The back cover of Glenn Paauw’s Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well asks in all caps, “DOES THE BIBLE NEED TO BE SAVED?” As reflected in the rather audacious title, the author’s answer to this question is yes.
Over the centuries, and especially in recent years, the church has cluttered Scripture with chapters, verses, cross-references, footnotes, study helps, and all manner of non-inspired materials. This effort to aid Bible reading has, Paauw argues, had the negative effect of impoverishing Christians by discouraging immersive reading in large chunks of Scripture at a time (especially whole books of the Bible). Even more, Paauw believes recent generations of Christians have lost sight of how to read the Bible.
Paauw is executive director of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading. The burden of his book is to encourage Christians to engage with the Bible as we were meant to—reading it communally (not in isolation) as a historically rooted (not de-historicized) story (not series of platitudes) that calls us to participate in its drama (rather than function as passive spectators). Leaning heavily on N. T. Wright, Paauw swivels back and forth between a chapter identifying a mistake in our typical approaches to reading Scripture and a chapter offering an alternative.
The strategy works well and the cumulative effect is a good reminder of what the Bible is and how Christians unwittingly neglect it. We read it piecemeal, chewing on brief nuggets of inspiration but failing to integrate these micro-readings into a macro-reading of the entire sweep of Scripture. Such an impoverished diet cannot sustain true depth of Christian discipleship.
Paauw wishes to reorient Christians to the Bible as it was originally written—namely, as a collection of books to be read (or heard) at one time, locating their readers (or hearers) in a great redemptive drama culminating in Jesus Christ but continuing down into our own day and beyond. Paauw helps us map ourselves onto human history as God’s Word gives it to us, recovering the wonder of the Bible and its grand narrative of earthy redemption. This approach usefully reinforces the past two generations’ recovery of the discipline of biblical theology and a resistance to facile, artificial applications of individual texts to one’s own life.
Along the way, Paauw rightly addresses not only the content of the Bible but also its formatting by Bible publishers. With all the clutter and additions over the centuries, the most important book in the world is in many instances the hardest one to actually read. Paauw’s push toward simplicity and elegance of presentation is a word in season to the Bible publishing world, a world presently afflicted with the crass proliferation of niche Bibles (17–18).
For all this we can be grateful. At the same time, Paauw’s reminder could have landed with greater force had he acknowledged and even celebrated the merits of reading smaller portions of Scripture. The Lord of the Rings is so masterful and engrossing not only because of the great story and plotline, but also because of the individual sentences and particular expressions that make up the big story. Paauw is right to commend reading large portions of the Bible—and doing so mindful that it’s a story about our history. But who isn’t helped by having a few key verses to ponder on a given day, to pore over slowly with the mind? Many of us have found certain specific texts to be of vital support in a particular crisis moment. And who can deny the profound virtues and blessings of noticing and relishing the very words and sentences of Scripture, one after another, in unhurried meditation?
One, therefore, feels something is being left behind when Paauw writes:
The Scriptures change us because the story they tell is infused with the power of Jesus and the Spirit, who bring renewal. This is what we should mean when we say that the Word of God has power. It’s not that each little scrap is a kind of magic rune or potent piece of juju. The power is in the drama as it witnesses to Christ and invites us to enter into his journey of new life. (107)
The power of Scripture comes in part, to be sure, from the story it tells; but equally and inescapably the power of Scripture comes from the very words and sentences that make up that story. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. How do we actually, on a given day, experience this power of Jesus and the Spirit in the Scripture? By reading one sentence at a time—word by word, phrase by phrase. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17). One example of the value in micro-reading is the Puritans’ penchant for taking a single verse and writing a whole book on it.
Perhaps a final concern lies closer to the book’s title, Saving the Bible from Ourselves. Is the Bible “save-able” through the means Paauw sets forth? His encouragements to format and read the Bible as a story, in community, reflecting history, and so on are seasonable reminders. But we should remember his suggestions are kindling, not fire. The renewal and reviving of the church’s reading of the Bible will come not as we do something to the Bible but as God does something through the Bible. We can hoist the strong sail of beautiful Bibles and a more story-oriented reading approach, but God must give the wind of true transformation. Only then is the Bible saved from ourselves.
Current State of Bible Publishing
Happily, much of what Paauw sees missing in the world of Bible reading and publishing is already being addressed. Paauw himself oversaw the creation of Zondervan’s The Books of the Bible, which strips out verse and chapter numbers and arranges the Bible books according to historical progression. Likewise, Crossway is publishing several clutter-free reader’s editions of the Bible, including a one-volume Reader’s Bible, Reader’s Gospels, and a six-volume set of the Bible—all of which seek to present the Scripture in a way that reflects the inherent value and dignity of the contents.
But as helpful as these editions are in getting swept up in the storyline of Scripture, we’ll also always want a “cluttered” Bible on our shelf—retaining the verses and chapters and cross-references and various notes—to help us savor the Bible word by word. More fundamentally, we’ll always need to ponder not only the big story of Scripture but also the very words of God, for “every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5).
Glenn R. Paauw. Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016. 230 pp. $18.00.