Last week, I wrote about a set of mystery novels set in the fictional town of Three Pines, Canada. It took about twenty minutes for the first of the responses to come in: I’ve already ordered the first book! Throughout the day, people e-mailed me or caught my by the shoulder, saying the same thing: I need to read those books. Thank you!
It put me in mind of a sermon I preached years ago, in which I used an incident from the Harry Potter books to talk about the grace of God. After the service, person after person from that congregation went out and bought the book, and I was left to wonder, Have I ever preached a sermon that made people want to out and buy a Bible?
I’d like to think that I have, but I am not sure of that. People have so many preconceptions about the Bible: that it is hard, old, boring, a book of rules, that they already know what’s in it, even if they have never read it. And some of the preconceptions are true: it is challenging. It is old. It has some rules in it, although not nearly as many as we might want when we are struggling through a problem and we long for some clear guidance. And you do know some of what’s in it; the rest would make your hair stand on end.
That’s because the Bible is not what we want it to be. It is not a rule book, not a guidebook, not a treasure map that begins where you are and leads you to The Good Life (conveniently marked with a cross). It’s a collection of stories: a collection of great stories. They are joyful and sad, racy and cruel; they grab you by the throat or bring you up short (Did it just really say that???) or make you laugh or weep or wonder or go out and change your life. And they change in your hands, as they intersect with your life: the Bible you read next month will sound different from the one you read today.
Many of us don’t know that. We don’t know it because we don’t try reading it. Oh, we devour novels that are based on Bible stories; each year, there are several that become best-sellers. But The Book itself? That’s intimidating.
Which is a shame, because it’s so much fun.
This is the first week of Advent, the start of the church year. Why not make the Bible a part of it? Read through Genesis and Exodus, Samuel, the prophets, the gospels. Read St. Paul, but do it out loud; his really long sentences make more sense that way. Read Revelation, and see what its weird poetry brings out in your mind. And if you are one of the many people who already love it? Read the Apocrypha; it’s got some of the great heroes and heroines. Or read your favorite bits again. After all, you are not now the person you were when you last read them. You have changed. It has changed you.
If you are wondering which version to read, The New Oxford Annotated or The Harper-Collins Study Bible are strong editions with just the right amount of footnotes, maps, etc. to help you understand what you are reading without getting overwhelmed. If you want a contemporary translation, many people like The Message.
Want a plan? This will get you through the whole Bible in a year: http://thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org/pdf/One_Year_Bible_Read.pdf
Want some conversation partners? The best way to find them is to go to church and read with other people in a small group, or just get together with friends and talk about what you are reading. (Bring coffee and cookies, or wine and cheese.) If you can’t do that, Yale Divinity School has produced a series of videos in which great Bible teachers talk about the Bible together, while you get to listen in — and they’re free! You can find them at: http://yalebiblestudy.yale.edu/videos
Three Pines books (I’ve devoured the first two in the past week) and the link to the Yale courses will be Christmas presents for several of my friends scattered across the country and will get a sound recommendation at our Education for Ministry seminar today. The practice of finding theology in today’s accessible literature gives me courage to explore the Bible’s more challenging passages with a new ear for God’s message to us through the lives of the sages, prophets, mere mortals, and, during Advent, the experience of waiting for the coming of Jesus.
The Old Testament book of Judges is some of the best reading going. You can’t make up stuff that interesting.
Thank you for your recommendations especially the Yale Divinity School.
My church, the Episcopal Church of the Advent, in Spartanburg, S.C. started reading the New Testament on the first Monday of Advent. We will read the entire New Testament in one year. Next year, we will read the Old Testament in one year. In year three, we will read the entire Bible in one year.