Listen: Re-Enchanting the Scriptures

Glenn recently had the opportunity to present at the Your Imagination Redeemed Conference hosted by the Anselm Society, an organization in Colorado Springs that is dedicated to the renaissance of the Christian imagination.

Here’s the abstract for Glenn’s lecture Re-Enchanting the Scriptures

The rise of modernity has led to an increasing sense of the disenchantment of the world. As our rational, scientific explanations grow stronger, the sense of a mysterious, lively, and spiritual world diminishes. So what happens when the Bible meets modernity? Disenchantment happens—the growth of attempts to dissect the Bible and master its facts, draining much of its intended literary power and beauty.

So how do we re-enchant the Bible? We begin by simply remembering what it actually is. The Scriptures are a collection of diverse literary creations, telling a story, and inviting us into a live drama. What are we to do with such a Bible? Faithfulness is reading the Bible as the literature it is and then accepting God’s offer to enact the story and initiate a Spirit-empowered improvisation in our world today.

What GQ’s Bible Evaluation Gets Wrong

The editors of GQ magazine recently assembled a list of 21 no-need-to-read so-called Great Books, along with a parallel list of recommended alternative choices. [Read the article here.] The point was to challenge the idea that there’s a mandatory list of books that anyone claiming to be well-read will know from firsthand experience. Don’t worry, say these guardians of the hipster style scene, because the whole idea of a canon is, well, already shot.

Many of the Great Books aren’t actually so great, so feel free to take a pass.

The list itself is pretty eclectic, taking aim not merely at older classics from authors like Henry James, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, but also newer offerings like those of David Foster Wallace and Paulo Coelho. The original sin apparently afflicting all of the list? The snore factor.

No doubt some of the questioning, along with the suggested Plan B, are spot on. Instead of J. D. Salinger’s “not profound” Franny and Zooey, try Willa Cather’s “calm and contemplative and open” Death Comes for the Archbishop instead. Sound advice there. But sometimes the list limps, as when Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels are relegated to “barely readable” status.

The Bible and the List

Today the Bible remains largely unknown, but now it’s increasingly The Bad Book.

It’s probably not surprising that the Bible also made the cut list. These days there is a rather standard list of objections to the Bible, including but not limited to being sexist, violent, and generally approving of all manner of cultural regressions.

It is interesting and worth noting that not so long ago the standard story about the Bible was that it was The Good Book, albeit the one rarely read. Pollster George Gallup called it the best-selling, least-read book in America. Today the Bible remains largely unknown, but now it’s increasingly The Bad Book. And yes, boring too.

GQ’s list is not made up of review essays; it is as it claims to be, merely a list. But a few dismissive comments are included with each entry.

American novelist Jesse Ball’s cool brush-off of the Bible goes like this:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.

So there you have it.

First, the data point is correct: a long stream of research over the last few decades confirms what we all pretty much know anyway: the Bible is not being read very much. Most of those who still interact with it are not really reading it, but using some of its bits and pieces. So in many cases the pro-Bible people do not have a deep acquaintance with the actual content (which we’re actively working to address.)

Ball goes on to claim that once we do actually read it, we quickly discover the Bible’s manifold faults. But here the critique misses, I think, because of what I call the misframing of the Bible. Let me explain. For the Bible to be anything like what it’s intended to be, it is crucial to bring the right kind of assumptions and expectations to it.

Evaluating the Bible On Its Own Terms

Is the Bible trying to be like the other entries on this list? Is the Bible trying to be a captivating novel?

No, it isn’t, so characterizing it this way misleads us about its real purpose. And this can quickly enough lead to its easy dismissal.

Of course those who’ve already committed to the Christian story and its Author will have lots of reasons for wanting to read and reread the Bible. But what about would-be readers from outside the traditions that are honoring their own Scriptures? How does an honest outside evaluation of the Bible get on the right track?

For openers, the Bible must be acknowledged for what it is and what it’s trying to do. The Bible is a library of ancient literature, so the first thing is to set aside anachronistic contemporary assessments which want the Bible to act like a modern book. The Bible’s various literary entries are essentially telling us the story of a particular people from thousands of years ago and their claims to be interacting with the Creator of the world.

The Bible does this using ancient ways of writing and telling, so the only way to appreciate the Bible is to willingly enter into its own ancient world. If we’re going to pretend to sum up the value of the Bible, we at least owe it a fair reading, which means learning the basics of how ancient writings worked on their own terms. Poetry, prophetic visions, earthy wisdom, story-telling, and all the other communicative forms of the Bible are often strange to our modern ears. So the thing to do is learn a little about them and then at least begin by reading sympathetically.

Ultimately, the only decent way to read the Bible is to take it book by book, try to understand first what each one was saying to its own ancient audience, and then start putting the story together. Where does the narrative of the Bible go? We live where the story was going, not where it’s been. This is how the decisive question of the value in the Bible needs to be addressed. Rather than acting as a sourcebook for timeless truths, the Bible claims to be the beginning of a story that has continuing relevance for the world long past its own pages. It does this by making claims about the God of the Bible and what he’s up to.

We live where the story was going, not where it’s been. This is how the decisive question of the value in the Bible needs to be addressed.Click To Tweet

The Bible itself already has a long record of being a powerful force in the history of the world. It’s hard to think of anything more influential in the Western imaginative tradition of art and literature. This alone makes it worth reading. GQ’s assessment of the Bible was surpassed before it was even printed, and its dismissal tells us more about ourselves and our age than it does about the Bible.

It may be best to offer an invitation, rather than a defense. As the voice urged St. Augustine (no small cultural influence himself), “Take up and read!” Just be sure to read well.

Watch: Glenn Packiam Unpacks the Story of the Bible

As Christians we often hear about the “grand narrative” of the Bible. But what does the narrative actually look like? How does the book of Genesis flow into the story of Israel which culminates in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah? How do Paul’s letters to the early church connect back to the Garden of Eden?

In this video Glenn Packiam, lead pastor at New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs and the newest member of our Board of Advisors, explains the popular “Five Act” model of the Biblical narrative.

How Did We Get the Bible’s Book Order? And Can We Change It?

Not many of us think about it very often, but the Bible is a library of books, which means it can of course be put together in different ways. We’re all used to a particular order, but it’s interesting to note that this common order only became standardized in the early modern period. The printing press helped “freeze” the order we’re most familiar with. Before this, in the era of hand-made copies, there was more variety in the order of the books. And it’s not like any particular order was inspired by God. The early variety of book orders should make that clear.

So how should the Bible’s 59 books be put together? Is one way better than another? (By the way, we get 59 rather than 66 because some of the original books like Samuel-Kings were later divided into parts, mostly because of how much text could fit on an ancient papyrus scroll.)

A Short History of Building the Bible

When considering the order of books in the Bible, it’s probably best to start by thinking in terms of groups of books rather than simply individual books. And it’s crucial to think in terms of a longer-term process, not simply a moment in time when everything was decided at once.

Early on, the books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old or First Testament) were gathered into three groups: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Besides the five books in the Torah, which were always listed in the same order, the other groups had their books in different orders at different times and different places.

In the centuries before the coming of Jesus, the First Testament was translated into Greek because by then many Jews were dispersed and living in places outside of Palestine. This translation, known as the Septuagint, is different from the Hebrew Bible in several ways, including its arrangement of the book order. The new categories of books were Law, History, Wisdom (or Poetry), and Prophets. Since the Septuagint was the Bible of the early church, this new order was carried over into Christian Bibles as they (slowly) began to come together.

When we turn our attention to the New Testament, again it’s best to keep thinking in terms of groups of books, and then the order of books within them. Here, the four Gospels were gathered into a group (and Luke was separated from Acts), the letters of Paul formed another group, and then the general letters were another group. The Gospels themselves would appear in many varied orders. Revelation, interestingly, would often show up in different places among the other groups. The book of Acts could be placed with the Gospels, and other times before or after Paul’s letters. Hebrews would also jump around, though often it was assigned to Paul and placed with his letters.

Some of this variety of book order was tied to the preferences of churches in different geographical locations. Sometimes it looks like there was an attempted chronological order, and sometimes it was just putting books in order by size. For instance, Paul’s letters were typically in order from largest to smallest.

The key point is that there was a lot of diversity in the Bible’s book order historically, with people feeling free to move things around based on a variety of reasons. Once we realize that the Bible has been entrusted to our care, and that historically the church felt free to put it together in divergent ways, we can be intentional about thinking through what book order might best serve our needs today.

How We Built the Immerse Bible

The Institute for Bible Reading’s new edition of Immerse: The Reading Bible has been intentionally built to make big reading easier and better. If you’re going to read through a big part of the Bible continuously, that’s when the book order especially matters.

Overall, Immerse presents the Bible in six volumes (each volume will eventually have an 8-week church reading program built around it). We begin by generally following the older Hebrew grouping, rather than the later Septuagint order followed in most Bibles today. Beginnings is simply the original Torah, in the usual order. Kingdoms is the next set of historical books—Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, with Samuel–Kings reunified (the four books called “Reigns” in Eastern tradition).

Next up is the Prophets, but this time placed in a more chronological order (rather than sized by major and minor prophets), so they can be read as an ongoing commentary on Israel’s history. The Poets volume follows, and is broken down into two further categories: song books (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs) and wisdom books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job). With books like these, literary genre makes more sense as an organizing principle than chronology.

The last volume in the First Testament is called Chronicles, since it largely gives an account of Israel’s history from a later perspective than Samuel–Kings. The traditional books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are recombined (notice how even in Bibles today the ending of 2 Chronicles overlaps with the beginning of Ezra, showing how they were stitched together). The books reflecting a later historical situation, Esther and Daniel, close out the First Testament.

In the New Testament volume Messiah, we’ve done something a little more creative. In the common book order, the four Gospels are smushed (a technical term in biblical studies) together at the beginning. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, right in a row. But if you’re reading straight through, by the time you get to Luke it’s all starting to sound the same. So we’ve taken the four Gospels and spread them out, putting each Gospel with other New Testament books that naturally fit with it.

Luke–Acts is happily reunited, and then followed by the letters of Luke’s traveling companion, Paul. Paul’s epistles are now placed in the order he likely wrote them, allowing the reader to follow the development of his thought over time. Next up is the short and early Gospel of Mark, and given Peter’s historical connection to Mark, his letters come immediately after. The strongly Jewish Gospel of Matthew follows, alongside its natural partners, Hebrews and James. John is last, joined with the three letters of John. And Revelation closes out the New Testament, allowing each Testament to end with an apocalyptic writing.

The end result is a fourfold New Testament presenting a fresh, multi-faceted perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah, and its impact spreading throughout the world.

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There is no single right order for the books of the Bible. But once we realize this, it’s worth exploring together what order serves our needs well in this time and place.

2017 Reflections, Looking Ahead to 2018

To our friends and advocates,

Thank you for your support and interest in the Bible Reading Movement. As we move into 2018, we are full of gratitude for God’s favor on 2017, our first year of work at full capacity. People around the world are struggling to read and embrace the Bible. We are pioneering a movement through research, education, and resources that reshape the way they read, so they can become immersed in the Bible’s life-transforming story. This past year has been a great encouragement to us as we’ve seen the Bible come alive to numerous people, perhaps for the first time.

For example, read Chris Chapman’s reflections about Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience after reading through the New Testament with a small group from Saddleback Church:

“Honestly, once I got started reading, it was hard for me to stop.  I’d take it to the office with me, and I actually ended up getting ahead of the 8-week reading schedule.  I was surprised at how easy it was.

The group experience was critical.  I really wanted to engage in the conversations when we got together, so the group really kept me on task.  The book club approach was also helpful.  I’m not looking for more work!  So I’d just read and show up. The discussions were great! People caught things that I’d missed and vice versa, but because we’d all read about fifty pages that week, everyone had a lot to contribute.”

We’re quickly finding that our research is being confirmed – people are ready for a fresh experience with the Bible. With Immerse now there is potential for entire denominations to embrace a new Bible reading rhythm together. In June, the Evangelical Covenant Church introduced Immerse as their official Bible reading program! Here is what Michelle Sanchez, Executive Minister of Make and Deepen Disciples, had to say:

“Our first Covenant affirmation is the centrality of the Word of God – and central to our life and faith it is! As “People of the Book,” we have a long tradition of valuing deep engagement with the whole Bible. We are pleased to introduce the pathway of Immerse: The Covenant Bible Reading Experience in partnership with Tyndale House Publishers and the newly-formed Institute for Bible Reading. This dynamic resource will allow for a congregation to read through the entire Bible together in community over the course of three years. We encourage every Covenant congregation to continue deep, daily engagement with the Word of God – the best discipleship tool there is.”

The Institute for Bible Reading is uncommonly focused on using research, education, and the creation of resources to help people read the Bible well.  We are grateful for advances in 2017:

  • Research – In early 2018, we will publish the results of an initial survey of clergy about their congregations’ Bible reading habits. We listen carefully to both the scholars and the clergy as we develop strategies and resources to help people read and live the Bible well.
  • Education –This past year, we were grateful for many opportunities to share our point of view on Bible engagement. Our team was featured in Bible Gateway, Christianity Today, Outreach, ChurchLeaders.com, and Premier Christianity UK, among others. And there were multiple speaking/training opportunities at ministries like Summit Ministries, Brooklyn Tabernacle, the Q Conference, and Missio Alliance.
  • Resources – Much of 2017 was spent developing resources for Immerse. As we closed the year, Tyndale House Publishers sent the final two volumes of Immerse: The Reading Bible to the printer. This six-volume “reading Bible” available in English and Spanish anchors our signature program, which is reshaping how congregations read the Bible. Along with a free audio edition and free downloadable guides, Immerse is fueling a fresh Bible Reading Movement all across North America and beyond.

As we head into 2018, we are encouraged with our momentum but also aware of challenges and aspirations. This coming year, we hope to host scholars and clergy forums again, after a hiatus while we focused on developing Immerse. We hope to build capacity to fulfill a growing list of invitations to speak and provide training about deep Bible engagement. And we hope to engage in more research about how reading the Bible well enables the church to live the Bible well. Finally, we want to leverage Immerse across North America and then move into more international languages beyond Spanish.

We are grateful for all the support and advocacy of kindred spirits whose imaginations are sparked by joining us in pioneering a Bible Reading Movement. Thank you for all of your prayers and support as we head into 2018. We can’t do this work without you!