Becoming Familiar with the Bible: Ten Tips in the Key of ‘Be’

Becoming Familiar with the Bible: Ten Tips in the Key of ‘Be’

An earlier, abbreviated version of this piece first appeared in the Southern Nebraska Register, January 22, 2021.

1.  Be clear about what the Bible is. How we go about familiarizing ourselves with anything depends a great deal on the nature of the thing with which we are seeking to become acquainted. If we view the Bible as a big and intimidating old book made up of a bunch of smaller old books filled with a lot of interesting stories, unpronounceable names, confusing information, and a little time-tested advice, it will affect how we approach it. The same is true if we regard the Bible as a history book, a science book, a book full of rules, or a self-help book, and so on. Whatever else we might say about the Bible, it is above all the written revelation of God—inspired words through which God wants to talk to us. In these sacred writings, the living and true God has spoken and speaks. Becoming familiar with the Bible means learning what God’s voice “sounds like” and listening for that voice, not our own or some other voice.

2.  Be prayerful as you approach the Bible. If we expect to hear God speak in these holy pages, then we must approach the Bible with a disposition of receptivity, in the same spirit with which the Scriptures are given. Scripture reading and prayer form a two-way conversation; or as St. Jerome expressed it: “Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you.” Becoming familiar with the Bible requires our remembering that the Bridegroom who speaks through these words speaks most clearly to a Bride whose heart is open and receptive and attuned to his voice through prayer.

3. Be a loving and respectful listener. Developing and deepening one’s understanding of one’s spouse, children, neighbors, or friends entails a willingness to let the other speak from the heart. Nothing hinders genuine familiarity more than insisting on starting, controlling, and ending every conversation oneself. Becoming familiar with the Bible requires our letting God say what’s on his mind, without interrupting––humbly and respectfully listening as an expression of our love for the Other.

4.  Be focused on Christ as revealed in every passage. The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, exists to bring us into a living, loving, and transforming encounter and communion with our Lord. The Bible tells us this in a great many places, but none more compelling than the famous story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus with two of his disciples (Luke 24:13-49). There, in the greatest Bible study ever conducted, Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 17), and insisted that “everything written about [him] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44). Becoming familiar with the Bible involves our asking, “How does this passage shed light on and tell the story of Jesus?” (Note: We do not first learn about Jesus in the Gospels!)

5.  Be receptive to God’s way of telling his own story. This includes respecting the fact that God’s story does not follow a linear chronology the way readers in the modern West might prefer. God is more interested in developing a theme than in writing a timeline of history. For this reason, even individual books are not always written chronologically; sometimes events that are told in later chapters actually happened before events that are recounted in earlier chapters. The same is true of the way Jews and Christians have arranged the seventy-three books. All of this is intentional and meaningful, not accidental or haphazard or flawed or in need of revision. Becoming familiar with the Bible implies our welcoming its genius as written and received by the communities responsible for its preservation and our reading it on its own terms and pondering its inner-cohesion and thematic unfolding––all of which tells the story of Christ in the way God wants it told.

6.  Be alert to the Bible’s vast and beautiful diversity. God loves variety; he does not always talk in the same register or with the same tone of voice, nor does he write in only one style of writing. If we struggle with boredom in reading or hearing the Bible, that’s our problem, not God’s. God is not boring—ever! He loves to tell stories, delights in poetry, enjoys humor (there’s a lot of that in the Bible), speaks to the heart (sometimes sharply, when we need it), and communicates in many other ways (breathtaking psalms, pithy proverbs, prophetic oracles, highfalutin visions, personal letters, convicting parables, and more). As every child and every parent and teacher knows, the key to learning how to read well is, well, to keep on reading. So it is with learning how to appreciate the various parts of Scripture, each of which follows its own conventions. Becoming familiar with the Bible requires our being open to the joys and challenges of hearing what God says in all the ways God chooses to reveal himself.

7.  Be open to helpful and reliable resources. “I can do it myself” is cute when a three-year-old is learning to put on her coat or tie his shoes, but it’s not the goal in learning to read and understand the Bible. Thankfully, we are blessed with many wonderful tools and resources (books, online materials, websites, podcasts, radio programs, Emmaus Institute courses!) designed to help us become better acquainted with the Bible. Related, the Bible was not given to individuals, as a kind of private resource on how to be an informed Christian; it was given to the Church and is best learned and lived in that context, in fellowship with others. Becoming familiar with the Bible is a communal exercise in which the faithful engage as givers and receivers.

8.  Be attentive to the Church’s lections. In other words, remain on high alert––all ears and eyes––during the Mass readings. The Church’s liturgical calendar aims to order all of life according to the major “Acts” in the biblical Theo-drama (God-drama) that begins in Creation and ends in New Creation. Every Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel reading and every Responsorial Psalm exists to draw God’s people into that drama and to sync our lives with God’s plans and purposes. (No, the role of the readings is not simply to prompt a talking point for the homily to follow, before we get to the Eucharist!) One way to grow in our knowledge of the Bible is to be at attention during these wisely selected lections and to ponder the “canonical harmony” in their voices as they give expression to God’s Voice. Becoming familiar with the Bible happens as we thoughtfully participate in those readings as loving and respectful listeners (key #3 above).

9.  Be realistic in setting goals. It is illusory to imagine that one can master the Bible in a year, or even in a lifetime; in fact, Bible mastery is itself a misguided ambition. The goal is not to master the Bible, but to be mastered by it, in a living encounter with the triune God who speaks there; and the deeper one’s knowledge of this God and his Word, the vaster the object of that knowledge becomes. This is why Bible study done properly is by its very nature a humbling exercise. (In terms of specifics, while it is possible for an average reader to read through the entire Bible in a year, and many Christians do so, I generally encourage people to settle into a single book of Scripture, say, Genesis or one of the Gospels, for an extended time, perhaps a month or two—reading, praying, rereading, meditating, even memorizing selected passages. Then move on to another book and repeat the process. Related, over time many people find themselves falling in love with certain books or portions of Scripture. I have a personal fondness for a handful of books in each Testament, and I tend to spend more time in those than in others. There is nothing wrong with this, especially since the lectionary cycles of the Church ensure that we hear more than just our favorite parts. It is good and necessary, of course, to listen to all that God has to say; but I have discovered that sometimes God opens his heart and speaks more intimately to mine as I snuggle into one of my favorite books and live there awhile.) Becoming familiar with the Bible calls us to realism and the grace of freedom in making progress.

10.  Be persevering and consistent. This is true of any undertaking worth pursuing; and the more valuable the enterprise, the truer the maxim: It’s always too soon to quit. Applying this conviction to the task at hand, it’s always too early to give up becoming familiar with the Divine Voice that speaks from the pages of Sacred Scripture. Start where you are, keep going, and never stop learning and listening. Even small steps are better than none at all. Progress in any undertaking encourages further progress. One way to go about this is to make Bible reading a daily habit, as daily as eating or sleeping. If you need a place to start, you might begin with the daily Mass readings, giving special attention to how all the passages focus on a common theme that sheds light on God’s person, plan, and purposes for his people, especially as revealed and fulfilled in Christ. And since the Scripture selections are typically quite short, it’s worth expending a little extra effort by looking them up in your own Bible and reading the fuller context (say, the entire chapter or the entire psalm from which the lection comes). Becoming familiar with the Bible requires getting started and then sticking with it—as daily as possible.