier today, and that we kinda need to pee. All that stuff slips away, and for a moment we are utterly immersed in Westeros, New York City, Wakanda, or somewhere else.

That same moment can—and should—happen in the pages of the Bible too. When you read a story, pick a character and imagine the scene in their shoes. If you’re reading one of Paul’s letters, imagine being in the small, house-church communities that would have originally heard it. If you’re reading something you’ve read before, imagine that you haven’t.

Of course, this begs the question, “Why do these mental gymnastics?” Because they force us to engage and ask the question, “What would this passage have meant for that person?” Without realizing it, we’re making our brains to wrestle with what it means for us, right here and now.

So what now?

Look, I know that the Bible is a ridiculously gigantic book. Even with four steps to build from, it’s still intimidating. So at the risk of sounding a bit biased, let me offer a simple starting point: The Crossroads Anywhere App. It has a daily reading plan (so you don’t have to guess), in bite size chunks (so you don’t have to worry about pressure to read the whole thing), and a community of people reading and journaling their thoughts right alongside you (so you don’t have to figure it out on your own). If you don’t know where to start, start there.

Also, let me be clear—none of the tips I’ve given are a magic bullet. None of them will immediately make things perfectly clear. Most of all, none of them will make it any easier to actually do what the Bible says. (Pro tip: if you don’t do what you read, then all of this is a waste of time.) But I can say this—I’ve tried all the systems and read all the “guides.” None of them did as much for me as these four simple things. They may not be fancy, but they work.

Written by Eric Ankenman on Apr 18, 2018