Learning to Read the Bible Well: An Interview with Glenn Paauw

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Glenn R. Paauw Over centuries, Bible scholars and publishers have increasingly added “helps” to the Bible—chapter divisions, verses, subheads, notes—in an effort to make it easier to study and understand. But have these study aids instead grown to be impediments to the Bible’s original intent? Rather than being a culture-shaping force, has the Bible come to be regarded as a database of quick and easy answers to life’s troubling questions?

[See the Scripture Engagement section on Bible Gateway ]

Bible Gateway interviewed Glenn R. Paauw , senior fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading (@Read_Well ), about his book, Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (IVP Books, 2016).

Buy your copy of Saving the Bible from Ourselves in the Bible Gateway Store

What is the meaning of the title?

Glenn R. Paauw: Through no fault of its own, the Bible is not doing well. It needs rescuing. As pollster George Gallup used to say, the Bible is the best-selling but least-read book around. The fact is, the Bible is in our hands. We’re free to craft it, to shape it, to present and use it in all kinds of ways. Through history we’ve done this, changing its form through all kinds of technological revolutions. My contention is that we need to be more intentional about what we do with it. In particular, many of our current missteps with the Bible are tied to a modernistic way of thinking and doing things.

The way we design, present, and publish Bibles tells people what the Bible is, and directs people to use it in specific ways. And right now, the research evidence is that many people completely ignore the Bible, while those who use it tend to use it in minimalistic ways.

Why do you think the Bible is the bestselling book year after year, but the least read?

Glenn R. Paauw: It’s very interesting historically that within 100 years of the invention of the printing press the form of the Bible was changed to look more like a reference book. Modern Bibles were presented as two columns of individually numbered spiritual statements, not as stories, letters, songs, and wisdom. This was an innovation—a modern invention.

So the first Bible that was presented to the masses was not a reading Bible. Most of Western culture has had a very high view of the Scriptures for the last 500 years, yet it’s been in this same modern period that the Bible has been viewed more as a book to reference, than to read. There are other causes to consider as well, but we’ve neglected thinking about the impact of our Bible formats on Bible reading.

What do you propose as a Bible makeover?

Glenn R. Paauw: C. S. Lewis told us that our first obligation with any piece of writing is to accept it on its own terms, rather than simply start to use it on our terms. The first step to receiving the Bible God actually gave us is to bring some elegant simplicity back to its design. We’ve over-complexified and cluttered the Bible with our modern addiction to addition. We keep adding things to the text, and now the sacred words themselves are overwhelmed.

The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writing. Why don’t our Bible formats express those writings in their natural literary form? We need to honor the Scriptures with clean Bible design, including in our electronic presentations. We should easily see song stanzas, whole stories, ancient letters, parallel lines of Hebrew poetry, etc. If we were more intentional in our Bible design, people might start reading the Bible holistically and with greater understanding.

Because we live within the modernistic paradigm ourselves, we’ve come to believe the numbers in the text are essential. But they’re not. They weren’t there when God inspired the Bible, and they weren’t all added until 1500 years after the last book was written.

Read the Bible on Bible Gateway in manuscript style by clicking the Gear icon and UNchecking each option box Above image: Read the Bible on Bible Gateway in manuscript style
by clicking the Gear icon and UNchecking each option box

Why do you believe “big readings” of the Bible are better than “small readings”?

Glenn R. Paauw: Philip Yancey has said that we’ve created an entire culture of Scripture McNuggets, and then pretended that they’re nutritious. This Bible snacking does not deliver us the real Bible; the whole Bible. We’re cherry-picking the verses we like and ignoring the rest. One key step to a recovery for the Bible is for all of us to regularly engage in what I call “big readings.” I mean this in several senses.

First, we literally need to start reading bigger, natural sections of the Bible. It’s so easy to jump around now that we’ve forgotten that the first and most natural thing to do is simply to read the Bible at length, especially focusing on whole books. Reading big will immediately introduce us to more context, so we’ll be reading better too.

Secondly, we need “big readings” in the sense of a fresh understanding of the scope of God’s restoration project. We’ve read the Bible as if the point is to get to heaven when we die. But really the point is to invite us to join up with God’s renewal of all things. The Bible is trying to teach us how to flourish in God’s good world, not escape it one day.

And finally we need to start reading big with others, not always just experiencing the Bible by ourselves. The Bible is essentially a community formation book, but we act like the main focus is me and my isolated relationship with God. Again, modernity has led us astray, this time with its excessive individualism.

Why is it important for people to “read the Bible both-and rather than either-or”?

Glenn R. Paauw: The historic, orthodox teaching about Jesus is that he’s fully human and fully divine, and that these two natures are not warring with each other in him. Our understanding of the Bible should be analogous to this. Our holy writings were inspired by God and they do his work in the world, but these writings came to birth in real human history. We don’t need to be afraid of the human side of the Bible. In fact it’s crucial to good understanding to know how the Bible fits into its first, ancient context, and what it said to that context, before we can know what it means for us today.

What is the “Storiented Bible”?

Glenn R. Paauw: More than anything, the Bible wants to invite us into its story; to take up our own roles in its beautiful, surprising narrative of restoration and life. The first step to good Bible engagement is to focus on understanding whole books of the Bible on their own terms—they’re the core, inspired units that make up the Bible. But at the end of the day the goal is to know how the books come together to tell God’s story and then to begin living it out today.

This means the Bible has narrative authority, not reference book authority. We can’t simply look up answers in the Bible for all the questions we have today. There’s redemptive movement in the story, so not everything stays the same. The role of women, slaves, and the place of violence—all these things and more change as the light of God’s purposes grows stronger through the developing narrative. And all of it must be read through the Jesus lens. He’s the clearest revelation of who God is and what he wants. It’s crucial to apprehend where the story is going in Christ, and then contribute to that trajectory with our own lives. This is what is means to have a Storiented Bible.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Glenn R. Paauw: Bible Gateway is obviously an amazing tool taking advantage of an amazing contemporary medium, bringing together many features and helpful aids. It really is useful in so many ways, and a gift to the church.

But I would say we must keep C. S. Lewis’ warning in mind. Our first obligation is to receive the Bible on its terms, not use it on our terms. There is always a danger of our tools taking over and setting the agenda with what they do best. We must remain in charge of our tools, including our Bible engagement tools, so that greater purposes are served. Computers are very powerful things, so it’s essential for us to use them knowingly and wisely with the Bible. Are we doing everything we can to encourage quality, in-depth Bible reading and understanding? What are people actually doing with our tools? The Bible is in the hands of our publishers—in both print and electronic forms. Every single day those publishers must ask: What are we telling people the Bible is? What are we telling them to do with it?

Bio: Glenn R. Paauw is vice president of global Bible engagement at Biblica and a senior fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. His focus is to research, speak, and write on the topic of reading and living the Bible well.

In his 26 years at Biblica, Paauw’s work has ranged from leading Scripture evangelism seminars at churches nationwide, finding innovative distribution channels to surprise biblically illiterate Americans with fresh presentations of the Bible, to overseeing the nonprofit publishing of the NIV , NVI and NIrV translations in North America. He led the development of the revolutionary The Books of the Bible format that uncovers the natural literary form of the Scriptures and re-introduces people to the grand narrative of the Bible.