The end of quiet times

To be an evangelical Christian is to be a Bible reader. Our piety insists on personal, family and public Bible reading, even if the statistics suggest that our commitment to reading Scripture may be a part of evangelical mythology.1 Anyone who has the gall to ask “Do we really need to read the Bible?” deserves to be ex-communicated as a heretic and infidel and is certainly not a fit person to hold a publican’s license!

Let me ask the question anyway—on someone else’s behalf, of course. Perhaps I can do it in the way that you might ask the chemist about an embarassing disease: “My friend sent me over, and they’ve got this question …”

A friend, who has spent some time in Zaire, recently told me that the link between Christianity and reading is so clear that in some parts of Africa, the word used to describe Christians means ‘readers’, and church services are called ‘readings’. At the day-to-day level of the Christian life, the Bible has a prominence that, I understand, is unparalleled in any other major religion. Isn’t it true that so much of the missionary endeavour has been given to translation of our Book, and education so that our Book can be read ? Isn’t it true that so much church life revolves around exhortations to Bible reading, meeting for group Bible reading, and public readings and explanations of the Bible? It is certainly true that to be a Christian, the Bible must have a prominent place in our life.

But what if I cannot read?

“Learn!” comes the reply.

What if I can’t get access to a Bible?

“We’ll publish more!”

But what if I come from one of those marginalized people groups that the economic gurus in mission societies have decided to ignore because our numbers are too small to warrant a publication?



Does everyone need to read the Bible ? If you can’t read, you are an outcast in a Bible study group (especially if the hard-nosed leader makes people ‘read around the circle’; as it gets closer to your turn, you pray desperately for the Second Coming or, at least, an attack of tonsillitis). If you don’t read, as so many Aussie males don’t (mainly because Mills and Boon is published with a pink stripe), you are a guilty outcast in a community that tests your Christianity by the frequency of your ‘quiet times’. If you want to read, but just can’t seem to find the time with the four kids, the part-time job, the housework, and the overly romantic husband, then you begin to feel you are an outcast to the faith that you once knew so well. If your minister keeps saying in the application to every sermon that you must read more, even churchgoing gets too frustrating. If the village missionary insists that you must learn to read in someone else’s language from a book that you don’t have, then the old-style religion starts to sound pretty darn good, and you leave the missionary feeling totally exasperated with your poor education, which he claims is hindering the work of the gospel.

Receiving the Word

Do Christians really need to read the Bible ? Let me remain an orthodox evangelical from the outset. The answer is a very firm ‘yes’. Christians must have some input from the Bible. Receiving the message of the Bible is the only way to hear the word of God because God has chosen only to reveal himself through that message. Every Christian must have a commitment to constantly, repeatedly, whenever-and-wherever-they-can-ly getting the Bible’s message. In the same way, if non-Christian people do not receive the message of the Bible, then there is no salvation for them: they will go to hell; they will miss out on the kingdom of God. And that makes all the translation, publication, education, teaching and preaching enterprises extremely important. Yes, let’s keep at it—and hard!

But, as I am sure you have noticed, I haven’t answered the question directly. (I am in training for politics!) When we talk about ‘reading’, we usually think of an individual, silently reading a book that has been put together by some printing press somewhere. In our Western, post-printing press world, private reading is normal, and public reading is extremely rare. (Christians may well be the only group that do such an activity, except for the odd—and I use the word advisedly—poetry reading night at the odd dockside hotel.) But this ‘model’ of private reading is not universal, and it hasn’t always been the norm. If a person’s faith is assessed by their practice of private reading during a quiet time (note the assumption of silence), then we will see few medievals in heaven! “That’s why medieval Christianity was so bad”, I hear a blue-blooded Reformer reply. That may well be the case, and the printing press has certainly helped the cause of the gospel, but please listen further.

Media Cultures

‘Silent reading’ as a medium of communication belongs to the ‘print culture’ brought into existence by the printing press. However, other media cultures exist. Primitive, preliterate societies operate in an ‘oral culture’. They still have stories, but they are related rather than read. Literate peoples, pre-printing press, may not have had a shelf full of Reader’s Digest, but they still had manuscripts. In a ‘manuscript culture’, the stories of the culture are still related orally, but this oral telling and re-telling can be supplemented by the public reading (out loud) of the manuscript.

It seems that this is the type of culture operating during Old Testament times. The Law was kept at a central location and was publicly read on certain special occasions (see, for example, Deut 31:9-13). However, the day-to-day communication of that law was done orally, as any opportunity arose (Deut 6:4-9). Toward the end of the Old Testament times, and with the rise of the synagogues, I presume the manuscripts also became more accessible, providing more frequent supplements to that most important oral culture which still operated within the family and routine daily life.

It is not difficult to see that this culture also describes the New Testament times. The apostles’ letters were written to churches, who, I presume, read them out loud to those gathered to hear God’s word from his authorized representatives. We know that the apostolic letters were circulated to other churches (Col 4:16), but it seems unlikely that every Christian would have had a copy. Once again, the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13) would supplement the oral communication of the gospel that took place in Christian homes, in the market place and in the daily routine.

Before the invention of the printing press, manuscript culture was the prevailing media. Martin Luther, writing at the time when the presses had just begun to run hot, still spoke of the gospel being heard, not silently read, as he put it in 1532: “… when [the most insignificant Christian] listens to the Gospel, he is listening to the same word of God that Peter and Paul listened to and preached2 (my emphasis). In England at the same time, the rich were permitted to purchase Bibles “to read to their family at home”, but, after King Henry VIII appointed English Bibles to be read in churches, even the poor men “on Sundays did sit reading in the lower end of the church, and many would flock about to hear their reading.”3

What is the point of all this historical meandering? Silent reading of the Bible was possible for anyone who had the financial means and the education to do so. But my point is that, in former years, a lot of reading was not private and silent, but public and aloud. At different times and in different communities, different media will be operating. Evangelical Christianity has been and still is very much tied to a ‘print culture’ medium. However, that is not the only model.

The truth of the matter is that we no longer live in a print culture anyway. We live in a hyperprint culture, in which the electronic media has added the next stage to the oral => manuscript => print sequence. And, what is more, we gain information in a multimedia fashion. As we drive home, we hear a newsflash about some event that has occurred that day. We gain a little more information about it from the six o’clock news on TV that night. Then, the morning papers will give an in-depth analysis of the event and seven different personality profiles of the people concerned. It only remains for sufficient time to elapse to allow the comedy shows to make the event funny before we have total coverage!

The end of quiet times

To conclude, the Bible is essential for becoming and staying a Christian because God has chosen to reveal himself through his word. But, given the various ‘facts of life’ obstacles on the road to reading, perhaps a multimedia approach to Bible input will be most helpful. Is silent, private reading a problem ? Get your Bible input some other way. Make a regular lunchtime appointment with a friend to read the Bible together aloud, or do it with the family before the kids go to bed; listen to a tape in the car, or with a Walkman while vacuuming the house; watch a video giving you some overview of a Gospel or the Old Testament or whatever; make the most out of the Sunday Sermon and Bible reading; discuss it over Sunday lunch; join a Bible study group; memorize your favourite Bible story and practise telling it to a friend as if it is the first time it has been told. Don’t just sit there; do something! This principle must be followed: get regular Bible input. And thank God that you live in the 20th century; if silent reading is a problem to you, there are other media available. There is no need to put yourself through a famine of the word of God. This is the age of multiple options, even when it comes to digesting God’s word.

P.S. This article is available in cassette, CD and video formats.


1 Church census statistics show that only 19% of evangelicals read their Bible daily and a further 14% several times a week.

2 M Luther, ‘Postscript’ Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, (Luther’s works vol 21; St Louis: Concordia, 1956), 286.

3 A G Dickens, The English Reformation, 263-4.

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