In the 2020 State of the Bible report from American Bible Society and Barna Group, researchers found that 60% of Americans say that they never or rarely read the Bible1. This is in spite of the fact that approximately 77% of Americans report that they live in a household with a Bible and 70% believe that the Bible is inspired, with varying definitions of the term2. Why is there such a disparity between belief about, access to, and engagement with the Bible among Americans?
A few of the most salient reasons for this gap that participants in the study report is that:
- They never seem to have enough time to read it (75%)
- They find the language of the Bible difficult to relate to (41%),
- They don’t know where to start (36%)
- They are not excited about using it (26%)
- They think the stories are confusing (25%), and
- They don’t understand the background or the history of the Bible (20%).3
On top of this, among the 18% of Americans who do not believe the Bible is inspired – that it’s just another book of teachings – three-fourths (about 33.4 million Americans) believe that “the Bible was written to control, dominate, or manipulate people”4. The Bible is a confounding book for so many people. For millions, it is a book of inspiration and hope – the source of a deeper relationship with God. For others, it produces a guilt trip akin to anything that we know is good for us but we don’t like to take it – like cold medicine. Finally, for others, it’s a book of oppression associated with all the bad things human history has conjured.
In this swirl of conflicting feelings about the Bible, how can we find a place for it in our lives that is relevant and formational? How can such an ancient book be brought to bear on what we face right now in the hustle and bustle of the 21st century?
Many of us have been taught to read the Bible for information. We pick up the Bible to read for the one inspiring take-away that will instruct us in how we ought to live. And while it is true that the Bible contains the wisdom of God for faithfully living before him in this world, we fail to recognize that Scripture is not merely a textbook or set of principles to live by. You may have even heard the misguided acronym for the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Unfortunately, these ideas reduce the Bible to an instruction manual, like a car manual that we only pull out of the glove compartment when we need to know how often to change the oil5.
But Scripture presents a different vision of itself that may seem foreign to our modern sensibilities. Listen to Psalm 119:17-24 (ERV):
Be good to me, your servant,
so that I may live to obey your word.
Open my eyes so that I can see
all the wonderful things in your teachings.
I feel like a stranger visiting here on earth
I need to know your commands.
Don’t keep them hidden from me.
I constantly feel a hunger
to understand your laws.
You tell the proud how angry you are with them.
All those who refuse to obey your word are cursed.
Don’t let me be ashamed and embarrassed.
I have obeyed your rules.
Even if rulers say bad things about me,
I am your servant,
and I continue to study your laws.
Your rules make me happy.
They give me good advice.
Here, the psalmist enjoys God’s Word. He hungers for it. It is like a companion to him when he feels lost and alone. In the words of God, he finds life and happiness. He understands that God’s teachings are wonderful and are intended for his flourishing. And so, he asks that God’s commands would not be hidden from him. He knows that his honor is tied up in walking according to them. He does not want to be like the proud who will be cursed because they refuse to obey God’s laws.
How do we reclaim such a love for the Bible in our lives today? The psalmist’s passion for Scripture reveals that the Bible is so much more than merely an instruction manual for how to live. While we whole-heartedly believe that the Bible is God’s Word, it is also a very human book, incarnated into our human languages, experiences, cultures, and literary styles so that we can, in whatever context we find ourselves, encounter the very real and living Word of God, Jesus Christ, who calls us out of darkness into the kingdom of His eternal and glorious reign! Author Eugene Peterson says this about Scripture: “…every part of the revelation, every aspect, every form is personal – God is relational at the core – and so whatever is said, whatever is revealed, whatever is received is also personal and relational. There is nothing impersonal, nothing merely functional, everything from beginning to end and in between is personal. God is inherently and inclusively personal”6. The Bible as God’s revelation is meant to draw people into a life-giving relationship with him through his Son, Jesus.
The Bible is what we may call, in very technical terms, a “constitutive narrative.” We live in a world that is awash is so many competing stories vying for our attention and our embrace. These stories try to tell us who we are, what we should love, how we should live, and where we should go. In the cacophony of such narratives surrounding us, we don’t need merely an instruction manual. We need The Story!
We need to continually immerse ourselves in the grand narrative of the Triune God who delightfully created the world as the sacred space in which his love, glory, and goodness would be known and celebrated. In that world, he created men and women in his image who would, as his regents, fill the earth and continue his creative project so that the good reign of God would expand to all corners of the cosmos. But, in a subversive coup d’état, men and women have tossed off God’s good reign to establish themselves as rulers and makers of their own destinies. This rebellion tore the fabric of the cosmic sanctuary and ushered in the darkness that renders God’s good creation a barren wasteland and the human as cracked icons of his image. But, in his great mercy, God launched his great rescue mission by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, who has ushered in his kingdom by his life, death, and resurrection. He reigns eternally and is redeeming men and women throughout the world as his restored image bearers who witness to his mercy and declare, through words and actions, the wonderful things he has done (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
This is the story that identifies us as the people of God’s mercy. We are a chosen people belonging to God who brought us out of darkness of sin into his wonderful light (1 Pet. 9). Engaging in Scripture is the rehearsal and remembrance of this story so that it becomes embedded in our hearts and embodied in our day-to-day lives. It is like the air we breathe. Without the council of God’s Word, we are vulnerable and susceptible to the competing and confusing narratives that press in on us every day and from every side.
But Scripture engagement is so much more than an individual discipline. Indeed, it is participation in the community upon whom God confers his name. The apostle Peter, writing to Christians who were facing intense pressure to leave their newfound faith in Christ and return to the “useless” lives of their former communities (1 Pet. 1:18), says that they are, in fact, “bought with the precious blood of Christ’s death” (1 Pet. 1:19) and are “like living stones” that God is building into a temple upon the cornerstone of Christ Jesus (1 Pet. 2:4-5). When we engage in the Word of God as the community of God’s people, he continually shapes us into his people – those who have no reason to be ashamed in this dark world but live such good lives that others “will see the good you do, and they will give glory to God on the day he comes” (1 Pet. 2:12). The temple was a very visible witness to all peoples of the God who dwells among his own people.
We are very familiar with René Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am.” This essential credo of Enlightenment philosophy, so influential for over 300 years, has ingrained in us the idea that we are moved, motivated, and formed by right thinking. And so we continually look for the best practices, the key ideas, and the abstract propositions as our basis of truth and right living. However, as Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith argues, “To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing.’ And we want that. We crave it. We desire it. This is why our most fundamental mode of orientation to the world is love. We are oriented by our longings, directed by our desires. We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions of the good life, not usually because we ‘think through’ our options but rather because some picture captures our imagination”7. We are living into a story through which we expect to flourish. And that story is narrated by the Word of God. We must, then, reclaim Scripture as the story of a people so in love with their God who called them, rescued them, and made them witnesses of his good name throughout the world. The Bible is not a dead instruction manual that has no power to change our lives. It is a love story that shapes our identity and orients us in love toward our King Jesus, who in his great mercy rescued us and made us his beloved people.
1American Bible Society & Barna Research, State of the Bible 2020 (Philadelphia: American Bible Society, 2020), p. 24.
2Ibid. p. 26, 29-30.
3Ibid. p. 28-29.
4Ibid. p. 30
5Matthew Mullins, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2021), p. 17-30.
6Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), p. 20.
7James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2016), p. 11.