Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)
In this fourth post, we turn to think about the implications of devotion to the public reading of Scripture for readers and congregations.
I suspect that some of us have feelings of reluctance about increasing our public Bible reading because we’ve sat through some truly awful attempts at reading the Bible. Attempts that confuse the meaning of the passage rather than make it clear. Attempts that call for the ‘patient endurance of the saints’! And most of us have probably been perpetrators of such readings at some point in the past.
I’m not writing this as a mockery of people who simply want to serve God and his people—devotion is an issue of the heart for the reader, not skill. But the fact remains that, in many of our churches, reading the Bible is the thing we get people to do simply to get them involved. Admirable in one sense, but in another it is predicated on a fundamental flaw: that just because I know how to read (literacy) means I know how to read audibly. Public Bible reading is a gift—and not everyone has it. How much of our reluctance to sit under the word is simply that we’ve created a rod for our own backs; we are so used to poor public reading that the idea of reading more than a few verses really does feel like misery?
Speaking corporately, let’s show our devotion to the public reading of the Bible by having gifted reading of the Bible, where we aren’t fighting through the reader to hear the Bible, but where the Bible reader fades from view as they bring us into the text. That means training our readers, making reading an invitation-only service, and having the guts to ask people to stop (or step back ourselves) if the person is not a good reader. Being devoted individually to the public reading of Scripture doesn’t mean I have to do it. Most often, it should mean we seek out those who can do it well (i.e., are gifted at it). [As an aside, how much of our distaste for written liturgy stems simply from the inability of the minister to read it well?]
A entire series could be written on this alone. But let me suggest the following qualities for our Bible readers:
- They understand and can naturally convey in tone that public reading of the Bible is not reading out loud in front of people, but speaking the text to people.
- They are therefore comfortable with speaking to groups of people.
- They understand that good public reading is a result of good exegesis; they understand the passage—key points, emphases, tone—and are able to speak that without sounding forced or contrived.
- They are therefore gifted with, and devote themselves to, exegesis of the Bible before they read.
With a good Bible reader we forget the amount of verses as we are immersed in the text and the world of the text is opened to us. A good Bible reading ‘interprets itself’, revealing clarity rather than obscurity.
For the rest of us in the congregation, let’s show our devotion to the public reading of Scripture by identifying good readers in our Bible study groups and letting the elders know. Let’s ask our elders to have more of the Bible at church (what minister of the Word could legitimately say no to that?), let’s support our elders and thank them as they move God’s word from being closed up in a book in front of us to being spoken often for all to hear. Let’s be glad to have come to the waters to drink (Isaiah 55) at the end of a ‘long’ reading, rather than shuffle our feet.
Let’s keep discussing this, but I thought you might like some Austen. This is from Mansfield Park, which was written during her evangelical phase:
The subject of reading aloud was further discussed … the too common neglect of the qualification, the total inattention to it, in the ordinary school-system for boys, the consequently natural—yet in some instances almost unnatural degree of ignorance and uncouthness of men, of sensible and well-informed men, when suddenly called to the necessity of reading aloud … The want of management of the voice, of proper modulation and emphasis, of foresight and judgement, all proceeding from the first cause, want of early attention and habit …
“Even in my profession [ordained evangelical Anglican ministry]” said Edmund with a smile—“how little the art of reading has been studied! How little a clear manner, and good delivery, have been attended to! … but among those who were ordained twenty, thirty, forty years ago, the larger number, to judge by their performance, must have thought reading was reading, and preaching was preaching. It is different now. The subject is more justly considered. It is felt that distinctness and energy may have weight in recommending the most solid truths [while reading].”