Have you ever started watching a movie late at night, on a whim, only to have your better reason kick in and exchange the entertainment for a better night’s sleep? Or walked into a theater five minutes late and missed the opening scenes of a film? Or watched only bits and pieces of a documentary because you were only flipping over to that channel whenever the show you were really watching went to commercial?
I’ve done each of these at different times. And none of them were satisfying ways to view, understand, or appreciate a film.
But when I’ve watched a movie the way it’s meant to be watched — in a single sitting — I’ve slowly come to understand its characters and plot and movements and storyline. Many times I’ve even been drawn into the story itself, joining its twists and turns, identifying with characters and resonating with emotions and actually experiencing what the filmmakers wanted me to experience.
Films are best seen in a single sitting because they tell a single story. Which is why, when we really want to watch a movie, we carve out a couple hours to do it.
Over the holidays, I’ve had far more time than usual to start reading through the Bible. And I’ve been struck once again by the clarity that comes when I read larger, unified portions of Scripture in longer sittings. I’ve recently been fascinated by the book of Numbers, partially by this Bible Project overview, partially through study for an upcoming sermon, but mainly through the simple act of reading the book slowly and methodically. The census-taking, the leadership structures, the genealogical connections, the travel logs, the tabernacle responsibilities — these details and their significance become so much clearer when I’m moving methodically across the landscape of the story rather than jumping in and out of the narrative in the fits and starts that can accompany so much of our Scripture reading.
We can’t read the whole Bible in one sitting. I didn’t even read Numbers in one sitting. But reading long sections at once, using a reader’s Bible that removes verse numbers and section headings, breaking at logical breakpoints, and then picking up the book again without much time in between — these are all helpful strategies for better understanding the grand story the Bible tells.
There are many complementary ways we can and should engage with Scripture. Tim Challies has helpfully differentiated between approaches that emphasize intimacy and those that emphasize familiarity. I’ve often thought in terms of reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating, four categories that approach Scripture from different angles while overlapping and complementing each other. All of these are necessary, all are good, and Christians in different seasons of life will need each in turn.
But in all seasons of life, Christians must be rooting ourselves more and more deeply in the redemptive work of Christ, grasping the grand narrative that tells us who we are and why we’re here and what God expects from us.
Each successive generation of God’s people faces the grave danger of biblical illiteracy. And we don’t avoid biblical illiteracy by having a Bible. We avoid it by knowing the Bible. No matter how deep the wells dug by previous generations, we must dig our own wells.
But we must not think of the Bible only as a good thing not to neglect. That is, we must not only be warned of the dangers of biblical illiteracy. We must also be wooed by the promise of biblical understanding. Because each generation of God’s people, while facing the grave danger of biblical illiteracy, also has a perpetual feast always near at hand. I’ve learned that if I’m walking around biblically famished, this personal famine can only be my fault, because the feast is never far away.
If you carve out a couple hours — just like you would for a movie — you could probably read the 50 chapters of Genesis all at once. And if you did, you wouldn’t be reading the 50 chapters of Genesis. You’d just be reading Genesis. You’d just be savoring the story.
It shouldn’t be surprising that we come to understand the story of Scripture best when we spend significant time reading it in large chunks. It’s that way with most other stories we enjoy. And even though we can’t read all of Scripture in a single sitting, we can — with a little purpose and discipline — set aside enough time to enjoy the sweet rewards that come when we sit long with Scripture and savor the stories and poems and prophecies and letters that God has prepared for his people.