When I was a kid – probably around sixth grade or so – I decided that I wanted to read the Bible. I’d heard a lot about this Jesus fellow at church and in Sunday school, but I’d never actually just sat down and read the book He wrote. So I did.
Or at least I tried to. I started with Genesis 1:1, began with “in the beginning,” and kept on trucking from there. I was an avid reader, so I figured I could get a pretty good grasp of the Good News if I just gave the whole thing a top-to-bottom read. But as I read through the first few books, I found myself with an impression of Scripture that I had never anticipated: “Huh. This book isn’t very well-written.”
I mean, it started out pretty cool. The very beginning of Genesis was this neat story about how the world was created, how man and woman were kicked out of Paradise and sent into a world of brokenness, how the descendants of those people tried to make their way in the world… pretty compelling stuff. By the end of Genesis, I thought it was all pretty neat, but that book ended differently than all the books I was used to reading. There was no climax, no falling action and resolution, no moral of the story to tie it all together. I assumed that the plot continued through the next book. I was right, sort of. Exodus had more cool stories and plotlines opening up, with a guy named Moses saving his people from an evil pharaoh and the Israelites going out into the desert and stuff.
But the plot never seemed to be building up or winding down – it just kept going and going. Heck, after a while I was just reading some kind of history textbook. Why exactly did I care about what happened to the Israelites anyway? As unfaithful and ungrateful as they were, it seemed like they deserved all the bad things that happened to them – I wasn’t exactly rooting for them at this point. And then I hit Leviticus, and I was all, “WHAT. THE. HECK. Where did the story go? Why do I care about all these laws? What’s the point of this part?”
None of this was making sense anymore. I mean, okay, the authors were sticking to historical accuracy, so it’s not like they were creating the plot – they kind of had to work with what they were given. But they were doing a terrible job of making things interesting. I mean, why spend so much time enumerating every little detail of Mosaic law? And what was with some of these laws anyway?
So I skipped ahead quite a bit, to the part where I knew Jesus came in – the New Testament. I read the Gospel of Matthew, which was cool, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard it all before at Mass. Then I read Mark, which was nice and short, but heck, it was the same story as Matthew, just with a few details added or omitted. Luke had some extra backstory, but still, again, the same basic thing, and I just flat-out gave up before I even reached John.
Ultimately, I made the same mistake that a lot of people make when they first attempt to read the Bible: they read it like it’s all just one big book, beginning to end. Why not? Isn’t that the way you read books? Makes sense.
Except for the fact that if you read the Bible like that, you will probably walk away just as disenchanted as I did. The vast majority of us have been taught many stories and ideas from Scripture, but we suffer deeply from not being taught how to read Scripture for ourselves. The sola-Scriptura-believer’s delusion that Scripture is perspicuous – that everything you need to know from Scripture is clear and evident right there on the surface for any common reader to see – burns down, falls over, and sinks into the swamp in a heartbeat when it actually comes in contact with real life. In fact, Scripture itself specifically tells us it is not perspicuous in the story of Philip and the eunuch.
So how do we read Scripture, then? What do we do, if what we normally do doesn’t work?
First, let’s establish an important point. There is an infinite amount of Truth and Beauty to be gleaned from Scripture, so there are also an infinite number of ways to read Scripture – there’s no single “right” way to do it, per se. But if you’re just starting, let’s be honest – you really just want someone to tell you, “Sit down and read this book now, and this one after that,” and so forth, so I hope to offer you something like that now.
In truth, the best plan for reading and illuminating Scripture I’ve ever seen is T3: Teen Timeline. It’s a DVD-plus-workbook set that will blow your mind six ways till Tuesday (and I don’t even know what that means now that I’ve said it). It costs a little money, but it’s amazing and will light you up like a Christmas tree.
But if you don’t happen to have a little extra cash, here’s one practical way you can start reading Scripture:
1. Start with the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Aim to familiarize yourself with Jesus, and not only His teachings, but Himself as a person. Get a sense of His personality, how He reacted in any given situation, who and what was important to Him. You will not be able to understand any of the rest of Scripture without a basic understanding of and relationship with Christ.
2. Next, read Genesis and Exodus. Watch the story of God’s people unfold, and specifically, try and draw parallels between your real-life experiences and those of the Israelites. Ever failed to properly thank God for something He did for you? You can probably find a place where you identify with them. Ever had a little step forward in your prayer life, followed immediately by three big steps backward? Israel describes you perfectly.
3. Next, read Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. What you’re aiming for here is to get an understanding of the basic timeline of God’s people. Pay special attention to King David, as he is kind of a BIG DEAL and also has the coolest first name in the history of ever.
4. Now go for the Book of Acts. This is the story of God’s people now that Christ has come and changed everything. This is the beginning of OUR story, as Catholics.
5. Once you’ve read all these, you should have a rough, fuzzy sketch of salvation history outlined in your head, the history of God’s people. There is, of course, a TON more to learn, but this should hopefully get you started, and give you a foundation you can use in reading the other books.
I hope this helps you as much as it would have helped me all those years ago. Stay classy, my friends.