I recently read this interview with Tony Reinke. It is a thoughtful look at our Bibles and how the design of the page shapes our interaction with the text. He is an advocate for what I would call the broad reading of Scripture, being as unhindered by notes and numbers as possible. (You know, like we read other books.)
This is certainly a valid approach to Bible reading and one that needs to be reclaimed. It’s not just the notes and numbers in our Bibles that push us away from broad reading, though. It is everything around us. In our hyperlinked, margin-advertizing, pop-up driven culture, we are trained to read distracted. More and more, instead of seeing rabbit trails as distractions, we start reading something hoping for a series of rabbit trails.
Sometimes rabbit trails lead to serendipitous discovery — I found the above mentioned interview as a “recommended article” from something else I was reading — but that should not be the only way we read, and probably not the primary way we read. We need, now more than ever, to be able to focus and read without distraction. It is becoming a lost skill.
While taking a Saturday morning to read Isaiah from start to finish is a great idea, it is not the only way to read Scripture. Variety is good; the once-over has value, and so does camping out with a handful of verses for a few weeks. They accomplish different things in our formation.
Here are some ways to read Scripture that I have tried. The titles are my own since there don’t seem to be standard descriptions of these, amazingly.
Broad Reading. Read a whole book at a time, preferably with a “reader’s Bible” — one without chapter and verse numbers or any notes or references. (Audio Bibles also work well for this.) I was first introduced to this in college with the Gospel of Mark. The goal is to see the overall flow and character of a book. It helps answer the question, “What is the story being told?”
Immersive Reading. Take a chunk of Scripture and read it repeatedly over a period of time. For example, a few years ago, my wife read through the Gospel of John once a week for a year. This can also be done in conjunction with memorization like when we worked for a year as a family to memorize the Book of James. The repeated exposure reveals things we don’t see otherwise. The goal is to make the text a part of me.
Analytical Reading. This is classic exegesis. Take a passage apart and put it back together again, chasing all the rabbits. This includes word studies, looking at the original languages, comparing translations, and consulting commentaries. The goal is to leave no stone unturned. For personal spiritual formation, this is probably the least profitable of the four ways to read Scripture, and is not necessary nearly as often as seminary hermeneutics professors lead you to believe.
Meditative Reading. We could also call this one “prayerful” reading, though all reading should be accompanied by prayer. Take a verse or two and make them a prayer. Memorize them and pray them often. These are verses that I use with my prayer beads or that I recite lying in bed at night. The goal is to refine my heart with the words of Scripture.
This is not an exhaustive list of approaches to reading. I don’t advocate trying to include all of them every day unless you are on a spiritual retreat. Even then, it may not be a good idea. But it is worthwhile to drift between them. When you realize that for the past few years you’ve been doing the same thing, it might be time to shift emphasis. Maybe for different seasons of the year you could focus more on one.
I try to think about my reading for the coming year and figure out what I will do. For the past few years that has meant drafting my own daily lectionary. I’m not sure what it will mean for 2017 quite yet, but our interaction with Scripture is important, and it deserves some reflection on how we go about it.