Many people are attracted to the Bible as a source of spiritual enlightenment. As with any book, most seekers of things spiritual open it to the first page and begin reading there. Unfortunately, too often they chose an antique translation and quickly grow tired of the thees and thous and other bits of Shakespearian verbiage that they found off-putting when forced to read the Bard in high school. Then, if they can get past that, or have been fortunate enough to find a nice modern translation, they will all too quickly find themselves lost in cultural settings that make little sense, facing bloodthirsty tribalism, dysfunctional families, and long lists of names that are unpronounceable. And so they turn away from it. Mark Twain once wrote about a Henry James novel that “Once you put it down, it's almost impossible to pick up again.” And if we’re honest, countless people, both Christian and not, have similar feelings about the Bible.
Many churchgoers made a New Year’s resolution to read through the Bible in a year. And maybe half who begin the year with such hope managed to keep at it through the end of January. Those still reading through the tome here at the end of May are as rare as honest politicians. Like the fancy exercise equipment bought at Christmas time, only to become clothes racks by March, so their Bibles now lay lost beneath stacks of People Magazine.
If so many folk have such negative experiences with the Bible, one can’t help but wonder: why is the Bible held in such high regard? Why has it had such an impact on Western civilization? Why do people continue to believe that they should at least try to read it?
Those of us who are theologians and Bible scholars need to be honest with people: reading the Bible is hard, and a lot of it is not nearly as much fun as watching television or reading a novel by Stephen King. And parts of the Bible, admittedly, have as much action as the phone book.
Many years ago I went to youth camp with a bunch of junior high boys as their counselor. They were encouraged, while there, to read their Bibles. They would come back to their bunks and stare at the book and wonder what they should do with it, what part of it to turn to. It is, after all, a pretty thick book, especially for thirteen year olds. Finally, some of them asked me for where they should look.
I sent them to the more interesting parts, especially the parts that might appeal to their age group: stories of violence, war, and conflict. I had them read portions of the book of Judges, where they read the story of a man who burned his daughter as an offering to God, and another where a Levite took his concubine and cut her into twelve pieces. My reason for selecting these passages was to encourage them to read the book. I wanted them to see that it was more than just an insomnia cure.
So next time you open the Bible, see if you can discover why it has endured for so long as a part of western civilization, or why so many people devote their lives to the God who shows up in its pages. The value of the text is not always obvious, and that’s okay. It’s supposed to make you ask questions; it’s supposed to be challenging.
As for reading through the whole thing, just remember: parts of it will be deadly dull. Other parts will be very interesting and enlightening. Some parts may be very confusing, or deeply disturbing. Keep in mind it was written over the course of more than a thousand years by many, many different people. You’ll find a lot of varieties of material, everything from genealogical lists, to pious poetry, to adventure tales filled with blood and gore. Just don’t give up; reading it isn’t for wimps.