Bible publishers churn out Bible products, which are marketed to people of every age and stage, from businessmen to Busy Moms. There’s the Bride’s Bible and the MANual. There’s the Firefighter’s Bible and there’s the Coastguardsman’s Bible — part of the Heroes Series, specially designed for each branch of the US military!
Each of these products depends on extra features, like quotes, tips, and visuals, all of which are supposed to make the Bible more accessible. Red-letter versions have been succeeded by green-letter versions.
We’re constantly fiddling with Bible design. The thing is, these Bibles don’t make for easy reading. All the added bits steer us away from reading the Bible, and leave us reading about the Bible.
It’d be great if we stopped adding stuff. But the problem goes deeper than your local Christian bookstore, because we’ve been adding stuff to the Bible for generations now.
Small chunks, big problems
The Live light in 25 words campaign is about kick-starting a Bible reading habit (what an excellent thing!). The idea is to read a verse each day. But is reading a verse the best place to start?
When you look at a Bible page — on a digital device, too — you’ll find a page covered with numbers. Those numbers weren’t originally there, but they can come in handy for locating and referencing things in the text.
But the numbered chunks — the verses — don’t often have much to do with the Bible text itself. Verses tend to be pretty random, and it’s especially pronounced in the New Testament — maybe because the verse divisions were added during a road trip. Take the book of Ephesians, originally made up of about 65 sentences (in Greek), but now pulverised into 155 verses.
As you might guess, this can cause problems for understanding the text, but at this point I’m more concerned about the way verses affect our reading experience.
Would you try to understand a newspaper one line at a time? Or a play? Or a poem? You wouldn’t even bother. It’s nonsense! Why would we ever expect verses to help us read the Bible?
Our Bibles, dotted with all those numbers, look more like textbooks than anything. The two columns. The cross-references. The headings. The chapter and verse numbers. A textbook page is designed for accessing information, with bullet-points, pull-out quotes, charts, and footnotes. In the same way, our Bibles are packed with additions that constantly force us to stop and study instead of to read.
Reading a verse a day might be a good place to start, but it’s a terrible place to stay.
Where to from here, then?
A Bible for reading
More than perhaps anything else, verses are what makes Bible reading a slog, a chore, an uphill battle. Bible reading really starts when we start ignoring the numbers.
Unfortunately, tradition can give us mixed messages. As evangelicals, placing a high value on the Bible, we talk a lot about ‘reading in context’. Bible verses, we’re quick to say, must never be taken on their own. And yet, something in our evangelical heritage has trained us to do exactly that.
The Quiet Time gene encourages us to treat the verse as the basic unit of comprehension, and that leads us to expect that the Bible is more meaningful in small pieces. We act as if the Bible is best taken a verse at a time — and it’s fine to stop after three or four.
But we can do better than that. And we must. The Bible isn’t a collection of principles, but a library of books. Instead of trying to live on vitamin pills, let’s have the 66-course banquet!
If we refuse to see the Bible as a reference book, the way is open for us to decrease our dependence on study Bibles and begin using a reader’s Bible. A reader’s Bible is a more organic, additive-free Bible. It’s simplified rather than ‘enhanced’. It’s designed to give a reader the most immediate and uninterrupted experience of the text.
If you find the Bible hard to understand without study notes, the first thing I’d say would be, Have you given it a red hot go? I reckon you’ll be surprised by how much you naturally discover — especially if you’re exploring it alongside others.
The Books of the Bible
A great example of a reader’s Bible is The Books of the Bible. Its pages look more like a those of a novel: there are no headings, no footnotes, no cross-references, and no chapter and verse numbers. The text is in single column, and the paragraph breaks reflect the literary flow of the text.
Biblica, the creators, are by no means the first to create a reader’s Bible (check out The Bible Design Blog). And this one won’t be the last, either — in fact, you can create your own reader’s Bible, as I’ve done over the last couple of years for use in small groups.
But The Books of the Bible is the first reader’s Bible that could change our expectations on a mass scale. Get yourself a copy, and get one for a friend. (If you’re in Australia, it’ll appear next month.) Start using it. Make it your everyday Bible. Consume it, absorb it, live it. These are words of life!
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.