When I was a kid, one of my favorite restaurants was Old Country Buffet. Tucked back in the corner of a nearby shopping center, between a movie theater and a drycleaner, it was the site of more than a few birthday celebration dinners in our family. I looked it up recently and saw that it had permanently closed, finishing with an average customer rating of two stars.
As I recall, there was no menu. My parents paid the price of admission, and we were unleashed into the carnival of all-you-can-eat buffet lines like a pack of hyenas. It wasn’t uncommon to return to our table with a plate of fried chicken, mac n cheese, pizza, corn dogs, and Jell-O, haphazardly piled on top of each other like a junkyard of fat, sugar, and carbs. The salad bar was avoided.
The autonomy to pick and choose as we pleased was intoxicating. Unconstrained by the typical conventions of a meal, we were free to focus on our favorites. If we wanted to construct a cobbler-ice cream-brownie-cookie-marshmallow tower for dessert, we were well within our rights to do so.
Now that I’m older, I see a lot of parallels between the mindset my siblings and I brought to Old Country Buffet and the pick-and-choose mindset that has deeply shaped the Bible reading practices of many Christians in America.
Beginning in Sunday school, kids are introduced to the Bible as an anthology of isolated stories, each with a moral or spiritual lesson attached. They’re given memory verses to take home, incentivized with a prize to recite it next week. In some ways, it makes good sense to start children with these bite-size, easily digestible bits of Scripture. There’s a lot in the Bible they’re not ready for yet. The problem is, most of us never graduate from this style of reading.
As we get older we get busier. Responsibilities pile up and free time shrinks. The sheer amount of information we’re exposed to in a given day (roughly thirty-four gigabytes) forces us into a system of “insidious trade-off between our need to know and our need to save and gain time,” says Maryanne Wolf in her book, Reader, Come Home. “We outsource our intelligence to the information outlets that offer the fastest, simplest, most digestible distillations of information we no longer want to think about ourselves.”
And so, aided and encouraged by our fragmented modern Bibles, we continue to consume the Bible piecemeal, the way we were taught as children. We’re drawn to the autonomy of the Bible buffet.
In doing so, most of the Bible is eliminated from consideration. Ancient battles with Amalekites, lengthy genealogies of obscure tribes, detailed instructions for wave offerings and drink offerings, correspondence about circumcision—it’s hard to see how any of this could be helpful for making it through day-to-day life in the twenty-first century.
Our goal becomes fitting the Bible into our busy lives, and the easiest way to do that is by minimizing it, chopping it up, and ignoring the majority of it. We subsist on a diet of curated fragments, often taken out of context, that cut through the extracurricular Bible clutter and seem to speak directly into modern life. “The modern church has created an entire culture around Bible McNuggets,” Philip Yancey said in a conversation with me, “and assumed they were nutritious.”
By limiting our engagement to cherry-picked fragments useful for personal application, we make the Bible subject to our agendas, our circumstances, and our feelings. Eugene Peterson says it this way in Eat This Book: A Conversation In the Art of Spiritual Reading:
We are in the odd and embarrassing position of being a church in which many among us believe ardently in the authority of the Bible but, instead of submitting to it, use it, apply it, take charge of it endlessly, using our own experience as the authority for how and where and when we will use it.
The Bible becomes small because we make it small. It loses its power to transcend our circumstances because we force it into merely addressing our circumstances.
The Bible will still speak into our lives—more powerfully, in fact, than we may be used to. But we need to give up control over it. We need to abandon the shortcuts we’ve relied on and settle in for a longer, slower journey through the Scriptures. It’s the journey that will form us.
So how do we leave the Bible buffet and begin receiving the Bible—the whole Bible—on its own terms? It’s pretty simple, really.
First we read whole books.
We read whole books because they, not chapters or verses, are the actual building blocks of God’s redemptive story told throughout Scripture. Books and their various authors, genres, cultural settings, and historical moments are how God chose to give the gift of the Bible to us. Receiving this gift means adapting our habits to interact with it on its own terms.
So jump in. Don’t overthink it—pick a book and read it from start to finish. Narrative books like the Gospels, Acts, Esther, or Ruth may be easier to start with. Or you can pick one of Paul’s letters and read the whole thing from start to finish like you’d read any other letter. Besides Romans and the letters to the Corinthians, each can be read in under twenty minutes.
As you read, you’ll encounter familiar stories and well-worn verses in their natural habitats. You’ll read the lesser-known in-between stories that knit the famous ones together. And you’ll inevitably come across things you had no idea were in the Bible. Things will get reframed within the overarching mission of the book, and you’ll notice yourself molding to the author’s agenda and getting swept up in their story, rather than forcing them into yours. Reading big invites us to look up from the trees in order to see the grandeur of the forest.
Adapted from The Bible Reset: Simple Breakthroughs to Make Scripture Come Alive by Alex Goodwin. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
Alex Goodwin is cofounder of the Institute for Bible Reading and cocreator of Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience and Immerse: The Reading Bible, winner of the 2022 ECPA Bible of the Year award. He counts himself as one of many Christians who have struggled to read the Bible and believes that changing how we interact with Scripture can help us become immersed in its transformative story. Alex lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Lacey, and their children, Jack and Ellie.