Perhaps I’ve grabbed your attention with the weird title, but I should clarify that I’m not writing today to introduce you to some extreme sport that somehow combines rapid descending speeds with reading large books. The title is apt, but for reasons that will become clear over the course of this article. This is something of a follow-up to a piece I wrote last month called Tolle Lege!—or, “Pick Up and Read.”
I remember my first (failed) attempt to read the scriptures all the way through. I was fourteen, and eager to somehow prove to myself and others that I really was committed to knowing and understanding the Word of God. Perhaps that was not the greatest motivation, and like so many attempts to read the Bible it foundered before I even finished the Pentateuch, or the first five books. I actually soldiered on through Leviticus but finally could not make it through the seemingly endless worship regulations and, well, numbers in the book of Numbers. (It’s not just a clever name.) Maybe you have a similar story. Had I made it a little further I would have discovered that the narrative becomes considerably more interesting in the later chapters of Numbers, but it would be a few years later before that happened. I finally made it through the entire Bible at some point in college, and have held to a yearly reading plan since my mid-twenties. For a number of years I have also kept recordings of the Bible being read in my car, and listening to that—sometimes frequently, sometimes less so—has been a great supplement to the reading plan, but not a replacement for it.
For the past couple of years I have managed not only to read the Bible through but to get somewhat ahead of schedule in my reading calendar, finishing well before the end of the year. This year I am even further ahead—I am writing this on April 5, yet I am somewhere in mid-June in the daily readings. It seems to be getting easier and easier for me to get ahead. Why is that, and is there a message that can be helpful to others in it?
Part of the answer no doubt lies in the present state of quarantine and social distancing relative to the COVID-19 pandemic. While I am keeping to most of my normal teaching schedule (albeit through correspondence and videoconferencing), I have no performing to do, I cannot go to the gym, and I am rarely out of the house generally. There is additional time to read. But I was ahead of schedule even before the stay-at-home orders came. Another partial answer might be that in the past 2-3 years I have taken to doing my regular Bible reading on an e-reader. That might sound sacrilegious to some, and I will admit that it lacks the gravitas of a leather-bound Bible, but I often have the e-reader with me so I can take in a few chapters away from home, or even at night with the lights out thanks to the backlight.
Those two contributing factors aside, though, I think the biggest contributor to the greater ease and speed with which I am reading the Bible is this: I am familiar with it. In that post a few weeks back I mentioned doubts about the Bible’s veracity or self-consistency as well of fear of conviction of sin as possible reasons why people—even professing Christians—do not read it. But perhaps the reason for some is that they find it simply daunting. The narrative structure is a little strange. It moves through multiple (human) authors and genres with an overall forward-moving chronology but numerous small moves forward and backward in time, especially when multiple authors visit the same events. The names and lives of the people and places can seem utterly unfamiliar. And it’s a big book, especially for a society in which fewer and fewer people read books at all.
So what is my answer to this? An exhortation and an assurance. The exhortation? Tolle lege. Pick up and read. The blessing is worth it. The assurance? Not only is it a blessing, but it also gets easier with each year, each successive reading. It really is “all downhill from here.” With repeated readings the narrative structure becomes more familiar, even second nature. The names of people and places might still be scary if you are asked to read them aloud, but they at least will not surprise you in print anymore. (Protip: listen to a recording of the Bible being read and copy the pronunciations. There is some variety between readers, but not much.) With each reading the lives, feelings, trials, temptations, successes, and failures of the people you meet in the pages of Scripture seem less foreign. Take away the façade of modern technology and the surface-level peculiarities of our time and place, and the people described in the Bible really are just like us, for good and for ill. Most importantly, and with the Spirit’s help, as growing familiarity allows you to use less mental effort just to keep up you are able to focus more on how a given passage applies to you, whether for warning or encouragement, conviction or assurance.
The old adage asks the question “How do you eat an elephant?” with the predictable answer “One bite at a time.” Reading through the Bible might seem to you like it might as well be eating an elephant. It did to me. But every year that elephant seems to get smaller. That does not mean that the scriptures become somehow less convicting—familiarity, happily, does not breed contempt. It just means that as the broad contours of the thing become more and more imprinted on my mind, as characters and places and events become less strange and their appearances even expected, I don’t have to work very hard to keep up with the gist of what is happening. This accelerates the reading process while simultaneously making it a more spiritually profitable exercise. I’m sure your experience will be similar.
Start reading. It is all downhill from here!
One additional note: I am here speaking of regular daily/yearly Bible reading as an exercise which builds a basic familiarity with the contents of Scripture and the truths contained in it. I do think that can become faster and easier over time. I am not suggesting that there is no place for deeper study and meditation on particular passages, processes that necessarily move slowly. Those are also valuable, but to my mind separate exercises from the practice of regularly reading through the scriptures in their entirety.