Do you have any big plans for the new year?
I plan on getting chewed up and spit out by the Bible.
Don’t get me wrong–I love the Bible. LOVE it. This year, I have had some amazingly profitable Bible studies. I read through the New Testament this summer and found it to be incredibly inspiring and enlightening. I also studied Hosea in August, and really got caught up in the story of God’s passion for His people. In the fall, when my family was going through a tumultuous time, I immersed myself in Philippians, and it kept me spiritually afloat (mixed metaphors, anyone?). Right now, I’m going through a Beth Moore study on James with my best friend, and good ol’ James has been predictably hard-hitting and motivating.
But there is something about reading through the whole Bible that completely confuses and disorients me. Recently, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary had a post on her experiences with reading through the Bible, and I was laughing out loud at her description of all the ickiness that goes on in the Old Testament. I think it was just refreshing to hear someone else articulate the feeling. Besides all the raping and slaughter and such, the Old Testament is also disorienting because it comes to us in 39 books, and I know precious little about their backgrounds. By this time in my faith, I’m pretty familiar with the structure and background of the New Testament. But the Old is a whole ‘nother story. The books aren’t arranged chronologically, and sometimes even the content of the books isn’t arranged chronologically (see: Jeremiah); they come in a variety of genres, each requiring its own set of interpretive tools; and often when you start a new book, you are thrown into a historical setting about which you have NO information. It’s not uncommon to begin a book of prophecy and have no idea who is talking to whom, and at what time, and in what set of circumstances. I do use several books on the Bible as I study, such as introductions and commentaries, but even then, it’s often hard to get my bearings and to put myself in such a foreign context.
So that’s some of the stuff that makes the Old Testament (and sometimes the New Testament) hard to understand. But as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” And I from the other quotes on the Bible I read by Twain while searching for the correct wording for that one, I think I partially mean it the way he does. Yes, I understand Jesus’ plain words about loving our enemies, and that bothers me, because I know I must follow them. But I also understand the story of Nadab and Abihu, and that bothers me because I can’t get how God would do that to them. And I understand the story of Jehu, and that bothers me because I don’t know why God would use such a brutal murderer. I understand the story of the Israelites taking over Canaan, and that bothers me because of all the genocide involved. I understand David’s words about wanting someone to dash his enemies’ babies against the rocks, and that bothers me because I am generally against dashing infants. And so forth.
Now, believe me, I have sought and received several different answers to the questions that bother me, and have received much wise counsel from people much more educated and further along in their spirituality than I. I have also spilled a considerable amount of ink and an even larger amount of pixels trying to sort out these issues myself. And most importantly, I have prayed to God for guidance repeatedly while reading Scripture, and His Spirit has helped me in the process of discernment. But the end result is generally the same: by the time I limp through reading the whole Bible in a year, I am spiritually beat up, disheveled, and disoriented. I’ve only done it twice, though, and the second time was much better than the first time. So I have even higher hopes for the third time.
Now, you may be thinking, Why do it, if it is so challenging to your faith?
I have asked myself the same thing, after each time I’ve finished. The first time, I honestly thought I would never try to read the whole Bible again. I finished it at the end of 2006, and I had read it in isolation, never getting to compare notes with other readers. The sad part was that there was a year-long Sunday school class at church that was reading the same one year Bible that I was, and they met to discuss it each week. But I was already scheduled to teach for most of the quarters of the year, and so I didn’t get to attend. I would often pass that class on the way to the one I was teaching, and wish so badly that I could go in and just ask, “Okay, was anyone else completely weirded out by this week’s reading?” But there was another part of me that thought I might get kicked out of church if I asked the questions that were rattling around in my head.
And so it was that I put the Bible away with a sigh of relief the end of that year. I decided to spend 2007 just reading the psalms, a book which, baby-head-bashing aside, is like chicken noodle soup for the questioning soul. I took heart from David’s honesty, from his unwillingness to pretend that his faith was perfect or that he had all the right answers. I appreciated his rawness, his seeking, his frustration and sadness, intermixed with his joy. My faith rebounded, and I went on to study the Bible piece-meal for a few more years.
And then in 2010, I decided to try again. Why? Because I wanted to know God. Reading the whole Bible had given me a jolting wake-up call that God was very different than I was. I tend to unconsciously make God in my own image, which is a form of idolatry. The best antidote to that self-delusion, I found, is the strong elixir of the whole Bible. It provides a shock to my system that forces me to acknowledge how different God is from my conceptions of Him. And since I want to know who God really is, and not just who I want Him to be, I confess that the battering of the whole Bible has become somewhat addictive to me.
Also, I believe that the Truth is strong. I believe that it–no, that He–can handle our questions, our confusion, our honesty. I have faith in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God. And because of that, I know He is more than a match for the struggles of my limited intellect. Armed with that faith, I began again in 2010.
My reading in 2010 was much better, for two reasons: 1) I took the time to process my thoughts through typing them out in an ongoing Bible blog, which helped immensely, and 2) I read through it with several different Christians (and one atheist!) who chimed in with their two cents. Reading it this way proved to me that the Bible is meant to be read and interpreted in community. I was still worn out by the time I crossed the finish line, but even then, I knew I was going to do it again in a year.
And now we are here: 2012. Time to start again. I’m going to use the same Bible I did in 2010: The One Year Bible. That way, I can refer to my blog to
laugh at get insight from my old thoughts, as well as the thoughts of others. It will also be interesting to see where my interpretations and responses have changed. As I start, I want to formally invite anyone to join me who so desires. And I also want to say this to anyone who needs to hear it: I know it’s hard to read the Bible sometimes. And I know it’s even harder to understand parts of it. I know that while it is amazing and uplifting and life-changing and inspirational, it can also be confusing and disorienting. I know that. So if you ever read the Bible and come away feeling further from God instead of closer to Him, please know that there is someone who understands those feelings. When I felt that way, I often wondered if I was the only one. Maybe I was:). But if you have ever felt like that, or ever feel that way in the future, please know that you are not alone. And if you are ever confused or uncertain about something you read in the Bible, and you just want to talk to someone about it, I will talk to you. I can almost guarantee you that I won’t have hard and fast answers for you, but I will jump in there with you and work through it. One way to get my attention is to leave a comment on either this blog or the Bible blog. Even when I am not actively referring to the Bible blog (as I will be in 2012), I still get email updates whenever someone leaves a comment. I will go so far as to guarantee that if you leave a comment on the Bible blog about Scripture, I will respond to you. As one who is extremely indebted to those who have responded to ME when I’ve been lost and confused, I would be remiss not to pass on that blessing (albeit with a lot less wisdom and insight).
So those are my Bible reading plans for 2012. I also have bought or plan to buy a few books that I think will help with journey…in addition, of course, to the faithful references and commentaries that I have already accrued.
Wish me luck…and feel free to join me!
Have you ever read the whole Bible? How did you take it?