Why We Should Think Twice About Giving Bibles to Our Friends

About ten years ago a Christian publisher produced a Bible with the evangelistic goal of distributing a million copies. The campaign created lots of “oohs and ahhs” in the Christian community.

But there were issues. Katrina BibleThe Bibles, which sold for $1 apiece, were constructed so cheaply they were virtually unreadable. To reduce the page count and save paper costs, it was printed with six columns per spread! So much text was squeezed onto the page that the words ran into the gutter and you had to bend the spine open to read it.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. In 2005, at the height of the campaign, New Orleans was hit by hurricane Katrina. A huge shipment of the Bibles was sent into the devastation.

Not surprisingly, the Bibles were deemed of little value for the hurting masses of New Orleans. But in a moment of brilliance, someone suggested the crates of Bibles could be used for building makeshift dams!

The well-intentioned but infamous “Katrina Bible” is an extreme case of nonsensical Bible publishing and distribution. But it serves as a valuable speed bump to slow us down to re-think our well-worn practice of introducing people to the Bible.

Here are some questions to start us thinking differently:

What is it like to be on the receiving end of a Bible?

What really happens when we give a friend a Bible, specifically a friend without a faith background? We hear the occasional story of someone beaten down by life that providentially stumbles upon a Bible and has a redemptive encounter with God. We love these stories and should rejoice in every one. But what’s never reported, and never will be, are the scores of people who pick up a Bible but can’t make sense of it and lay it down in frustration.

I recently met a new Christian who described the angst he and his wife experienced in their first Bible study. Their frustration began immediately with the Bible itself — chapters (but not like chapters in other books), verse numbers (a completely foreign literary device), and center column references (another literary enigma). The conversations were equally confusing—things were deemed “biblical” because the “Bible said so” in Deuteronomy 5. The Bible was as foreign as the moon to them, but none of the Bible veterans in the group seemed to know or care.

We have to ask: am I giving someone a Bible with the intention of helping them understand it?

Do the Bibles we share communicate the inherent beauty and value of the Scriptures?

When giving Bibles, we should remember that each Bible is a physical artifact, and in essence a work of art.

So what kind of statement do we make when we give cheap paperback Bibles with tiny print, the choice of most evangelistic editions? If “the medium is the message,” what kind of message do we send when Bibles are printed on cheap paper with tiny fonts? When we choose a medium most often associated with cheesy romance novels, what are we saying about our sacred Scriptures? Do the Bibles we give reflect our Creator’s love of beauty?

Do they need a new Bible or a fellow explorer?

The latest data shows that the average North American household owns 4.5 Bibles. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone has a Bible, or one they can easily read. But if simply owning a Bible were sufficient, we’d be the most spiritually transformed society in the world. We’re not.

The Ethiopian eunuch in Luke’s gospel owned his own Scripture, but he didn’t understand—couldn’t understand—what he was reading. What he needed was a non-threating conversation with a more experienced traveler. How about, rather than giving somebody another Bible and wishing them the best, we sat down and read it with them?

The Bible is still powerful to save! Giving Friend A BibleI believe that. It’s God’s agent sent into the world to transform his creation. But it isn’t automatically powerful.

If the Bible is to flourish in this new era we need to develop a deeper sympathy for the reader.

Bible publishers will have to courageously publish in formats without the confusing additives of the modernist Bible.

Bible advocates will have to give not just a Bible, but give themselves to enter into courteous conversations with the Bible.

To paraphrase E.B. White: The reader is in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and it’s our duty to drain the swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least throw a rope.

Let’s do that with the Bible.

Why Bible Reading?

Introducing the Institute for Bible Reading

Welcome to our website! We hope this will be a great resource for you, and we are looking forward to sharing our perspective on good Bible reading. But why did we form the Institute for Bible Reading in the first place?

Many of us remember the famous scene in The Matrix when Neo meets Morpheus for the first time. Morpheus addresses the idea that’s been bothering Neo: that the world he lives in, the world he’s known his entire life, is not what it seems—that there’s a deeper truth hiding behind the curtain that’s been pulled over his eyes.

The Matrix (1999) - The Pill scene

The Institute’s story is not nearly as dramatic as Neo’s, but at some point in each of our lives we were confronted with the fact that there’s more to the Bible than we thought. Not only that, but we were also confronted with the brutal truth that the way the Bible is used today isn’t working. So we decided to take the red pill and start digging.

We started by looking at the Bible itself and researching how we got our modern Bible format. We discovered that much of what makes up our modern Bible—chapters, verses, section heads, notes, commentary, cross-references, and red letters—has only been around for a few hundred years. The Bible used to be formatted like any other book. Now it looks more like an encyclopedia. Could the format influence how we read it?

You bet. As we analyzed the most common practices surrounding the Bible, three troubling habits emerged:
• First, we read the Bible in tiny fragments. Rather than read the Bible book by book, we typically proceed verse by verse or chapter by chapter. Many times we jump around to a different part of the Bible before we get a chance to finish the author’s thought.
• Second, we read out of context. Understanding the author’s intended message for his original audience, understanding a book’s place in the grand narrative of the Bible, and understanding the type of literature it is are all critical to good Bible reading.
• Third, we read in isolation. Reading alone is a relatively new phenomenon, since most people didn’t have their own personal Bible until the printing press was invented. For 1500 years (much longer if you count the Hebrew Scriptures), people gathered together and primarily heard the text and wrestled over its interpretation together. Today most Bible reading is done alone, and many group Bible studies are done topically, jumping around within the Bible rather than reading and discussing whole books.

We believe that the modern Bible format and unhealthy Bible practices are a big part of why so many people are struggling to read the Bible today. Who can blame them? There’s so much more to the Bible than what people are being given. It’s only natural to assume that they’re going to be frustrated to the point of giving up.

The statistics on Bible reading show us that even though there’s better access to the Bible than ever before, Bible reading and Bible engagement are in a freefall. Millennials are only half as likely to read the Bible as older generations (ABS/Barna). Only 1 in 5 people say their church helps them connect deeply with the Bible (REVEAL). The message is clear: despite the exciting advances in Bible translation and distribution, simply owning a Bible isn’t enough. People need help actually reading, understanding, and living it.

We formed the Institute for Bible Reading to address this issue. God has given us the story of his plan of redemption for his creation and people need help seeing it, understanding it, and finding their place within it. The Bible still has life-changing power, we just need to start honoring it as the book God gave us.