The Underground Church


"The Bible is as thick as a Websters dictionary; I'm busy, so how can I be expected to read it?"

That is an interesting question. Like many great and wonderful tasks, the enormity of it all--if we stare at it without a good plan of approach--can drive us to despair, and this will cause us to give up before even starting. Part of the problem may even be the way the Bible is usually compiled into a single gigantic tome. Our human tendency to decorate things which are important to us means that you may have had in your hand an object that is very heavy, bound in leather (or maybe even jewel encrusted!), printed on heavy gilt edged pages, and covered with artistic symbols and drawings that make it seem even more foreign. Some people's preference to own a King James version--written in beautiful but archaic language--further adds to its inscrutability. In this article, which cannot pretend to be exhaustive, I hope to be able to put your mind at ease a bit, give you some guiding principles, and help you form a plan that will help you approach this task.

The Bible really isn't a single giant book, but a library of little books.

The very word "Bible" comes from the Greek "ta biblia", meaning "the books." When you think of sacred scripture, you should put in mind the idea of a shelf of books in your office or at home. In your home bookshelves you might have a book of wise quotations, some poetry, a biography or two, a history title, some instruction manuals or do-it-yourself manuals, etc. (Of course, this way of thinking about physical books is rather 1990s; You might rather prefer to think of it as a Kindle or iBooks collection).

Just as with history's divide into BC and AD, you can further divide the Bible into two major parts: Before and after Christ. Let us stick with the analogy of the personal or home library analogy for now. The "top shelf" for Christians is the New Testament, found more than halfway through in a traditional printed Bible. Here you have four biographies of Jesus, termed "The Gospels"--These are named for their authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Why four? To me this makes Jesus one of the most soundly attested personages in antiquity, and maybe that was God's purpose. Also they have overlapping but slightly different material, with different emphases and different intended readers. The Gospel of Luke has the largest section devoted to the birth of Christ, and these beloved passages are commonly read at Christmas. After the Gospels comes the highly readable book of Acts, which tells about the early church in Jerusalem and beyond. Most of the rest of the New Testament is letters containing teachings of some of Jesus' prominent early followers, including Paul, Peter, James, and John. The New Testament famously concludes with the mysterious and apocalyptic book of Revelations, which has inspired so many horror movies and the "Left Behind" series.

Preceeding the New Testament is the Old Testament. This recounts God's dealings with people, prior to Jesus. In the book of Genesis, you have the creation of the Universe, the fall of humanity, and God's call to Abraham and his descendents. Genesis is also where you will find the story of Noah's ark, and the source material for "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (a reference for you Broadway devotees). Exodus picks up where Genesis left off, with the story of Moses, and the forging of an enslaved people into a free nation, famously rendered by Cecil B. DeMille in the movie "The Ten Commandments". In the remainder of the Old Testament, you find more books of history of ancient Israel, prophetic writings, poetry, wise saying, and books dealing with technical matters. To give a full account of its riches is beyond the scope of this reply.

The Bible was not meant to be read in isolation.

The Jewish people were steeped in scripture from an early age. Learning and studying it was a community effort. It was read aloud week after week in the synagogue. People tied scripure to their foreheads, and decorated their door posts with words from scripture. One of the earliest praises for a Christian church is found here: "...they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." I would highly recommend finding a church or some sort of Bible study group.

The Bible was not meant to be digested all at once.

I remember an old joke: Question: "How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." This is true of Scripture also. Cracking open the pages of scripture for the first time is like taking the first steps of a lifelong journey. This journey is full of moments of insight, little epiphanies. It traverses the peaks and valleys of human experience. Above all it reveals the presence of God in our midst. Not a cold and distant deity of philosophical unapproachability, but one who "pitched his tent among us" (John 1:14). It is a wonderful journey, and I commend it to you.

Some parts of the Bible are more directly relevant to salvation than are others. As Christians we are especially drawn to the New Testament (the "top shelf" in our earlier amalogy). We focus on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

"Exegesis" and "hermeneutics" are not dirty words. Honest.

These refer to the theory and practice of interpreting the Bible. When you read the scriptures, you are also trying to interpret what the words mean. (Here again I recommend studying with a group). You want to put yourself into the shoes of the original listeners, and try to figure out what the words meant to them. This falls under the discipline of "hermeneutics", the science of interpretation. Also, you want to extract from the text the central meaning that may or may not be applicable for us today; this practical approach is roughly what is meant by "exegesis." One of the big "wins" of the Protestant Reformation was the freedom of individual Christians to own and interpret the Bible for themselves.

Don't be too worried here, for others have done a lot of the dirty work for you. Many physical and online Bibles are organized as "study Bibles", that feed you a lot of helpful commentary and background information as you read. Resources to aid your study are numerous, and I hope that even this website can help. I have tried to gather information that can enhance your studies. The Web is enormously helpful, if you are also aware of its pitfalls. For basic background information, for example history and customs of the Roman Empire (which was firmly in charge of the Mediterranean world in the first century) you can just "Google" it. Not sure what a "tare" is in the parable? Fret not, for it is easier than ever to find this. Information in the form of commentaries, that once required a trip to a library or Christian bookstore, is now at your fingertips, often for free.

Have a plan.

Here again, many helpful resources are available to you. Some Bibles are organized in such a way as to be read through in a year; these "Through the Bible in a year" Bibles will typically have a New Testament reading, a psalm, and an Old Testament reading organized by date. Many Bible or Sunday school lesson plans will cover most of the Bible in the course of a few years. I would point as an example to the Standard lesson commentary; these quarterlies are available for free in churches that use them, and the teacher's edition can be found at Amazon's kindle store. The "You Version" Bible app also has some Bible reading plans. Finally, I would commend to you one of the great gifts of the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches, namely the Lectionary. This is an arrangement of scripture for daily and weekly reading, designed to be read aloud in churches, and that covers a good part of the Bible every three years.

Summary: Some Do's and Dont's.

Do consider reading the Bible as part of a group or church community. Do consider starting with one of the Gospels. Don't start in Numbers. Do pick a translation that is easy to understand. Don't necessarily try to wade through the King James English, unless you are familiar with it. However, Do consider reading the Psalms, Proverbs, and the familiar Christmas story in the more exalted language of the King James version. Do try to put yourself into the position of the original audience, and try to extract the meaning that is timeless and relevant to you, away from that which is cultural and limited.

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