You can read the Bible better. It doesn’t take a degree in religion. It does require some skills that too often are relegated to the academy. Those skills can be acquired and practiced by everyday people.
You probably suspect that there are layers of meaning in the text. You hear great preachers and teachers reveal these layers. Maybe you think that level of understanding is beyond you. It’s not.
Here are some things you can do to begin reading the Bible in a way that reveals those layers. Who knows it may even change your life. (That is why you’re reading, isn’t it?)
Find Your Character.
While reading the Bible, determine which character is most like you. It may be that a main character is like you. It maybe that you are actually more like Jesus than the one he’s talking to. It may be that you are more like a character that is a bit off-screen (more on that in a second). The purpose here is enliven the scene by placing yourself in it. The Bible has enough distance to it: culturally, historically, etc. Reading it from a “third-person” perspective only adds to the distance. Finding your character may open up more questions than clarifications. That is a good thing. Each new question is an avenue of further exploration.
Consider the Jonah story for example. Are you Jonah running away from God? Perhaps not. Are you more like Jonah’s fellow passengers when a storm arises: just trying to do what’s right in a bad situation? Are like actually like God: desperately wanting someone to trust you enough to do something difficult but good? You may find that you are actually more like God.
Switch Characters, Uncover characters
Often we read the Bible from a single point of view. It may be a third-person perspective that takes us out of the story altogether. Once you Find Your Character in the story, you can then begin to play with other characters. Playfulness is a great tool for reading the Bible. Take for instance Jacob’s rivalry with his brother Esau. Maybe you identify with the younger Jacob always striving against your older brother. That’s great. But take some time to enter Esau’s world: he had to take care of his widowed mother who sold his blessing to his brother. And yet, when Jacob and Esau meet again years later, Esau seems at peace (Genesis 25 and following).
As you’re playing with characters in the text, look for unnamed characters. This could be simply groups of people like bystanders or background people like the Innkeeper in the Christmas story. One that shocked me was revealed to me in seminary: when Herod ordered the killing of all boys age 2 and younger in order to eliminate Jesus, the unnamed characters are the people who carried out the killings (Matthew 2:16-18). Were they fathers? Did they have sons?
Play with the untold story.
The Bible is big and at times the details can be so tedious. But there are also plenty of holes in the plot line. It is okay to play with the untold stories within the Bible. This is a great approach to test out your own experiences, morals and questions. Continuing with the Esau example, one of the untold stories is what happened to Esau after Jacob stole his blessing from their dying father. Esau disappears for the better part of 5 chapters while Jacob grows his family into an army. When they meet again famously in Genesis 33 Esau is successful and at peace. Of all the stories I wish the Bible told, the story of how Esau made peace within himself over his brother would be at the top of the list. The next best thing is for us to imagine how did Esau forgive his brother? What became of his relationship with his mother Rachel? You can make similar imaginings with the Samaritan woman, Pontius Pilate, Mephibosheth, Ruth, etc. (There is a great book called Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist which does this very thing).
Switch from Me to We
One of the problems of the Bible in English is that English renders the 2nd-person singular pronoun (you) the same as the 2nd-person plural pronoun (you). Reading the Bible in English means you don’t know when God is talking to you personally or you collectively. And American society is biased toward the individual. This means that when we see “you” we see the singular first. Our ‘default’ setting means we are prone to miss when God is talking to the community, the town, the nation, the family, the church, etc.
One way to unlock the layers of the Bible is to discover the communal aspects of it. When you can see that God is talking to a nation rather than a person…a whole new level of understanding emerges.
This may require a bit of technical assistance, unless you know biblical Hebrew or Greek. By technical assistance, I mean a good study Bible with footnotes that can help you know when the ‘you’ is singular or plural (NIV Study Bible does this well). Or you can try the Texas Bible App which is a plugin for your Chrome browser. The Texas Bible app will swap all plural ‘you’ for “y’all”. Yes, it’s a cool as it sounds.
Read in blocks.
One of the difficulties with reading only in worship is that we tend to read in very short segments. Sometimes not even whole chapters. But the scriptures were written as whole units, even the books that are pieced together from multiple sources. Furthermore, the minute dissection of scripture in church can literally cut out the drama in the text.
Take Mark’s gospel for example. Mark is a fast moving text where Jesus’ baptism is followed immediately by temptation in the wilderness followed immediately by Jesus calling the 12, teaching in the synagogue, healing a man with an unclean spirit, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, praying in the hills at night and healing a leper. That’s just chapter 1. The immediacy of the storytelling unlocks the desperation in Mark’s message. Mark really needs you the reader to pick up the mantle and finish the work Jesus started.
So read in larger blocks. This is easier than it sounds. Mark is readable in an hour. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) can be read in one sitting, too. The movements within help unlock the power of the storytelling. Each of the Psalms ought to be digested as a whole given their poetic nature. Rainy Sunday afternoons are great opportunities to break into the larger characters.
Read in Community.
It would be dishonest for me to say the Bible is easy. It would ALSO be dishonest for me to say that you can’t get it. Reading scripture with other people is one of the best ways to unravel the layers, discover new connections and air your questions. Different people are going to see different things. The point is NOT to all agree. In fact disagreeing is almost guaranteed. The point is to deepen your understanding of scripture and unlock its power to transform your life and your world.
Consider learning a new musical instrument or a second language. You can practice from the book all you want. But it’s when you join other players that your own skill can elevate. It’s when you get off the plane in Paris that you can really know how good your French really is. Your community will help you suss out your biases, reveal new angles of understanding, help you in living out what you’re learning and share in the joy of scripture.
Have fun reading the Bible. It’s a pretty good book. I hope these tips help.
What has been helpful to you?