Advent: Reading the Bible For the Real World

The biblical narrative knows all about times of change. It knows about seasons of darkness that that last way too long. How long was Israel in slavery before Moses was called? How long did God’s people sit in sadness by rivers of Babylon? How many days and nights did Anna, daughter of Penuel, sit in the Temple, fasting and praying for the redemption of Jerusalem? (She was there continually, Luke tells us, until she was 84.)

Exile. Suffering. Sadness and death. How long? How long?

Of course, the Bible knows all about days of rejoicing too. It knows about seasons of rescue, of God showing up and turning the tide, changing the story. It knows about times of refreshing, about good harvests, about a Messiah born amidst singing angels. There are seasons of light in this tale.

But think for a moment about the big story in the Bible. Think of what we learn about God’s founding intentions for the world, and for his people in the world. God wanted flourishing life, tended by image-bearing humans. God wanted to live with us in his creation-temple. God wanted us to trust him, to trust what he said, to follow his ways.

We struggled to live up to God’s call for us. We failed him. And he in turn struggled with us. He struggled with the family of Abraham that he called to rescue us, to bring us light and love and blessing. The story tells us about covenants and then more covenants, a never-ending series of promises about real change, about a new kind of future.

But the story seems stuck in pro and con, con and pro, an unending battle. It is about floods, but then doves with olive branches. About slavery, but then Exodus. About war, but then Promised Land. About tribal chaos, but then King David. God is trying and trying and trying, but it’s always a struggle. A new start, but then a turning away. It feels more like circles of frustration than straightforward progress with this biblical narrative, this so-called story of salvation.

We can get fully three quarters through the Bible and the same questions remain: Will God’s first intentions ever be realized? Will there be faithful God-imagers on earth? Will life flourish the way God wants it to? Will God’s plan to bring goodness and life to all peoples through Israel really work? When already?

What I like about the Bible (the actual Bible, not the filtered-cherry-picking-nice-verses Bible) is that it’s like real life. Real life is a struggle. Real life is about waiting. Real life is about watching the world fall apart on my news feed.

What I like about the Bible (the actual Bible, not the filtered-cherry-picking-nice-verses Bible) is that it’s like real life. Real life is a struggle. Real life is about waiting. Real life is about watching the world fall apart on my news feed.Click To Tweet

We are in the season of Advent these days, waiting once again for the coming of something genuinely new. And I’m noticing that the questions of Advent are the same questions of the entire biblical narrative before the New Testament.

Will he come? When? How long?

Advent teaches us, among many other things, to read our Bibles big and whole. Screening out the longing stories, the waiting stories, the struggle stories, won’t serve us well in the end. Our super-friendly, super-nice, super-encouraging piecemeal Bible won’t actually sustain us in real life. It’s better to know that God knows like we know that life is hard.

And when we read all of it, and are honest about all of it, then when that Messiah does really come, when those joyous songs do fill the night skies over the Judean countryside, then it’s so much better because it’s so much more real. This is reading the Bible for the real world.

God is in it with us for the long-haul. But the only way to understand the depth and truth of this is to know his whole story. Not just the easy parts.

Read the Bible for life.

Tune In: Facebook Live with Bible Gateway

Update: We had the pleasure of recording our Facebook Live interview with Bible Gateway yesterday, and we’re looking forward to partnering with them to produce more videos. Watch yesterday’s video here:

We’re excited to announce that beginning this Wednesday, December 7, the Institute for Bible Reading and Bible Gateway will be working together on a series of Facebook Live video events to dive into the subject of how Bible reading is broken and how people can take steps toward better Bible reading.


The first episode, titled, “Bible Reading Is Broken, And It’s Not Your Fault”, will be broadcast this Wednesday at 11 AM EST on Bible Gateway’s Facebook page. We’ll be discussing how we’ve arrived at this broken place in the Bible’s history and how the prevailing Bible paradigms set people up for failure even when they try their best to read the Bible.


How do I tune in?

The best way is to go to Bible Gateway’s Facebook page, then “Like” and “Follow” them. After that, do the same with the Institute for Bible Reading page. Make sure that underneath the Following tabs on both pages, Notifications are checked “On”:


By doing that, you should be notified when we begin our broadcast on Wednesday. We’re grateful for Bible Gateway’s interest in helping to usher in a new era of Bible reading, and we’re looking forward to discussing these important issues with them!


What Socrates Can Teach Us About Reading the Bible

Though it’s common knowledge that Socrates never wrote a book (just as Jesus never wrote a book), the reason for his abstention is speculative. But the notion is that Socrates had a conviction: that the quest for wisdom could be short-circuited by an authoritarian voice that prematurely interrupted free-flowing conversation and debate. To gain true wisdom, things had to be discussed and sensed.

Commenting on Socrates’ pedagogy, David Malki writes:

“For only through banter, through back-and-forth discussion and rhetorical argument and the working out of problems, can true knowledge be conveyed. Reading mere words, in [Socrates] mind, is akin to looking at a lake rather than swimming in it — or worse, looking at a lake and thinking that now you know how to swim.”

If Socrates were alive today, how might he evaluate the quality of our conversations around spirituality and the Bible? Do our surface-level conversations give rise to what Scott Bolinder calls a “subtle lobotimization”?

It wasn’t writing itself that Socrates renounced— it was “experts” who were too quick to pronounce the final word and thereby prevented conversation and debate. Ministerial journals are replete with tips on better preaching, but hardly anything about creating a culture for better conversations. Where are the tutorials that teach people how to wrestle with the Scriptures in the same way that Jacob wrestled with God?

Where are the tutorials that teach people how to wrestle with the Scriptures in the same way that Jacob wrestled with God?Click To Tweet

The person in the pew, and even those who have exited the pew, are ready for grown-up conversations. In their everyday lives they wrestle with “grey areas” and nuanced matters. Simple living ended with the Industrial Age. In too many instances, they are only invited to search the Scriptures for nuggets of inspiration, leaving the heavy lifting to the professionals.

Another Conversation Stopper?

I also wonder if today’s ubiquitous Bible Studies would pass muster with Socrates. They’re a fixture in modern church life, but are there forms that would serve us better?

Michigan pastor Pete Yoshonis says:

“What frustrates me is that most Bible studies are nothing more than regurgitation studies. We’re going to give you this basic thing in the text, and you’re going to recite to us what you just read as opposed to something in depth.”

“Regurgitation studies” is a severe evaluation, and certainly some studies are better than others. But if Bible Studies promote surfing or skimming the text in place of natural, undiluted Bible reading, then we’ve got a problem. We can’t afford Bible Studies where real study doesn’t actually happen!

A New Way Forward

At The Institute for Bible Reading, we envision a better future for the Bible. Five years ago, with the Socratic approach in mind, we began testing a “Book Club” model against the “Bible Study” model by asking small groups to read through the entire New Testament in eight weeks. The first four weeks looked like a traditional Bible Study. For the second four weeks, we took away the Participant Guides and gave participants a Bible made purely for reading, without chapters, verses, or other interference devices.

In place of “regurgitation questions” we asked open-ended questions like:

What was new or compelling to you?

What questions did you have?

Was there anything that bothered you?

Honestly, we anticipated some form of a “split decision”—folks who like predictability and order would opt for Bible Studies, with the free spirits choosing the Book Club.

We were wrong! Overwhelmingly, regardless of personality, people chose the Book Club. We heard comments like:

The Book Club changed the entire nature of our conversations!

The experience felt more authentic.

Where has this experience been our whole Christian lives?

Five years of observation has affirmed Socrates hypotheses. We’ve learned that:

  • People are hungry for context and history.
  • People have lots of unanswered questions about the Bible.
  • Book Clubs are not breeding grounds for heresy.
  • People are ready for real, open, honest conversations.

It’s not perfect. But given time, people immersed in the larger story start sorting things out, especially when they don’t feel threatened by giving wrong answers. Good book introductions help. Skilled facilitation is always a good thing. The Spirit seems unusually invested.

We shouldn’t read too much into Socrates’ absence at the literary table, in the same way we shouldn’t diminish the need for greater cogency in preaching and writing. But perhaps our most compelling need is for a new reformation of undiluted Bible reading and community discussion—a groundswell of everyday people experiencing the Bible, not in some over-simplified, pre-digested, hyper-individualized way, but in a way that leads to better understanding, better believing, and better living.

How the Bible Is Like the Sistine Chapel

In 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project – if we can reduce this massive undertaking to a word as small as “project” – took four years and, as we all know, resulted in one of Michelangelo’s most famous works, as well as one of the most stunning and revered works of art in the world.

The painted area of the ceiling measures approximately 131 feet long by 43 feet wide, which means Michelangelo painted over 5000 square feet of frescoes. Nine scenes from Genesis run down the middle, including the famous The Creation of Adam. The border contains depictions of Israel’s prophets, including Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. The scale of Michelangelo’s work is truly monumental.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Of course, Michelangelo didn’t paint these stunning frescoes inside a climate-controlled museum, but inside a functioning chapel. This meant that they were exposed to many harsh elements that made it difficult for the paintings to survive, and practical measures had to be taken to ensure the paintings could be enjoyed by future generations. Linseed oil was applied to the paintings in 1547 to counteract some of the effects of water penetrating through the floor above. Then, in 1713 a layer of varnish was applied to protect them from the soot and grime accumulating from the candles below.

As the years, decades, and centuries passed, the smoke & wax from burning candles and smut from car exhaust fumes built up and made the frescoes so uniformly dark that critics accused the great sculptor of being insensitive to color.

Then, in 1980, a major restoration project was undertaken using modern technology and preservation techniques. They discovered that the layers of varnish and glue that had been applied over the years had hardened and become opaque. Animal fat and vegetable oil had been applied to counteract salination, but had also created a sticky layer that accumulated even more dirt.

So the restorers got scrubbing. They used a variety of different solvents to wash away the layers of dirt, grime, grease, soot, varnish, and exhaust that had accumulated on the original paintings, and what they found was stunning.


“The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve” Before and After


“Daniel” Before and After






When the Sistine Chapel reopened after the restoration, people were shocked at the vividness of the artwork. Michelangelo hadn’t been “insensitive to color” after all. His incredible original work had simply been covered up by years and years of accumulation.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s a pretty good metaphor for the Bible.

Beginning around the year 1200 when Stephen Langton introduced chapter numbers to the text, and followed by the addition of verse numbers in the mid-1550s by Robert Estienne, modern additives have been accumulating inside our Bibles. Fast forward to today and you’ll see most Bibles come complete with chapters, verses, section headings, footnotes, red-letters, callouts, and cross-references, and all squeezed into two columns so that more information can fit on a single page.

These modern additives, of course, were all put into our Bibles with the best of intentions. Chapters and verses were both added so that referencing small pieces of Scripture became easier (for writing a commentary or concordance, for example). Footnotes undoubtedly showed up because publishers wanted to help people grasp more of the context around what they were reading.

But what has it all amounted to? Information overload. The Bible’s text almost seems hidden, overpowered by all of the extra “helps” we’ve included. Chapters and verses have papered over the natural structures of ancient literature, hiding them behind a uniform numbering system. Two-column formats make it much more difficult to see the parallel structures of Hebrew poetry that we find in the Psalms.

There’s a natural beauty to the Bible that is waiting to be uncovered. If we scrub away the years of varnish and soot, we’ll be surprised and awestruck by what we find. The encouraging trend of “reading Bibles” entering the marketplace shows us that the Bible can indeed be beautiful, and that we can actually have a more authentic, transformative experience with God’s Word if we get rid of all the modern additives and just let the text breathe.

Is Bible Literacy The Right Goal?

I have only recently understood the difference between “literacy” and “fluency” when it comes to the Bible.

Like most, I grew up with reference Bibles that were formatted for study, but not necessarily for reading. Like any good reference work (think dictionary, encyclopedia, textbook), the chapters, verses, subheadings, footnotes, cross-references, and other well-meaning additives were designed to make it easier to “reference” content. But it turns out they were also barriers to simply reading and losing myself in the story. There wasn’t a clear invitation to just read, to read unencumbered, to read for distance, or even to read for enjoyment. And as such, it was more difficult to find myself in the story.

Bible LiteracyIn fact, most of my life with the Bible has been constrained by that reference format, leading to the inevitable outcome of lots of study, mastering propositions and doctrine, sword drills around individual verses, ensuring a clear “world view” and so on. Per the definition of literacy, I would say I am actually pretty “literate” when it comes to the Bible. I developed a certain level of competence or knowledge about the Bible, including memorizing lots of verses. And I did it through diligent, personal quiet times.

But when it comes to “fluency” with the Bible—which is defined as “the ability to express oneself readily, effortlessly, and articulately”— I don’t feel nearly as confident. An educator referencing the 21st Century Fluency Project describes the difference between literacy and fluency this way: “To be literate means to have knowledge or competence. To be fluent is something a little more, it is to demonstrate mastery and to do so unconsciously and smoothly.”

When it comes to the Bible, I am not nearly as fluent as I am literate. And the data seems to indicate I am not alone! Being able to confidently relay the complete story of the Bible, to delineate the different types of literature that combine to form our canon, to easily recognize historical context and linkages between the major sections of the Bible is very different from being literate about the Bible. Glenn Paauw in his new book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves, (InterVarsity Press, May 2016) talks about the Bible as drama and describes what I mean by fluency this way: “to become so immersed in the script of (all) the acts of the Bible that we come to know this story in our bones.” He goes on to say, “We have virtually no chance of playing our parts well if we don’t really know how the full story goes.” I am not nearly as confident in my ability to accurately tell the complete story of the Bible, with all its majesty, mystery and nuance. Are you? Literacy is different than fluency. I’m convinced that to read the Bible well, I need to leverage literacy with greater fluency.

The first Reformation ushered in mass access to what we now know as “reference Bibles.” Perhaps on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses next October, God’s Spirit will usher in a renewed reformation of deeper Bible absorption via mass use of “reading Bibles” as communities gather in conversations around the Text. Perhaps we can build on whatever level of literacy we have by deepening our fluency with God’s amazing creation and restoration story.