This article originally appeared at the homepage of The New England School of Theology.
What if you and I discovered that God himself—yes, the God who made the universe—was scheduled to speak at a certain college lecture hall or sports arena? I contend that we would spare no expense, time, or energy to get to that event and hear exactly what he had to say. We would be desperate to hear that word from God. And yet, that is what we claim about the Bible. Orthodox Christians around the world affirm and believe that the Bible is the very word of God. Yet do you and I seek to hear it just as desperately? If we are being honest, the answer for most of us would probably be “no.”
Why this strange neglect of the Bible?
One reason, I submit, is the superabundance of printed (and now digital) Bibles available here in the West. This abundance has lulled us to sleep. The film The Book of Eli (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2010) sheds important light on this issue, as good art often can. It portrays a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future in which the human race suddenly finds itself without the things it formerly took for granted. The character of Eli, played by Denzel Washington, puts it this way in a conversation with Solara, played by Mila Kunis:
Solara: “What was it like in the world before?”
Eli: “People had more than they needed. We had no idea of what was precious, what wasn’t.”
With access to so many Bibles today, our sense of its importance—and especially of the urgency of our truly knowing its content—has dwindled. Turning back to the film (and here I will give away a few key plot elements), Eli carries under his protection in this dystopian world the last surviving copy of the Bible. Yet when that copy is forceably lost to him, Eli is still able to pass it on to posterity. How is that possible? Because he has taken those precious words from the printed page and made them part of his heart and mind.
Martin Luther’s love for the Bible.
The great evangelical reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) had never even seen a Bible before the age of 20—and this despite being a highly educated university student. Yet when he entered the Augustinian monastery in 1505 he received a copy of the complete Bible as well as a separate edition of the Book of Psalms. Being in the midst of acute religious anxiety, Luther was desperate to hear from God and so devoted himself to these texts. He committed the Psalter entirely to memory, Martin Brecht observed. As for the Bible, Brecht writes:
Luther became so well acquainted with [his copy of the Bible] that he knew what was on every page and where every passage was found. Because of the image he had of it in his mind, Luther later regretted that this first Bible had been taken away from him. This is also why he did not give up his small Psalter, even when he had worn it to shreds. In this fashion he developed an extraordinary and phenomenal knowledge of the Bible. It is self-evident that what we are talking about was not a superficial reading. Luther meditated upon what he read, and so was able to retain the gist of every chapter. . . . In looking at the conclusion of his theological studies, Luther can say “I loved the Bible.”
Chapter theft. Let me pause here for just a moment to make a confession in the form of a thought experiment. Here I am, essentially a professional student of the Bible. What if someone were to surreptitiously remove select chapters from every Bible in the world, would I even realize it? To my shame, I am not at all sure. A select chapter here from Jeremiah, a portion there from Ezekiel, perhaps a section of Leviticus and a paragraph from Acts—and these are books I claim to know and love, books that I claim to be the very word of God!
How short of the example of Luther I would fall—and friends, I am not alone. And maybe, just maybe, this is due in part to the fact that I know multiple copies of the Scriptures sit on my shelves and digital access is just a few clicks away. The words of Denzel Washington’s character echo in my mind: “People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious, what wasn’t.” And I’m sadly reminded that there are places in the world where the Bible is scarce or even illegal.
But there is hope for you and me.
We can start now to turn things around by reading, hearing, and applying ourselves to the study of the Scriptures. That is, by taking it from the page and into our hearts and minds. Again Luther serves as a good example. Even after his evangelical rediscovery of the gospel in the Scriptures, Luther continued to devote himself to its pages. Brecht writes:
In 1533 he could say of himself that for years he had read through the Bible twice a year, and that he had scrutinized every tiny branch on this tree. In this love and passion for the Bible Luther was an exception.
Let’s be an exception in our generation. In an earlier article, How Do You Read a Book?, I described the wisdom of “knowing a few great books well.” Without question, the greatest of these is the Bible itself.