Friday, January 11, 2013

Reading the Bible—All of It

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

Books of Moses, bringing stone news,
Wet in the water, weeping in the sun,
Books of Moses, got some splinters, didn't you?
Books of Moses, brought me right here back to you.

—"Books of Moses," Tom Waits

On January 1st, 2013, I was dispiritingly unable to announce any New Year's resolutions to rival last year's set. While some might argue that my life just doesn't need any major improvements, I think the reality is that the kind of improving it needs is in places that New Year's resolutions cannot readily or easily address: be more productive, worry about the future less, get out and have adventures more often. Having a structure ("write an entry every Friday") was what made the resolution to start this blog successful, and having a well-defined goal ("don't eat meat, ever") was what made vegetarianism possible. With no structure or goal, resolutions fail fast: e.g., my resolution a couple years ago to get in shape, which ended after I discovered that jogging in public is painful (my knees/feet aren't built for it) and embarrassing (my running shorts are too large and have to be periodically pulled up, or just held in place with one hand), and a lack of a defined end goal or rigid schedule made it all the easier to quit, quickly.

It was not till several days after New Year's 2013 that I came up with my resolution. Instead of trying to improve the way I live my life, I've decided to set a single, straightforward goal: read the Bible. All of it.

I fielded the question "Have you read the whole Bible?" a number of times in 2012, and it was frustrating to be a person who takes his faith seriously and still has to answer "no." Especially as a Protestant, a member of the portion of the Church that views the Bible as the only resource necessary for salvation and holiness, I feel like something of a sham for never having even glanced at whole books (I'm looking at you, Obadiah) and never having read significant portions of certain key works (like Isaiah). It's also a been little embarrassing to have a running argument with a fundamentalist friend about our divergent views of Scripture without, you know, having actually looked at all of it.

More than this frustration and embarrassment, though, I'm motivated by the kind of curiosity that David Plotz describes at the beginning of his "Blogging the Bible" series; speaking of the (surprising, unsettling) story of Dinah and Shechem, Plotz writes: "If this story was strutting cheerfully through the back half of Genesis, what else had I forgotten or never learned?" (I'll admit I'm also compelled by his conclusion: absolutely everybody, religious or not, should read the Bible, for cultural and intellectual reasons.) I wish I could say I was reading for pure spiritual edification, but while I do care about that, it is not chief among my reasons (to be honest: I don't expect to be spiritually edified by large swathes of it).

The next step after choosing to read the whole Bible was choosing which one to read. There are lots of translations out there; the King James Version, while beautiful and influential, is also strange enough (and, academically/critically speaking, out-of-date enough) that I set it aside. There are any number of more modern translations, but I chose the NRSV as a reputable translation with a focus on word-for-word accuracy, rather than general sense translation.

Also, I knew I would need something extra to help me along in reading the Bible cover to cover. I find the Bible fascinating in short chunks, but without some more modern prose alongside to engage my interest and direct my understanding, I tend to get tired fast. (This is why I've had great success at reading, say, Robert Alter's Genesis translation and commentary, but I've never made it all the way through Hebrews.) So I wanted a study Bible, something like the Oxford Annotated Bible that was a required text for many students in college. But I'm also planning on carrying it around with me all over, so I wanted something more portable.

A truly portable study Bible turned out to be a mythical beast, but I found a close enough approximation in the Access Bible, which my father dug up (and, very helpfully, purchased for me—thanks, Dad!) after I asked him for help. It's a bit on the heavy side, but it's more compact than any other study Bible I've come across (about the size of a hymnal, but thicker), and a paperback to boot. The only flaw I've spotted so far is a exceedingly poor font choice for certain sub-headings, but at least it's not Papyrus.

A couple of things will make this particular resolution to read the Bible unusual. First, I'm planning on reading the Apocrypha, the books that Protestants do not think of as part of the Bible, but that other branches of the Church do. I'm expecting this to be the most fun part, actually, since I have next to no experience with these books. The other thing: I'm not following a schedule. There are lots of scheduled whole-Bible reading experiences out there; the most popular ones last a year. I have no intention of spending a whole year reading a book, not (mainly) because I think I'm too awesome a reader to take that long, but because I know at that rate that I will certainly get off schedule sometime and give up in despair. In fact, any schedule is going to make me more likely to give up, because I hate having to catch up on reading and tend to not do it (see: my core classes in college). So far, with no schedule, I'm 31 pages in—and still reading the introduction.

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