Why Don’t Christians Read the Bible?
In America, our dominant religion is Christianity. But Christianity is not just a religion, it is a political movement. Christians have a set of beliefs about the world, what is right and wrong and how the world is supposed to operate. These beliefs are not just applied to how Christians are supposed to live, they are applied to entire world and all of the people in the world. Why is this so? Because Christianity has a sacred book that tells them that God has a plan for how the world operates, the Bible.
This book includes instructions about which forms of medicine can be practiced; what rights do people have; the rules of marriage, sex and reproduction; which laws apply to which situations; when wars can be fought… just about everything that touches and defines our lives. It’s very presumptuous for anyone to say that you can tell everyone else how to live their lives. But, the Christians tell us, we have one thing that you don’t. The Bible. The word of God, that provides a divine plan on how we should live our lives. Is the Bible truly the Divine word of God? It might not matter, because less than 1 in 5 American's regularly read the Bible!
Many Christian denominations led to many different Bibles!
Wycliffe: The early English language Bible
What does it mean?
We should start off by defining a few terms. First, Christian are the largest religious group in the world, but they are not a single, coherent group that follow the same rules or even the same… Bible. Some of these groups have only the slightest differences in beliefs, while others disagree about a wide number of issues. In the past, Christians spent as much time fighting with each other… in the pulpit, on the battlefield, and in heresy trials… fighting about these differences and they did in wars against people of different religions.
All of this conflict culminated in different denominations that evolved their own bibles, often with differing interpretations that spawn still more denominations. That’s why there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations around the world, along with hundreds of different bibles in English alone. Lastly, we need to remember that the Bible isn’t just one book. It is a collection of “books”, between 66 and 76 books, depending on your denomination.
Many Christians are shocked to learn that the Bible isn't a single book, handed down directly from God, but is a collection of documents curated and edited by different people and committees over a period of thousands of years. Christians are further shocked to learn that most of these “documents” spent hundreds if not thousands of years as oral traditions. These stories would not be written down until they had been passed back and forth between priests and scribes for many generations.
Not surprisingly, the Bible we have today is filled with all sorts of mistakes and duplication's (the same stories told twice, with different wording or information). Over a period of thousands of years, “traditions” have been attributed to the Bible, but in fact do not exist in the bible. In all too many cases, these traditions contradict what is actually written. Why is the most famous book in history so misunderstood, and so poorly read by the very Christians who claim to follow it?
Is there an original Bible?
You can't understand what you can't read!
With the arrival of the Renaissance, Christians wondered why they couldn't read the Bible for themselves. The Bible was in Latin (Greek if you were Orthodox) and the mass was never in your nation’s language. You couldn't read the Bible, and even if you had a command of Latin, the Catholic Church rejected the idea of the common man reading the Bible. Eventually, the Pope made reading the Bible a mortal sin.
Yet, the desire to read the Bible prevailed. Starting with the Wycliffe Bible in 1380’s, and culminating with the creation of the King James Bible in 1611, the best known family of bibles in America. When each of these bibles was translated into English, it was translated into contemporary English. The common English that every spoke. After all, what would be the point in fighting to translate a book, and then translate it into an outdated version of your language that you don’t understand?
Consider any play written by Shakespeare. Is the wording a bit… confusing? What about this line from the tempest, “Look thou be true; do not give dalliance too ... much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw to the fire i' the blood: be more abstemious, or else, good night your vow!” It could be loosely translated as, “Don’t get agitated by that girl or you’ll break your vow of good behavior.”
You might figure this out on your won, but when most high school students first read Shakespeare, it feels like a foreign language. Think back to high school when you struggled to understand “Romeo and Juliet”. What were they saying, was that a joke? Even when the words are the same as today, the pronunciation and meanings changed. Shakespeare’s sonnets, which are supposed to rhyme, have sections that no longer do., such as "If this be error and upon me proved/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved." Proved and loved once rhymed. Not the biggest issue in “translation” but yet another barrier to understanding.
The new testament is 1,500 years older than Shakespeare, with the old Testament being is a thousand years older. Over this enormous period of time, the languages used in the Bible changed from Hebrew, to Aramaic, to Greek, and to Latin. Each translation made the original meanings more distant and more confusing. So you shouldn't be ashamed to admit that when you read the Bible, it often doesn't make a lot of sense.
To make matters still worse, the Bible, conveys much of its information in the form of separate stories, with a beginning, a middle and end. That’s the way we’re used to reading most books, or even a series. If you don’t read the stories in order, you get lost. You need the information on pages 3 and 4 to ready page 5. When you read out of order, you don’t know the characters, or the sequence of events. Yet, the few Christians that spend any time with the Bible, usually read out of order. Think about the last time you heard a sermon in a Church. Did you start with a few sentences from one story, then go to a quote from another “book” of the bible, and then perhaps to a hymn or song?
Imagine that you planned a TV night at home. You start out with the opening segment from a John Wayne movie, then you cut to an action scene from the Avengers, and then top off with “Somewhere over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz. If this was part of a college course designed to teach you about different aspects of courage, you might learn something.
But it would tell you what the instructor wanted to you know about a subject, rather than the plots of any of these movies. You wouldn't know what the stories behind each of these three movies, or how they ended. You might learn that John Wayne’s character was heroic, but If that movie was “The High and the Mighty”, you wouldn't know that the movie… about a plane that will run out of fuel before it can cross the ocean… is really about showing portraits of common people who each can be heroes, even when they feel they are cowards at heart.
The High & The Mighty
What you don’t expect, you ignore
I’ve heard many Christians proudly state that they have been studying the Bible for years, if not decades. Yet, when I’ve spoken to these earnest individuals they claim they are unaware of many stories in the Bible. Not surprisingly, these are usually stories that don’t fit easily into the current core messages of Christianity.
Because it is such a poor fit into what people expect to see, they don’t see it. Or they just can’t spend enough time to make it fit into their expectations. What I’m saying is that when what you read makes no sense, you just edit out of your memory. Keeping in mind that most Christians don’t read the Bible at all, and those that do read the Bible are self-editing the parts that don’t fit into what they think they should see, experts in the Bible are often merely repeat what is expected, NOT what is written.
Perhaps that seems extreme, or a bit unbelievable. Lets see. Here is a simple experiment that will only take a few seconds. You are going to see a very short video that was made in the UK to raise awareness about bicycle accidents. The video asks you to follow the actions on your screen for a few seconds, and then count some activities that you saw. Concentrate on what you see and then read on. For now though, don’t read the next section, that gives you the results. Got it? Click here to watch the video. Count the actions you are told to. See the result, and then read on. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Done? Did you get the count right? Did you see the guy in the bear suit moonwalk across the screen? Half of the people who watch the video don’t see him. There are many versions of this video on YouTube, but this particular video was designed to raise awareness about bike riders. Automobile drivers routinely run down bicyclists, and say, “I didn't see him.” They’re not lying. They don’t see the bicyclist because they are hyper-focused on looking out for other cars. In the United States, motorcyclists are routinely run over by car drivers.
The majority of car/truck vs. motorcycle “accidents” are caused by cars hitting motorcycles, not the other way around. The car driver’s excuse for the accident, “I didn't see him”. In fact, many car drivers blame the motorcyclist for the accident because they, “must have made a crazy turn or I would have seen them”.
Do you see what you think you see?
Do issues of focus blind us when we read in the Bible?
Could there be an equally strong effect on someone reading a Bible? Very likely. Consider these four examples from the Bible. They are very clear, and very much at odds with what we believe Christianity means.
- God Poisons the Hebrews (Numbers 11:4; Numbers 31:4-34) While the Hebrews were fleeing the Egyptians, the Bible says that God provided manna for the people to eat. But it also says that the people got tired of manna and wanted meat. The complaining annoyed God, so he sent a huge flock of quails to them, but as a punishment for complaining. At first God days, “You won’t eat for just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but for a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and nauseates you.” Then God become more annoyed and decides to poison the quails, “While the meat was still between their teeth and not yet consumed, the Lord’s anger blazed against the people. The Lord struck the people with a very great punishment”, killing them. Killed with poison food because they complained about food? That’s the kind of inconsistency that makes us forget this passage is here.
- Jesus had Brothers & Sisters (Matthew 13:55): In order to keep consistent with philosophies and writings outside of the Bible, many Christian groups, especially the Catholic church, have tried to ignore the multiple references to Jesus’s brothers and sisters. In Matthew four of his brothers are named. Those who don’t want to acknowledge this have said that this much mean cousins or friends, even though the words used in the Bile are very specific to “a blood sibling”. Sometimes you see the moon waking bear, but still won’t admit to it.
- Jesus Requires That You Follow Jewish law (Matthew 5:17-19): Within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus responds to those who have asked if Christianity is different than Judaism… should jews stop following Jewish law, and follow a different set of laws? Jesus then made a very definitive statement. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” OK, that’s a pretty strong statement that Christians are to follow Jewish law. But Jesus continues, “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”. OK, that makes extra positively sure that Jesus means that anyone who follows Jesus MUST follow EVERY Jewish law… 10 commandments, and the hundreds of other laws for the Sabbath (on Saturday), the food you eat the clothes you wear, etc. The old Testament is filled with these laws. Just in case you missed the last two statements, Jesus then adds, “anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Yet almost all Christian ignore this and chose to throw out almost every Jewish law, relying on very questionable comments made by others. This is like ignoring a whole team of moonwalking bears. And yet, that’s what most Christians have done.
Are Christians bound by Jewish law?
We don't know what we don't know... but we do know it's a LOT!
Everyone can make a mistake here or there. Anyone can misquote miss a statement here or there. But there are very fundamental sections of the Bible that Christians claim they have not heard of. They’re probably telling the truth. Surveys show that Christian often do not read the Bible, and even those who do read it are confused by out of data language and bad methods of reading.
Even the few who manage to get past these considerable barriers, can then be caught by the peculiar way our brains ignore information that we don’t expect. Of course, the simple solution to understanding the Bible is to treat it like any other book. Start reading it at the beginning, and read it one story at a time, just like any other book! It may be difficult but it is the surest way to understand any book. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today!