Bonhoeffer writes concerning reading entire passages of Scripture, as opposed to a verse here and there, “When the practice is first tried, however, such a community will discover that even this modest measure represents a maximum demand for most people and will meet with resistance. It will be objected that it is impossible really to take in and retain such an abundance of ideas and interconnections…In the face of these objections, we will easily content ourselves again with reading only verses. In truth, however, a serious failing lies hidden beneath this attitude. If it is really true that it is hard for us, as adult Christians, to comprehend a chapter of the Old Testament in its context, then that can only fill us with profound shame.”
“…we must admit that the Holy Scriptures are still largely unknown to us. Can this sin of our own ignorance of God’s Word have any other consequence than that we should earnestly and faithfully recover lost ground and catch up on what we have missed?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 33.
Bonhoeffer writes these words in the context of WWII, he writes them as he sees the professing church crumbling under social, economic, religious, civic, and military pressure; he writes them in an attempt to counsel the church on its survival as the people of God. The church will not and cannot survive without the Word of God, but the Word of God is not piecemeal, it is not verse-by-verse; it is a whole, it is a panorama, it is a palace with interconnecting passages, and it cannot be experienced, it cannot be understood, apart from its wholeness.
If Bonhoeffer’s description of the church was true in his day, it is even truer in our time – when even those churches which profess adherence to the Bible have little time for the Bible in congregational worship, in Sunday school, in small groups, or in individual devotional life. Pretty much everything is piecemeal, we read piecemeal, we delude ourselves into thinking we can “study” piecemeal; we are impatient, we want to be entertained, we want to get on with life – and in doing so we get on without the life of the Word of God. Instead of being filled “with profound shame” we make excuse after excuse: “People have short attention spans. People won’t understand. People will stop coming.”
In the next post we’ll look at how Bonhoeffer addresses the complaint, “It takes too long to read passages of the Bible.” Right now let’s look at the three excuses in the preceding paragraph.
People have short attention spans: Yes they do and they are becoming even shorter, however, we can lengthen our attention spans by practice, by training, by the use of our eyes and ears and minds. The more often we read extended passages the more accustomed to them we will become. If we will “just do it” and quit complaining we will be amazed at the change in our ability to engage in sustained thought, reflection, and dialogue. Our minds have atrophied, we need to recover lost ground.
People won’t understand the Biblical text: While we’ll look at Bonhoeffer’s response to this excuse in the next post in the series, I will say that if we don’t read extended passages and read the Bible as a whole…people will never understand. If we don’t preach and teach through the entire Bible, if we don’t submit to the Biblical text, if we don’t take the long view that we are on pilgrimage and not on an amusement park ride – if we don’t do these things then people will never understand. If we keep reading the Bible piecemeal, if we keep preaching sermons that do not respect the text, if we keep preaching topical message upon topical message, if we keep using pithy little devotionals to the exclusion of reading the Bible…if we continue with this insanity then no one will understand…and our ability to understand will be ever more deeply undermined. If, on the other hand, we begin the long pilgrimage of reading and reading and then reading again the Bible, as it is written, book by book, passage by passage…then at least some will learn, some will understand, and by God’s grace those people will pass this way of life on to others.
People will stop coming: They might. They will. Who are we seeking to please? Who do we worship? Who are we kidding? We are called to make disciples, not to gather crowds and make them feel good. The Cross of Christ is our message, not a plush reclining chair. Can’t we see that we are building houses without foundations? Buildings without load-bearing walls? We are erecting Hollywood film sets, streets that are lined with buildings, but they are not buildings, they are but facades – they are not places in which people can live. The professing church is Biblically illiterate and we perpetuate the illiteracy, producing not food for adults, but food for babies – we churn out Bible studies and small group material and we teach and preach in ways to perpetuate dependence – rather than insist (yes, insist!) that professing Christians actually read the Bible, encounter the Bible, and that as congregations that we do more than give lip-service to the Bible, but that we read it, listen to it, and obey it as we are able by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit. We have brought termites into the house and we have not only let them loose, we are feeding them.
We can talk about worldviews all we want – we will never have a Biblical worldview without knowing the Bible – we will only have what someone else tells us. We have been distracted away from the Bible, from the one sure portal of wisdom and sanity in this world; from the one living document that points to Jesus Christ and through which Jesus Christ reveals Himself; from the one true message of God to humanity. We are so smart, so intelligent, and so very foolish.
How do we respond to Bonhoeffer words?
“…we must admit that the Holy Scriptures are still largely unknown to us. Can this sin of our own ignorance of God’s Word have any other consequence than that we should earnestly and faithfully recover lost ground and catch up on what we have missed?”