The Whole Sweep of Scripture, by N.T. Wright (transcript)

Posted on January 1, 2014


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How do I read the Bible? Do I read it from the left or from the right?

It depends on whether you’re reading the Old Testament or the New because in the Old Testament it’s Hebrew, so of course you read it from the right to the left, and the New Testament is in Greek, so… that’s probably not what you meant. What did you mean?

How do we read the Bible? Any thoughts? Any recommendations?

A thousand things. Frequently and thoroughly is the best answer. The Bible was not primarily written in order to be read in 10 verse chunks. We have cut the Bible down to size. Now, obviously there are some bits like the Psalms, and like some passages — the book of James is written in very short bursts — but most of it including Paul’s letters and certainly the Gospels and certainly great books like Isaiah and so on are read in order to be experienced the way you experience a symphony.

Imagine if you were to a concert and you got the first 10 bars of Beethoven 5, and then the conductor turned around and said, “Okay, that’s all for this week, come back the same time next week, and we’ll have the next ten bars.” You would think, “Wait…” And if somebody said, “Oh, but if you listen to the whole thing you’d never remember it all, you’d think, “Well, that’s not the point.” You don’t listen to it in order to remember — you will remember quite a lot of it — you listen to it in order to be swept along in the full flow and sweep and flood of it. And I grieve over the fact that there are many many Christians who have never ever read one of the Gospels or even one of the epistles straight through at a sitting. John’s Gospel, even slowly, will take you two hours. Now, if you’re really engrossed in a novel you’d read that for that long quite easily. Why not just allow the thing to wash over you? Of course, then, there’s all the time in the world to go back and say, “I really now want to do a study on John chapter 13, or whatever it is, and go down into the details of the words, but see the parts in the light of the whole, and that means the whole Bible, and one could talk all evening about all the different things that happen when you see, say, the whole of Genesis and Exodus as one single narrative, and how that actually works from the beginning to the end. The whole of the Pentateuch, the whole (as I said before) book of Isaiah, or the way that the Psalms fit together into their whole book, and so on and so on. My favorite really, is where I started was Romans. Most people read Romans in little bits, and even those who think they know Romans reasonably well, they tend to know bits of Romans 1, 2, and 3, and then little bits of 5, 6, 7, and 8, and then they worry about 9 to 11, and this, and interesting stuff at the back. But instead, see Romans as a symphony in four movements. Think how the themes work. Until we wrestle with Scripture like that we’re really not honoring it. If this is the book God meant us to have by the Spirit, then it’s important that we actually take that seriously instead of just snipping it down to make it digestible like somebody with a huge banquet in front of them who insists on going to the back room and just making a peanut butter sandwich instead.

Isn’t it hard to sell it and market it in bigger chunks though?

I don’t know whether it’s harder to sell it or market it. I sometimes think people are excited by the challenge, actually. Especially young people. If you say to a young person, “Oh, maybe you’d like to read a few verses of the Bible now and again,” it’s like, sort of “ho, hum. Oh, well, maybe, I might.” But if you say, “Hey, there’s this world out there! Come on! Dive in. Get in to it! Swim around!” Then, maybe they’ll take it seriously. Of course, they may need some help because some of it, they won’t understand. And they need to know that that’s okay. The first time I read one of the longer books of the Bible through, I was 13 or 14 years old, and I sat down one day and read through the book of Revelation. I didn’t have a clue as to what most of it was about. But I had this sense of this powerful, extraordinary thing, this sweep of images. And I remember that day, even though it was some 50 years ago, a very vivid experience.

The church from quite early on chopped it up in order to read the Bible in the liturgy, and that’s fair enough. Most of us can’t, actually, when we’re doing liturgy or doing worship in church, we can’t actually have a service that goes on for five or six hours. We might like to. The Eastern Orthodox often do that. And some of the African churches, once you’ve got yourself to church on a Sunday, you want to be there for at least three hours because you’ve probably come a long way, and it’s exciting. But actually, in some of the early manuscripts, there are little marks indicating that from quite early on the church did divide scripture up into lectionary portions for reading in public worship.

But the thing then we have to remember is this. If I have a room in my house which has a small window, if I stand back from it, I may only see a little bit of the countryside outside. If I press my nose up against that small window, I can see this whole sweep of countryside around. Now, when we read ten verses of John, or Romans, or Isaiah, or whatever it is, the temptation is only to think of those ten verses. But actually, we ought to see this as a little window through which we see the whole thing. So in my tradition, in the Anglican Church, we say morning and evening prayer each day, there’s an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading each time. And, I’ve often said to people what is basically going on in each service is, we’re actually reading the whole Old Testament, but we’re just reading it through the lens of these 15 or 20 verses. And we’re reading the whole New Testament — or thinking the whole New Testament — but we’re just reading this particular bit because the service is an act of praise to God. And when you read Scripture in public, it’s not just informing the congregation what’s going on, it’s declaring the mighty acts of God, which is an act of praise and adoration and thanking God for what He has done. So, we read, say, a little bit of Romans or a little bit of John, or whatever it is, but we’re actually thinking of that whole sweep of the New Covenant and I find that helps me to reflect on what’s actually going on when we’re worshipping. So, it is dangerous to simply feed people with these tiny little snippets, but if you’re going to do it that way for liturgical sake, or for your own private reading if that’s what you’ve got time for, remember that actually you’re reading the whole thing day by day, but you’re just focusing on this little bit.

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