Saturday, March 8, 2014

How To and Not To Read the Bible

Here at the beginning of the Lenten season, many of us resolve to undertake some extra spiritual practice like praying the Rosary or going to Eucharistic adoration. I've heard some consider taking up reading some Scripture daily, but often they are daunted by the prospect. The Bible can seem so big and foreign and heady and, well, in some places, weird. What's with all the battle statistics in Numbers? Or those oddball visions in Daniel? Why does Jesus wither a fig tree? What on earth is going on in the Book of Revelation?

To repeat the most oft-given exhortation in the whole of Scripture: "Do not be afraid." Allow me to give a few tips for getting you started engaging the Word of God.

First, where to begin. I would suggest, as it was suggested to me, to start with one of the Gospels. As Christians, we believe that Scripture is the Word of God, and Jesus is the Word of God, so that, in some sense, Jesus must be on every page of the Bible, but it's simplest to begin with those pages that talk about him directly, his life, his ministry, his death and resurrection. Which Gospel you choose is your call: John is very spiritual, but can be a bit abstract; reading Matthew is aided by a bit more knowledge of the Old Testament; Mark is more simple and straightforward; and Luke provides lots of helpful historical context, and includes the narratives of Christ's birth which so many of us love so dearly. So, I'd suggest Mark or Luke for your first crack at it.

You know what? Let's leave it there for now. Read one of the Gospels. Do it in one sitting, or spread out over several days, however you like. A good place to start.

Yes, there will still be things in there that are confusing or references you may not get, which is why it's helpful to use a Bible with good footnotes. The Ignatius Study Bible is a solid choice.

One important note: bumper stickers and holy cards can give the impression that the Bible is a collection of inspirational quotes, but that is not the case. The Bible as a whole sets out the long story of God's search for fallen humanity. Yes, it contains many pithy inspirational passages that fit neatly on the back of your car or as a Facebook status, but the Bible is not meant to be a Twitter feed; sections and books (and in some sense the totality of Scripture) are meant to be taken as a whole, the whole providing context for the parts. Some may be shocked to find that one of their favorite Bible verses, "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:11), is not set in the same bucolic and peaceful place as Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd"), but rather is set in the midst of battle:

9Come and see the works of the Lord,
who has done fearsome deeds on earth;
10Who stops wars to the ends of the earth,
breaks the bow, splinters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire;
11“Be still and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
exalted on the earth.”
12The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.

Yes, the phrase itself is beautiful in itself, but its context puts it in a different light.

Or consider Micah 6:8--"You know, o man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do the right, to love the good, and to walk humbly with your God." A beautiful sentiment, though it's set in the middle of God putting Israel on trial and pointing out their shortcomings. Actually, though, this setting improves its inspirational power: when do we most need to be reminded of what is required of us but when we have fallen short? How much more comforting is it to know that when we have failed in a given instance, God will most readily call us back? See! Context helps!

This is merely to caution you against flipping open the Bible, placing your finger randomly on the page, and expecting spiritual fulfillment. That can happen in extraordinary circumstances, such as in St. Augustine's "tolle, lege" story, but it's not the norm.

I echo the voice of the child in that story of St. Augustine's: "Take up! Read!" Get to know Our Lord this Lent through the Word He has revealed to us. It's not so scary once you get started.

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