Friday, March 07, 2008

how should we use the Bible?

I was listening to someone rant this week. Discipleship was poor in the church. The evidence? Well, only 21% of people said they read their Bibles daily.

I thought back to the early Jews. They had handcopied scrolls in the Synagogue. They never had a Bible to read daily.

I thought back to the first disciples. They never had a book. Although they did have the stories of Jesus to tell to each other.

I thought back to the church before the printing press. They had handcopied scrolls in the church. They never had a Bible to read daily.

So isn’t daily Bible reading as a mark of discipleship simply a contemporary phenomenon, based on the fact that due to the printing press and internet, we now have Bibles we can read daily?

I thought back to Jesus. When asked about eternal life in Luke 10. He quotes the Bible, mixing two Bible texts from different contexts. Then he creates a story from contemporary culture (the one about robbers and Samaritans and religious leaders). Then he says go and do likewise. That is discipleship for Jesus. Nothing to do with reading the Bible daily. Simply the ability to relate the Bible to everyday contemporary life in a way that changes behaviour.

Using that story, yes discipleship will include using the Bible. Although not necessarily daily and privately. And it must also include the number of contemporary stories told in church. And it also must include the way lives are lived.

How about you? As you think about the church through time, how should we use the Bible?

Posted by steve at 07:21 AM


  1. A couple of years ago, we had a speaker at a luncheon on campus (I work at a protestant university in California). During her talk, she said something that scandalized most–and deeply resonated with me: I’d rather spend a chunk of time once a week or once a month than dabble in the shallows every day.

    She was talking about the myth called “the daily quiet time” and I think it applies to how we ought to use the bible. I would rather spend a chunk of time once a week or so with my Christian brothers and sisters, reading and discussing the Bible than check “bible reading” off the to-do list in my Treo.

    Mind you, the “to-do list temptation” is too often strong upon me. But I am in process.

    Comment by Laura — March 7, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  2. i know i’m a newbie, but please bear with me!

    you’re spot on about not treating scripture or prayer as habits like brushing teeth or whatever. but i suspect the reason Jesus was able to cite scripture – and the reason many jewish men could follow – was that they received much teaching in torah. indeed, they likely memorized chunks. they spent time in their story, with their family and community. and it was probably fairly regularly. i’d say that if we can’t offer our kids/ourselves/(ultimately) God the same, praying the psalms or reading one episode out of Jesus’ ministry every night is a healthy start.

    that’s just me, though. actually, father stephen wrote something cooler:

    Comment by ~mara — March 7, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  3. It is true that the printing press and the internet has increased our ability to use the Bible daily, but it seems that Scripture has a far less prominent place in contemporary life than it has historically. After all, those handwritten scrolls came from somewhere. I’ve also read from textual critics that some families had their own copies that they had copied and passed down. I’ve also read of those who, while not having a copy of the scripture as their own, were able to imbibe it through the use of the daily office.

    I agree that the dabbling daily in order to ‘check off’ the reading isn’t discipleship, but I’m not sure allowing the pendulum to swing in the other direction is either. We need to find practices that open us up to the reality of God in our lives so we might be led by God daily. Too often our practices end up being a way to hold God at arms length without allowing God’s agenda and will to be our own. We like to ‘check stuff off’ because we believe it releases us from the weightier matters. 🙂

    Comment by David — March 7, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  4. With the daily access to Scripture, I think many in the West have lost the ability to *remember* great chunks of it. In fact, we don’t even try. We know “thre’s something about such-and-such” and if we can be bothered we will check out a concordance. We wouldn’t, however, dream of memorising a whole book. And you could argue that we don’t have the need to, but I wonder if such dedicated learning would head us in the direction of *being changed* by what we read. I know that for myself, the verses I have committed to memory are the ones that jump out to teach me when I least expect it.
    Steve, it’s a good question – and one we have pondered over as we have traipsed the halls of history with our kids.
    Related…..we are going overseas for a year…..ten of us. And guess how many Bibles we are taking along? One. That would seem almost as bad as not reading it every day!

    Comment by Rachael — March 7, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  5. I was just thinking of jotting down some of my own thoughts about this subject in my blog when I found your entry here.

    On one hand–it’s true that prior to printing press the general public had limited access to Scripture and obviously couldn’t read the Bible every day. On the other…I undersand there was a high enough value placed on the Torah that many Jews in Bible days had committed the entire Torah to memory by the time they reached adulthood.

    This is a double-edged sword (pun intended). I believe the printing press is significant and God used it to put His Word in our hands–and we should avail ourselves of that. But I also know in my own journey, the expectation of a “daily Bible time” put me into religious bondage, an issue I’m still in the process of deconstructing.

    Bottom line…I now believe in quality over quantity. It isn’t how much time we spend “in the Word”; it’s how well we own and live out what we have read.

    Comment by Jeff — March 7, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  6. Steve

    I’m a bit torn on this. I think in contemporary western culture we’ve put so much emphasis on daily Bible study that we’ve missed the point. I actually think that to ‘meditate on his name day and night’ means more than just reading the Bible.

    The temptation then could be to say that daily Bible reading isn’t what this means so we don’t need to do that.

    Maybe as Christians we don’t actually realise what a gift we have in having the word of God for us to read. Certainly if we desire to model ourselves on Jesus where else would we look for examples of his life than in the place where they are recorded for us.

    That doesn’t mean to say that we can’t see God in all of creation, or in the character of people around us, or in many other ways. But, we have to be able to test our influences and to do that don’t we have to go to the source?

    Comment by Phil — March 8, 2008 @ 12:01 am

  7. Good thoughts, Steve and commenters.

    I tried to address the question of what devotions could look like pre-Gutenberg, and for non-readers (elderly, children, illiterate) today in a spirituality class, some lecture notes are at

    I agree that quality is over quantity when it comes to Bible reading, and I will usually get a lot more out of taking one morning a week (or one a month) to read a whole book and think about it, than read a chapter or 5 a day too fast to really take it in – in fact, speed-reading the Bible often has an innoculating effect.

    But I do think we should have some form of daily devotion ritual. There are so many scriptural references to meditating on his word day and night; the idea of living not on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God suggests we need regular meal-like sustenance to stay alive to God. But I’m open to a number of ways to getting that sustenance. Just like you don’t have to have the same meat-and-three-veggies meal every night for a healthy diet, so too our devotional menu could mix a variety of God-focussing activities. Maybe one day you’re having a prayer-heavy time; another day you’re letting God speak to you and change your perspective through voices of his disciples from other places and times (eg. readings from Augustine or the 21st C persecuted church); another day going for a walk and simply thanking him for the beauty you see; another day sitting down and wrestling with a biblical text; another day researching and writing a poem or song of response to God; another day meditating through art or traditions like lectio divina. As long as the diet is balanced, and you eat regular, consistent meals that strengthen your relationship with God and your determination to hear and obey his voice.

    Comment by Deborah Taggart — March 9, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  8. welcome ~newbie mara.

    good comments all. please note i’m not suggesting for a moment we don’t do bible reading. simply asking why private bible reading is considered a mark of discipleship.

    peace and out,

    Comment by steve — March 9, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  9. I have benefited greatly by the regular daily reading of the Bible over many years. I agree with what has been said about meditating. The important thing to me is communcating with my God. I may only read a few verses or even one. Othertimes a chapter of two. As long as I have ‘heard’ His voice and responded, my soul is encouraged and I am fed spiritually. We all need to find ways to connect with God, and that has been different ways at different times for me. From keeping “Daily Light” beside the bed and reading it while feeding a baby in the early hours of the morning, to more formal quiet times. Ringing the changes becomes necessary from time to time. Reading in an unfamiliar version really helps me. Heart atttitude is important too. I am often using Psalm 27:8 from New Living Translation as a prayer before reading at present. “My heart has heard you say, Come and talk with me,and my heart responds, Lord, I am coming.”

    Comment by Maureen — March 10, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  10. Hi, this is something I have been thinking about for awhile because I am doing some research for the Bible Society looking at Bible engagement practices of Christians in NZ.

    A lot of emphasis does get placed on reading the Bible daily as if that is the most important thing. But I totally agree with the quality v quantity idea. The advantage of a daily/regular routine is that it can be a motivating factor for personal Bible study. The risk is that it becomes nothing more than an monotonous exercise as well as the negatives some people mentioned earlier.

    However, I do think that the Bible is an extraordinary gift. The fact that is is so readily available in our country is also a gift. I decided that I need to read the Bible to get to know Jesus more and more, and to understand our “Story”. If I don’t get into it regularly I start to forget. To be honest, if I don’t have a routine then I put it off and miss out on the gift God has given me/us.

    So perhaps the emphasis on daily reading is misguided, and the emphasis should be on Jesus, and the fact that reading and understanding the Bible (whether personal or in groups) is a great way to learn more about Him.

    That was a bit long-winded sorry!! Thanks for your post!

    Comment by James — March 11, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  11. Hi Steve,
    Like any of the Christian disciplines, knowing the Bible is (IMHO) not so much something we do so we can know God, but _because_ we know a little about God, and want to know him more. We read not to create right attitudes, but to fill a need to know God. Not because we are obedient, but because we love. The right attitudes and obedience come from our thirst for relationship, they don’t drive it. Yes, it can be read to find more rules to beat others over the head with, or so we can check one of the “good Christian” boxes, but it is (to some degree) the “cheat sheet” to understanding God. Like so much in Christian life, it’s not about me! Its about Him.

    Comment by Ian — March 11, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  12. I spent my teenage years thinking I was a terrible Christian because I didn’t have a ‘quiet time’. It was very liberating to realize that the Bible is there to inspire and to reflect on, and not something to be taken like a daily dose of spiritual medicine.

    Comment by Jeremy — March 12, 2008 @ 2:48 am

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