Posted: 30 Jun 2014 01:22 AM PDT
Reading the Bible isn’t optional for Christians – it is part of what makes us who we are. However, there’s no doubt that some people find it daunting and don’t know where to start.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend starting at the beginning and working through to the end. It starts OK with some interesting and apparently familiar stories about creation and a load of stories about Abraham but soon veers off into purity codes and punishments and what can seem like interminable records of who gave birth to whom.
Better to begin somewhere else.
Start with one of the Gospels
I’d suggest starting with one of the gospel books – that means one of the following books – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
(By the way, I recommend the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Get one of the ones with the Apocrypha and look for one with British rather than American spellings if that matters to you).
You’ve got the idea that the Bible is really a library of books written by different people at different times and in different places, right? Well the gospels are four different accounts of the life of Jesus told by different writers for different audiences. If you look carefully you’ll see that there are what appear to be discrepancies between them but essentially they all clearly tell you about the life and death of a man who told stories, healed people and befriended an unlikely crew before being killed in Jerusalem. These books were all written after Jesus’s death and crucially after those who knew him best spread the story that death had not been the end of Jesus but that in some way they were still encountering him in a way which changed the world.
If you want a short one to start with I’d suggest Mark – just 16 rushing chapters where we find Jesus portrayed as a healing holy man. Note how the action flows from the desert to the city. Note also that there’s nothing much about Jesus’s birth in this one. It is all about his life and teaching. If you want to find the Christmas stories you need to look in Matthew’s gospel for the story of the Magi (aka the Wise Men) from the East or in Luke’s gospel for most of the stuff about Mary, Joseph and Bethlehem. Matthew was trying to relate Jesus’s life to a community who were working out the relationship between their Jewishness and the rest of the world which is perhaps why he presents the Magi coming from outside the holy land to worship at the crib. Luke, traditionally thought of as a doctor has more about Jesus’s relationships with women and the amazing song of Mary that teaches us that spirituality and justice are inherrently bound together.
John’s gospel, meanwhile was written after the others and the big theme is to try to explain what it all means rather than simply to tell a story. Symbols are hugely significant to John and whoever wrote it (no, we don’t really know) plays around with time in order to make his point.
All human life is found in the Psalms
After reading one of the gospels, I’d suggest that someone heads over into the Psalms and starts to dip in and out. All human life is there. These are spiritual songs which form a collection of spiritual writing which goes from anger to joy, from despair to compassion. Most people already know Psalm 23 because of the comfort that it has brought through many centuries to those being bereaved. But check out Psalm 121 for inspiration, Psalm 139 for a meditation on what it means to be human and the final psalms at the end of the book for fabulous images of praise and worship.
People still read the psalms as a bedrock for prayer and they form the core of Daily Prayer in just about any Christian tradition. We sing them every week on a Sunday at St Mary’s and recite them every other day at Morning Prayer.
Maybe now it is time for Genesis and a bit of Job
Remember the first book of the Bible that we glossed over at the beginning – well maybe it is time to give it a go now. Start with the creation stories at the beginning and remind yourself that there’s two quite different accounts in the first two chapters. They are obviously not worth reading if you think that they are either a replacement for a scientific understanding of the world and nor if you think they are irrelevant now we have a scientific understanding of the world. They are a good deal more subtle than that – they are attempts to prompt reflection about the way humans experience the world. It is the big – “what are we doing here?” question turned into stories and pictures. These texts still provoke a response even now.
Whilst we are on the “What are we doing here?” question, you might like to take a leap into the book of Job – a story of someone who is trying to work out precisely that. He does what he thinks is right in the world and ends up leading a miserable life. A bunch of friends come along who say, “well, that sucks, God’s been horrible to you” and from somewhere inside himself, Job seems to conclude that this is just the way it is and that God is to be blessed and praised anyway. It is a good one for psychologists (amateur or otherwise) is Job.
Back in Genesis, you’ll find the sagas of Abraham and of Joseph taking up a good deal of the space. Worth a go, not least as they start to establish the theme that God blesses unlikely people. (Abraham sells off his wife to save his own skin not once but twice and you already know the story and the songs from the Joseph stuff from a certain musical).
A bit of prophecy now – Isaiah but start in the middle
Take a leap into the prophets now by reading a few chapters from the book of Isaiah. But don’t start at the beginning, start at chapter 40. Isaiah was written by at least two people at different times. Pick it up in the middle where there’s this soaring and wonderful prose which will again sound familiar but this time it is Handel who is giving you the tunes to hum over as you read rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber – we are in Messiah territory here.
Read some tricky stuff
Oh, don’t neglect the tricky stuff. You know fine well that this was written a long time ago and that our culture and society has moved on now, right? Well, it is still worth reading about Sodom and Gomorrah and that pesky verse in Leviticus 18 about men not lying with men and having a think about the sexual morality of godly people has changed and is still changing. Nowadays, we tend to think of the Sodom stuff as being about the crime of being inhospitable rather than an injunction against faithful, stable gay lives. Similarly, you want to read a few verses either side of the Leviticus verse and you’ll find that eating shellfish is condemned with as much ferocity as gay sex. The day an evangelical church launches a campaign against prawn cocktails is a day to take them more seriously in wanting to limit the human rights of gay people today.
Don’t miss the stuff about women and men either. We’ve already encountered some of it in the second chapter of Genesis but you want to take a look at St Paul’s stuff about women being quiet in church (1 Corinthians 14) and keeping their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11). Again, we have to see this in its historical context and murmur to ourselves that even in its historical context it was wrong, it kept women silenced and recognise that not everything in religion is good.
But don’t miss the best bits of Paul
Oh heavens, right in the middle of all that stuff about women you get one of the best bits of St Paul’s writings – 1 Corinthians 13. It is such a fabulous celebration of love that it still gets read frequently (and often very badly) at weddings.
Love is patient and love is kind, but if you want something a bit erotic you need to dip back into the Hebrew scriptures and read the sexy Song of Songs.
And end up with Revelation
The last book of the Bible is the Revelation of St John. It is a wacky read at first sight. You’ll find yourself asking “what was he on?” Is this drug induced writing or something that comes from a mystical state. Whatever it is, you find, amidst some rather gory stuff which is probably an allegory of how people thought the world was ending at the time it was written, some glorious images of what heaven is like – fabulous food, music and sex are the basic images of heaven that run through a lot of biblical thinking.
Then start reading it systematically
Once you’ve got a basic idea of what’s in it, reading a few short passages a day is a good idea.
Any member of the clergy in any church in any part of the world is delighted when someone asks for suggestions on how to read the Bible. Go on, if you are short of ideas yourself, make their day complete.
This rough guide to first steps in reading the Bible, from the Provost of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, Fr. Kelvin Holdsworth, is a pretty good introduction course to understanding the place of the Bible in the outworking of faith from today’s perspective of hermeneutical research into these ancient writings.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand