Review: After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I hope to write a publishable review of this book in the future. I’ll just take this Goodreads/blogging opportunity to offer some of my favorite quotes and insights from it. I do have a few minor criticisms, but I’m not going to bother with them in this forum. This is an excellent book that is the fruit of some careful and diligent work.
Modernity introduced … [a] significant change to the presentation of the Scriptures. The order of the biblical books had been relatively fluid before the modern period, but with the advent of printing, it became fixed. This allowed people to gain quick access to materials anywhere in the Bible, independently of their context, using a ‘book, chapter, and verse’ reference. Following these coordinates became the key to navigating through the Scriptures in the popular mind. And so the Bible was recast to reflect two key values of modernity: information and speed. (8)
His arguments about Luke-Acts are compelling. It’s not just the presence of John in between Luke and Acts that causes a problem; it’s even the titles of the “two” “books” that causes a problem. Luke is called a “Gospel” while Acts is called “Acts of the Apostles.”
Luke is actually writing a two-volume history of the ‘kingdom of God’ that has begun to arrive on earth…. The reshaping of the Bible encourages us to read these two volumes as if they were separate books and different kinds of writing. (53, emphasis added)
Book titles can lead us astray in several ways:
- They can ascribe authorship when the book does not (Lamentations, Matthew).
- They can inappropriately designate the recipients of the book (Ephesians, probably).
- They can be misleading as to a book’s content: Exodus, for example, is about more than just Israel’s departure from Egypt.
- They can also be misleading when it comes to genre identification: James is more like New Testament wisdom literature than it is like an epistle.
Smith compares the fragmented Bible reading encouraged by typographical formatting and even common daily Bible reading plans to channel-surfing. “What other literature would we ever read like this? … The fragmentation and jumbling wreck our attention span.” (123)
Smith points out accurately and perceptively that hitting a big chapter break makes many Bible readers feel as if they’ve hit a good stopping place, even if they haven’t.
Every time we let chapters, sections, the schedule of an annual plan, or the assignments in a daily devotional guide decide for us where we should stop reading the Bible, we miss an opportunity to become better readers. (128–129)
If we want to reintroduce the Scriptures to people in the postmodern generations, we shouldn’t encourage them to read the Bible every day in short selections. In fact, we should probably encourage them not to read the Bible every day. The kind of “reading” that is interesting, enjoyable, satisfying, and meaningful is done in bursts. A person finds a literary work so engaging and absorbing they can’t put it down. They sit with it for hours. And when they’re done reading, they want to savor the experience, letting the whole work settle into their hearts and minds. They recall favorite passages, recognize the meaning of symbols, make connections in the plot, and talk with their friends or blog about what they’ve read. In other words, there are aftereffects to be felt. These can’t be rushed. So if a person spends several hours one day reading an entire work in the Bible, and spends the next few days reflecting on it without reading anything else in Scripture, we should be delighted. (128)
This isn’t to say that we should never read short selections in the Bible and consider them individually. There is a very legitimate place for this activity, so long as these short selections do represent natural literary units…. But reading must precede studying. This is a specific case for the general principle for approaching any artistic creation: you must engage the whole before you can understand the parts, because their meaning comes from their context within the larger work. (129)
An intriguing idea: as the church is about to enter the extended study of a particular book, dedicate one worship service to reading the book in its entirety. This is not a “postmodern novelty” because it’s something that was done in Old Testament times and when Paul’s epistles, for example, first arrived in the churches to whom he wrote them. (140-141)
Smith likens Bible reading to movie watching. Yes, you could watch individual scenes with the director’s commentary turned on first, and only later watch the whole movie. But it seems much more natural to watch the entire movie and only then study individual scenes and/or listen to the director’s commentary. (157-158)
Smith suggests that instead of being drawn away from the passage we are studying by notes and even cross references, questions about the meaning of a given statement should be answered first by recourse to the surrounding context within the book. (158)
Another recourse to the film analogy:
One young man, in a blog post, compared reading the Bible with section headings to “watching a film with someone bending over every thirty seconds to pseudo-whisper, ‘Psst! This is the part where….’ I feel like maybe, just maybe, taking the film and on the director’s terms for the first few times will be sufficient.” (213–214)
Smith says that a congregation’s speed in flipping to a particular passage is not necessarily the unalloyed good modern Americans tend to assume it is. If preachers were forced to guide their hearers to the right passage, they could use that opportunity to refresh the thought flow and book-level context in the minds of their hearers. Smith offers this example of what a preacher could say:
Has everybody found Matthew? Good. Now Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, then the story of his birth and early ministry. Flip through those, and you’ll come to a collection of his foundational teachings. There Jesus first tells us what it means to be blessed; then he tells us how we can truly fulfill the law; and then he tells us in what spirit we should give and pray and fast. We’re going to look this morning at what he says about prayer. Does everybody have that place? (220)