Ever since the printing press made its mark on the world, literally and figuratively, we have seen a revolution in the way that information is possessed. Where before books dwelt in collections and libraries, now the reality is that we can own an individual copy of literally any literature that exists. Naturally, the Bible was first to be disseminated widely, and people could finally get their hands on a copy of the Scriptures. We take this for granted, but it was and is a revolutionary idea, and not without its complications and drawbacks. Let me explain.
In the churches of my youth, it was a common, almost liturgical refrain: “Get out your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Isaiah…” There was an assumption that everyone had brought their own copy of God’s Word, and an implicit message that failure to do so was a severe lapse in character. But thinking now about this culture, I feel that there’s an issue with the underlying thoughts and worldviews in which everyone worships with their head down, buried in their own Bible, and I’d like to make a case for a different approach to the reading of Scripture together in worship. Why should we leave our Bibles at home and turn off our apps on Sunday morning? What possible reason could there be to discourage people from reading their own Bibles?
- Scripture reading in worship is a unifying act. We all know the power of experiencing something in real-time as a community, whether it’s cheering together at a football game, or live-tweeting the Mad Men finale. When we all have our own Bible, the unity of the event gets diffused. We find that our translation differs from the one we hear, and start wondering why. We get distracted by the cool chapter before the reading and start mentally jumping off the boat. Were someone to wander into a service where everyone had their head down reading, rather than their eyes up, engaged with the speaker, they might mistake the Scripture reading portion of worship for the study hall period of a university. We are not at church primarily to learn information for our personal improvement. The main reason we are there is to be formed into a worshipping community that lives and breathes in concert with the God who has constituted it by the Holy Spirit.
- God’s Word is external to us, not possessed by us. When we hold the Bible in our hands, it’s easy to forget that Scripture comes to us from outside of us, speaking in witness to God and often in judgement of our individual thoughts and motivations. Our tradition is to have a procession of the Gospel into the congregation, which by definition demonstrates that the Word of God comes from somewhere outside of our own minds, and will always be alien and foreign in some sense to our hearts. It is especially helpful to have others in our church read the Bible to us, as we now hear the words mediated through a sister or brother, and the community of the church is widened and strengthened.
There is obviously a vast amount of spiritual growth and maturity that can be gained in the private study of Scripture. There is also a benefit to having different translations and nuances available to us in the context of a group Bible study. But in our gathered worship on Sunday morning, I believe there is a unique power to the action and image of one reader and many listeners. We hear each word together, at the same time, falling on our ears and sinking into our hearts. In a time and culture that honors the individual above all else, it is a helpful corrective to submit to the cadences of another’s voice. We can be an image of the body of Christ in this way: many members and parts acting together in synchronized recitation of the Gospel story. So I humbly suggest that the next time you hear Scripture being read in church, you put your Bible away and just listen.