Dear Christians Who Don’t Read the Bible,
The Bible of my grandfather rests prominently atop the filing cabinet in my central-Florida office. Leslie Ewell Clinkenbeard (“Pa” to his family) was a simple farmer and mechanic, but served the church faithfully as an elder for over 40 years. Four preachers officiated his funeral.
Every Christmas Eve the extended family gathered in his 2-bedroom farmhouse for a traditional Christmas meal and the opening of presents. But before there was any gift-giving in his home he insisted that we read the Christmas story from his rather large, leather-bound, King James Bible, the one that sits in my office. It was a sacred tradition observed every year in his home. He was imitating the practice of his fathers who annually recited the story of the Hebrews’ deliverance from Egypt on the night of Passover (Exod. 10:2, 13:8).
That Bible shaped him. It wasn’t the only one he had, but it was the one he used the most. My grandfather wasn’t a “KJV-only” guy. He wasn’t prejudiced against other translations. At his baptism someone gave him a Bible, that Bible happened to be a KJV, and that’s the one that he used, studied, and quoted. He read it often. He wrote notes in the margins. He read a passage from it every morning and meditated on it throughout the day while he was in the field planting, plowing, and repairing fences.
Shortly after Pa’s death one of my relatives (who was reaping the fruit of some bad life choices) said that he wanted that Bible. When I asked him why, he said, “It’s done him a lot of good, and I figured it might do me a lot of good.” I reminded him that any benefits Pa got from this Bible came from reading it and living it, not from owning it. Pa was a doer of the Word, not just a hearer (James 1:22-25).
Do you see? Proximity to the Bible does not equate to knowing the Bible. Simply having a Bible doesn’t mean that you know the Bible, or that you live it.
Look around at many in the Church today and you’d think few people know this. Scripture is everywhere around us. It’s on our phones, on our calendars, available instantly online, and that pesky quote that you know is in the Bible but just can’t put your fingers on can be easily found by typing it into the Google search engine. (I know the Bible says “without vision the people perish,” and I think it’s in Proverbs, but I can never remember exactly where. But why commit it to memory when Google will tell me exactly where it is? Prov. 29:18).
We (and I mean the People of God here) have Bibles all around us, and we still struggle with our ignorance of the Scriptures.
I’ve been teaching in the Bible College setting for almost two decades now. I have students from all walks of life, but the bulk of my students come from churches and youth groups. They’re good, eager students who are concerned to know what their place is in the economy of God and how they can help Christ advance his Kingdom. But they don’t always notice that knowing Scripture is an integral part of all this. Why has this seldom occurred to them? Has no one taught them? Was it not modeled for them by either their parents or their church leaders?
As a result there’s sometimes no desire to know the Word. A 2016 Barna research poll shows that nearly 30% of practicing American Christians don’t read the bible any more than once a month.
There is a famine of knowing the Word in the modern church. Churches in my region have gravitated more and more to the exposition of better living supported by key Bible texts than a systematic exposition of Kingdom living. As I made clear in The Spirituality of Jesus (Kregel, 2009), the synagogue services of Jesus’ day privileged Scripture reading as the main part of their worship. They read the Bible and if you were lucky they would explain it. Today we tend to explain the Scriptures at length, and if you’re lucky, we’ll put the verses on the screen. Jesus’ faith community privileged knowing the text over understanding it. And by knowing it, Jesus came to understand it.
I can’t quite put my finger on where this all began. Other scholars—those who study American Christianity and its history—are better suited to recount the myriad factors. But all around me are cheeky slogans and turn-of-phrase spirituality. Our attempts to boil the faith down to what can be posted on Instagram have robbed us of a deeper knowledge. “Deep calls to deep” Scripture says (Ps. 42:7; did I just Google that?). We’re not touching the deeper heart of God when we reach from the shallows.
If you’re concerned that your life and faith are reflected in these comments, ask yourself the following questions:
- How often do you read the Bible in an average week? (Be honest.)
- When you read, how much do you read? One verse? Two?
- Do you keep reading the same books over and over? James or Romans? When was the last time you read Obadiah? Acts? Numbers? Mark?
- When was the last time you read an entire book of the OT instead of a select set of verses? Psalms? Lamentations? Job?
- Am I more committed to the theology and teaching of my denominational heroes than to the Scripture that formed their ideas?
If you find yourself in this place, answering these questions in ways that reveal patterns of Bible reading that need to be changed, then congratulations! They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. Commit today to a plan to read the Bible. Picking the “right” translation isn’t a concern here. Getting your nose in the Scriptures is the bigger issue.
This year I initiated something called The Graphē Project on the campus of Johnson University Florida. Graphē is the Greek word for “Scripture,” and The Graphē Project has a very simple but powerful goal: to read the entire Bible—cover to cover—out loud on the JUFL campus during this academic year. There’s an old Bible outside my office. Students come by, take pages out of it, and go somewhere on campus to read them. It’s re-energized our commitment to Scripture on campus. Every Chapel has a public reading of Scripture. Sports teams are reading scripture at the start of practice. R.A.’s are reading Scripture in the dorm rooms.
In service of the project, I run The Graphē Group, a group that meets every Wednesday morning to read Scripture. (Someone has to stand out in the soccer field and read Leviticus!). It’s non-conspicuous and inglorious. It’s just four people reading the Bible for an hour.
But as someone who’s committed to knowing Scripture, it’s
the highlight of my week.
Dr. Les Hardin
Professor of New Testament
Johnson University Florida
 The Barna Group, The Bible in America: The Changing Landscape of Bible Perceptions and Engagement (2016), 71.