In Defence of Inefficient Bible Reading

I took a course on speed reading and effective reading earlier today. The ability to read texts quickly and in a manner that is tailored to clear objectives is obviously an incredibly useful skill. However, one of the things that most struck me while taking the course was the degree to which these were ‘skills’ that I had to unlearn in the process of learning how to read the Bible.

The reading skills of the modern reader are designed for a world with millions of books vying for our attention, with billions of Internet pages, newspapers, magazines, e-mails, texts, letters, journals, and the like. In our world there is an incredible low signal to noise ratio, and you must choose what you read carefully, while also learning how to read quickly, in order to get through as much as you can. We learn to approach texts with a clear set of objectives. We have a list of questions that the text must answer for us. One of the most basic things that fast reading involves, for instance, is silent reading. One cannot truly read rapidly if one is reading aloud, or under one’s breath. Modern reading is also generally private reading. Reading a book aloud in the context of a community is an unusual experience for us. The books that we are used to make few demands of us as readers, even though they may tax us as thinkers. We generally read them from start to finish and then put them to one side.

The Bible is really not like this at all. The Bible is a book that one can never really ‘have read’: one either reads the Bible or one doesn’t read the Bible. The Bible makes a lot of demands of us as readers if we are to be gifted readers of it. Modern texts put themselves purely at our disposal, and by our reading techniques we master them. The Bible must master us and set the terms for our reading. To read the Bible is like learning to read all over again: learning how to slow down, how to read aloud, how to read without objectives, how to process a text that is virtually all signal with no noise, how to meditate on a passage, how to pray a passage.

It also involves deep training in typological and analogical thinking, forms of thought to which the modern mind is less accustomed. Learning how to read the Bible involves learning how to close one’s eyes and open one’s ears. It involves learning how to read with others, in local communities of faith, and with a tradition. It involves learning how a text can read itself and how we can participate in this process. It involves making our home in the text, and treating the text as something that grows to encompass our world. It involves becoming aware of the complex ‘form’ of the Scriptures, and the fact that unhelpful modern habits of reading that can be invited by the fact that we encounter these Scriptures as ‘the Bible’. It involves becoming aware of the close relationship between time and reading: certain books should occasionally be read from start to finish in a single sitting, while other stories are knit into our lives as we live out their patterns of expectation, hope, joy, tension, and solemnity within the Church year.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons that I have learnt over the years for my own Bible reading has been that bringing objectives, questions, and regular reading methods to the text can actually prove profoundly unhelpful. Even too much of a reliance on one regular form of engagement can be unhelpful (if that form of engagement is not the communal reading in the context of the Church’s life). We need to be prepared to let the Scriptures set the terms of our engagement with it and approaching a text with objectives and questions is perhaps the best way in which to stifle the sort of attentiveness that the Bible calls for. We need to learn how to let ourselves and our reading continually be called into question by the text. Approaching the Scripture with a set of reading goals and objectives can be a great way of closing down the imagination, which must always be at the heart of Scripture reading. This all involves a sort of playfulness and openness in our approach to Scripture, a willingness to be taken by surprise, to follow a path without knowing its our destination, to be patient, to be led by the text. The very skills that empower the reading of modern books can make us poor readers of the Bible.

How inefficient is your Scripture reading?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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8 Responses to In Defence of Inefficient Bible Reading

  1. Pingback: How Efficient is Your Bible Reading? | revmhj.com

  2. John H says:

    In my personal experience, one of the most damaging ideas has been the emphasis on reading the whole Bible within a year, or two years, or whatever. Not that it’s an inherently bad thing to read the whole Bible, or even to do so in a disciplined and planned way; but that (at least if you’re me) it puts you on a treadmill, and sets up a near-permanent (well, seventeen years and counting…) sense of nagging guilt about one’s failure to stick to the programme.

    Which is one reason I’m now glad to be following the C of E lectionary. AFAICT, it covers almost the whole Bible (and one can easily fill in the gaps – “oh, you skipped that bit, did you? Figures.”😉 ), but more to the point there is more of a sense of joining in with the church’s reading of the Bible, rather than just reading it on one’s own. If circumstances conspire to make me to miss a few days, the church carries on reading without me, and I can then join back in.

    Hopefully it will help the slow healing process of moving from seeing the Bible as a book one has to “have read” from cover to cover in the past [x] years, to one which one reads on an ongoing basis.

    • I completely agree. I grew up feeling guilty about uncompleted Bible reading programmes, which soured my relationship with the Scriptures. The Bible came to symbolize guilt and failure, rather than invitation and life, a cool spring to drink from. Getting the reading done become the goal, rather than encountering God in his Word. Subsequent to this attitude shift I have read so much more Scripture, and it hasn’t felt like a chore in the same way at all. However, I am sure that the same damaging guilt and law-shaped perception of the Scriptures deeply affects many Christians for life.

  3. David McKay says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading the Bible through completely several times since 2005, but i have always had goof-off periods, then came back to it.

    I would like to encourage people to read through the whole Bible, but would hate to make it a burden.

    Each time i have read it through, i have adapted the system I was trying to use, whether the one in the back of the ESV Study Bible, or Michael Coley’s or M’Cheyne’s, to make it my own. I was not successful in following anyone else’s system.

    Starting on 1st January is not a good plan in Australia, because it is our summer holidays and it is hard to get into a routine. It is easier when you have a daily routine, we Aussies have discovered.

    My current plan, taking up the suggestion from Alan Kurschner to read through Synopsis of the Four Gospels, which has 367 pericopes or sections, is to deliberately not start on 1st Jan and set myself up for failure, but to start now, and expect it will take more than a year.

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