A close friend told me recently that he can no longer read the Bible. He isn’t as angry as Frank Schaeffer, whose Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God kicked up a fuss a couple of years ago, but like Schaeffer he’s the son of a Calvinist preacher and has spent a long time searching for an alternative path. Both of these men, along with countless other people, can no longer tolerate what seems to them the naiveté, sterility, and oppressiveness of certain approaches to the Bible. At some point they find they just can’t read it anymore.
For each disaffected former reader of the Bible, there are many more who are simply indifferent or negligent. In The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America, Kenneth A. Briggs portrays the Bible as a book that practically everybody owns but hardly anyone reads. The reasons are unsurprising. Modern critical scholarship has eroded confidence in an inspired, infallible Word of God. Ancient cultures and customs prove daunting for today’s reader. Perhaps most significantly, fewer Americans are reading much of anything they can’t skim on a screen. Briggs surveys the diminishing role of the Bible in churches, and concludes that “Bibleless Christianity has become thinkable” (42).
If the Bible really is an “invisible bestseller,” in Briggs’s
phrase, it’s invisible because it’s forgotten through disuse, the way a
household object disappears when it drops out of our routine. It’s virtually
lost, whether we’re looking for it or not. The Bible is like the little
espresso maker my wife and I had, which might or might not reside in the
cupboard beneath our kitchen counter. The high-maintenance machine made
excellent espresso and cappuccino, and for a while we used it frequently. But
the novelty wore off, and the thing got to seem like a lot of trouble. The
whole idea of an espresso maker began to seem vaguely dated, a fad we’d left
behind. Gradually it went from seldom used to never used, then from rarely
thought about to forgotten. It became lost to us, much as if it had ceased to
And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” 2 Kings 22:8 (ESV)
I like to imagine Hilkiah and his assistants rummaging around in the temple—they were consolidating funds for repairs, following a period of neglect—and discovering the Book of the Law under a pile of old documents. I picture Hilkiah gazing in wonder at the dusty scroll, a rumored, nearly forgotten relic. He has stumbled upon the guiding light of his forefathers. How could it have vanished for so many years?
We’ve been re-discovering the Bible ever since, periodically re-introducing it in some novel guise, or as a cure for lassitude and drift—Good News for Modern Man, Bible museums, ministries like Back to the Bible. Often these endeavors involve some form of public reading, or corporate reform, or a return to sound doctrine, much as when, following Hilkiah’s discovery, the king reads the law before the people, or as when Ezra reads to the assembly in Nehemiah 8. Online reviews about Briggs’s book focused predictably on Americans’ declining knowledge of the Bible. We’ve misplaced the Book, these stories warned, and our ignorance of its contents proves it.
Such recoveries emphasize the role of scripture as “the sole rule and norm of all doctrine,” as the Formula of Concord puts it. We must re-learn what the Bible teaches and commands, securing our mastery of what it says. To this end, we can listen to the Bible in church services or over broadcasts. We can hear biblical teaching proclaimed by institutions of various kinds. As a matter of fact, when it comes to acquiring “knowledge of the Bible,” we don’t need to read it at all.
Of course instruction in the Bible by faithful teachers and preachers is an essential corrective to “Bibleless Christianity.” Explaining biblical knowledge will always be a vital Christian practice. But knowing what’s in the Bible just isn’t the same as picking up that dusty volume from the bedside shelf and reading it, word by word and phrase by phrase.
The modern habit of silent reading, as opposed to the corporate hearing practiced in ancient times and today, deepens our experience of the Bible. It slows it down, planting words in our minds where they reverberate over a lifetime. By silent private reading I don’t necessarily mean personal devotions—which, often guided by a well-meaning pamphlet, or by our own familiarizing, categorizing tendencies, can become as automatic as an unimaginative Sunday School curriculum. Private reading, practiced at home rather than in the pew, engages our authentic weekday selves. Intimate, concrete, and uncensored, it adds spontaneity to our patiently imbibed doctrine. Alone, we read as poets and artists read. With those bold, unlicensed scavengers we ask, “What moves me here? What can I use?”
Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest
has given me a book.” 2 Kings 22:10 (ESV)
My first crisis over reading the Bible came during the early 1980s, when I was in grad school. Without actually confronting in any systematic way the thorny challenges to scripture, I sensed that my childhood faith, based on an unquestioning trust in the Bible, put me at odds with my new intellectual milieu. I knew I was different from my secular peers, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with that difference. (Perhaps “miserable” would be a better word.) So I did what any good graduate student does. I read a book.
I found Bernard Ramm’s After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology in the “New Arrivals” section of the library. The title alone enthralled me. Ramm’s book is a brief, readable, and candid introduction to Karl Barth. (“Fourth, Barth can be boring” (32).) Ramm contends that Barth rescues orthodoxy from irrelevance by facing up to the Enlightenment and reckoning with its scientific criticism. Barth thus attempts to preserve evangelical theology without resorting to obscurantism, “the denial of the validity of modern learning” (19). Obscurantism, Ramm argues, “is a losing strategy in the modern world” (27), making some such undertaking as Barth’s essential.
I didn’t embrace this approach so much as throw myself upon it like a drowning man. “Losing strategy” described my growing sense of my graduate school experience. Every day, in my courses and reading, I absorbed a witheringly secular view of the world while clinging to a different view derided by the first. Not only that, I was dating a liberal Catholic woman—destined to develop a marked taste for espresso—who asked a lot of awkward questions, to the dismay of my rock-ribbed church friends. I figured Barth could help me survive the academy with my faith intact, while at the same time he would annoy certain evangelicals who were getting on my nerves.
It was a partial, messy solution, but it got me through a rough time. Exactly how Barth reconciled orthodoxy and the Enlightenment was never quite clear to me. I tried to read his radical, early Epistle to the Romans, but mostly I leaned on Ramm. Some time later I came across Barth’s “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” an address from 1920 in his book The Word of God and The Word of Man. In that address Barth offers a homely analogy:
We all know the curiosity that comes over us when from a window we see the people in the street suddenly stop and look up—shade their eyes with their hands and look straight up into the sky toward something which is hidden from us by the roof. Our curiosity is superfluous, for what they see is doubtless an aeroplane. But as to the sudden stopping, looking up, and tense attention characteristic of the people of the Bible, our wonder will not be so lightly dismissed. (62)
In the thirty years or so since I first read that passage, its simple, mysterious force has sustained my reading of the Bible. I still don’t have answers to questions about authorship, dates, and manuscripts, but I sense with Barth that the writers I’ve been reading and hearing my whole life are bearing witness to a transcendent reality. The comforting words of the Psalms, the stirring exhortations in Hebrews, the spare, stern accounts in the Gospels—as Barth says of Paul’s epistles, “I seem to see within so transparent a piece of literature a personality who is actually thrown out of his course and out of every ordinary course by seeing and hearing what I for my part do not see and hear” (63).
Today a different crisis looms, one much broader than my personal uneasiness about the Bible. Where Barth points to the timeless vision of the biblical writers, this new crisis demands a response within our times. Writing in 1983, Ramm remarks, “We are at the threshold of a great revolution created by the combination of the computer and electronics” (40). For better or worse, we are living in the midst of that revolution. One of its effects has been to transform the way we think and read, including the way we think about and read the Bible.
Numerous books and articles have examined and lamented the re-making of consciousness by digital devices. One piece that has received a great deal of attention is Andrew Sullivan’s long New York magazine essay from September 2016, “I Used To Be a Human Being.” Drawing on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Sullivan writes that the current decline in religious faith stems less from science than from the sheer drowning out of spiritual impulses by high-tech distraction and buzz. We can’t hear our own thoughts, let alone the voice of God. As Briggs’s findings about the “invisible bestseller” make clear, Bible-reading is one more casualty of this assault on contemplation and the inner life. In the information deluge that Ramm and many others foresaw and that has now arrived, the Bible might be vanishing with barely a ripple.
Just when developments in technology have reached this critical stage, a stunning presidential election has convinced further millions that we live in extraordinary times. For many in the voting majority that opposed Donald Trump, his rise prompts some basic, urgent questions: “What can I do? What should I do?” In the Old Testament, a similar sense of a decisive moment prompts Mordecai to ask the reluctant Esther, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14 ESV) Mordecai’s words—such a time as this—echo today in newspapers, internet articles, and countless anxious conversations. The nation seems to have reached an unprecedented turning point.
It might be a good time to re-discover the Book. As phones and tablets claim more of our attention—as power and wealth are exalted, as Creation and the poor are threatened —the Bible cuts against the grain, subversive and radically countercultural. The times say stay connected, get followers, get likes. The Bible says “Be still, and know that I am God.” The times say look what’s trending. The Bible says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The times give us boastful billionaires. The Bible gives us voices that “proclaim good news to the poor.” If the Bible once seemed a boring, oppressive instrument of the status quo, it’s hard to see it that way now. The Bible rebukes hollow technology and exploitive policies, as well as the wistful adherents of “Bibleless Christianity.” The Bible, at such a time as this, makes fresh, relevant reading, at once explosive and reassuring. It’s only waiting for us to find it.
David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His writing has appeared frequently in The Southern Review and Sewanee Review.
Barth, Karl. The Word of God and The Word of Man. Trans. Douglas Horton. New York: Harper, 1957.
Briggs, Kenneth A. The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.
Ramm, Bernard. After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology. San Francisco: Harper, 1983.
Sullivan, Andrew. “I Used to be a Human Being.” New York. Online: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html. Accessed Jan. 29, 2017.