Category Archives: Bible

Living the dream

I was struck by what Nicholas Carr reported1 about how reading narrative affects readers, based on the research of Keith Oatley and other psychologists. ‘Every reader of a book creates, in Oatley’s terms, his own dream of the work — and he inhabits that dream as if it were an actual place.’1

But what if the dream was real? If that world was real? I’m thinking in terms of the Bible. Why is so much of the Bible narrative? And why did the living God choose to reveal himself through the word and the Word? Could it be that we were created to respond to stories this way so that we might enter into the greatest story of all: the reality above and beyond the merely physical and temporal? Reading the Bible then would not be merely reading for doctrinal instruction, but could be almost like a virtual reality preparation for eternal reality. It could be a flight simulator to train us for the real flight where we would learn the responses required for eternity.

If it is true that ‘readers routinely speak of how books have changed them’1, and the research reported would seem to confirm that, then reading Bible narrative will actually assist the transformation that Christians call sanctification. That would underscore the divine wisdom in not providing us with a book of theology, or one entirely filled with doctrinal teaching like the New Testament letters. Narrative and doctrine are included in the Bible for good reason. God is not trying to brainwash us without our knowledge by giving us stories. He is not content for the changes that readers of biblical narrative experience to be unconscious. The overt teaching of the letters and other biblical books spell out the changes required, and explain the consequences of the undesirable lifestyle of rebellion against him. The Christian is required to engage his or her brain (Rom 12:1-2). And even in biblical narrative there are explicit evaluatory statements made about characters and actions that will guide our thinking. Generally evaluation is guided by the artful construction of the narrative, which requires the brain to be engaged.

And what of the social dimension of reading? Carr reports on the misunderstanding of the social experience of reading in the digital age as e-book publishers add interactivity features to their creations. He quotes David Comer Kidd: ‘Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience’ and comments ‘The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.’ If this is true of fiction, then what kind of social experience can reading the true narrative of the Bible produce? The impact must be much greater when we consider that Bible reading is not simply a solitary activity for the Christian, but frequently done in the context of God’s new society, the church. That is not to reduce a church Bible study group to the level of a literary reading group. But could it be that corporate Bible reading and study, attending to the preaching of the Word, and private Bible reading and study can make a much greater impact on us than we realise? Unlike fiction, believing readers of the Bible get the opportunity to live out their changed attitudes and lifestyle in a like-minded society in advance of the eternal reality.

All this relates to reading, but I wonder if a similar impact is made by storytelling. If so, that would have huge implications for how Bible narrative is preached. How great the impact of deviating from the biblical story. And it might suggest that not reading the whole story when one is preaching from a narrative passage will greatly lessen the impact of the sermon.

Well, back to living the dream . . .


1. Nicholas Carr, ‘The Dreams of Readers’, Rough Type blog, 9 Jan 2014 [online] available at

To e- or not to e-, that is the question

Tim Challies recently posted a series of articles on a topic dear to my heart that are well worth reading. I share his enthusiasm for books that he shared in ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Books’\1/. I’m also with him on ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’\2/. Yes, e-books do have some advantages, but they are still outweighed by the books’ advantages. Like Tim, I just can’t imagine having to move house. It would be three times worse for me than for him. One mitigating factor is that I tend to buy reference materials as e-books in preference to books, especially when they are considerably cheaper. Then I feel guilty when I make little use of them. Are e-books making me more covetous?

But it’s not just sufficient to pit the arguments against each other and take your pick. There is a need to think through the consequences, which Tim points out well in ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’.\3/ I agree wholeheartedly that convenience is not sufficient reason to abandon the book in favour of the e-Book. The medium has a definite impact on the message. E-media appear less permanent (Tim’s point about permanence notwithstanding), and paradoxically I suspect we give more credence to online, e-sources without sufficient critical appraisal. It’s similar to the appeal to “it was on television” as the ultimate “proof” of a fact. We can certainly read books uncritically, but the e-medium somehow seems to reduce our ability or willingness to engage critically with the content. McLuhan and Postman are definitely worth considering in this whole area. And Nicholas Carr is also onto something important in The Shallows\4/, which I’m planning to read later in the year.

When we come to read our e-Bibles we are going to run into some problems. I just can’t study with an e-Bible because you can’t see enough of the text at once (not even on my 24 inch monitor), or mark it up the way you need to make the study worthwhile. I certainly value tools like Logos, especially to check my rusty Greek and Hebrew, but they are just that: tools, not replacements for the text.

I think we’ve already run into a similar problem in churches that rely on song projection instead of hymn books. Sung praise is becoming more like karaoke than sacred worship. The medium has made the shift possible, and the reason is most likely convenience. The congregation may sing more loudly because they no longer have their faces buried in a book, but I find I’ve forgotten the previous line or two very quickly after singing them, whereas with a hymn book I can understand better what I am singing, and comprehend the meaning much more easily. I can’t think I’m alone in that, advancing age and declining memory notwithstanding. What will be the impact of preaching to a congregation who only have an e-Bible? Shorter sermons that engage the text less critically?

It’s not just the ‘E’s in our food* we need to be concerned about, it’s the ‘e-‘s in our reading that will have a serious impact on our intellectual and spiritual understanding. Since Christians are people of The Book, this should be a serious concern to us. Convenience is not enough to switch to e-Bibles, just as pragmatism is never enough to make informed and safe moral judgments. I’m going to need more convincing before I make e-reading my staple biblical intake. Tim’s articles have confirmed that for me. Moderation and small doses will certainly be my practice for the forseeable future.



1. Tim Challies, ‘5 Reasons Books Are Better Than E-Book’,, 17 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

2. ——, ‘5 Reasons E-Books Are Better Than Books’,, 18 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

3. ——, ‘Books & E-Books, Media & Messages’,, 20 Aug 2010, (accessed 7 Sep 2010)

4. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). Carr blogs at Rough Type,



* Approved European food additives all have an ‘E’ prefixed to the universal reference number.

The priority of the Word in worship

Alec Motyer points up the priority of the Word in worship in a footnote to Psalm 122:

The NIV reverses the order of lines in verse 4b. ‘According to statute’ should come first, followed (more properly) by ‘to give thanks to the name’. The word of God must always be the primary reality, even in the place of worship. Worship concentrates on what the Lord has done, prompting thanksgiving, and keeps his name, the truth he has revealed about himself, right in the foreground.\1/

Just Alec. Just right!



Alec Motyer, Journey: Psalms for Pilgrim People (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) 45, n. 12.

A profitable week’s reading

I’ve spent a profitable week reading. Some weeks it doesn’t feel like that, but this past week was encouraging. Tim Carmody put Rolf Engelsing’s ‘Lesenrevolution’ at the top of his 10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books\1/. Engelsing saw a shift in C18 reading patterns from intensive reading a small number of text to extensive reading of large numbers of text, most of which would only be read once. But Carmody’s not convinced that this is the real revolution, since both types of reading be be identified before and since C18.

Engelsin’s distinction does have application to Christian reading, however. To illustrate the distinction, Carmody contrasts Bible and newspaper reading. Certainly for Christians the Bible ought to be read intensively. It has been the practice of believers since the Bible was written, but it definitely in serious decline today. That is so, despite the plethora of Bible reading programs available (a selection of which can be found on my church’s Web site).

This week I came across another program that will no doubt not suit the modern taste for sixty second quiet times. Grant Horner’s ten-chapter-a-day program (HT: Tim Challies\2/) could even qualify for intensive and extensive at the same time. Ten chapters is certainly intensive, but by reading from ten different books at a time it is much more intensive than other programs. Its consecutive reading of different chapters over a long period appeals to me as a way to see the connections between different parts of Scripture. I am convinced that cross-references alone are insufficient to see the connections, nor is Beale and Carson’s excellent and profitable guide to the NT’s use of the Old.\3/

I’ve noticed how in recent years I can more readily identify connections, allusions and the like in Scripture. I’ve also noticed the blank looks one other people’s faces when I mention them in conversation or study groups. I’m sure that it is only intensive reading over several decades that enable me to see them.

I’ve never followed any formal reading plan for long, but I have decided to give Horner’s a go with one alteration. I’m keeping all of Paul’s letters in list 3, and everything from Hebrews on in list 4. I don’t find the length of time required a problem, I doubt any serious reader would. It remains to be seen whether I can stick to it, since I regularly get “stuck” on verses that leap off the page at me. I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones was onto something when he recommended stopping at them before moving on (in Preaching and Preachers, I think).

Horner’s plan applies intensive and extensive reading to Scripture. I’m sure that each of us ought to have a small number of other books that we read intensively, besides the Bible. Pilgrim’s Progress, Calvin’s Institutes, and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity regularly appear on suggested lists. Everything else should be in the extensive category. And I don’t think this is a luxury for any Christian, much less so for preachers. John Brand recently quoted John Wesley’s rebuke to a preacher whose reading was far from adequate:

“What has exceedingly hurt you in times past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the appetite for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago.

It is lively but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian. O begin!”\4/

What a rebuke! But he’s right. It fits with what I recall of James Montgomery Boice’s advice to someone contemplating Christian ministry–study literature before theology.

Extensive reading is not a magic formula for terrific preaching, but it is evidently a means that God regularly blesses. It strikes me that part of the reason why it works is that intensive Bible reading enables us to engage critically with extra-biblical extensive reading. Our extensive reading ought to go beyond biblical and theological topics because such books enable effective critical engagement with the world’s ideas. That can only sharpen our gospel perspective. Without intensive reading of Scripture it may blunt it, or even damage or destroy our faith.

Extensive reading holds little or no danger, so long as we engage in intensive Scripture reading. That’s not closing our minds, but treasuring the most valuable book we possess, and using it to inform our judgment of other books. I’m happy to continue my pattern of combining intensive Scripture reading with extensive extra-biblical reading.

It’s definitely been a profitable week’s reading.



1. Tim Carmody, “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books”, The Atlantic, 25 August 2010,

2. Tim Challies, “Ten Chapters Per Day”,, 18 August 2010,

3. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

4. John Brand, “Preachers Should be Readers”, Encouraging Expository Excellence, 27 July 2010,

Who needs chapters and verses?

Chapters & Verses : Who Needs Them? -- at BibleStudyMagazine.comChristopher Smith has a thought-provoking article in Bible Study Magazine (Jug/Aug 2009, Vol. 1, No. 5).

There really are some bizarre chapter divisions, and the online version of the article has an animated review of Colossians that shows the problem well.

There’s also a reference to an IBS project called The Books of the Bible that presents each book without any chapters and verses. There are some free PDF downloads so you can sample the experience. There is also a helpful article by Gordon Fee entitled Why Christians Read Their Bibles Poorly that gives some pointers on how to read Scripture well.

Blood on every page

Justin Childers recently posted a very helpful piece quoting Bryan Chapell. He listed four excellent statements to keep in mind when reading the Scriptures. I’ve written then on the inside cover of my regular reading Bible to remind me what I ought to be seeing on every page:

  • Is there something here that is predictive of the work of Christ?
  • Is there something here that is preparatory for the work of Christ?
  • Is there something here that is reflective of the work of Christ?
  • Is there something here that is resultant of the work of Christ?

This should help me keep the big picture in view as I read.

How Biblical Languages Work

This morning the postman delivered my copy of How Biblical Languages Work: A Student’s Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek by Peter James Silzer and Thomas John Finley (Grand Rapids, Mi: Kregel, 2004). I’m hoping my reading for the course I’ve just started will allow me to start this soon. I thought it would help me brush up on my language skills. Mike Aubrey has a very positive review of it over at En Efeso. I’m sure he knows a whole lot more about this than I do, but if I get the time I may share a few nuggets or interactions when I get down to reading the book.

The Need to Read

Returning to my topic from last month, I notice that Albert Mohler’s Blog for 24 January 2007 highlights the serious decline in reading among the young in the USA. The UK and Ireland are not far behind, I suspect. As he says, “Christians must look at this reality with an even greater concern.”

The reason? “Reading is an important Christian discipline.” But sadly a much neglected one among many Christians. Our Muslim friends and neighbours know us as the people of the book, but for many of us, it is unread and therefore unheeded.

If the Bible were merely a book like any other, this state of affairs would be sad, but of no more concern than the fact that the majority of people haven’t read any or many of the great literary classics.

I well remember the pride of my English teacher when she discovered I was reading War and Peace—not the set book for our class—the whole staff room heard about it. Sadly, even in the enthusiasm of youth the great work wore me down, and I’ve never completed it. Maybe one day…. Virgil’s Aeneid is a serious contender for defeating me now—I started last summer, but have only completed half. Still, there’s always next summer.

While no Indian, I am told by my Indian friends, considers himself truly educated without reading The Bible, I suspect that many modern Christians would hesitate to agree. Perhaps we might not be as educated as we thought we were! And yet, as Albert Mohler pointed out, “growth as a Christian disciple is closely tied to the reading of the Bible, as well as worthy Christian books.”

That’s why the decline in Bible reading is sad, because Christians who don’t read don’t grow. But don’t take Albert Mohler’s word for it. The Apostle Peter exhorts us, “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.” (1 Peter 2:2) This milk is “the milk of the Word”, as older English translations rendered it, as is abundantly clear from Peter’s preceding remarks about “the living and abiding Word of God”.

The importance of the Word of God—The Bible—is borne out by the witness of church history, where many have committed their lives—all too literally in some cases—to bringing the Word of God to their people in their own language. And that literal commitment of life continues in our own day, though seldom in western lands. Such a recognition of the importance of The Bible is also evidenced by the Jewish care and carefulness in transmitting the sacred text, for which all God’s people must surely be thankful.

So why should we be neglectful of The Bible? I am sure each of us could list many different reasons. Perhaps there is little or no time to read. Yet there is lots of time devoted to watching television and engaging in entertainment. We can certainly find time for the trivial (you can see I’ve just started reading Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death).

The reasons for lack of Bible reading must be deeper. We do not read because we do not see the need. And I suspect this is reinforced by the cultural pressure against reading (as Mohler has pointed out), and an increasing de-emphasis on The Bible in many modern churches. If the pastor reads less from The Bible in the services, so will the flock in their homes. Thank God for pastors and preachers who unashamedly read and faithfully preach from the Scriptures week by week.

Why then should we read? Specifically, why should we read The Bible? Look no further than what Peter wrote:

  1. It is the Word of God. It is that important. No other book is like it, or deserves our attention more. The Bible is the Word of God.
  2. It will aid our Christian growth. No other book, secular or Christian, can come close, simply because this book is God’s book. They may stimulate. They may motivate. They may even convict. But this book will transform because the Word of God is applied to the heart and mind by the Spirit of God himself.

What should I read? ~ 2

What should I read? Top of the list is, as I said before, the Bible—the Book of books. And as I also said before, if you haven’t time to read it, then there’s no point getting recommendations for other books to read. If you find or make to to read them, you’ll still not have any time to read the Bible. So make reading the Bible your number one priority. Other books can be read only if you have more reading time.

Now, I can hear an objection to this one book suggestion. Am I seriously suggesting that reading only one book is all you need? Won’t it get a little boring reading the Bible all the time? OK, it’s God’s Word, so it couldn’t be boring, but it could become a bit monotonous—it’s all the same thing.

But that’s the beauty of the Bible, apart from being God’s Word which give it a supreme importance, the Bible is a book of great variation. I’m so thankful it’s not all like the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles—not that they’re boring, but I don’t imagine they’re too many people’s favourite chapters in the whole Bible. The Bible itself is a book of great variety because it is a collection of books. It contains a great deal of history, but note the dry academic kind of history written by some professors of history nowadays. It’s more biographical history, for usually it follows the ups and downs of one man or woman, or their family. It is history with a human face.

And then there’s wonderful poetry to suit all kinds of moods and circumstances. There are also lots of sermons, as you’d expect from a ‘religious’ book. Not just in the New Testament, either, where we hear Peter, Paul, and, of course, Jesus himself preach, but in the Old Testament where Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the other prophets preach. There are also books of more philosophical reflection like Ecclesiastes and Job (which at times almost seems like a play).

And running all through the Old and New Testaments is instruction. I’m never too happy with the term law because it doesn’t really capture the full nuances of the many Hebrew and Greek words used to describe this part of Scripture. There’s much more to it than a list of do’s and don’ts, A good deal of it aims to inculcate principles by which we may come to make our minds up about those ‘grey’ areas of life. And yes, the Bible isn’t all black and white. There is a good deal that is clear—murder is most definitely wrong, and so too is sexual behaviour outside the bound of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. But what about drinking alcohol? There’s only one prohibition about that—don’t get drunk. But that’s not the same as saying don’t drink. The matter is largely left to individual conscience, though not entirely. There is a principle that is taught that we ought not to do thing s that may stumble others. So I ought not to drink alcohol in the presence of those who may be addicted to it, nor if those who may consider it improper, but by my example may drink to fit in and sin against their consciences.

Now, to return to the main point. The Bible is a book of different kinds of literature. It has a great variety with its covers, and this illustrates well how I should approach my extra-biblical reading—read a variety of types of literature. This is an important general guideline for any reading—read widely. The contents of the Bible itself demonstrate this important guideline.

Nor it is just something akin to the saying ‘variety is the spice of life’. It’s not merely variety for the sake of keeping interest, though, of course, variety does keep one’s interest from flagging. Reading widely is also reading wisely. There are certain lessons that are best taught in particular ways. Prohibition, rebuke and persuasion are entirely different ways of dealing with wrongdoing, depending on whether it has been contemplated or perpetrated and on the seriousness of the action, or the manner in which it is contemplated. Poetry conveys emotions and feeling that law is incapable of conveying.

So what should I read? Read a wide variety of different types of literature. Follow the pattern of the Master Author.

What should I read?

“What should I read?” is a good question any Christian can ask, and every Christian should ask. Having been asked recently to recommend some books to read I’ve been giving the question some serious thought. I do a lot of reading, but I haven’t really sat down and collected my thoughts on the subject before. Now seemed a good time to do it. I’m passionate about reading, and I’m saddened by the fact that fewer Christians than ever seem to be reading.

What should I read? It’s not always easy to answer the question, but it is possible to give an answer in two directions—some specific recommendations and some general guidelines. In my experience, the recommendations are usually what the questioner wants, and it’s certainly good to get a book recommendation from someone who’s read and profited from a book. But it’s all too easy to assume the latest good book you’ve read is a must read for everyone. Not it isn’t, though sometimes it is.

But guidelines are even more important for they help develop good reading habits, even when you don’t have specific recommendations. It’s a bit like the difference between the kind of aid that gives a starving person a fish and the kind that teaches that person to fish. Of the two, the latter is more important in the longer term, but the former isn’t wrong, it’s just not the best thing to do all the time.

So, what should a Christian read? The obvious place to start is the Bible. And yes, it is top of my list of must read books. Every Christian should read their Bible regularly and comprehensively. On Desert Island Discs (a British radio programme where famous people share their musical tastes) the Bible and Shakespeare are taken as given, so they are never discussed. And often Christians tackle the question of what to read in the same way. Well, of course, we must read the Bible. But just how much do we read it?

Let me make a bold suggestion. If you don’t read your Bible much then don’t even try to make time to read other books. Yes, I am serious. Make more time to read the Bible first.

Of course, the Bible is unlike any other book you will ever read. For one thing, it’s author is still alive (despite the greatly exaggerated claims to the contrary that still manage to be reported from time to time). And unlike other books whose authors are still alive, the Bible’s author will never die. But it’s not that fact by itself that make the book so unique, it’s the tremendous consequence of that—God is always available for clarification on everything he has written. I don’t sit down to read, say, Tom Sawyer and if I get stuck on some page ring up Mark Twain to ask him what he meant. But I can pray to God for help in understanding his Word, at any time.

Now, I’m not suggesting that God will answer audibly or immediately. But such a prayer is not a vain request. It is a very biblical request, and the psalmist prays, “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps 119:18) And it is good practice to come to Scripture reading always with those words, if not on our lips, certainly in the back of our minds.

The Bible is not always an easy book to understand, but neither is it impenetrable. What will make it totally incomprehensible is to read it as one would any other human book. For it is unlike every other book in the world that ever has been, or ever will be written—it is the Word of God (cf 2Tm 3:16). Read it in humble dependence on God, and in his presence. It is an open book, and a powerful book, penetrating deep into the recesses of our minds (cf Heb 4:12).

It is, if you like, the ultimate interactive book. Read with care, for it will change your life. And if your life’s not changing then either you aren’t reading it, or you aren’t listening to what God is saying in it.