Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)
We’ve already touched on some reasons why we may not be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, especially in the second post. Nevertheless, in this fifth post, I want to draw some of these out and push us further.
It’s impossible to specifically cover all the reasons for the decline in public Bible reading, of course (but I’m going to try!). My encouragement to you, however, is not to fall into the all-too-common trap of dismissing the elephant in the room simply because you can legitimately quibble with some of my observations about said elephant: the elephant is still there, after all. In the end, it doesn’t matter if your elephant is an African and mine is an Indian—it’s still going to hurt when it runs us down. What am I saying? Please don’t use a (perhaps valid) critique of my posts as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility and outworking in this area.
Let me generalize four reasons why we don’t. The solutions to each we can discuss, although they should be fairly clear.
First, for some of us, I think it is simply because we’ve never thought about it before. We’ve been so busy affirming our belief in the authority of the word, and our desire to teach (and be taught by) it faithfully, that we just haven’t noticed that we don’t actually read much of the Bible with each other anymore.
Second, we don’t have the habits which guarantee significant Bible reading because we have, for the most part, abandoned formal liturgy. And by this I speak not just of what happens in a service (the order for morning prayer, for instance), but what governs the administration of those services across a period of time (tables of readings across years, etc.). Whatever the reasons we left prayer books behind, we also left behind safeguards to have the whole Bible read regularly. And, rather than inventing the wheel again, each of us in our own parishes, we’ve chosen to try and get along without one.
Third, for some, I believe we have privileged certain non-theologically-determined, pragmatic ideas and practices in our thinking about church, and have not realized that the outworking of these reflects poorly on what we truly believe about the nature of church, church growth, and Scripture. We may keep breathing words of love for the Bible, while in reality we’re deceiving ourselves about our devotion to it.
Our theology is not abstract, and our practice is not neutral theologically. There seems to be an unwitting tendency to view our theology as the fence that keeps us safe, while we adopt whatever practice seems to work (pragmatism) within the boundaries of that fence to ‘get things done’. Our biblically-shaped theology remains abstract; our practice consists of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ for what works.
Theology isn’t abstract, but relational and participative: those who know God walk in the light as he is in the light. If we claim to know God but walk in darkness, we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. Further, pragmatism isn’t neutral (I have some posts on this for the new year, so stay tuned). Everything I do is theological—especially when it comes to church. However I choose to organize and structure a church meeting, whatever culture I develop in meetings over time, whatever structures I put in place to shape church practice, I am saying something about what I believe church to be, of what I believe causes church growth.
Our theology is not (simply) the fence which keeps our strategy (methods) from running astray; our theology is our strategy—it is fence, paddock, shepherd and all. Let’s bring our doctrine to the fore in our strategy meetings. Imagine we sat down together, for instance, and said: “We believe in the clarity of Scripture. What would our church look like if we worked that out in practice? And how would working this out in practice promote other doctrines rather than squash them?” That’s a strategy meeting worth going to.
Let me be more specific: when we reduce the Bible reading in order to privilege something else in our meetings, we are shifting the congregation’s understanding of what church is. When we choose to not read some bits because we deem it inappropriate, we forget that God wrote them—that perhaps in his wisdom he might possibly have known what he was doing when he did. When we choose to not read some bits because it seems irrelevant or unclear, we teach ourselves and our congregations that God’s word isn’t eternal, and isn’t clear. When we choose to not read the Old Testament especially because it is ‘unfamiliar’—how else are we going to get familiar with it? The non-Christian world certainly isn’t going to help us. When we choose to reduce Bible reading for something else, do we, then, in effect say that our means, our words, are better than God’s word to grow people?
Fourth, I think we don’t change in this matter because we’re afraid to do it. The overwhelming spirit of the age is entertainment and instant gratification, and we feel the pressure to conform. The entertainment factor of Leviticus is, let’s face it, next to zero, and the relevance not immediately apparent. But it’s still God’s word; he intended Leviticus to be exactly as it is. And when did entertainment become the determiner for what we do at church? When did sobriety and seriousness become anathema to church? Furthermore, boredom is not the problem of the subject matter. Boredom is in the heart. If we find Scripture to be boring, it’s not God’s fault, and the solution isn’t to silence God! If you find a part of Scripture boring, ask God to give you interest in it because you love him and want to know what he has to say. Again, the Bible is well aware that some bits are harder to understand than others (2 Pet 3:16-17). But where did we get the idea that the solution to this is to stop reading it?