Stop reading your Bible that way

March 12th, 2015

Think back to the last book you read from cover to cover. Maybe it was fiction. Maybe it was nonfiction. Think about how the story or ideas were developed. Think about all the time and effort the author put into creating the world of the story, or all the detail she put into creating the historical context. Think of all the pages you read as the author’s child, nurtured and fed, shaped and draped according to the author’s will.

Now imagine for a second that you decided just to read the first few pages. Thinking you’ve grasped the general story line, you then skip ahead to the last one-third of the book when the action seems to really pick up. You finish the last one-third and claim before God and you friends that you read and understood that book.

Do you think you could do it?

I don’t think I could. I have just started reading Stephen King’s “Revival” and if I were to have read only the first few pages and then skipped to the last one-third of the book, I’m absolutely sure I’d be thoroughly confused.

Or to take a nonfiction example, I just finished reading Amy-Jill Levine’s “The Misunderstood Jew.” In the first few pages she tells her own story about her experience with Jesus and Christians as a Jewish child growing up in America. If I’d just read that and then skipped to the last one-third of the book, I might tell you the book is solely about a Jewish woman defending Judaism from the unfortunate stereotypes Christians have perpetrated. And while I would be partially right, the fact is, Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament scholar who spent the first two-thirds of her book examining the New Testament and the life of Jesus. She’s written a book about Jesus. He is the misunderstood Jew. Amy-Jill Levine is only secondarily the misunderstood Jew.

So here’s my problem. For most Christians, we read the first few chapters of Genesis and then skip to the stories of Jesus, thinking we can ignore the majority of the Bible while still assuming we can understand the minority we’ve actually read. We start with Genesis 1 and creation. While there we entertain arguments that completely miss the point. We then move on to Genesis 3 and talk about the fall of humanity. From there we could just skip right to Jesus, but sometimes we like the dramatic flair that comes along with Genesis 4-11 and the famous stories of Cain and Abel, the Flood and the Tower of Babel. But then, after those great stories, we skip to the end.

If we do happen to traipse our way into the foreign land of the Old Testament, we merely do so for moralistic musing. We do so for children’s stories in Sunday School. Or we do so for sermon fodder. We draw out clever little moralisms. But we rarely if ever see these stories or the characters within the larger story of the Bible because, well, we’ve opted for cherry-picking stories instead of understanding the individual pieces as parts of a larger whole.

And if our understanding of the story of Scripture is that the parts that really matter are the very beginning and the last one-third, then we may as well ask, Can’t we just do away with that larger middle section?

And yet, despite all the skipping around, fast forwarding, ignoring and missing the point, we still have the nerve to tell people we understand what the Bible is all about! We wouldn’t dare do that with any other book we’ve read. We wouldn’t dare do that with Stephen King or William Faulkner. We’d be embarrassed to make such a statement in our biology class if we’d done such a shoddy job reading our biology text.

The way most evangelicals tell the story of the Bible is in two parts: Fall and Salvation. Sin and Redemption. And as the stories of Joshua or David or Elijah seem to be only loosely tied to those themes (or at least those themes as we have understood them through our cherry picking lenses), then we feel like we can generally ignore those stories. We really feel like we don’t even need them.

This, I think, is why so many people have such a shallow view of Christians. We say we believe a book that 1) we often haven’t even read, 2) we generally haven’t even tried to understand, 3) can’t even get the major plot points right and 4) we don’t even realize that our attitudes toward the Old Testament are practically heretical.

With this negligence running amok, when asked about the Bible, we say, “It’s the word of God from Genesis to Revelation.” But we know so little about what happens after Genesis 11 and before the New Testament opens up thousands of years later that it’s really rather hypocritical for us to make such definitive statements about the Bible’s divine origins.

How can we attest to the divine origins of a book of which we’ve only read one-third?

How dare we skip thousands of years of God’s revealed history and then have the nerve to tell people we believe it is all the word of God?

But the hypocrisy is even worse amongst the self-assumed super-Christians. We skip or skim that other two-thirds and then decide we’re going to be the orthodoxy police for everyone else. We start telling people how they should agree with our pet theories of the atonement or election or covenant without even considering if our understandings of those words are primarily shaped by the two-thirds of the book we’ve ignored or by our favorite theologian. I’m looking at you, Calvinists … and you, too, Arminians.

It matters, for example, that David’s kingship gives a particular nuance to our understanding of election. It matters that Leviticus tells us how the various sacrificial offerings work. It matters that Abraham’s relationship with God is built on an ancient understanding of covenant that God will use throughout redemptive history, including in the New Testament. These things matter, but they only get fleshed out in that two-thirds we’ve decided either not to read or not to read very closely.

You can’t read the first few pages of a book, skip to the end, and assume you’ve understood the book. That’s cheap reading. And when you do it with the Bible, you’ll end up with cheap theology. It might be theology that looks a lot like your favorite theologian, but it’s not going to be necessarily biblical. Because, after all, for something to be biblical, it needs to make sense over the scope of the entire book, not just the little sections we like to read.

Tom Fuerst blogs at You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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