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We African Christians in general love the Bible. We love to own a Bible. We enjoy listening to preaching based on the Bible. And we love to read tracts and booklets about the Bible. Sometimes we check out the Bible to pray a certain psalm or read a few verses that have been indicated to us in the course of a lesson, homily or discussion. But few of us ever read the Bible on a regular basis as a Christian devotion. Why?
We Africans have a dynamic sense of the sacred. When it comes to the Bible this disposition is carried to excesses in such a way that we not only have a reverential fear for the Bible but a demobilizing awe that keeps us from seeing the Bible as a book to be read. I used to know a certain man who owned a Bible. He wrapped it up very neatly in white cloth and saved it together with his other precious belongings in a drawer. The Bible was brought out and unwrapped only when there was a dispute in the village and someone needed to swear an oath to resole the dispute. For this man the Bible had become a sacred object doing the work that used to be done by the idols of traditional religion in the settlement of disputes. The Bible, sure enough, is a sacred object. But it is a sacred object meant above all to be read and listened to.
In this presentation we shall examine some of the reasons our people adduce for not reading the Bible habitually. Many of these "reasons" are based on wrong premises and suppositions, as we shall see. Finally we shall see some of the positive reasons why every literate Christian should regularly read the Bible. It is indeed a habit that brings with it manifold blessings.
2. WHY SOME CHRISTIANS DO NOT READ THE BIBLE
Some Christians do not read the Bible because they believe that the Bible is a primitive book that has little relevance to the realities of modern life. The world economic and banking system would collapse if we followed literally the Bible injunction not to lay up treasure for ourselves here on earth (Matthew 6:19). Law and order could not be maintained in the society if we followed literally the Bible injunction not to judge others (Matthew 7:1) but to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 38-41).
The Bible does not take an incontrovertible stand on racial, sexual or social discrimination. It does not always speak out clear and strong in condemnation of some forms of social injustice. For example, the Bible does not take a clear stand against slavery and genocide in war. As a matter of fact, many Bible reading Christians are known to be very insensitive to issues of social injustice and very slow to act in pursuance of justice and peace. In the past, and up to the present in some quarters, the Bible has been used as a weapon to rob people of their God-given freedom and suppress their efforts at liberation and self-determination.
It is true that the Bible, and religion in general, has been put to many an ignoble use by Christians who are presumably well-meaning but ignorant. Many errors and crimes against humanity and against true religion have been committed in God's name. But it is becoming increasing clear to all humankind that those who use the Bible as a pretext for evil bend the Bible to their wills instead of bending their wills to the Bible. Instead of surrendering themselves as servants of the Word of God they manipulate the Word of God to serve them and their selfish ambitions. This is not a criticism of the Bible as much as of the men and women who thus misuse it. The Bible, like every precious thing, is liable to misuse and a lot of material and spiritual harm could result from abuses. But that only underlines the need for us to acquire the know-how for a proper understanding and application of the Bible in our every-day lives.
True, the Bible is an ancient book dealing in the first instance with the problems of those times. But a deeper analysis of the human situation reveals that most of those ancient problems are still with us, clamouring for a solution. How do we as individuals live happy and meaningful lives? How do we as a society build a community of peace and justice and prosperity for all? These are some of the ancient problems of humankind that are as relevant and urgent today as they were in the days of yore. As the book of Ecclesiastes says,
The fundamental problems of humankind have not changed. And so the Bible which addresses these problems will always be found to be relevant until the end of times. As the Lord himself said,
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Mark 13:31)
This is not to deny the fact that the Bible is an ancient book as indeed it is. For, as John J. Dougherty says in his book Searching the Scriptures:
The books of the Bible were composed by many individuals or schools over a period that spans more than a thousand years, when we consider the phase of oral tradition and early written documents. It must also be noted that the Bible was finished almost two thousand years ago.(1)
What needs also to be underlined here is that in spite of the fact of the Bible being an ancient book it does have an enduring value. Recognition of the age of the Bible should go hand in hand with recognition of its eternal value. The Bible could be old but it could never be out of date.
Some educated Africans say that the Bible is a product of a foreign religion and culture meant for believers in a foreign God. The Bible, they argue, was not intended for Africans and using the Bible to seek solutions to African problems would be tantamount to putting a square peg in a round hole. According to this point of view, the Bible is simply irrelevant in Africa. Worse still, it could be downright negative and harmful in its effects on the religions and cultures of African peoples which it seeks to replace with a foreign one.
People who reason in this fashion do not, in general, actually base their arguments on the content of the Bible. Few of them have taken the pains to read the Bible and to know exactly what they are condemning. Often such people have a problem with the Christian religion in the first place and this makes them regard the Bible with prejudice. If they could let go of prejudice and read the Bible they would discover that the God of the Bible is not only the God of the Israelites but also the God of Africans. For the one and only God is the God of the whole world and is equally available for all men and women of the world irrespective of their culture, nation or race. The experience of Peter, a Jew, in the house of Cornelius, a pagan, is a good demonstration of this point:
Then Peter addressed them, "I now really understand", he said, "that God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:34-35 NJB)
In the imperfect revelation of the Old Testament one often comes across passages in which the Israelites are presented as special people in God's eyes. It is true that God chose the Israelites of old as a people bound to him by covenant, but God's express intention was that the blessings of this covenant should reach out to the whole world and not be limited to the Israelites.
When God called Abraham God promised him two things, namely, "I will bless you" and "By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Genesis 12:1-3). Right from the beginning of God's dealings with Israel, God's interest in all humanity was a major concern. The purpose of the divine election of Israel is twofold, namely, in the interest of the Israelite people and in the interest of the whole world. This is how Isaiah summarizes it:
It is not enough for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I shall make you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of earth. (Isaiah 49:6 NJB)
God had to start somewhere. That God chose Israel as His messenger in the world does not mean that God loved Israel to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. No. All men and women are God's children. God fathered them when He created them.
The God of the Bible is none other than the same God Creator of heaven and earth worshiped by our ancestors (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 45:12). Though God is sometimes spoken of as the "creator of Israel" (Isaiah 43:15), He is also believed to be the "creator of the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 40:28). The same God who revealed Himself in a general way to all peoples of the earth in creation (Psalm 19:1-4) also revealed Himself in a special way to the Israelites through their prophets and especially through His Son Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1). The relevance and importance of the Bible to all who seek to know and serve God is that in it we have a record of God our Father's self-revelation to the whole world given through His messenger, Israel.
It is a sad fact that early Christian missionaries to Africa did not always give the impression that there could be harmony between African cultures and Christianity. They often treated our cultural beliefs and practices as if they came from the devil while Christian beliefs and practices came from God. The one was to be uprooted and the other was to be transplanted. This uproot-and-transplant attitude of some of the early missionaries has given the Christian religion and its Bible a bad name among many enlightened Africans.
But we should be careful not to throw away the baby with the bath water. While denouncing the wrong use of the Bible in the hands of over zealous missionaries, we should, at the same time receive the Bible itself with gratitude to God for such a wonderful gift to all His children in every corner of the world.
Christianity with its Bible is God's gift to men and women of every culture in the world who search for "the way, the truth and the life". Its basic teachings are compatible with any culture in the world, resulting in a mutual enrichment of both the culture and Christianity. European Christians did succeed in the past to effect a synthesis between Christianity and their culture. Today, Christian sons and daughters of Africa are working to achieve the same in Africa -- through the process known as inculturation.
Rather than the negative stance of Christianity OR African culture knowledgeable Africans should adopt the positive stance of Christianity AND African culture. The Bible is Jewish, yes. But the Bible is not only Jewish. It is also European, African, Asian, American, name it.
Before the awakening of interest in the Bible among Nigerian Christians that gave rise to the biblical movement in the 1970's many stories were circulating, especially in Roman Catholic circles, that tried to show that it was a dangerous thing for the ordinary Christian to read the Bible. These stories spoke of people who dabbled into the Bible out of curiosity and without any special training and how they ended up becoming blind or insane. It was then believed that only specially trained people, namely the priests and religious, could safely read the Bible.
It is hard to trace the origins of such stories since they did not reflect official church teaching even in those days. Whatever be their origins such stories were undoubtedly exaggerated. Yes, there is a possibility of danger arising out of misunderstanding of the Bible which could seriously harm the individual Christian's life as well as the Christian community. A zealous Christian was known to have mutilated himself through castration because the Bible says
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Yes, it is possible to misuse the Bible and spiritually destroy oneself and others. The Bible itself says so:
Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.(2 Peter 3:15-16)
This is not intended to discourage Christians from reading the Bible. No, it is meant to caution them so they would make the necessary preparations and take the necessary dispositions to read the Bible profitably. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well, and this includes Bible reading. Of course, as in everything really important and useful, there could be abuses. But the abuse of a thing does not take away its legitimate and profitable use. Should we refrain from driving because there are many bad drivers on the roads? No. Rather we need to make more effort to learn driving well so that we can drive better than those bad drivers that cause accidents on our roads.
We can say the same about Bible reading. The dangers involved are not supposed to frighten us away from the Bible but to motivate us to learn how to read and understand the Bible better. This book is meant to help you do just that. The Bible is like a forest. Those who know their way about it go in and out and find firewood, mushroom and rare vegetables but those uninitiated lose their way in it.
The Bible is good. But some people do not know how to use it and this produces harmful results. Many centuries ago, St Augustine (+A.D. 430) asked the question, "Do you know how heresies [false teachings] are produced?" He answered the question: it is because "the Scriptures, which are good in themselves, were badly interpreted."(2) Knowing this, therefore, what do we do? Run away from the Bible? No. Try to know better so as to avoid the pitfalls in the interpretation of the Bible? Yes.
Sometimes when you ask some people whether they read the Bible the answer you get back is, "Is it necessary for salvation?" Actually they have a point. Private Bible reading is not absolutely necessary for salvation. Does the Bible not say that faith comes from "hearing" the preaching of Christ (Romans 10:17)? Has the church not known innumerable men and women of God who lived the Christian life in a way worthy of emulation but who never "read" a page of the Bible simple because they were illiterate? There is no doubt about it: private Bible reading is not an absolute requirement for personal faith and salvation.
Yet private Bible reading is very helpful and profitable growth in the Christian life. Some of the reasons for this assertion we shall se below, but for now let us make the simple observation that many of the things we do in life are done not because they are absolutely necessary for survival but because they are very helpful for one to live well. Examples would be eating three times a day, taking a bath everyday, learning to read and write. One would still survive if one ate only once a day, took a bath once in three days and never went to school at all. But it is easy to see that the quality of such a person's life would suffer.
For someone who really wants to live the good life and not only to survive, certain things which are not absolutely necessary for life might in practice become a necessity. Similarly, though private Bible reading is not absolutely necessary for salvation, those who really want to grow and blossom in the Christian life often discover that they do need the Bible reading devotion. It is not an objective necessity but its subjective importance and usefulness cannot be over-emphasized.
The point we are trying to make about private Bible reading being very useful though not absolutely important has been made in fewer words by Dougherty:
The impression that the Catholic Church does not encourage her members to read the Bible is widespread. One often comes across non-Catholics as well as Catholics who hold that view. But the view is not altogether correct. The Catholic Church, like a good mother, cautions her children about the dangers in using unapproved, non-Catholic editions of the Bible. The old (1917) Code of Canon Law forbids Catholics, except those engaged in theological or biblical studies, to use editions and translations of the Bible published by non-Catholics (canon 1399). But the faithful were certainly encouraged to read Catholic, approved editions of the Bible.
There are many passages in the documents of the Second Vatican Council in which the church exhorts all the faithful to "frequent reading of the divine Scriptures". One of such is the following taken from the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, published on November 18, 1965.
The sacred Synod forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful to learn "the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." Therefore, let them go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of the divine words, or in devout reading, or in such suitable exercises and various other helps which, with the approval and guidance of the pastors of the Church, are happily spreading everywhere in our day.(4)
But perhaps the most concrete expression of the church's encouragement of the faithful to read the Bible was given as far back as December 13, 1898 when the church, through the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Leo XIII, conferred the spiritual benefits of indulgences on her children who read the Bible:
Pope Leo XIII ordained that "the faithful who spend at least a quarter of an hour in reading Holy Scripture with the great reverence due to the Word of God and after the manner of spiritual reading may gain an indulgence of 300 days." A plenary indulgence may be gained once a month by those who make private reading a daily practice.(5)
One could, of course, point out the fact that in practice the Catholic Church, at least in Africa, appears to be doing less to encourage her members to read the Bible than the protestant churches. The Catholic Church seems to be investing less of her resources in the provision of low-priced and vernacular Bibles for her members than do the other churches. The same could be said about the provision of Bible reading guides and materials. Such a situation is regrettable.
Nevertheless, let it be clear that the Catholic Church, as much as the other Christian churches, recognizes the value of Bible reading and encourages her children to read the Bible as a daily spiritual exercise.
3. WHY READ THE BIBLE
There is much hunger in Africa. Many Africans live under the shadow of death brought about by famine, drought and economic failure. Yet the hunger for the word of God is more keenly felt by many. Many people are prepared to endure hunger and thirst in order to hear a soul-satisfying exposition of the Word of God. We seem to be living in those days spoken of by the prophet Amos:
"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, "when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.(Amos 8:11)
Bible reading is one of the ways through which we seek to satisfy this hunger for God's Word which God Himself has put into the human soul.
The human spirit loves wisdom. We love to know the difference between reality and illusion, good and bad, right and wrong, so that we could devote our energies to the pursuit of the one and the avoidance of the other. Now there is worldly wisdom which helps one only in this passing world and there is divine wisdom which leads one through this life into eternity. This is the wisdom that leads to salvation. This is the kind of wisdom one can acquire through knowledge of the holy scriptures, as Paul says:
Ever since you were a child, you have known the holy scriptures -- from these you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15 NJB)
Life is a gift from God. It is God's will that we make of life a success and not a failure. The word of God instructs us on how to conduct ourselves so as always to merit God's favour and blessings. God's word enlightens humanity in the journey of life:
Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
If we meditate on the word of God in the and strive to do according to what is written in it, we are better equipped to handle life's problems. We shall make better choices of life's options and adopt more correct attitudes towards ourselves, towards God and towards other people and things. This is the secret of success in life.
This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
The success we are speaking of here is integral success, success of the whole person in all its dimensions -- private, social and spiritual. Above all it includes success in the all-important business of being a Christian.
Bible reading is an activity recommended to Christians, that is, those who already believe in God and in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Whether a non-believer could arrive at the faith through unguided reading of the Bible is debatable. The point here is that Bible reading is seen as a useful means for Christians who already believe to build up their faith.
Luke dedicated his gospel to a certain Theophilus, a name which literally means "lover of God". Whether Luke's Theophilus is a personal name or a general designation for any Christian we are not sure. What is certain is that Theophilus is someone who already had knowledge of the Christian faith, and that Luke wrote to him so that he might learn how well founded the teaching was that he had received (Luke 1:4). Similarly John who wrote his gospel for the Christian community gave his purpose for writing as,
These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
Let us cite an example from the early Christians to show that regular Bible reading could serve as a means by which Christian could fan the flickering flame of their initial faith into the radiant blaze of a mature faith. It is taken from Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17. Paul and Silas in their missionary journey came to a town called Beroea. There they preached the word to the Jews. The story continues,
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonika, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.(Acts 17:11-12).
This story gives us a model of the relationship between faith and scripture. The model is:
This example brings out the vital importance of the Bible for growth in the life of faith.
Many Christians are in a constant struggle to uproot sin and sinful habits from their lives. They often experience the moral dilemma faced by St Paul as described in his letter to the Romans:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:15-19)
Now, the experience of godly men and women down through the centuries testifies to the fact that reading and meditating on the word of God is a great help in overcoming this seemingly hopeless situation. You cannot at the same time occupy the mind with the sure promises of word of God and the empty promises of sin. It is impossible to abide in the word of God and abide in sin at the same time. Hence the psalmist declares:
How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word...
All children of God who wants to give sin a serious fight in their lives must seriously consider making room in their daily lives for reading and meditating on the word of God.
Many conflicting teaching are circulating in different Christian circles today. Faithfulness in the right way demands that one be equipped to distinguish between truth and falsity and especially to be able to see through deceptive half truths. Knowledge of the Bible helps us to do this in a number of ways:
Sharing the faith with others is one of our Christian obligations. In John 1 we read how Andrew found Simon his brother and brought him to Jesus, and how Philip found Nathaniel (probably his friend) and brought him to Jesus. There are many ways we can witness the Good News to our family members and friends. We can do that by teaching the ignorant, by correcting the erring and by reproving the adamant. In all these forms of witnessing we shall find a knowledge of the Bible to be of great help. This is because
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NRSV).
Many Christians know what is right and just but simply do not know how to go about sharing their convictions with friends and family members. Knowledge of the Bible gives one the courage and the know-how to share the faith with others. And how can we know the Bible unless we read and study it?
In this volume we have examined some of the reasons our people give why they do not read the Bible. We saw that most of them are not well-founded. Then we went on to enumerate some of the advantages of habitual Bible reading. We saw that we have a lot of profit to reap from Bible reading in the our personal, social and faith dimensions of our lives. Now these "proofs" would only be dead arguments unless we take the practical steps of verifying them in our own personal experiences.
In Bible reading as in all matters of faith experience is the best teacher. Then only can we graduate from the ordinary level of faith where we believe because someone else told us to the advanced level where we believe because we have encountered God ourselves. Then can we make our own the words of the villagers to the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus by Jacob's well:
GUIDELINES FOR PRIVATE BIBLE READING (READ, THINK, AND PRAY)
"They study best together who first study alone,
NB. It is very recommendable to keep a Bible reading notebook or chart where you record your daily readings as well as the inspirations and problem that came to you in the course of your Bible reading.
The faithful who spend at least a quarter of an hour in reading Holy Scripture with the great reverence due to the Word of God and after the manner of spiritual reading may gain an indulgence of 300 days, ... and a plenary indulgence may be gained monthly by those who make this reading a daily practice. (Pope Leo XIII, 13 Dec. 1898.)
This book of the Law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
1.NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. John J. Dougherty, Searching the Scriptures: A Popular Introduction to the Bible, Garden
City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1959, 1963, p. 13.
2. 3. 4. 5.
2.Cf. John J. Dougherty, Searching the Scriptures, p. 10.
3.Ibid. p. 8.
4.Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, n. 25, in Austin Flannery (transl.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press, 1975.
5.John J. Dougherty, Searching the Scriptures, pp. 8-9.
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