How to Save the Bible
by Glenn Paauw
The Bible is a rich collection of songs and letters, stories and prophecies—all forged in the crucible where people’s lives meet God’s Spirit. At its core, Scripture is a great drama, highlighting God’s battle to win back his rebellious children, overcome evil, and restore life and wholeness to our world. The invitation to us is to find our place in its ongoing narrative.
So why do most of us treat the Bible not as a world-transforming drama, but as a holy reference book? Just think how many of our Bible practices have been shaped by this “how-to manual” approach to Scripture.
We’ve accustomed ourselves to reading mostly in small fragments, often presented as though they were propositional statements addressing various concerns of ours. We’ve isolated Bible verses. We’ve perfected the art of topical searches and word studies—often separating the words and ideas of Scripture from their original context.
This approach to the Bible has a host of unintended consequences. For starters, it leads us to ignore those parts of Scripture that don’t fit the “reference book” model. We like Paul’s letters well enough, for example, but what about the poetry of the Bible? We end up cherry picking our favorite bits and avoiding the rest. We fail to ask the really big questions: What is the Bible? and What are we supposed to do with it?
The time has come to face one of the important factors contributing to this problem. Could it be the way Scripture is presented encourages our habit of treating it like a holy reference book? What if the Bible’s “conventional” form has actually led us astray in our quest to be good readers of sacred words? Worse, what if it has contributed to our becoming nonreaders of the Bible?
What form am I referring to? I’m talking about the modernistic format imposed on and overlaying the words of the Bible: chapter and verse numbers, red letters, cross-references, and a host of other additives.
As ubiquitous as this form is today, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Chapter numbers were added in the thirteenth century, and then verse numbers in the sixteenth. As we became more and more comfortable with these additions, we continued to pile on. Now we have footnotes, application helps, section headings to guide (or control?) interpretation, etc. etc. etc.
The result is an over-processed, over-protected, over-complicated text. The intentions were good, no doubt, but the piling on of additives has backfired. We are now more distant from the text itself. We’ve taken a step away from experiencing Scripture on its own terms. The very format of our modern Bible prevents us from “reading big”—from engaging whole thoughts, much less whole books.
It goes without saying (or maybe it doesn’t) that this modernistic format is not inherent to the Bible itself. The Bible’s authors never dreamed of such a thing. They were writing letters. Recording oracles. Sharing song lyrics. Retelling stories. But where are all these things? They’ve been flattened out, hidden in a sea of numbers and columns.
For all this, however, the Bible is still there. It’s not too late to begin honoring our part of the covenant that exists between authors and readers. C.S. Lewis once argued that before we can use the Bible for our own benefit, we have to fully accept it for what it is. The Bible is a collection of sacred writings—literature. To honor it for what it is—to live and read as if we truly believe in its divine inspiration—is to receive these writings as they were originally given: whole and unprocessed.
Can we recover this Bible? Can we rediscover the Bible’s own literary forms? Can we get back to simply reading and accepting?
For such a thing to happen, we need to remove the overlay and let the text be the text. For starters, we could press “undo” on all those 13th-century chapter numbers and 16th-century verse numbers. We could print the text in a reader-friendly, single-column format. (When was the last time you read a really good novel with two columns?)
What if we could go even further in our quest to save the Bible? What would it look like to see ancient Hebrew poetry as the poetry it is? What would it be like to receive a letter from an early Christian leader? What would it feel like to be gospeled by whole Gospels? What would it be to see these writings once again in all their God-given, purposeful forms? What would it be, not to skim the surface and scan for verses, but to lose ourselves—and thus find ourselves—in this one story that has the power to transform everything?
What would it look like? A completely different kind of Bible—something closer to the original, something designed to be read from start to finish. For almost ten years now, a team of scholars, typesetters, and designers have been dreaming of and developing precisely this kind of Bible. We call it The Books of the Bible.
We’ve pursued this vision because we believe a better Bible experience is possible. We believe the Bible is a divine gift, capable of transforming us—of showing us who we really are and what we could become by God’s grace. For this to happen, we have to immerse ourselves in the Bible’s holy drama. Instead of approaching it like a how-to manual, we have to soak in its script.
Reading a different kind of Bible is a start—but it’s only a start. We also need to rediscover the ancient practice of experiencing scripture in community, which is why The Books of the Bible is the centerpiece of a new Bible engagement initiative called Community Bible Experience.
Community Bible Experience and The Books of the Bible are about changing the way we engage God’s Word. They’re about us seeing the complete story of redemption, understanding its context, and experiencing its transforming power not in isolation, but together.