Why I Read the Bible



To RECOMMEND the reading of the Bible is to launch on a sea of difficulties, as I realized afresh when I began with my shipmates. A former professor of philosophy at a teachers’ college immediately said, “But how much of the Old Testament can be taken as the Word of God?” An insurance broker on General MacArthur’s staff began to read at random (after I told him that the Old was the beginning of the book) and was so bewildered he almost wrote his wife to remove their children from Sunday School. He was only stopped from this when I assured him that they probably would not learn much about the Bible in Sunday School. (He had never gone himself.) My Roman Catholic naval surgeon differed with me on certain meanings because he had a different translation.

A movie actor friend in charge of navigation was interested when he discovered that the title of his wife’s new picture came from the Book of Joel (3:14), The Valley of Decision, and he began reading for theatrical references, like There Shall Be No Night, The Little Foxes, The Voice of the Turtle, Skin of Our Teeth, Green Pastures, The Keys of the Kingdom. It was a little like the courses offered in our colleges on “The Bible as Literature,” under English B 21.

The most sympathetic Bible reader was a colored steward’s mate whom I found reading it on deck one afternoon, and when I stopped, he said, “I loves to read this book, because it’s so sweet; and I finds in it the very things that is happening today. Hitler is mentioned, and the Japanese Zeros that came over last night.” Such discoveries might be another difficulty; although, without discovering Zeros, I also find in the Bible the very things that are happening today.

I don’t know when I began to read the Bible, but I can’t remember the time when I did not know the stories. I wonder whether people can begin after they are grown and feel the same way about them. I think they can, for I read the Prophets and some apocryphal stories for the first time after I had become a mature person.

Ours was not an articulate family group. There were none of today’s beautifully illustrated children’s Bibles in common use then. My father never mentioned religion. It must have been from my mother and from Sunday School that I learned. I sang in the choir until my voice changed, and heard two lessons read at Morning and Evening Prayer every Sunday for years; and summers I went to Camp Dudley, a Y.M.C.A. camp, where we had a chapter every morning before breakfast and at night before taps.

At the Northfield Summer Conference I taught a Bible class for years. Then I had the good fortune to marry someone who is a Bible reader. I have listened to her tell the stories to the children, and sometimes we act them out for the youngest. I mention all this because the first thing to do is simply to read it, then go where it is read, and see that your children read it and hear it. After a time, the book finds you.

But can you begin cold, just pick it up and read it? St. Augustine is supposed to have done that with “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day” (Romans 13:12-13). A fashionable physician read the same passage in a New York City barber shop in 1790, when “he carelessly let his hand fall upon a Bible.” He thereupon studied for Orders, and became the first Bishop of Virginia.

If you decide to risk this kind of random reading, a good rule to follow is that suggested by a great Indian Christian, Sadhu Sundar Singh. He read rapidly, skipping here and there, until he came to a passage that held him. His first acquaintance was at the age of twenty-one, when he read St. Mark’s Gospel.

Various selections have been made, with such titles as The Soul of the Bible or The Bible Arranged as Modern Literature, and they must be helpful, for many are sold. To me, they seem diluted. I like the Bible neat — provided always, that common sense is used about skipping. What to one man is the soul of the Bible may not be to another man — or to another age, which is the point I am trying to make. Bible readers of the age just past were characterized as spiritual hummingbirds, flitting from the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians to the 23rd Psalm, to the 6th Chapter of Isaiah, and back to the Beatitudes in St. Matthew 5. Today the soul of the Bible may be Amos and Micah, Romans 1 and 2, and the Lord’s words in St. Luke 17.

(Don’t let any beginner be discouraged through thinking that I know the numbers of these chapters by heart. I have to look them up as I go along, by using a Concordance which tells where any verse is. I used to astonish my Commanding Officer by being able to find for him any passage he vaguely remembered. I never told him how I did it.)

There are further reasons for taking the Bible just as it is. One is that the book of selections may be lost and you can find an ordinary Bible anywhere. (The American Bible Society has done a superb job of supplying them to the armed forces.) Another is that passages which at first yield little meaning may later come to life. It is best to treat the book as a mine in which you look for coarse gold in the hard rock. Then you go back and work over the discarded material for gold not found the first time.

I will admit one great difficulty: it is dull to read the book if you do not subscribe to its presuppositions. It is not a book of argument. It was not written to convince; it was written for people who were persuaded about God and were trying to do His will. Suppose, then, that you don’t believe. What is the use of reading? It will help you to believe. The Bible assumes so much that the assumptions gradually become your own.

Or faith may always have belonged to you subconsciously, but “the intermittent sincerity of generations of schoolteachers and clergymen has rendered obnoxious all the terms of the spiritual life.”Until, one day, the Bible finds you in its winsomeness and certainty and austerity. Few adverbs. The indicative mood, rather than the imperative. This is life, and this is what God does, and this is man’s duty and glory.

And if you cannot read it without first believing, then go ahead and believe. If there are intellectual difficulties, read some books and clear them up. If there are ethical difficulties, make up your mind. What is it to be an individual? It is to will to have a conscience, said Kierkegaard. One becomes a person only by determination; that is, by accepting limits. To be this is to be not that. Perhaps the passage that St. Augustine and the New York doctor read 1400 years apart touched their consciences before they read further. “And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep.”

Perhaps the Bible is easier to like if you start young. Certain phrases stand out in my earliest memory. “And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.” I found this sentence in a paper-covered book I read on hell-fire and damnation. It frightened me, and my grandmother took it away. But all that is left is that beautiful verse, Malachi 3:17. It is common to read of people rebelling against the hell-fire religion of their youth. Except for this one pamphlet, it never bothered me, though I must have heard of it. Only in maturity have I come to believe in hell consciously, starting from Von Hügel’s phrase, “abiding consequences.”

It was in Sunday School that I first heard of poetry. I had gone to visit a larger church for a Lenten afternoon service with mite box, and the curate said something that golden day which a small boy in the back of the church never forgot. We were reading Psalm 114:4: “‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep.’ That, children, is poetry, because mountains cannot skip. The poet just imagines that they do, and he makes it beautiful for us.”

Years later, I read Hilaire Belloc’s statement that any author would give his right eye to have written “If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there also shall thy hand lead me” (Psalm 139:8-9). Gladstone said that he would never forget John Henry Newman’s voice in St. Mary’s on the Sunday afternoon he read: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26).


I MUST have been singularly stupid or fortunate, for I never passed through the period of scientific doubt described by many. Because I was good in mathematics, I was sent to Stevens Institute of Technology. For reasons which I cannot retrace, there never was a time when there seemed to be any discrepancy between Genesis I and my scientific studies. Although I could not have put it into words, I knew how to take the Creation Story and Adam and Eve and the Walls of Jericho.

I do remember once as a child being in the New York Museum of Natural History, and looking up at the ceiling in the big hall at the skeleton of the whale, and trying to estimate whether its jaws could have admitted Jonah. What my conclusion was I do not know, but years later I took a degree in Mechanical Engineering and continued to read the Bible without mental conflict.

It was only later, in the Seminary, that I read Dr. Fosdick’s Modern Use of the Bible, Charles Raven’s A Wanderer’s Way, and Kirtley Mather’s Science in Search of God, and learned something of the relation between scientific truth and religious truth. In my college days, I had no courses in religion, and the church and Sunday School I continued to attend were extremely nonintellectual.

I mention these personal experiences because I have been convinced by them that beginners should not be bothered by trying to reconcile the Bible with science, or literature, or anthropology, or psychology. These are important fields of study, and there is a relation between them and faith for those who have the scholarship to understand it. But such subjects are being taught to people before they have read the book itself! Origins are taught before meaning; dissection has taken the place of explanation. It is paralysis through analysis.

Much religious discussion disregards the very book which is the center of the world’s most vital religious tradition. That is the reason such studies are dull. For, as Archbishop Temple observed, by omitting revealed religion, including the Bible, the other themes lose interest. “For the question whether there is a God derives all its interest from the question what manner of Being He is; and the question whether God can work miracles ... is very defective in emotional thrill as compared with the asseveration that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Thus it could come about that David Hume should compose his Dialogues on Natural Religion, so cogent in argumentation, so urbane, so devastatingly polite, at a moment when John Wesley was altering the characters of thousands and the course of English History by preaching Salvation through the precious Blood — a theme which one suspects that Hume and his friends would have thought ill-suited for refined conversation.”

When the study of religion is carried on without the Bible, it is restricted to what is unimportant and uninteresting. Again to quote the Archbishop: “The plain and crude fact is that you can get out of philosophy just what you put in — rearranged no doubt, set in order and rendered comprehensible; but while the machine may determine the size and shape of the emergent sausage, it cannot determine the ingredients.”

In much that is called religious education today, our difficulty lies here. We are trying to make generalizations without having mastered the source materials; we are figuring without having enough data. To put it practically, if a child is brought up with a fair acquaintance with the Bible itself, his intellectual difficulties are resolved as they come along, because he has the materials to work with. But if he first hears the story of Balaam’s Ass from a drugstore atheist , the story gets what the newspapers call a wrong angle in his mind from the start. If he has been brought up on the Bible, he respects it, and suspends judgment on each apparently conflicting truth as his education proceeds. The book is a friend whose friendship no new acquaintance can easily upset.


IN A sense, I was not educated: I was trained. And this experience accounts for my prejudice against certain aspects of education in American colleges. Trained men are generally religious; educated men are not. West Point, Annapolis, the engineering institutes, and agricultural colleges turn out men disposed to faith; the liberal arts colleges not so much. I should be embarrassed if anyone pressed me for statistics on this statement or on what follows. I never sat down to count deliberately, but I had the impression that in two universities near which I lived the church members were to be found more often in the departments of Psychology and Anthropology than in Philosophy and English; in the Business, Engineering, and Law Schools more than in Education and Journalism; in Mathematics more than in Classics.

The “educated” man is one who has chiefly studied literature, philosophy, and history (subjects in which you have some latitude at examination time) and is full of theories. He may tend to have what Goethe called a “problematic nature,” what the undergraduate calls a “puzzlehead.” The “trained” man has a feeling for the scientific attitude. He is used to reading gauges and adding statistics and looking for complete data. This training disposes him to look at religious phenomena, including the Bible, in the same inquiring way. He is likely to test the invitation to belief as he tests with litmus paper.

But there is another reason for the “ trained ” man’s piety. Most scientific disciplines leave religion alone. There was no chapel in my college, and the only prayer we had was on Commencement Day. West Point and Annapolis have splendid compulsory chapel (quite different from badly managed compulsory chapel), but there is no classroom teaching either for or against religion. Honor and patriotism are taught by indirection. The training is clearly only one aspect of life — that having to do with your profession.

On the other hand, in liberal arts colleges, the education presumes to turn out the finished man. It claims to embrace all of life. An “educated” man is a citizen of the world, at home in every age and country (so it says in the catalogue). And this result is accomplished, usually, without teaching religion! Or by teaching it in some syncretism that lumps all faiths into one general attitude. Or that insists that Christianity could not be the final truth without ever examining in class what Christianity is.

It is fair to say that the only live option religiously for a person in America in the twentieth century is Christianity. Who seriously has a chance to be a Buddhist? Judaism is not a live option except for those born into it or married into it. You can drift without study into atheism or agnosticism, materialism or epicureanism, or any combination of points of view ranging from noble secularity to avowed sensualism. But for faith in God and its practice and nurture, Christianity is the only real possibility, and that requires study.

Hence an educated man should have some introduction to the Church’s history, philosophy, and literature. Its dogmas are the data on which alone an intelligent opinion can be formed. And yet several generations of students have graduated from our colleges since 1900, never having had a course in Christian theology or the Bible. Let us train men, and leave them alone religiously, or educate them and do it completely. And education for life is not complete unless it includes the study of the Bible as religion, not as literature, or folkways, or for credit in Greek.

I include this long digression because I have found that it explains to a number of men what has happened to them in their attitude toward the Bible and faith. Their last ideas of them were formed in Sunday School, and in the meantime (unless they are engineers, farmers, or naval officers) they have been subjected to a “broad” education which, by claiming to teach everything, underscored its omission of Christianity.

To urge such men to read the Bible is often like asking a bridge player to go back to slapjack. It seems childish to them, associated with the earliest stories of the nursery, and not a subject for adult study. They cannot conceive how a book which was left out of their complete education could have any importance for mature persons. “If the Bible is essential, why wasn’t I forced to read it in college? I had to read Shakespeare, Charles Beard, and John Dewey.” The only defense for this is to carry the attack boldly to the enemy and blame the college for the lopsidedness of its curriculum.

One of the most popular songs for the Glee Club to sing at school commencements is William Blake’s “Jerusalem": —

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

This is ironic, because very few realize that the dark Satanic Mills in the poem are not the factories of Manchester and Leeds, but the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Blako distrusted their influence on religion. So many choral societies sing this at graduations that a speaker will do well to have prepared an extemporaneous paragraph on this subject in case the song is sung: —

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! Oh clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

It shocks the audience of parents and graduates to be told that the poet meant, among other things, “Down with the liberal arts college!”

My professor of Old Testament at the Virginia Seminary was the Reverend Thomas Kinlock Nelson, from whom I never learned much in class. I was not a good pupil, and his notes always got mixed up. They were written on little sheets of paper from the lectures of great Bible critics in England and Germany, and showed how many Isaiahs there were and how certain Hebrew words proved that Zechariah couldn’t possibly have written the last part of the Book of Zechariah. I don’t mean to be unappreciative, but it did bog us down.

I agree that the Bible may be understood better if the circumstances and authorship of its parts are known, but I maintain that it can be profitable to people who read it cold, mistranslations and all. After all, it has been read for centuries by millions who have no idea whether Joel is post-exilic or Habakkuk pre-exilic.

One of the worst modern heresies is the conviction that the ancients were not bright. Applied to the Bible, it sometimes suggests that it was put together wrong. We are told that if only we could get back to the few original traditions and documents, we should have a better book. The answer to this is that given by Bishop Gore: that the editors and compilers were inspired no less than the original writers.

What I am advocating here is, pick up the book and read it, in great gulps, skipping over the unintelligible, and kneeling when you come to a phrase like “And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not ” (Jeremiah 45:5). Get a one-volume commentary (one with a devout spirit) and use it to look up explanations as your interest increases. Buy a translation into modern English, like Moffatt’s. This may be had in a parallel edition, with the King James version alongside the modern English.

Then there are books that illuminate the Bible and draw out fresh meanings, like a good sermon: W. Russell Bowie’s The Master, T. R. Glover’s Jesus of History, and H. F. B. Mackay’s books. Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene and The Apostle, and Middleton Murry’s Jesus, Man of Genius, are suggestive. Men spend their lifetimes reading and finding perpetual delight and renewal. Here there is no blind alley.

And for most of us the verse (though out of its context) is “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.” But none of this is to be taken as a difficulty in reading the Bible. There are no preliminary problems. Take up and read. And above all, go to church to hear it read and to be encouraged to persevere.

The same Dr. Nelson from whom perhaps I gained little in the classroom was a Christian gentleman, and I learned to love the Old Testament from serving under him as a chaplain to the Episcopal High School.

I knew it must have been the book that had nourished such a life. Most Old Testament, scholars give that impression. We used to think of “Tommy” Nelson as Amos, denouncing hypocrisy and meanness, and finding a response in the hearts of boys who love nobility.

Those who came to America in one of the first small ships entered into a solemn compact before they landed, part of which was: “We believe that more light will continue to break forth from God’s word.” Americans will always have that hope.