For some, it is an old-fashioned tradition, fanaticism or bizarre practice. For others, a talisman to attract divine favour. Is there anything more to the Bible than an intimidating jumble of genealogies, symbols, and instructions?
It’s a fact backed up by statistics: we are not a nation captivated by the pleasures of reading. An IRES survey showed that in 2012, 50% of respondents had not read a single book all year, while 21% had managed to finish one or two books at most.
A year earlier, the same institute had carried out another survey which showed that the Bible was still the second most popular title, behind Gone with the Wind, but ahead of other well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers.
Why read the Bible: some really important reasons
The most popular titles are not necessarily the most read, or at least that seems to be the case with the Bible, if we analyse the data from a 2012 iVox survey, “How much, how and what do Romanians read?” The survey showed that fiction books are the most popular among readers, while religious and spiritual books attract only 4% of the reading public.
According to the American Bible Society, the Bible no longer holds the privileged position it once did in Americans’ preferences. A 2014 survey showed a decline in the number of people who read it and value its teachings.
There are many explanations for the exclusion of the Bible from the reading and study lists of those who still keep the habit alive. These range from lack of time, scepticism and disinterest to the negative impression given by the Bible’s lack of real impact on some of its faithful readers. But if one were to look for a common denominator in the reasons for ignoring this book, it would probably be a somewhat vague or more clearly accentuated sense of its lack of relevance to 21st century people.
Conversely, faithful readers maintain this habit precisely because they believe that the Bible makes a real difference to their lives. This is despite the fact that it exposes the reader to values and norms that, not infrequently, undermine established value systems. Or perhaps that is precisely why it makes a difference.
Beyond the walls, a whole universe
The American author Eugene Peterson once told a story about an eccentric 90-year-old lady in the church where he grew up. One day he was sent to visit her with a batch of homemade cookies, and the experience filled him with dread. The glass of milk Mrs Lychen offered him, inviting him to taste the biscuits with her, kept him in the dark house for a few minutes, where the blinds were not raised even during the day. Mrs Lychen stood there, her pale, bony face reminding the frightened boy of witch stories.
Later, Peterson imagined himself pulling up the blinds and crying out to the dark-loving homeowner: “Look outside! See, there’s an aspen tree and an osprey on the top branch! And a white-tailed deer. Sister Lychen, there’s a whole good world out there!”
What the Bible offers us is a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that transcends our limited experience, even as it integrates it. It promises the experience of a healing journey, without haste, beyond our fragmented vision, experiences, certainties, and systems of reference. It promises a lifting of the blinds so that the light flooding in can bring to the surface the missing pieces of our life puzzle.
The moral failure of faithful readers
The failure of the Bible to have the desired effect on some who regard it as God’s Word is a delicate matter. It is difficult to explain, but impossible to hide, for it shows itself in the most visible aspects of the lives of those who claim to be Christians.
In 2002, the Josephson Ethics Institute published the results of a two-year study of the ethics of American high school students, which showed that there was little difference between the ethical and moral behaviour of Christian students and their non-Christian peers. Fortunately, the study was repeated in 2012 and showed a significant recovery of the eroded ethics.
As another example, research in 2014 described the failure of Christian parents to keep their marriage covenant: only 46% of children aged 15-17 had spent their childhood with both parents, a consequence of the rising divorce rate among conservative Christians.
This failure of Christians to apply the principles of a Word they hold to be authoritative in their daily lives can also be found beyond the borders of American society, raising dilemmas and puzzling questions: What is the point of reading a book that promotes standards that modern human beings are incapable of achieving, if anyone ever did?
The relationship that transcends the rules
Josh McDowell and Thomas Williams, in their book The Relational Word: A Biblical Design to Reclaim and Transform the Next Generation, argue that there is a major misunderstanding at the heart of this disconnect between behaviour and the Word. It is about what Christianity is at its core, but it is also about what the Bible is.
If we took a survey, many Christians would equate the Bible with a rule book, say McDowell and Williams. Its purpose, then, would be to provide a set of rules to guide us in our efforts to make a better life for ourselves. You may have already encountered the idea that the Bible is an excellent business manual, or a psychology or personal development handbook.
Other Christians distance its contents from God’s intention to build a better life for us in the here and now, pointing out that its only role is to show us the way to heaven, as the true map to the kingdom beyond.
Without denying its informing and guiding function, McDowell and Williams point out that it is easy to lose sight of the crucial reason why the Bible has been entrusted to us. Jesus Christ pointed out the only way a mortal can attain salvation: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And the written Word was given to us precisely to help us know Him, the only One who holds the keys to eternity. To know Him intimately imprints His image in us anew. This is too high an ideal to be attained even by strenuous efforts to conform to good rules, because at the heart of Christianity is not a set of principles, however valuable, but a real Person. A God who initiates relationships, despite the supreme price He had to pay.
Building on the skeleton of the antithesis: Him, face to face with me
Although the Bible is made up of dozens, even hundreds of stories—banal or incredible, with happy endings or otherwise, with characters ranging from robbers to royalty—it is nothing less than the story of the incredible love of a God who used an impressive arsenal of arguments to persuade each and every wayward son to return home. Seen in this light, it is a letter to all, yet it emphasises the uniqueness of each recipient. The prospect of a single loss is expressed in haunting words designed to capture the profound emotional investment of divinity in humanity: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused” (Hosea 11:8).
If we replace the two proper names with our own, we get an X-ray of a love that is unreservedly invested in a person who does not excel in fidelity. This is the other side of the coin: in the pages of the Bible we discover a mirror that does not distort or beautify, but perfectly reflects our moral image. Bible enthusiasts and casual readers alike are amazed to discover that this ancient book, which recounts the history of individuals and peoples who are long gone, is capable of miraculously evoking their own history.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible contrasts the image of an unchanging God with the image of a fickle human being. In fact, it tells us that it takes very little time for our discourse to change abruptly from “Hosanna, Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9) to “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:22).
And if the coming of Jesus into our world was humanity’s golden opportunity to see and know the invisible One as no one in history had ever had the opportunity, the crucifixion was the culmination of His revelation. It proved that God is indeed Love and that He is willing to suffer beyond human limits and understanding for those whom He loves.
Moreover, the events of His life, especially the final ones, brought into painful contrast His faithfulness and our faithlessness, God’s love for humanity and humanity’s scorn for God.
In a list of losses that Jesus willingly accepted in order to fulfil His mission, the Gospels include the unnecessary burden of human unbelief and ingratitude that infiltrated even His most intimate circle. “For even His own brothers did not believe in Him” the apostle John tells us. Nor did the disciples fully appreciate His work, because they were subject to a mentality fixed on earthly references. If we can imagine them at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, basking in the glory of the moment, encircling the Teacher to whom all their hopes were tied, as He passed through the last stages of His journey as a man of sorrows, we witness their pitiful metamorphosis under the pressure of fear, despair and shame. It was precisely the shame of being associated with the One who was slapped, spat on, insulted, and despised by the very leaders of the Jewish people that led Peter to deny any association with Him. To declare, amidst oaths and curses, that he did not even know Him was a denial that followed an unforgivable abandonment: on the night of His agony in Gethsemane, the disciples had not joined Jesus in prayer, even for an hour, despite His repeated request.
The question that Judas, from the depths of his greed, addressed to Jesus as Mary anointed His head with myrrh—”Why this waste of perfume?” (Mark 14:4)—would have been legitimate only if it had come from the One who was dying, rejected by His people, and whose loved ones were watching His suffering from afar. But He did not utter it.
The price at which people valued the Son of God, a mere thirty pieces of silver, was a pitance compared to the measure by which Heaven valued humanity: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The Bible presents God to us, but it also diagnoses us accurately, pointing out the gap between who He is and who we are. And if we recognise ourselves in that image, it will not leave us in that state.
From who I am to who I can become
The writer Julien Green noted in his diary the melancholy caused by the gap between the life he had actually lived, a reality already consummated, and the versions of it that remained dormant. Claiming that his life didn’t match who he was, and that he felt he was passing by the man he could have been, Green concluded: “The man I am will always raise a protest against the man I wanted to be.”
The characters of the Bible are presented without any corrective touches, with their flaws, limitations, and mistakes, however distasteful they may be. Noah’s drunkenness (followed by nudity), Jacob’s deception, Solomon’s idolatry, and Peter’s lies and cowardice are all ruthlessly portrayed with their distorted moral compasses.
The Bible strips people of their masks and grandiloquent assessments of their own spirituality and gives them an unflinching account of their morality, leaving no room for confusion or ambiguity: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). It helps them to realise the chasm between who they are and who they should be, and warns them that there is no bridge across it, other than the one that was built painstakingly, with suffering, in solitude and with love. Over 33 years this bridge was built by the One who made His way through the most hostile circumstances until He was nailed to the Cross. In this context, to read the Bible is to place oneself within the reach of that love, so that, day by day, breath by breath, we may encounter what He is and become like Him.