I sat in the shade on a campground in Northern California last summer, talking about the Christian life with a fellow counselor. He told me some of the story of his spiritual growth, describing how establishing regular Bible reading habits had greatly strengthened his spiritual life. He said that he had come the conclusion that this was essential to spiritual growth, and even though he had heard people downplay its importance and shrug it off as legalism, he didn't see "how anyone could grow spiritually without consistent, daily Bible reading." I had a brief, existential struggle before I replied. Do I point out how silly that statement seems in historical perspective, when this idea had obviously impacted this young man's life in a dramatic and heartfelt way? After my few seconds of internal angst, I think the reply I gave was something like, "You know, personal Bible reading has had a powerful effect on my spiritual growth as well; it's such an amazing privilege to have considering that through hundreds of years of church history, the majority of believers didn't have a copy of God's Word in their own language." I hoped that this communicated support for the habits that had shaped him, while at the same time gently pointing out that even illiterate people and those who have lived in times and places where it was not practically possible for them to have and read their own copy of the Bible did manage to grow spiritually somehow.
This launched me into reflection on how I think of "consuming" and interacting with the content of Scripture as an American Evangelical - and what other ways I could effectively experience the the inspired literature that reveals God's person, plan and principles.
My profs have more than once pointed out that when the letters of the New Testament were sent to their original recipients, they would have been read aloud to the church, not photocopied and passed out to everyone, or put up on a screen. (Both Xerox and Power Point would have been anachronisms at that point and for a long time afterward.) This was also how the majority of Jews would have taken in the OT writing: hearing them read aloud by a Rabbi. Owning a scroll would be way to expensive. Thus there may be some things in the way the letters were written that come across better in hearing the letter rather than looking at it on a page. I decided to explore this in a Sunday evening service at my church. So I practiced reading Ecclesiastes, then read it aloud from my trusty old NIV to the group that had gathered that night. Then I opened it up for questions and comments. It turned out to be quite an enjoyable and edifying experience. A visitor's questions led to a discussion of the gospel, and of God's love and grace, even towards those who wandered away. Not really where you plan to go when you open up to Ecclesiastes, but sometimes good conversations begin in a very roundabout way. And we read the Word in community, with the collected insights and reflections of our local church community. This seems to me a step better than consuming a book with only my personal thoughts and reactions to the content.
A couple weeks ago my pastor mentioned that he had made arrangements with a Bible media group to get audio cd's of the Bible in MP3 format, intended for people to put on their ipods or other media players. Wycliffe has been putting these files on solar-powered or hand-cranked players to take the words of Scripture to a lot of places it's never been before in our world. In our context, this group reasons that a lot of people say they don't read their Bibles because either A)They "don't have the time" or B)They don't like to read. So why not take away these excuses? Surely, you say, someone who is truly spiritually interested doesn't need things dumbed down and made more user-friendly and convenient to make them willing to take in Scripture content. But wait...what if now they're going to hear the Word, in a way a bit more akin to the original audience, rather than read it like most post-Gutenberg Christians. Okay, we miss out on the community aspect here; you can't win 'em all. But I'm excited to offer this to sixth-graders I know who are painfully slow in their reading, but show spiritual interest and just may listen.
The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy did so much good for Christianity. When people can check the pronouncements of the church for correspondence with the teachings of Scripture, we really seem to get a lot closer to who God wants the people of God to be than when power over doctrine is solely in the hands of tradition and an educated elite. Thank God for movable type, and how it has shaped the movement of Christianity that has shaped me. And thank God for digital sound files (And even for the people who listened to the Bible on cassette tapes back in the ancient days of the '80's and '90's): may they increase our understanding and appreciation of Scripture and democratize Biblical knowledge for coming generations around the world. I'll be watching the mailbox at the church, waiting for those cd's to get here....