Some time ago I picked up a tri-fold brochure that describes “The Essential 100″–a “carefully selected list of short Bible passages–50 from the Old Testament and 50 from the New Testament–that helps you get the big picture of the Bible without getting bogged down.”
I suppose doing this type of reading is better than nothing.
And as I scan the list, I’m thinking that it’s a reasonable smattering of significant passages. It would appear that a participant in this “Essential 100 Challenge” would experience a relatively balanced doctrinal diet, emerging uncontaminated by sectarian slant.
Yet I am more interested in reading with greater attention to larger contextual slices. I have never read the Bible all the way through and feel something akin to pride in that fact. Quite frankly, I don’t know God well enough as revealed in Genesis and Exodus in order to spend time both in 2 Kings and in 2 Chronicles. I don’t know enough Psalms lament and worship material to move through the laborious pages of Jeremiah or to memorize random Proverbs. And I don’t know anything like enough about Jesus to worry with scholars’ interpretations of Jude or Song of Songs or Obadiah.
This is not to denigrate any canonical writings; neither is it to downplay the value of scholarship in texts I have chosen to gloss over, to date; rather, it is to express my belief that some scripture is more significant than the rest and I want to know more of what is most significant. It strikes me as I write this that I’m actually engaging in a different sort of “Essential 100″ pick-and-choose. (Touché! to those of you who caught this self-incriminating inconsistency before reading my admission.)
I am also persuaded, both etymologically and historically, that the biblia (plural in Latin) is Books, not Book, so it is much more important to handle each individual book well than to view the entire sacred collection as a literarily coherent entity. In other words, I don’t care what the middle verse or the middle book of the Bible is, and I don’t care about any mathematical relationship between 39 and 27 (the numbers of canonical OC and NC books). It’s helpful to have a sense of how much of the Bible is history, and how much is poetry or prophecy, but in the grand scheme, I think I need Mark’s gospel a lot more than I need to understand the apocalyptic Ezekiel. I don’t care a lot about color-codings and cross-references that clue an unsuspecting reader into a thematic relationship between an isolated verse in Isaiah and another in Ephesians. I do care very deeply what Exodus reveals about God, and about the entire witness of what the inspired Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians, and about what John’s complete portrait of our Jesus tells us about Him.
The individual books are self-contained and are best viewed as coherent within themselves, rather than as commentary on other Bible books. This is not to say that there’s no relationship; clearly, Revelation’s language draws on Daniel’s and Ezekiel’s, and Jesus quoted Psalms, and Paul treated the Torah, and the understanding of parts of Malachi informs understanding of the Incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ. There is a consistent, developing voice in scripture, when considered on the whole, and it all does harmonize, but that is a natural by-product of the God behind all the writings, not a course for us to major in.
As I consider Bible reading and Bible study on the whole, I am more interested in thorough, exegetical study than in “not getting bogged down.” Oh, I do recall thinking “when are we ever going to be done with this particular study?” But I am now more compelled by book-specific context than by randomly stringing together 8 verses in one book and 5 in another, and I resist the urge simply to read randomly and pray subjectively, passing over elegant textual structures the likes of which our western minds don’t often get to explore. There is so much in scripture that awaits earnest attention and investigation!
Our study group enjoyed more than 20 sessions in the gospel of Mark last year (that number was limited by my limited brain and by the limiting calendar), and this fall, we’ll probably have 3-4 more sessions in Philemon. These types of investigations into God’s inspired messages catapult me into deeper, greater understanding than has been possible for me previously.
Back to the Essential 100 … the Scripture Union brochure also suggested their “Bible reading method,” and I was not too impressed:
- Reflect. (Later changed to “Meditate.”)
- Pray again.
There was not much more than that in print, and I found it way too subjective. My sensibilities are offended by the implicit suggestion that praying twice and reflecting personally will result in a good hermeneutic or will enable appropriate “application” to life. Upon checking this organization’s website, however, I found a more fleshed-out version of the “method.” Steps 2 and 3, in particular, are well extrapolated. Check this out and see what you think.
Any Bible reading is likely to be better than not reading, but methodologies are important, too–so that God’s voice, not my preconception or prejudiced assumption, is clear.