Monday, March 15, 2010

"I Don't Enjoy Reading the Bible": Suggestions to Help Folks Better Enjoy and Benefit from Bible-Reading (Links)

By Dave Armstrong (3-15-10)

A woman on the CHNI forum wrote:

I, umm, have a confession to make: Ahem... uh... OK, here goes... I, uh don't really enjoy reading the Bible. There, I said it! That's right. I don't enjoy it. In fact, sometimes I find it to be a chore. . . . So what's wrong with me? I am so jealous of people who say they just love to read the Bible. They just love to "get into the Word." As for me, most of the time while I'm reading it, I'm yelling (OK, not out loud and not angrily, but maybe more like in frustration) at the Holy Spirit to please help me to understand what I'm reading because frankly, most of the time, it's like a big riddle.

I feel like I'm in one of those fantasy movies where the hero/ine comes upon some ancient old book of some kind of prophecy and they're trying to figure out what it means because it's written in some kind of code that they don't understand. I feel like that when I read the O.T., especially. I read about some of those laws and rules and regulations and some of God's commands to the Israelites and some of the things that read to me as sort of contradictory, and then there are those very mysterious and obscure passages from some of the prophets like, say, Zechariah or Ezekiel, or one of those guys. And I'm like... HUH? What the heck are they trying to say?
OK, I realize I'm not Jewish, and that I'm in another century and place altogether. And I realize that as a Catholic I have the advantage of having scholars all through the ages who've had to deal with this stuff and who have interpreted it and hashed out its meaning for me and the rest of us in these modern times. Still... it's just so frustrating that I don't understand it on my own without the help of possibly fallible footnotes.
. . . [T]here are some people who do claim that they like to read the Bible and who seem to think that they understand it perfectly, but yet these people have had less schooling than I have, and less of a Christian upbringing (having been Christian for only a couple of years or maybe several, but with no real education in their beliefs, whereas I've been a Christian since I was a month old and most of my education has been in the Catholic school system - even college). And this confuses me. I mean... maybe I really am not as smart as most people. After all, if the preachers on the street corners are to be believed, it would seem that the Bible must be an easy read. Or so it would seem when they shout out things like, "All you have to do is read this Bible to get all the answers to the meaning of life!" - or some such. If the Bible is so easy to understand that just anyone - even those who have no religious education - can just pick it up and instantly understand it, well, then... I must be pretty stupid.
Am I the only one who feels this way about reading the Bible? Just wondering... I feel like there's something wrong with me if I can't enjoy reading the scriptures and can't understand it as well as - apparently - even some uneducated Christians claim to. By the way, if anyone has any suggestions that might help me to enjoy reading the scriptures more, I'd be happy to hear them.

* * * * *

No, you're not alone at all. The Bible is a very old book, from many different cultures. It has several literary styles, and a lot of it is repetitious and a dry "legal"-sort of information. It's not always the best "read" by our standards today (be they good or bad).

I would recommend reading some books about the Bible, that may help spark interest in you. It's like anything: we have to be stimulated to be interested in it by something outside of it. The following books might possibly serve this purpose:

You Can Understand The Bible: A Practical And Illuminating Guide To Each Book In The Bible (Peter Kreeft)

On amazon, his book, You Can Understand the Old Testament: A Book-By-Book Guide for Catholics (possibly an earlier version of the above), is available for one cent, used!

Another similar one, Reading and Praying the New Testament: A Book-By-Book Guide for Catholics, is available used for as low as $2.97.

I consider Peter Kreeft the greatest living Catholic apologist, and he is a superb writer (and a professor of philosophy). You can't go wrong with any of his books.

Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible As the First Christians Did (Mark P. Shea)

Another great writer (English major). Learning about how the early Church interpreted Scripture can offer much insight, and spark interest in Bible-reading.

I would also recommend books that deal with the literary aspects of the bible. Leland Ryken is an author (Protestant) who has written a lot about that (see a list on amazon).

Another (Protestant) book that appears to fit in along these general lines, is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart). The description of it sounds a lot like what you are looking for.

Perhaps a book that ties Scripture specifically with Catholic beliefs and practices would be particularly helpful. Try Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots (Scott Hahn). He has also written A Pocket Guide to the Bible. Also along these lines is: The Catholic Church and the Bible (Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas).

If you try one of these, maybe it'll create an interest that wasn't there before, and you'll benefit from that, for sure, by enjoying to a greater degree what you already know is very good for you.


Dan Marcum said...

I consider Peter Kreeft the greatest living Catholic apologist, and he is a superb writer (and a professor of philosophy). You can't go wrong with any of his books.

I just finished his book, "Handbook of Catholic Apologetics," which is an otherwise spellbinding and masterful work of genius, but I did find one thing that is very objectionable. In his chapter, "The Bible: Myth or History?" he addresses the common objection that the Bible contradicts itself. He pinpoints five examples of these so-called contradictions for analysis:

1) "In the Old Testament, the populations of peoples and armies are often estimated differently in different accounts of the same events."

2) "One passage in Exodus says God parted the waters of the Red Sea, but another passage says a strong east wind did it by blowing all night."

3) "The chronological order of events in the life of Jesus is not the same in any two of the four Gospels."

4) One account of the first Easter morning says the women who went to Jesus' empty tomb saw two angels, while another account says they saw one."

5) One account of Judas' death says he hanged himself; another says he fell down and his guts burst asunder."

He ends up giving proper answers to these so-called contradictions later by the end of the chapter; but before he does, he gives a methodological rebuttal, which is only methodologically un-Catholic: "First," he says (page 228), "a sense of perspective is needed. These are not contradictions in substance. The Bible could well be infallible in all its teachings, its message, even while being fallible in incidental details like these."

No good! No good at all! Pope Leo the Great, Providicentissimus Deus, rejected this error specifically: "those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond...cannot be tolerated. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican."

But Peter Kreeft went one step farther than placing Biblical fallibility on the spectrum of possibility; in another place he goes as far as saying that the faith of the Church accepts the Bible as partly fallible. "Some Protestants, unlike Catholics, extend infallibility to the Bible's grammar, science, and mathematics. But most do not, for that is not the Bible's message." (page 443)

It is one question to say whether the Bible has any science or mathematics or grammatical instruction inside it; but if there is any, then it is either certainly infallible, or else the God who put it there is certainly not infallible, for writing something in error. Peter Kreeft should know this. For teaching the opposite, I think his book should be revised, and if he would refuse to revise it, Ignatius Press should discontinue its circulation. His book is otherwise great; but what he says there is a heresy in a haystack, a dose of poison in an otherwise pure well. This needs to be corrected or the devil will see this chink in our armor and stick a knife through it into the side of Christ's Body, the Church.

Jackie said...

At least the person is honest and it is a start. If she finds that picking up a bible and reading it is boring and uninteresting, and cannot understand it, then she probably needs God more than she realizes . I think we are to 'get thirsty' for the word which is a Grace we all need.

Thanks for sharing.

Randy said...

It just so happens Peter Kreeft was in Calgary Friday and Saturday. I go to hear him speak live. I even sat at his table at lunch. He is just an amazing speaker and writer. What really amazes me is how eloquent he is at answering questions. The answers come out like he has spent an hour refining his wording. Just beautiful.

DarthMambo said...

I'd also add "The Father Who Keeps His Promises" by Scott Hahn. From this book you get a sense of the overarching narrative of the Bible and Hahn really is great at this sort of thing.

Even Deuteronomy starts to make sense... ;-)

Dave Armstrong said...

In these discussions of infallibility, it is good to keep in mind the distinction between the Bible as we now know it and the original manuscripts. One can believe that minor errors crept into the manuscripts while maintaining the belief in the infallibility of the original manuscripts in toto.

That may be Kreeft's position, closely examined.

Dan Marcum said...

"One can believe that minor errors crept into the manuscripts while maintaining the belief in the infallibility of the original manuscripts in toto."

I thought of that, but it wouldn't explain two things. One is that he uses the party language of infallibility limitationalists; "infallible in its message" versus "infallible in the originals."

The second is that he specifically states that it is NOT fallible in those parts that are "not its message," which is limiting even if we DO grant copyist errors, unless he assumes that copyists could err only on its history and counting, but not on its message.

Dave Armstrong said...

Okay; he could possibly be weak in this area a bit, then. Too bad, if so.

I.M Fletcher said...

Regarding the original topic of finding it difficult to read the Bible: I suggest buying an audio version read by someone. I have just downloaded Johnny Cash reading the entire New Testament (available on iTunes or a higher quality version from I am only up to the Gospel of John so far, but it has been a great blessing. I just listen for about half an hour in the morning but you could even do, say, 10 or 15 minutes.

Dave Armstrong said...

That sounds great. I didn't know he had done that. I visited Johnny Cash's grave last year.

Suburbanbanshee said...

I never had a lot of trouble understanding the Bible as a whole and being interested in it; but then, my parents not only had me in church every Sunday, but they had me reading a lot of literature, legends, poetry, and mythology as a kid. It's not the same thing; but it prepares your brain to be supple about this stuff.

However, it's also true that sometimes people who aren't super intelligent or super educated can get a lot out of the Bible. The Bible is written on various levels to hit various people, and I think that God gives people more help if He thinks they need it. If He thinks they'd benefit better by chewing over it, maybe He doesn't. So if you find the Bible hard going, maybe you should feel flattered. :)

It's also true that a lot of "uneducated" people are very well educated in the Bible. They may not know the academics, but they have good memories and they ponder this stuff. Also, they read the Bible often and repeatedly. You're a lot more likely to "get" the Bible if you keep at it.

And you know... you don't really have to read Leviticus and Numbers all the way through with full understanding. I'm not saying ditch them; but they're essentially reference works, not meant for leisure reading. That's where having a book to explain the book could really come in handy.

Dave Armstrong said...

I agree with you all down the line.

Grubb said...

My suggestion is to pray for God to give you a desire for and an understanding of His Word. Often we try to do things on our own that God wants to do for us. Matt 7:9-11 says, "Which of you if his son asks for bread will give him a stone or if he asks for a fish will give him a snake? If you then, though you are evil, now how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!" John 15:7 says, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." And James 1:5 says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him."

My father-in-law was once in the Navy (and sailors don't have a reputation of being pure of heart), and he told me that now he prays every morning for God to take away and keep away the old desires of his flesh.

Daily intake of the Word of God is undeniably good. While the Bible tells us to pray for God to give us the things we need, He may do it through other humans, books, or CDs. I really like both suggestions of reading other books that may help one understand the Bible & spark an interest and getting the Bible on CD. Sometimes simply hearing the words spoken brings clarity to a passage. But definitely pray. :)

Dave Armstrong said...

And one should read that Bible often with the guidance of the Church's doctrinal framework, so one doesn't go astray, as so many have done, by following their own interpretations of Holy Scripture, rather than historic orthodoxy (a lot of which Protestants and Catholics agree on).