A few days ago I received the following message from a friend:
Tom can you please write a blog post about whether listening to Christian podcasts and sermons is adequate these days to be a good Christian? It’s a brave new world and I have always struggled with just reading straight from the bible. In our digital era, is reading directly from the word still a must?!?!?!!?
So I’m coming out of my unintentional blogging hiatus to answer this question because I am a wise sage of Internet advice. I want to begin at the end of the message: there are too many question and exclamation marks in this question. I know that’s not the point, but it was emotionally difficult for me to read. Just one of each next time will suffice. Thank you.
What even is a good Christian?
Now let’s get down to the actual business of the question. Firstly, what is required to be a “good Christian”? This bit’s easy. The only thing needed to be a “good” Christian is to trust in Jesus. Because our goodness comes from Jesus’ goodness being applied to us. You’re either a good Christian or your not a Christian at all. But if you’re a Christian you’re good, you’re righteous, and God has adopted you into his family no matter whether you read the Bible for hours every day in the original ancient languages (like me) or if your only exposure to the Bible is through scrolling past clips of American preachers in your newsfeed. So that’s pretty good news. In fact, that is the good news!
Bible reading is hard
But here is what I think your question is really asking: do you need to read the Bible for yourself in order to grow as a Christian, or will podcasts and sermons (and other Christian teaching) suffice?
Contrary to the lie above, I struggle to read the Bible. Sometimes I’ll read a small section of the Bible in my (not-quite) daily quiet time, and think, “Great, that’s done, now I can get on with the day”. Sometimes, I’ll read a big chunk of scripture, and I’ll think, “I don’t remember any of what I just read.” Every now and then I read the Bible and notice something, or feel God pointing something out, and think, “That’s amazing!” but that probably doesn’t happen the majority of the time I read the Bible.
However, when I’m reading books, listening to sermons or Christian podcasts, or chatting to a friend, and they are talking about the Bible, then I feel like I’m much more likely to experience a “Wow!” moment. So I think, at least to some degree, I understand how you feel. That said, I still think reading the Bible for yourself is vital to your growth as a Christian, and I’ll tell you why.
If the Bible really is God’s word to us, then when we read it we are hearing him speak to us. Better to hear a message firsthand than secondhand. When we hear the Bible only through the teaching of others it will always come through the lens of someone else. Some of their insights will be great, but some of them will be tainted by their personal opinions and unconscious bias, and some of what they say might even be wrong. This is one of the reasons why I always want people to have their Bibles open when I teach – I want people checking what I say against the Bible.
In this “brave new world” where we can curate our own collection of our favourite teachers from all over the globe, we are inevitably going to have a bias towards to the people who say things we agree with. I know the books, blogs, podcasts, and preaching that I digest consist mostly of people who I like to read and listen to. As much as I might try and fight against it by listening to alternative voices, I’ll always slide towards the people who are my people.
When you go straight to the Bible and cut out the middle-men and women, you give the Bible a chance to speak as it is. It challenges you to think for yourself, to discover parts of the Bible not often spoken about by your theological tribe (or any theological tribe), and to ask, “What does it really mean when it says…” before you get someone else’s opinion. If you’re a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit, and one of the things he does is help you hear from God as you read his word. Of course, as you read it you’ll have your own biased lens but better to have only one bias at play, than yours and then someone else’s on top. And if you put the effort in to learn to read the Bible in its literary and cultural context you’ll do a better and better job of identifying what’s the Bible and what’s you as you read it.
The other thing I have found is that while I don’t often feel like I hear God speak to me at the moment I am reading the Bible, I am much more likely to find that a part of the Bible will come to mind at some later stage, when I am mulling over a particular problem or facing a difficult situation. It seems the Holy Spirit is applying the Bible after the fact of reading it. The more I spend time in the Bible the better I know the Bible and the more I leave myself open to that happening.
Other people can help
All that said, it is good to hear other people teach the Bible because they have insights you won’t have. And they will show you how to read the Bible. The more I hear the Bible taught, the more I learn how to teach the Bible to myself. The Bible was written to ancient people in ancient cultures, thousands of years ago. We’re gonna need some help from others to know how to understand it. So definitely listen to others, but don’t only listen to others. Go to the source.
Lastly, I would say, reading the Bible is hard but it pays off. Like training for a sport or learning an instrument requires hard work to actually be any good (which is why I do neither of these), reading the Bible will take work. But it will pay off, you’ll see the results if you put in the work. None of this is easy, but hard things often lead to better things.
So if you find it hard, let me give you some suggestions that might make engaging with the Bible as it is a bit easier.
You can listen to it read aloud. In this digital age, there are plenty of apps that have audio versions of the Bible free for you to download and enjoy. I sometimes use Bible.is, it’s not too shabby.
You could read it with someone else. Sit down with someone and read a passage of scripture together, you don’t have to make a big deal of it, but reading together can keep you accountable.
You could try lectio divina. You could do it with a big chunk of scripture or just do it on just one or two verses at a time. That’s a small commitment but it can have a huge payoff.
So there you go. I hope I answered the question and I hope you’ll think twice before using so many exclamation and question marks in the future. If anyone else has a question they want me to answer on the blog, just email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll see what I can do.
If you want to experience me teach the Bible so you can be influenced by my personal opinions and unconscious bias, you should get my book, Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed. Get it right here, or from Amazon, iBooks, and more. Or if you want to listen to me preach, you can subscribe to my podcast, but most of all you should read the Bible for yourself.