Opinion: Biblical literacy
Written by Marja Coons-Torn
March 31, 2010

A friend of mine asked me to write about biblical literacy for this column, and I thought that was a wonderful idea. Once at the end of a staff meeting, I commented that the only things that give me hope for the future are reading history and reading scripture. It's amazing to me how often the people who populate the pages of our scriptures encounter situations, dilemmas and temptations that are so remarkably like our own upon reflection.

I got my Bible reading habit not from attending seminary or leading worship in congregations but from my mother. My mother used her Bible like a journal. As she read, she would make notes in the margins about whose birthday it was, or whether we had been to visit relatives, or whatever. The entries are carefully dated.

Her Bible was kept in her bedroom, close to an upholstered rocker where she liked to sit. We were welcome to come into my parents' bedroom and sit and talk with my mother, while she put on makeup or combed her hair, so I was aware the Bible was there. And while I don't particularly remember talking about the Bible with my mother, somehow I knew that she had read it from cover to cover at least three times while she was alive.

She was curious about what was in the Bible. When there was a Bible study course at our church, she was almost sure to be there if it wasn't during working hours. My mother was part of the hidden 40 percent of women who worked in the sixties and seventies. We weren't called latchkey kids then, but that's what we were. She even took a night course at a local university that really stretched her.

I have indeed also studied the Bible, in Bible study groups I've led, in worship, and in graduate level courses. But my favorite thing remains to read the Bible from one end to the other.

Some scholars and pastors will tell you that you must not read the Bible from cover to cover because it was never intended to be read that way. If you are a novice, you will only get discouraged when you read about long genealogies, arcane rules and regulations, or violent conflicts in which many people are killed. But that's a view that doesn't give the reader very much credit. I'm in favor of not discouraging those who want to undertake this task, but rather providing the guidance to find good basic commentaries or other helps.

I'm on my own third cover-to-cover reading. I happen to be in Second Chronicles right now. I recognize that the people of Israel and Judah lived in a very different culture from ours. But I can still ponder what it means to be faithful to God, and I can still laugh about human foibles and puzzle over ethical dilemmas. Do I see the Kings of Israel or Aram or the Hittites as representing our president or the rulers of other countries? Absolutely not! But I do think most heads of states could actually learn a thing or two by reading scripture, whether Hebrew, Christian or Islamic.

Straight through is not the only way to read Scripture. It's probably not even the best way. But it is a valid way. And the key to biblical literacy is to read the Bible, any way. If you are a lectionary follower, you will find a terrific resource called "Weekly Seeds" right on our own UCC web page. But if you, too, are a straight through reader, give me a shout. I'd love to know what you think of the story of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7. Until we meet, happy reading!


The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn is Conference Minister of the UCC's Penn Central Conference.

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