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By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)

How to increase Bible engagement

Sept. 8, 2023

As someone who spent my adolescent and young adult years in some form of Evangelical Protestantism (Christian Reformed to JW to Independent Fundamental Baptist to Charismatic/Pentecostal), and as someone who majored in biblical studies as an undergrad for a couple of years, I thought I knew the Bible from the cover to cover. So it was quite a shock for me earlier this year to find out how little I knew about it, while I was taking Bible survey classes at CLI.

According to the American Bible Society's "State of the Bible" survey in 2022, there was an "unprecedented drop" in Bible engagement during the early part of last year. This is when the survey's definition of Bible engagement is "reading the Bible outside church settings at least three or four times a year." Even under this shallow bar, the engagement dropped by 11 percent between 2021 and 2022.

Part of the problem is the lack of disciplined approaches to Scriptures. Within the Evangelical world, devotional materials abound. There are apps one can use, complete with many "Bible reading plans" and automated reminders. Yet, they tend to follow a typical pick-and-choose approach in which disjointed, short passages of biblical texts are assembled for a quick, on-the-go devotional.

Evangelicals tend to think of the Bible as an "infallible and inerrant Word of God" in a way that every verse and even every word is authoritative in its own, even when read devoid of its context. While this may lead believers to memorize a few famous verses, it still leads to low biblical literacy. Worse, it leads to fundamentalism and extremism. When the "Word of God" is reduced to easy soundbites, all the nuances and literary riches are lost and understanding is diminished.

Some even treat the Bible like a deck of oracle cards, there is actually a word for this: bibliomancy. They are often the same people who accuse practitioners of tarot reading guilty of divination; yet, I see them taking random verses from the Scriptures and proclaiming, "Thus saith the Lord."

Bringing back traditional scriptural reading plans will do a lot of good, although this has been quite foreign to churches outside the liturgical traditions and the historical Mainline denominations.

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is a triennial cycle through the Bible that is linked to the liturgical calendar of the Western church. It is typically followed by the Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches, as well as by some other Protestant denominations. Because it is used by the ministers of these churches in constructing sermons each week, there are a number of good study materials online to aid the preachers.

Another great tradition one can tap into while reading the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, is the Jewish lectionary known as parashat ha-shavuah. This is an annual cycle that journeys through the entire Torah (the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), as well as readings from the Prophets and the Writings that are thematically associated with a given week's Torah portion. Again, since this is used by Jewish congregations around the world each week, there is a wealth of commentaries and study materials online.

Lectio Divina is another practice that has become more popular among some Christians in recent decades. Once part of the Catholic monastic tradition, it was "rediscovered" by the (Post-)Evangelicals who joined the Emerging Church movement during the first decade of this century. This method emphasizes contemplation, rather than study, of the Bible.

These three ways of engaging with the Bible are rooted in traditions, the traditions that predate the era of fast-paced media consumption. Re-engaging with one or more of these will both enrich one's spiritual life and counteract the growth of Christian Nationalist extremism in our society. Furthermore, progressive and moderate Christians need to increase and strengthen their biblical literacy now more than ever in modern history; if they do not engage with the Bible, the Bible becomes the exclusive property of those who seek to impose fascism dressed in the package of Christianity.

Revised Common Lectionary
Daily lectionary (PCUSA)
How to practice Lectio Divina
Weekly Torah portion
Unprecedented drop in Bible engagement among U.S. adults
Sermon Seeds (United Church of Christ)
Working Preacher (Weekly RCL commentaries from Luther Seminary)
JTS Torah Online (Jewish Theological Seminary of America)
Torah Commentary (from the Union for Reformed Judaism)

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