A while back, a student of mine came to me with some news. “I’m reading Shakespeare now,” she told me.
I was floored. And thrilled. From what I remembered of her, she hadn’t been predisposed to read the essays I assigned for class, much less the Bard. “What play?” I asked.
Her smile faltered “Well it’s not a play, exactly,” she hedged, and then hurried on to reassure me. “It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet by a modern author, but I mean, it’s pretty much the same thing.”
But it isn’t the same thing. The retelling of a Shakespeare play by another author isn’t the same thing as the play written by the author itself Similarly, devotionals and commentaries and Christian books, while valuable to learning and spiritual growth, aren’t the Bible itself. And I am convinced that one of the biggest struggles modern Christians will face is being unable, or unwilling, to make that distinction.
More and more, in congregations and among individual believers, I’ve found Christians leaning on discussions of God’s Word than the Bible itself. Believers develop theology and doctrine from devotionals and Christian books and even Internet articles. That’s not to say these books or posts or devotionals are wrong or bad in and of themselves; it’s vital to have Biblical study aids, and I’m benefited to a profound degree from the fresh thoughts and intriguing interpretations of the authors I love the most. But if those things become a substitute for the Bible, and if we substitute our reading of them for a reading of God’s Word, we run the risk of losing touch with one of the most fundamental elements of our spiritual heritage: an intimate understanding of the Word and of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.
That’s why in this series of posts, I’m going to explore the phenomenon of what I call “Bible-Lite”: why it happens, why it’s harmful, and how we can shake the habit.
Of course, why Bible-Lite happens is pretty simple to understand, and to some degree justifiable: the Bible can be a difficult book to read. Some struggle with the dense language in certain translations, while others start off with a particular book that seems either dull or inapplicable (hello, friends who opened the Bible to Leviticus). Others don’t have the tools to turn the words on the page into practical nourishment for life. Still others hate reading in general or find it a chore, and long-time believers might bear the scars of long, boring expository studies that seemed to suck the life out of every book in the Bible.
Almost every believer struggles with this to one degree or another. I avoided a great deal of the Old Testament for years, lured by the more accessible truths in the New. I know believers who won’t go near Revelation. And I once taught a small group who, over time, resisted Bible study in favor of face-to-face conversations, media, and small bite-size studies they said they could better “digest” at times when they were busy with work and school.
Rather than dig through the Bible – or lacking the tools, even in their own churches, to study it properly – many believers turn to the abundance of Christian books and materials on the market today. Again, in the main, these are good things. I am a devotee of Philip Yancey and C.S. Lewis and many other writers. But if they compose the entirety of our familiarity with God’s word, then we’re not hearing God’s word. We’re hearing C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey. Laudable, inspired men? Yes. But we must not mistake their words as anything more than theirs. By satisfying ourselves with studying the Bible at a remove, we lose something vital. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher:
The Bible is the most betrashed book in the world. Coming to it through commentaries is much like looking at a landscape through garret windows, over which generations of unmolested spiders have spun their webs.
If we’re forever studying the Bible through the remove of other media, then we will never get an entirely clear picture of what God wants us to see in it. In fact, if we’re going to read commentaries, and Christian books, and Christian material, it becomes even more vital that we have a strong relationship with the Bible itself that will inform our understanding and help us to grow. Salt exists to flavor food; we’d never dream of eating it alone. Similarly, commentaries and devotionals and Christian books exist to discuss and complement our study of Scripture. We are not meant to subsist on them alone. And a doctrine and theology formed of such flimsy material is a dangerous thing, indeed.
How dangerous? Well, in the second section of this discussion, I’ll talk about some of the consequences of Bible-lite both within our churches and outside in the world. And in the third section, we’ll discuss practical, useful, and painless ways that struggling folks can train themselves into Bible study and lessen their dependence on supplementary materials.