A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 14, 2013
Psalm 119:105, 112; Romans 15:1-4 GNT
Years ago, it was common for the minister to be asked to read a passage of scripture and offer a prayer when making home visits. You may have heard the old story about the preacher who went to the home of one of the church families for such a visit. So while the minister was visiting in this particular home, the mother said to one of the children, “Go bring the good book from the table so the minister can read to us.” And the child, not quite sure which book he was supposed to bring, asked, “Which book is that, Mother?” And the mother replied, “You know, the big book that we love and read from all the time.” So the child left and returned momentarily with the Sears & Roebuck catalog. (I know, old and trite, but it does make a point.)
The truth is, people in general don’t read the Bible like they used to. I am all the time seeing survey results that indicate that Bible reading is on the decline. As Bishop John Shelby Spong rightly notes, “The average pew sitter in the average mainline church, both Catholic and Protestant, is, to say it bluntly, biblically illiterate.”1 So the question I would like to consider is, why is that? Why don’t people read the Bible like they used to? The answers, I believe, are many and varied. And I would like to consider some of them this morning. But before I do, I want to make it clear that my interest in reading the Bible, or in your reading the Bible, has nothing to do with Bible reading as an obsessive practice in order to be saved, or to make God happy, or to fulfill one’s Christian obligation, or anything else like that. The reasons I have in mind for reading the Bible, as I will later reveal, have more to do with the joy, comfort, and interest that Bible reading can provide. But first, let’s consider some of those reasons why people don’t read the Bible.
Some people don’t read the Bible because Bible reading is deemed to be an outdated practice of the past, perhaps associated with strict or fundamentalist religion. It is true that more conservative and evangelical churches insist on Bible reading and strongly encourage all members to carry a Bible to church so they can follow along during the scripture reading and sermon. But using the excuse that Bible reading is something fundamentalists do is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. For this reason I admire Bishop Spong. Spong is about as liberal as Christianity can get. But on many counts, Bishop Spong is right on target. His book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, is one of my top ten, all-time favorite books. It was one of the aha! events in my life. Though a liberal Christian, Spong is proud to proclaim his deep love for the Bible.
Others may not read the Bible because they can’t understand the language it is written in; or at least the particular translation they are trying to read. Such is no excuse for not reading the Bible. Today there are literally dozens of translations of the Bible to choose from, from the ones that are very close to the King James Version except for exchanging the “Thees” and “Thous” for you, to very loosely paraphrased ones that seek to put the Bible into everyday common English, and then everything in between. Sometimes we forget that the original books of the Bible were not written in King James, Elizabethan English. The books of the New Testament, for the most part, were written in common, everyday Greek of the day. The point is, there are Bibles available that can be readily understood.
Some may not read the Bible because they don’t’ understand it, theologically speaking. Granted, there are books of the Bible that are mysterious and challenging for even biblical scholars to understand. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel and the New Testament book of Revelation are two good examples. Some books of the Bible were written in code for the people to whom they were originally written, which make them difficult to be understood today. And other parts of the Bible were intended to be interpreted figuratively or allegorically, so when we try to interpret them literally, we run into trouble. This is where contemporary scholars like Spong and Marcus Borg can be a big help. And this is what Suzanne is attempting to do in the new adult Sunday school class.
Others don’t read the Bible because they find it to be boring. Granted, there are parts of the Bible that are boring and maybe should be avoided by the average reader. Books like Numbers come to mind. I have always been drawn to the Bible, even from my youth. I have shared previously how that in elementary school I memorized long passages from the Bible—Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments, the Christmas story in Luke, and so on. But I also recall as a youth starting out to read the entire Bible beginning in Genesis, but by the time I got to Leviticus and Numbers I got bored and discouraged and quit. But the Bible, or at least much of the Bible, is anything but boring. Lust, sex, adultery, polygamy, deception, murder—what much of reality television is made of today—is all right there in the Bible. So claiming the Bible is boring is not a valid reason to stay away from it.
Some don’t read the Bible because some things in the Bible can’t be taken literally, so if all of it can’t be taken literally, then the Bible as a whole is deemed untrustworthy. Such is the way that some of a scientific mind might think. If one can’t believe that Adam and Eve were historic people and the world wasn’t created in six twenty-four-hour days as Genesis says it was; or if one can’t believe that Jonah was really swallowed by a big fish and spent three days and nights in the fish’s belly, then why should one believe anything else the Bible says? Such is the line of thinking of many. But to think that way is to miss the point entirely of these wonderful Bible stories and the great spiritual meaning that they can bring to our lives. Often such stories that weren’t intended to be taken literally have multiple layers of meaning, for those who are willing to do a bit of work to uncover them.
So, with all of that having been said, what are some other good reasons for reading the Bible?
One good reason is the Bible is like a mirror. When we look deep into the Bible, we see ourselves. We can identify with the questions, the struggles, the joys, and the journeys of those people of old. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, in the scriptures we can find encouragement and hope for the lives we are called to live and the challenges we have to face. One reason the Bible was forever the number one selling book in the world is because the content of the Bible is universal in appeal. As Bishop Spong puts it, “we read the Scriptures . . . and enter into the experience of those who journeyed before us.”2
Yet another good reason to read the Bible is it has served as the foundation of English civilization and has been an inspiration for some of the great literature of the world. We couldn’t imagine Shakespeare apart from his knowledge of and references to the Bible. Likewise American writer John Steinbeck, whose novels draw heavily from the Bible that he learned as a child. John Milton, poet John Donne, Herman Melville, the list is endless. If the Bible was good enough to appreciate and read for Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Milton, Donne, Melville and countless other great writers, maybe there is something hidden there for anyone who will take time to look for it.
I will share a personal word with you this morning, not for the purpose of bragging (so be sure to understand what I am saying), but just as a word of personal testimony. Like Bishop Spong, I have always been drawn to and had a profound love for the Bible. I have read every book of the Bible no less than five times, and some of the books more than that, in at least four different translations—the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, and the Good News Translation. Every time a new English translation of the Bible comes out, I am eager to acquire a copy so I can compare the way certain passages are rendered. Every time you read the Bible in a new translation, you can uncover little jewels of meaning. For instance, Psalm 119:105 which is traditionally translated “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” is rendered in the new Common English Bible “Your word is a lamp before my feet and a light for my journey.” I really like that. “A light for my journey” opens up a whole new way of looking at the Bible.
So, the reasons that people today may not read the Bible are many and varied. But we shouldn’t be so hasty as to throw out the baby with the bath water. The reasons for reading the Bible are just as compelling. The Bible wasn’t the number one selling book in the world for nothing. There is something to be found in the pages of the Bible that is universal and compelling. My conviction is those who are willing to put forth the effort to read and truly understand the Bible will find their lives all the richer for it. I, at least, have found it to be so. Amen.
1John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. P. 10.
2Ibid, p. 34.