SAVING THE BIBLE FROM OURSELVES
Glenn Paauw is a founding Director at the Institute for Bible Reading. Historian Mark Noll and Old Testament (or as Glenn likes to say First Testament) scholar, Walter Brueggemann, offer praise for Paauw’s book.
Moore: Give us a bit of the backstory that motivated you to write Saving the Bible from Ourselves.
Paauw: I learned from the Bible itself that it’s better to be honest about what’s wrong in a situation than to persist in pretending. With all the Bibles that are sold, all the verses that are quoted, and all the sermons that are preached, it’s easy to pretend that all is well in Bible Land. But in fact it is not well. There are two big problems. First, more and more people have flat out given up on the Bible and are simply ignoring it. Secondly, even those who are engaging with the Bible are not actually doing that well with it. I realized that my own longtime work in ministry and publishing was not actually helping people make a deep connection with the Bible.
It got me thinking about some fundamental questions: What is the Bible? and What are we supposed to do with it? As I reflected on this and researched the history of the Bible, it became clear that in the modern era we developed new and misleading answers to these questions. We’ve been misdirecting people on what to do with the Bible for several centuries now. My book advocates the recovery of an older, more authentic form of the Bible, and adopting new practices that follow from that form.
Moore: You have some fascinating insight on how we have cut our Bibles into bits and pieces. If you were king of the Bible publishing business, how would our Bibles be designed, or I should say, redesigned?
Paauw: Ah, feel the power! I would begin by requiring all Bible publishers to take the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Our published editions and formats should not massacre what was originally a collection of songs, proverbs, stories, letters, and more. For too long we’ve been satisfied with the misleading presentation of the Bible in a reference book format—a convenient handbook of sliced, columned, and numbered spiritual statements. We’ve underestimated the power of good design. We can bring readers substantial help with design that is attentive to readability and literary form.
Next, I would impose firm regulations on the kind of notes and helps we constantly surround the Bible text with. Do our add-ons invite good, in-depth, at-length contextual reading? Or do they propose shortcuts that isolate our favorite words and cherry-pick them without having to consider the Bible’s first audience and how they would have heard them? The Bible is certainly for us, but it was not written to us.
Moore: Years ago, William F. Buckley reminded his good friend, George Gilder, about the limits of technology. Buckley said fancy computer programs were not going to take away from the hard work of learning German. In the same way, is it saying too much that a redesigned Bible make people better readers and more obedient to Scripture?
Paauw: Good design is not everything, but it is a highly significant first and foundational step to better Bible engagement. The over-complicated modern Bible is perfect for snacking on Scripture McNuggets (as Philip Yancey calls them). The recent appearance of elegant new single-column, additives-free editions will go a long way toward inviting us to feast on the Bible instead.
Newly-designed formats will set the table well. But the good, hard work of reading and living the Bible well still remains. We must also relearn ancient ways of engaging the Scriptures. Rather than simply using the Bible for our own agendas, we must learn to lose ourselves in it through extended reading. As much as we are able, we must put ourselves into the cultures and mindsets of ancient peoples. We must regain the skill of reading the books together as a grand narrative of restorative justice and new life. We must lose our excessive individualism and rediscover practices of reading the Bible together, so we can honor the Bible’s goal of community formation. In short, we basically need a new paradigm for reading the Bible.
Moore: The Bible contains much poetry, but no mathematical formulas. How can we help others appreciate this in reflecting on Scripture?
Paauw: When the Bible’s authors and editors chose to use particular literary genres, they were in effect offering covenants to readers. Readers can accept those covenants by acknowledging those genres and then following the conventions that go with them. It dishonors the Bible not to read poetry as poetry, parables as parables, or apocalyptic visions as apocalyptic. A flat literalism does not do justice to the Bible God actually gave us. Once again, formatting can help with some of this. But as C. S. Lewis once said, the reader of any kind of literature has an obligation to first of all receive what the author intended. Our mindset has to shift from thinking How can I use this material for my own needs? to How can I enter into the original thought-world of this material? Reading back our own cultural assumptions and personal questions into the Bible is a constant temptation. The Bible is loaded with gifts for us, but we can only properly receive them if we will read the Bible on its own terms.
Moore: Are you advocating Bibles never have verse or chapter divisions? If so, do you see that hampering those who teach because they would not be able to cite the address?
Paauw: Chapter and verse numbers have one benefit: they help you find little pieces of the text more quickly. But the cost of this gain in efficiency has been enormous. The research is very clear: people are not reading or understanding this reference book. We need elegant new readers’ editions, and these are what we should think of as “regular” Bibles. Chapters and verses were both added in the interest of creating reference helps: commentaries (chapters) and concordances (verses). The numbers should never have invaded regular Bibles for regular readers. Of course, now that the reference edition already has such a long history, we likely can’t do away with it completely. But we should relegate it to occasional specialty use.
As for finding things in an additives-free edition, we could do what everyone before the 16th century had to do: learn to reference the Bible by content and context. Do we really need to list the finely-detailed chapter-and-verse address every time we use the Bible? Why? What’s wrong with simply saying things like, “Early in Luke’s Gospel, after his temptation by the devil, Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth . . .”? This way, people would be picking up crucial surrounding context when we reference a Bible passage.
Moore: What are a few of the biggest takeaways you would hope for your readers?
Paauw: We’re due for a Bible revolution. Science historian Thomas Kuhn has shown us how paradigm shifts happen. When a certain way of seeing the world is recognized by enough people as having some core deficiency, then people are willing to rethink their basic assumptions. My dream is that more and more people would literally see the Bible differently, and having experienced a different kind of Bible, they would fundamentally change the way they read and understand and live the Bible. Then we will be in a position to receive all that the Bible has for us.
An example of the kind of Bible Glenn Paauw would like to see all Christians reading is here: NIV Books of the Bible