New year, new habit: Read your Bible
Many people avoid reading the Bible because it is lengthy, its contents can be difficult to understand and — let’s be honest — a regular reading of the Bible requires a certain amount of discipline and commitment. Yet, we proclaim it during our liturgical assemblies, we teach it in our religious education programs, and as an inspired text it shapes who we are as people of faith more than any other literature. Thus, it goes without saying that people of biblical faith will grow and deepen in that faith by regularly reading and praying through it.
As we begin the new year with a sense of starting fresh and making changes to improve ourselves, the following are some suggestions to help you more fully commit to a meaningful reading of sacred Scripture. But remember that like any changes we make, reading Scripture is a process, and the more you do it, the more you’ll figure out ways that work for you and ways that do not. But regardless, regular time spent reading the word of God will help you discover the richness of these texts — and of the Faith.
Dr. William J. Shaules is a faculty member of the Catholic Bible Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“The law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.”
— Psalms 1:2
Find a space and take some time
Most naturally we begin reading Scripture by doing just that: reading the text. During this initial encounter with the text, it’s important just to read even though you may have read the text many times before. This is the point of a fresh, or refreshed, experience of reading that should be free of distraction. As is the case for any other spiritual discipline, reading Scripture requires space and time. In terms of space, different people prefer different types of space. Some prefer the church or chapel, while others prefer a personal study or other quiet space at home. Still others don’t mind a coffee shop.
Whatever your preference, it’s important to find that space, not necessarily the same one every time, but a place where you have a sense of taking time out from the rest of your day. Of course, this also requires time. Most of us in one way or another like to stay busy and productive with our time, so it’s difficult to take time to read Scripture. But it’s important that the time spent with the Bible is as free from everyday pressures as possible. Without time, it’s impossible to read Scripture in a way that allows meaningful conversation between the reader and the text, which in turn would allow it to work in us and to begin to shape us. Start with choosing a good space; then take 10 minutes just to read. See what happens.
Read out loud
I know a teenager who goes into her room and reads assigned chapters from her literature class out loud to herself. As an auditory learner, she remembers best when hearing a text as opposed to silently reading a text. She may not know it, but she is practicing an ancient tradition. In fact, ancient peoples heard texts rather than reading them silently because the vast majority did not read or write. For example, Acts 8:30 says, “Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet.”
The traditions that we read in the Bible developed in oral cultures that prized the spoken word over the written word. So it’s no surprise that biblical texts have an oral quality about them, meaning that they should be heard and not only silently read. Read the story of creation in Genesis 1, or the story of Moses and the Israelites at Exodus 3, or through the introductory verses of one of Paul’s epistles in the New Testament and you’ll get a sense of the orality of Scripture. Imagine the original audiences sitting in a group and hearing the story, the instruction or the exhortation read out loud during a family or community gathering and you’ll get a sense of this. So in addition to reading silently, try reading the text out loud, and you’ll likely have an experience of it that you would not otherwise.
While reading a biblical text, you’ll want to make sense of it. Thus, at this point it’s appropriate to ask questions of it and then to brainstorm some possible answers. Some good questions are: Where does this text appear in the biblical book? What could be the situation of the writer? Does the text allude to or directly quote other biblical texts? Is there anything in the text that touches me personally? Is there anything that I think would touch my family and my faith community?
Allow yourself to ask these and any other questions that might lead you to insight into the meaning of the text. It’s also a good idea to reflect on possible answers to your questions. Don’t be shy about venturing ideas, making connections, applying to life situations and generally making sense out of the text. This does not require certificates or degrees. This is not only the business of “qualified” people. It is the task of all of the baptized to understand the Bible, so allow yourself to do so. Allow the Spirit to work within you. Trust yourself.
Beyond the first step of just reading, a deeper understanding of a biblical text comes from engaging it at the rational level or at the level of study. Again, this does not require any special training, but it does require more of a time commitment as it more thoroughly engages the mind. Thus, in relationship with faith, reason plays an important part in discerning the meaning of Scripture.
Learn the context
The most important and an indispensable part of reading Scripture is to understand the context of a particular passage. So after the initial reading and brainstorming questions and answers, the next step is to look at what comes before and after a passage upon which you are focussing. The key questions are: What comes just before and just after my passage? What appears in the whole chapter in which my passage appears? Where is my passage in the whole biblical book in which it appears? Think of these questions as concentric circles that are at an increasing distance from your text. You should at least become aware of the immediate context of your passage by carefully reading what is immediately before and what is immediately after the passage upon which you are focussing. This will begin to deepen your understanding of the text and prevent unnecessary misreading of the text.
Beyond discerning what appears just before and after the text, it’s also important to discern why your passage appears where it does, or how it flows from and leads into what appears before and after it. The key question here is, why did the author write this passage here?
Matthew 18:15-20, the “Church discipline” passage, is a good example of the importance of this consideration. It appears after 18:12-14, which contains the parable of the lost sheep. It also appears before 18:21-35 which contains Peter’s question about forgiveness and the parable of the ungrateful steward. The reason why it appears here seems to be Matthew’s concerns to balance church discipline with mercy. Without considering what appears before and after 18:15-20, and without considering why it appears where it does, you will miss the deeper meaning. Even more, without considering the context you may lose a sense of dialogue with the text and impose your own ideas on it too much.
Learn it as history
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21). What does Jesus mean by this?
All biblical texts were written in response to specific historical circumstances. The authors of biblical texts were real people living during real historical occurrences. Biblical authors had particular cultural views and wrote according to ancient conventions, and the same can be said for the faith communities who received these texts. Thus, biblical texts reflect real historical situations. So it’s important to learn something about what was going on at the time of the communities that wrote, received and passed on the text you are reading.
An example of the importance of historical context is the parable of the good Samaritan at Luke 10:29-37. Even a brief study of the history of the Samaritan people provides deeper insights into the message of this parable. One must know who the Samaritans were in order to fully grasp the challenging message in Luke’s parable. Again, you don’t have to be a biblical scholar in order to learn something about the historical context. But you do need some tools to help you, such as a good study Bible. A step further would be the purchase of a good one-volume commentary. With these tools in hand, you can spend a few minutes learning something about the historical context of your passage.
Learn it as literature
You can also enrich the experience of reading a biblical passage by taking time to understand it as literature. The first step is to understand the genre of the passage. Biblical genre include hymns, epic stories, myths, epistles, parables and apocalyptic. This is important because the meaning of a text is often dependent on its genre. It helps to know that in our everyday lives we instinctively note differences in genre as we read. For example, one would not read a newspaper article in the same way that one would read an instruction manual.
To put this in biblical terms, one would not read a psalm in the same way one reads an epistle written by Paul. The psalm is poetry while the epistle is instruction and exhortation put into the form of a letter. Even the same phrase appearing in both probably would have a different shade of meaning. You, the discerning reader, do not need extensive study in order to recognize the basic differences of genre. But if you want to go into study of the literary qualities of the text, a good study Bible or commentary that discusses genre in lay terms would enrich your reading greatly.
|A New Way to Engage Scripture|
The Catholic Journaling Bible (OSV, $49.95) offers readers a chance to interact with Scripture in their own personal ways. The single-column format offers wide, lined margins, giving readers space to take notes, journal, record prayers or express themselves through drawing or doodling. For more information, visit osvcatholicbookstore.com.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
— 2 Timothy 3:16
What is God saying to you?
The Bible would not be the Bible without its ability to impact our lives powerfully. Its impact begins with the personal experience of reading the text, drawing out meaning for our own lives. In fact, many people find comfort and personal insight in Scripture as they face challenging life situations. Thus, a psalm that allows someone to express a deep sense of loss, or a Gospel passage that lifts up those who suffer, or a text from Paul that powerfully provides hope for the future can make all the difference. There are also texts that give people the opportunity and the vocabulary to be thankful to God and to praise God during moments of gratitude and blessing. So the Bible reflects universal human concerns that impact readers at a personal level. Take time to allow the spirit to speak to you through the text in this way.
What is God saying to your faith community?
But the experience of reading the Bible is not limited to the personal. In fact, the Bible itself is more community oriented than it is individually oriented. It reflects the experience and concerns of whole peoples and of whole communities. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that its contents are proclaimed during community liturgies. During Sunday liturgies, readings are proclaimed publicly as a way of giving the community an opportunity to discern its meaning. So as you approach a biblical passage, it is important to discern a sense of God speaking to your community. In fact, it is a good idea to gather with others in your community in order to read as community and then to discern the message that the text may have for your community. You may even want to gather with others in order to read the upcoming Sunday readings as a way of discerning together the impact of these readings. Finally, if you preside and preach during liturgy, you are best equipped to do so by meeting with members of the community in order to better discern and formulate your message.
What is God saying to your world?
Both during personal and community reading of Scripture, it also is important to discern how it may impact your views of world events. This should be done carefully and in conversation with other engaged readers of Scripture. But the Bible would not be the Bible if it did not play a role in shaping who we are as individuals and as community. This means that it shapes our responses to different events happening in our country and in our world. This especially is important for those of us living in democratic societies where we have an obligation to participate in the processes of government beginning with the elections of our leaders. Our reading of Scripture is not the only element influencing our position in the public square and “biblically based” decision-making must be done responsibly and in conversation with others within and outside of our faith community. Nonetheless, Scripture, especially when read regularly and prayerfully, will play a role in shaping your perspective.
“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.”
— Mark 1:35
People of faith believe Scripture to be inspired by God. So it’s important to allow the text to nourish you spiritually, bringing you, the reader, closer to God. Engaging the Spirit through biblical reading provides a sense of meaning that goes beyond the more cognitive experiences described above and is as necessary to the process as they are.
Prayerful reading of Scripture may impel the reader to petition God for something of his or her own need or, more importantly, for the needs of others. Biblical faith generally believes in a provident God who cares for people, especially those who are suffering (see Ex 3:7). So reading Scripture should inspire petition to God. For example, the injunctions to the care of immigrants, orphans and widows in Deuteronomy 24:19-21 may lead to a concern for the marginalized, beginning with prayer for their well being. 1 Timothy 2:2 exhorts readers to pray for civil authorities, presumably that they govern well. Certainly reading Scripture also leads to prayer for your needs as faithful reader. Many of the lament psalms present the voice of the psalmist crying out to God for help. Or perhaps the first of Jesus’ beatitudes in Matthew may inspire one to ask that he or she be “poor in spirit.” Scripture reveals a God who listens. As you pray through your text, let it remind you of this.
Another dimension of praying through Scripture comes from the Benedictine tradition of lectio divina. Simply put, this means to focus on one word or phrase in your passage, even repeating it over and over, and to let that word or phrase lead you to deeper insights. This meditative practice brings one deeper into Scripture, opening possibilities for meaning and personal insight. An attentive reader would discern a word or phrase that draws his or her attention and then focus upon it and allow the Spirit to lead him or her into deeper meaning. A good example is the above-mentioned beatitude from Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This text invites you to focus upon what it means to be “poor” and even more, “in spirit.” If you feel so inclined, take a few minutes to do this.
From the Jesuit tradition, we have the “imagining” of Scripture. This means to spend time placing oneself into the biblical scene. This works most naturally with those parts of Scripture that narrate a story. Again using the above-mentioned beatitude from Matthew, take 10 or 15 minutes to imagine yourself at the Mount of Beatitudes, among Jesus’ disciples, listening to him deliver the Sermon on the Mount. The experience is meant to be multi-sensory, involving not only sight but also auditory, touch and smell. Ten or 15 minutes reliving the biblical experience can bring you into a deeper experience of spirit and revelation through the text.
|7 Helpful Tips to Get Started|
There is no one way to read the Bible, because each reader is different. So it’s important to discover your own rhythm, to see what works for you and what doesn’t. Here are a few suggestions:
Figure out what works for you: Is it better for you to read in shorter segments? Can you read for a longer time? Do you need absolute quiet? Do you prefer to stand or even walk around while reading? Is it better for you to read out loud? Each person reads differently. But remember what’s most important is that you read!
Don’t neglect the Old Testament: You cannot know the New Testament without knowing the Old Testament.
Start from the beginning: The book of Genesis establishes important themes that guide the rest of the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew does the same for Jesus’ ministry, as does the first of St. Paul’s letters, Romans, for his teachings.
Focus on stories: Once you get started, you can skip around, but make sure to enjoy the fascinating biblical stories. There’s lots of drama and some very interesting people!
Read in a group: It might be helpful to gather periodically with other Bible readers to read and to discuss.
Use reading helps: There are a number of publications designed to help people read the Bible and enjoy it. Perhaps the most helpful are those that help readers create a plan for reading the whole Bible in a year.
Enjoy the experience: As is the case for any other literature, reading the Bible requires discipline and commitment. But at the same time, laugh with it, cry with it, feel the suspense of a good story, ask it questions. In this way, let it nourish your faith.