Reading Responsibly

Since I talk a lot about being “responsible readers” of the scriptures, someone recently asked this:

What is it to be a responsible reader of anything? And why is that so important when reading the Bible?

Here is my reply: To be a responsible reader of anything is to read “with respect” (i.e., giving respect to) what I’m reading and not to abuse it. It is possible to abuse anything we read. For example:

  1. When I read my mother’s letters, I don’t read them as I would a newspaper article or a debt collector, even if she is reporting to me about the death of a neighbor or asking me to pay her back the money I borrowed from her. She is my mother, and that weighs heavily on me as I read. But I don’t use her 2 paragraphs of concern for my sister to drive a wedge between my mother and my sister. That would be to use the letter for a purpose it was not intended. That would be irresponsible.
  2. If I am reading poetry, I read it in light of the conventions of poetry, depending on what kind of poetry: English literature? Hebrew Wisdom? But I don’t read poetry as if it were law or history, even if knowing the historical context of the poem or the poet might give me insight.
  3. A Gospel is not the same as a letter; apocalyptic literature (as in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation) is not the same as legal literature, nor allegory, etc. Reading these forms of literature without even noticing the difference often leads to some form of abuse.
  4. Talking about “the Bible” as though it is a single book with a single message often leads to abuse. The Bible is actually made up of collections of material gathered from over a thousand years or so. Also, there are many overlapping messages with many, and sometimes varied, specific nuances.

Does this mean that you have to be a scholar to read the Bible? Heaven forbid!

My mother was not a scholar: but she was a hungry student of the Bible and a searcher. Did all of this searching make a difference in her life: how she acted, what she believed, how she treated people? Uh . . . yes. Was she an arrogant, abusive Bible thumper? Hardly! Did she have any of those people as her teachers? You bet she did, but she knew the difference between what they were and what the texts she was reading were calling for. Can a person without “formal training” in the Bible gain value from reading the Bible not knowing any technicalities? Of course, just like an untrained person — with effort and patience — can replace a bathroom floor, plumbing and all (that would be me!). However, we should not be satisfied to live in ignorance. The more we learn about what it is we’re trying to do, the more it can help. To be unwilling to learn and to be insistent upon reading only through our own unevaluated context is to be irresponsible.

Giving respect to Paul as an ancient author, for example 1 Corinthians, means we will at least try to read by sitting in his chair before we’re willing to jump to our own conclusions. For example, we will read what he says about homosexuality or marriage or spiritual gifts or women against the backdrop of his own times and contexts without frothing at the mouth because we may disagree (from our own perspective). Was Paul a bigot or sexist? By 21st century American standards, yes. But then by his standards, most current-day American Christians are ignorant heathens. And when compared to the ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo (who died about the time Paul started writing), and many other ancient writers on women, Paul can be seen as both moderate and as sowing the seeds for liberation of women.

Now here’s the point: As people, we are not naturally responsible readers. We have to be taught. No matter what the subject. The reason is that reading is a very complicated subject. And whether people like to hear this or not, there’s more to reading the Bible than simply “doing what it says.”

The trouble is, when readers don’t care about any of this — and that is precisely what predominates in churches across the country (even though there are exceptions) — this is irresponsible. It undermines the pursuit and existence of genuine Christianity.

Let’s put it this way: countless biblical texts themselves urge, over and over again, familiarity with the scriptures:

    1. “On God’s law he meditates day and night;”
    2. “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law;”
    3. “Attach them as frontlets for your eyes, put them on door posts, teach them to your children;”
    4. “Go on to maturity, get past the basics;” and
    5. “Jesus opened their minds to the law, the prophets, and the psalms.”

And on it goes.

I don’t mention these things to point out some kind of “command,” as though we have to read scripture because scripture says so. Instead, the point is that from the beginnings, Christianity was very much rooted in written text. So, in Christian terms, the written texts that form the basis of faith are replete with urging to know scripture.

For Christians to tout the Bible as the most important book in the world and then to be aware of it only in vague, generalized, mushy evangelical terms, or not even to care, is irresponsible! Some one can certainly come to faith in Christ having never read a single word. Certainly there are many experiences outside of the written word that can be had that are both valuable and necessary for a person of faith. However, in ancient Christian terms, followers of Christ will not be satisfied living a life apart from scripture. They’ll naturally seek to become “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Scribes. Readers of written texts. A genuine life of faith and a life in the Holy Spirit will always lead into a life in scripture. Stated another way, the Holy Spirit of God will never lead one away from the Word of God.

20 thoughts on “Reading Responsibly

  1. I look forward to these studies. I am a 76 year old woman, a Christian all my life, one to whom Bible study became very personally important and gratifying in my 20’s, and it remains so. I am somewhat amazed at the difference in what I find in Scripture now and what I found then.

    Thanks for the opportunity.

    • Norma, delighted to have you in the group. I know what you mean about the different ways we read Scripture as we grow. So please keep in mind that this is not “business as usual.” Part of my goal is to push you into areas you may feel uncomfortable. It is especially in those places, where we are forced to think of things from a new or different perspective and to consider our positions on things, that we grow.

  2. Just beginning. In reading 00-Reading Responsibly I found this:

    In the paragraph where you say, “Countless biblical texts…urge…familiarity with Scripture:” in number 4 there is this phrase inserted (in blue highlight) “6buy cheap propecia” — and when I click on the highlighted phrase I get an advertisement for some medical outfit. What’s this? Was it intentional? Does it happen “all the time”?

    I need to know before I continue with this.

    Thank you.

    • No, that wasn’t supposed to be there. It is the first time I’ve seen that. I don’t want that stuff there any more than you do. I have now deleted it. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Hi Gary,
    I was born again and baptized two years ago at the age of 46 and ever since I have been seeking to know our Father’s word and truth; his will for not just me but for all. I have really been “on fire” for learning as much as I can absorb and have bought several books over the past couple years to help me in my studies. I came across your name and website from Edward Fudge’s Gracemail. I look forward to being “pushed” toward my Father.

    • Maybe we can help “push and pull” each other, in a friendly way. I keep telling people to “hold on to your hats” because what is coming up is quite different from anything most people have heard. Partly, this is because we generally don’t talk in detail about the history and origins of the Bible, so the information may be new. Partly, I am directly–and unhesitatingly–challenging some cherished ideas. Actually, there is a lot more riding on this than people realize. More and more it is imperative that we are very clear about the origins and nature of the book many of us dearly love. I am one of those people, but some end up doubting it, because of my approach. I’m hoping that people will “hold on”, take it all in, give some back, and let’s have a good study. Blessings,
      Gary

  4. I have been a Christian for 40 years and have wrestled with God and His ability to save me because of all the ups and downs with my faith. Or maybe I’ve been wrestling with the devil. It seems the more I study, the more I realize how little I know and the more questions I have. Sometimes I “knocked on the door” so long my knuckles were bloody. And there were periods I have been on my knees so long that I felt I could not get back up. Throughout out it all, God has sustained me and pushed me out of my comfort zone to areas in my life that have blessed me greatly. I am looking forward to answering these questions I have.

    • I do hope this study will assist in that struggle. However, don’t expect it to taste very “good” at times. I promise that in the next several lessons I’m going to challenge a lot of commonly held beliefs. All I ask is that you stay with the study.

  5. I read of “40 Things Everybody Should Know about the Bible” through an article by Edward Fudge. Lesson 1 was thought provoking and I am looking forward to future lessons. Thank you for your work in encouraging fresh personal Bible reading.

  6. Maybe they were there all along, but it seems to me that there are more and more people realizing some of truths you wrote about here. Until very recently, I didn’t know anyone was saying it quite like this except me. I take it a step farther and point out that we call certain Old Testament books “Law” and we read them differently because they are different. Yet, the New Testament contains zero books we call “Law.” So why are we taking 5 history books, 21 letters, and one book of apocalyptic prophecy and scouring them for laws?

    Looking forward to the studies.

    Grace and joy,
    Oscar

  7. Gary,
    Was introduced to lesson #2 and absolutely loved it. You spoke of where I presently am. Having been asked to leave the church of Christ and now meeting with the Church of Christ but not being allowed to attend Bible classes because my comments apparently upset some folks, I am looking forward to your lessons and the discussions I will have with the little flock who get together to have serious study.
    Jack

  8. Hi,

    M a 23 yr old Baby in Christ.. I was saved in the year 2009. I have been a Catholic all my life.. But true meaning of Jesus was taught to me by the Holy Spirit of God – as u said above ! And THEN i turned to the scriptures and found all those things in there and was amazed how all this was true..

    I admit i have backsliden a LOT, but my Lord has been faithful to me in bringing me back to Him.. Alleluia !!

    M looking forward to ‘sharpen my tools’ and grow in my intimate walk with Jesus..

    Dear Gary. I pray for blessings upon you million folds.. and thank God for your efforts.

    All Glory and be to God – Almighty !

    Love in christ
    Sharal 🙂

    • Sharal, thanks for the wonderful comment. Since you have been so open in your expression allow me to give you a heads-up–this won’t be normal stuff. It will be very challenging. I guarantee you that some would warn you to stay away from this. But I challenge you to think with me. Stay with me all the way through. If you do that, I promise you that you will be blessed in ways you don’t and can’t understand right now. Christians should never be afraid of being challenged. I promise you that you will be challenged. About lesson 4 your going to wonder about me. But I challenge you to hold on. Blessings!

  9. When I was a “young” preacher newly ordained by the acclaimed school that I attended (I graduated on my 41st birthday), then serving for almost three years as the “pulpit minister” of a Southwestern congregation, I found myself ‘evangelizing’ in a good sized town in Nova Scotia, Canada.

    I worked with two men (one Canadian, one Texan) who were also graduates of ‘my’ school. Fairly regularly we would meet for several hours of talk. The talk always became a discussion of the things we had been taught in ‘our’ school.

    In the early days our talks were always frank, open, seeking, and receptive. As we grew and matured they became blunt, brutal, aggressive. Sometimes there was blood on the floor (not literally!). We wanted to know not only “what Paul said” – we wanted to understand “what Paul meant by what he said.” I think I learned more (and I think the other two men would agree!) about “who Jesus was” in those sessions than we did in years of schooling.

    I write this only to say that study of the Bible must be frank, seeking, receptive, and always SERIOUS.

    ………A. C.

    • A.C., really good to hear from you, you gave us all a scare recently. I’m praying that you are recovering well. As to your comment, you have stirred up some some pleasant memories. A couple of times and places in my life, I have had the good fortune of having discussion groups with two or three others. We would get together, write and read papers (!), argue, laugh, study, etc. etc. Not only enjoyable, very useful! Growth time! Then Frank Pack told me that in his younger days he had a such a group with two other like-minded guys: J. W. Roberts and J. D. Thomas (I think). (Can you imagine that group?) Such associations are precious and I think people underestimate their value. Good to hear from you. Great point.
      Gary

  10. Thank you, Gary, for all the devotionals you have sent to me in the past…I have read many of them and found them to be beneficial. I have been a Bible student all of my life, but of course there have been ebbs and flows in my commitment to study. I am excited to participate in your new course of study. Your teaching encourages my thoughtful study and application of God’s Word. Thank you for your faithful stewardship of the Word.

    • Thanks Betty, just bear in mind that these won’t be devotionals as much as deeper-type studies about the Bible. They will challenge a number of things, but they will also offer a positive base. I appreciate your comments and will look forward to more.
      Gary

  11. It didn’t occur to me that there ware ways to read everything. I love to read books. I love to share what I read. I always suggested books to my friends. I am not proud that I haven’t read the bible yet. I have read it yes, but once in a blue and only a couple of verses. I think this post serves as my wake up call.

    • Thanks, Michael, for your comments. Because you are an avid reader, you likely just “read” and make all of you adjustments automatically. That’s fine, but the problem is that when it comes to the Bible, very often the “default” mode people fall into is not a very healthy one. Thinking about this can be very helpful. Thanks!
      Gary

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