Setting the Stage for the Piecemeal Method of Bible Reading
I have never been a fan of the kind of Christian spirituality that treats its primary story source, the bible, as a kind of piecemeal diet. A nibble here, a nibble there. A verse here, a verse there. Add in a little commentary from someone who claims to know what they’re talking about and that about sums up the average persons attempt at reading the sacred scriptures.
Let me give you an example.
Most Christians (and I’m not even exaggerating) read scripture in fits and starts. That is, their biblical diet consists largely of one or two disconnected passages from a variety of books, that in turn, is meant to form the basis of their understanding of the biblical narrative, as well as their living. They use sources such as Our Daily Bread, written and produced by RBC Ministries, that provides them with one or two verses, or sometimes even half a verse, combined with a brief devotional about a related topic, as the basis of their reading for the day (you may be lead to believe that I’ve targeted ODB, but I have not. I chose them because they are widely used and, as a result, would be recognized by a larger audience).
For the most part, the chosen passages are often disconnected from the immediate and larger contexts from which they originated. For instance, they may remove a verse from Romans or Jeremiah or some other book in the bible, while not providing a context for the verse in question. Questions about the situation in which the document was originally composed, the audience, culture and author are left to the readers imagination (and I think it would be safe to say rarely, if ever, are even considered). As a result, the reader is left with a verse with no real meaning.
Problems with the Piecemeal Method
There are a number of problems with this method of bible reading, but let me leave you with some of the most significant concerns.
Readers who rely almost exclusively on this method for reading scripture (and many do), read the bible wrongly. They have little to no grasp of the content and story within each book, as well as the larger story the bible communicates from the Old to New Testaments. That is, they miss not only the ‘big picture’ of each document, but the larger narrative the bible as a whole communicates. They try to live on a kind of piecemeal diet that nibbles on a little from each book, taking passages out of their historical contexts, and lose the meaning those verses were originally meant to convey. Meaning that can only be understood when read in the larger context of the book or letter in question, as well as in the even larger context of the story of scripture.
The primary problem with this method of bible reading is that by removing passages from their original contexts, we often extract meaning from them that they were never meant to communicate. Promises, for example, that were given to people in a very specific time frame and under very specific circumstances, are interpreted as being equally and universally applicable to modern readers. While some of those promises contain elements of universal application (think of John 3:16), many of them, particularly those in the Old Testament, do not share this element of universality.
If the vast majority of readers read more widely from the bible and in succession, this kind of piecemeal method of bible reading wouldn’t pose huge problems. However, I have no reason to believe, at least from my experience in a variety of churches, that many Christians read the bible holistically.
Why has this happened? For a number of reasons no doubt. Not the least of which is spiritual laziness, not only on the part of individual Christians, but also from those who lead them. Pastors share a significant portion of blame when they present a piecemeal spirituality from their pulpits week after week. If it’s true that people have a tendency to reflect those they follow, how leaders handle the scriptures will also be reflected in those they preach to on Sunday.
Dr. Craig Evans recently made a similar observation in a class lecture,
“When you preach and teach, how you treat the Bible teaches your congregation how to treat theirs. If you pay no attention to context, you teach your congregation to take verses out of context.”
However, not only does the piecemeal method of bible reading remove verses out of their original context, adding meaning to them that they were never meant to convey, they also cause the reader to miss out on the true meaning of the passage. This is a sad predicament. If God speaks through the witness of scripture, as many Christians believe, our de-contextualized reading of the bible short-circuits God’s ability to actually speak to us. I know this is a grand statement to make, but it flows logically from the arguments I’ve outlined so far.
Conclusion and Example
I’ll end this discussion by providing you with a concrete example from David T. Lamb, Professor of Old Testament at Biblical Seminary, in Hatfield, PA. Over a three-part series on his blog, David used one of the most misquoted passages in the bible, Jeremiah 29:11, as an example of this piecemeal phenomenon (BTW, David also wrote a great book entitled, God Behaving Badly: Is God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? which I highly recommend).
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Without going into all of the details here, I’ll simply list and link the three postings for your continued reading.
Part One – The plans God has for me? Jeremiah 29:11
Part Two – The plans God has for me? Jeremiah 29:11
Part Three – The plans God has for me? Jeremiah 29:11
So, there you have it. It’s time to move on from the piecemeal method of bible reading and learn to read the bible in a more uniformed and holistic way. Read from book to book, perhaps one chapter at a time from an Old Testament book as well as one chapter from a New Testament book, on a daily basis. Read through each book in question, paying careful attention to the situation, circumstances, characters and overall context. I also recommend purchasing reading guides like How to Read the Bible for all its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book from Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee. These will help you to become a better reader and enable you to more accurately understand the context represented in each book of the bible, as well as the grand story that they together communicate.
My goal for you (and me) is to treat and read the bible in the way it was meant to be read and understood. I hope this post moves us in the right direction.