The Bible is the most widely-distributed book on the planet. But it might also be the most widely-misunderstood. Two books about the Bible stand out to me as must-reads, at least for contemporary Christians in the United States of America: Saving the Bible from Ourselves, Glenn Paauw and Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul, Walt Russell.
I finished Paauw’s book last night. It lives up to the subtitle. The reader who takes Paauw’s arguments to heart will truly make progress in learning how to read and live the Bible well. We have many blind spots related to both the content and form of the Bible. Paauw’s book is excellent, as it brings them into sharp focus.
Consider the form of the standard Bible. It has two columns with very small font, on very thin paper, with aesthetics being ignored (or perhaps a mere afterthought). Most Bibles also have verse and chapter numbers, editorial headings, red letters, cross-references, and even commentary on the text itself from one or more scholars, pastors, etc. As Paauw observes,
Our overindulged addiction to addition has given us everything we could ask for except the text itself in a clean, natural expression. What we have in our Bibles now is excess. We have effectively buried the text and blinded readers with data smog (p. 33).
The International Bible Society is currently at work on a Bible that avoids these pitfalls. It presents the reader with a physical book that better reflects what the Bible is (see here; for another example go here). If you are skeptical that the form of the Bible matters, Paauw will likley change your mind.
When writing about the function of the Bible, Paauw dispenses with several misguided beliefs and approaches that we commonly employ. The Bible is not about me; it is addressed to communities of believers. The Bible is not about what to do so I can get away from here and go to heaven when I die. Rather, it is about entering God’s kingdom now, loving God and others as we look forward to the redemption of all things. One day the new heavens and new earth will become a reality. We need to live in light of this truth. We need to read entire books of the Bible, rather than chopping it up into little bits that we then wield to support our preferred theological positions or to fit our already existing desires.
A key point from Paauw’s book has to do with our understanding of the genres present in the Bible. The Bible contains poetry, song, wisdom literature, historical narrative, gospel, parable, deliberative discourse, personal letter, and apocalyptic literature. If we ignore this, we’ll miss what God’s Word is saying. This is where Russell’s book is so incredibly useful. Dr. Russell was my hermeneutics professor when I was a student at Talbot School of Theology, and this book is one that I’ve returned to many times over the years.
After reading Russell’s book, you’ll be able to approach the Bible the way it was intended to be approached, attentive to genre, equipped with the right questions to ask when reading Proverbs, Matthew, Genesis, or Colossians. Russell shows you how to study the Bible while being sensitive to the intent of the authors. When we do this, we make better applications that are more in step with God’s Spirit.
I’ve often heard that we are the most information-rich and transformation-poor Christians in the history of the Church. I don’t know about the second claim, but I’m pretty sure the first one is true. If you want to read, interpret, and apply the Bible on its own terms, rather than your own, these 2 books will help you get there. And when you and I do this, the information we take in fosters the transformation we long for as followers of Christ.