So I have this problem. It’s an ongoing problem that I’m sure—I won’t say a ‘vast majority,’ but—at least a large amount of American Christians also deal with. No, it’s not discerning whether I have the spiritual gift of celibacy (my wife is pretty convinced I don’t). My struggle is with regularly reading the Bible.
There are a number of contributing factors to this problem, some of which I am probably not even aware, and most of which I presume to share with anyone who may identify with the problem (openly or not).
For one thing—not to put too fine a point on it, but—I’m undisciplined. I have a very hard time forming new habits and even greater difficulty breaking bad ones (an oversimplification of Romans 7). This creates a tendency to pendulum-swing (unevenly, I might add) between completely neglecting a responsibility for several months and then intensely devoting focus to it for a couple weeks. I see this at play not only with spiritual disciplines but also financial, medical, relational, and so on.
The next three factors intermingle with each other to create a deadening of relationship with the Word—a sort of unholy trinity.
(Before you ask: yes, all three concepts below include made-up words—I prefer the term invented.)
The first is self-seeking devotionalism – a state of deception in which our commitment to reading Scripture is based in self-fulfillment. It is the inclination, when approaching the Bible for devotional purposes, to view God’s Word as solely for one’s own edification—a means to my end. True, all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction and correction: we are meant to receive from God through His Word. But if I am more preoccupied with whom the Word is addressing (namely, myself) than I am with whose Words are being spoken (namely, God’s), I am missing the point completely. I find myself feeling pressured to accomplish or get something when reading the Bible, feeling void and worthless if I don’t walk away with a divine principle, clear direction, or life-changing experience. In this case I am more concerned with the outcome of the Word than its Source.
By contrast, there is a way in which an improper ‘fear’ of the Holy Text can also hinder from being able to participate in it. I call this maloriginated reverence – a penitent posture toward Scripture that is based not in the worship of God but the worship of Scripture itself. Rather than revering the Bible because God is rightly to be feared and His Word comes from Him, I revere the Bible because it’s THE BIBLE (cue the angelic choral ‘ahh’). This misplaced veneration of the Bible distances it from my human experience (which, if you think about it, is contrary to its nature, being itself a divinely initiated manifestation of God’s voice and presence—reinforced prophetically by Jesus’ incarnation: the Word made flesh), thus it is read in a detached fashion, severed from any connection to my depths and closed off from my desire to search its depths.
This perceived gap, as well as the droll, repetitive recitation of a distant Scripture over many years, creates a sense of rote denarrativism – the process of demystifying and disempowering God’s Word by systematizing its ‘applicable’ points and numbing His narrative nature. I am (I think) a fairly avid reader and (I hope) a half-decent writer: I am obsessed with the intricacies of language; I have an incessantly conceptual mind; I get chills reading excellent prose (Cormac McCarthy’s sentences are gorgeous); and I love being captured by a good story (e.g., when I read 1984 the first time, I developed borderline paranoia, including ongoing, stress-filled dreams as Winston, the protagonist). So the narrative nature of God is something that I should naturally grasp when it comes to actually reading His actual, written Word, right? Like I said, I dig the idea conceptually, and there are certain biblical books I gravitate toward for that reason—I adore the Gospel of John, for instance—yet I struggle. I have a hard time reading God’s story like it’s a story at all, let alone my story. Rather than being caught up in the developing complexity, lost in the multi-arced mystery, written into the metanarrative of Jesus—the Author and Perfecter of our faith—I breeze flippantly through a flattened text and find myself bored.
Because of the above ‘syndromes,’ reading the Bible feels like attending a funeral, regarding the Living Word as though it died. There’s no dynamic, no verve, no life. Instead of God’s present and active voice, the Bible is just an account of some stuff He’s already said; instead of His ongoing and vibrant story, it’s just some dead, ancient history. Interacting with the Word with this mindset isn’t even an interaction—there’s no action!—it’s just an obligatory, memorial gesture. Where it should be a thirst-quenching stream, it instead is the swishing around of my own spit. Where it should be life-sustaining bread, it is the taking of a tasteless vitamin. Where it should be sweeter than honey on my tongue, it’s bland and hard to swallow—I might as well lick the actual pages for flavor.
But this is not the truth of what the Bible is. And I have no legitimate excuse for not immersing myself in His Word, other than that I’ve tried repeatedly and mostly failed. After numerous plans to “Read through the Bible in a Year,” after intending to read through different books than the ones I always read, after promising for the millionth time to become a better student of my Rabbi’s teachings, it seemed that I was doomed to be a slacker when it came to Scripture.
The idea just hit me last fall. Reading the Bible may be difficult for me, but writing is not. I would be more fully immersed in God’s Word, in the tradition of the ancient scribes, taking down, word for word, from Genesis to Revelation, the whole, written Story of God.
I won’t say I don’t still struggle with a lack of discipline, or any of the above perversions of Scripture, but even being only mostly through the Book of Genesis, it has already been an incredible experience. The slower pace required for transposing what I’m reading into what I’m writing causes me to experience the story in more ‘real’ time, to give myself more space to feel the emotion of every circumstance, to process the thoughts of the each character. Subtleties (which I would formerly have glossed over in speed-reading) become emphases.
And another thing: I allow myself time to reflect and respond to the Word, rather than simply plowing through because it’s a long, freaking book and I’ll never finish it if I don’t keep going. Whenever a phrase or section strikes me, sends me into thought or feeling, I leave the story where it is and flesh out my reflection in whatever way I’m inspired: a poem on genealogy, an essay about blessing and cursing, a lament over broken relationships.
I don’t know what all will come from this experiment, but I’m not too concerned with that. I simply want to experience the living story of the Bible, to deepen my knowledge and my love of the Scriptures, to open myself up that God’s words may abide in me, and I in Him.