Step one: Open the book
My older sister gave me my first Bible when I went away to college. It sat on a shelf in the dorm for months unopened. Frankly I might never have used it if not for the example of my Protestant roommate, who read her Bible every night. I admired her dedication and even envied it. But like many folks, I found the Bible intimidating. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t understand it, would find the language confounding and the ancient context alienating. Also I secretly expected to be bored silly.
Helpful Bible commentaries
But to my surprise, once I started reading the Bible, I was never bored. I even used the method most frowned upon by every source I’ve since consulted: I read the whole thing front to back, down to the footnotes. If you’re a disciplined kamikaze reader like me, this approach may work for you. I paced myself at three chapters a day, which took about 20 minutes each morning—I’ve squandered that much time deciding which shirt to wear. At that humble rate I reached the end of the Book of Revelation in just under two years.
This life-transforming encounter led me to study the Bible more formally. Now I teach scripture to help casual readers feel more comfortable with venturing into that undiscovered country for themselves. So here’s the first decision any would-be traveler into the pages of Holy Writ should make: whether to take the journey alone or with a group. Self-motivated types might fare fine with just a good commentary for company. Others will prefer the support of a group. To gain a Catholic perspective, I recommend your local parish-sponsored Bible study. Ecumenical groups can be invigorating for more mature readers but may be too challenging for beginners, since some Christian communities interpret scripture more literally or more Protestantly than we do.
Not all parish Bible groups are created equal. Some are catechetical—that is, a qualified catechist teaches while learners imbibe the information. Others are intended as faith-sharing groups in which there may be no primary leader. In such situations, a reliable commentary source is a must to promote thoughtful discussion and to play the referee on interpretation when needed.
The next decision Catholic readers face is whether to pursue the Bible as the church does—following the readings for each day or Sunday as they are proclaimed at Mass—or whether to tackle the text in some other way. Following the church lectionary has its advantages: 1) You don’t have to make decisions about what to read next. 2) You stick to the material the church believes is most central to the faith. 3) A lot of commentaries follow the lectionary so you have plenty of outside help available.
But there are disadvantages to the lectionary approach. One big one is that parts of the Bible are rarely or never read at Mass. Some are quite intriguing and there’s no other way to make their acquaintance than to do it on your own time. Another disadvantage is that, when reading a passage out of context, the larger meaning of the story may be lost. Also patterns evident across an entire book will not be noticed in a short snippet.
For these reasons many Bible readers opt for one of three other popular approaches: to study whole books (Genesis, Ruth, Revelation), Bible sections (gospels or prophets or letters of Paul), or select themes (God’s mercy, the Law of Moses, women in the Bible). Many commentary books or serials adopt these methods, offering helpful scholarship in a user-friendly style.
Personally I like combining these methods: studying seasonally appropriate stories around Christmas and Easter; broadly considering a generation of writings to anchor the books in history; reading short works like Jonah or Peter’s letters line by line together as a group; and reviewing how certain themes develop across the testaments.
Our parish group has been at it for three years now, buzzing all over the Bible, learning history and theology, using the text sometimes meditatively, at other times as a window on current events. So far, nobody reports boredom.