The other day I was talking with a teenager who goes to the church where I’m an elder. “How often do you read your Bible?” I asked him.
“Frankly, Mr. Van Dyke,” he said, giving me kind of a funny look, “I never read it.” Then he continued, “Oh, I should, I suppose, but to tell you the truth the Bible scares me.”
“Scares you?” I echoed. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, “it’s written in that old-fashioned way. And it’s all about old men in long white beards. And it’s so negative. Thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that. No, the Bible may be a great book and all that, but nobody reads it. Nobody my age, anyway.”
Now I don’t know whether this pessimistic statement is right or not, but I do know this: a lot of people—old as well as young—never open a Bible because they let their preconceptions scare them off.
Take the objections my young friend had: the writing is old-fashioned, he said. Well, I suppose that’s true, if you’re talking about the King James Version. After all, it was written more than 300 years ago. But the Bible has been translated many times before and since.
J. B. Phillips’ rendering of the New Testament, done within the last 20 years, is one of my personal favorites: it’s as contemporary in style as a current best-seller.
And his idea that the Bible is full of bearded old men: think about that one for a moment. How old was David when he went out against Goliath armed with nothing but a sling? Fourteen? Fifteen? How old was Samson when he astonished his countrymen with feats of strength? Seventeen? Eighteen?
The New Testament too: remember the young men who wanted Jesus to heal their sick friend? When they found themselves blocked by a crowd, they climbed up on the roof, broke a hole in the ceiling and lowered their friend’s bed with a rope. Who but teenagers would have thought of that?
And as for the notion that the Bible is full of negatives, that’s mostly nonsense too. The Bible is a handbook for living. And so it does contain rules—rules hammered out over the centuries on the anvil of human experience.
There’s tragedy, sure, and violence and all the great clashing human emotions: courage and cowardice, greed and selflessness, hatred, jealousy, pride, anger … all the ingredients that go into any great love story or great action story.
And out of these ingredients the men who wrote the Bible drew conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work in human affairs. That’s why the Bible, far from being something to run from, is a book to live by.
Anyone who does try to live by the Bible sooner or later comes across a text that seems designed especially for him. For me it’s that tremendous question in Matthew 16:26: What does it profit a man if be gain the whole world but lose his own soul?
Actors are often faced with this dilemma because they do in a sense “gain the whole world” when success comes to them, but in the process they risk losing their own souls, their own hard core of personal values, as perhaps no other group does.
That’s why I repeat those words to myself just about every day of my life.
But it’s not enough just to find a relevant quote, latch onto that, and let the rest go. I believe the whole Bible is important to each of us, and that from its daily reading a certain priceless and otherwise unobtainable something enters our lives.
If I had to say what it is in my case, I think I’d say that Bible-reading gives me a sense of God working in history, gradually unfolding a plan for His most complex creation—mankind. And, of course, as I read I try to measure myself against the outlines of that plan and see where I fit.
This is an amazing thing at all times, but especially when problems come our way. I’m thinking of some times in my life, for instance, when I was broke and jobless. Like the day I arrived in New York City in a beat-up station wagon with a wife, two small kids, no job and exactly four dollars in my pocket.
Or the time when a supper club act that a friend and I worked up laid such an egg that the management not only threw us out without pay but even towed our car out of their parking lot to make sure we left.
I don’t mean that on these occasions I rushed home and read the Bible furiously. But I do mean that my familiarity with God’s word and my acceptance of His plan for my life kept me from ever really hitting the panic button.
In other words, I believe that in reading the Bible a kind of invisible ingredient had seeped into my life—and will seep into anybody’s—which makes the rough spots less bumpy.
Perhaps it’s a sense of proportion, of the smallness of our own little disappointments, of being part of a picture so big that we can never see more than a fraction of it.
Whatever it is, it’s something I would like to share with the anxious, fear-ridden people of our age, and especially the young ones. To my friend who was “scared” of the Bible, I make three suggestions.
The first: get your own Bible. One you can take on trips and leave on your bedside table. One you can mark up if you feel like it, underlining passages that speak to you, making notes in the margins.
The second: make an effort to discard all your preconceptions and stereotyped ideas about the Bible before you open it. This includes all your hazy childhood recollections, all your stained-glass over-simplifications, all your dim resentful memories of droning preachers.
Just try to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, as if you had just dropped in from Mars and found a book you had never seen or heard of before. If you can do this, the Bible will have tremendous impact for you.
And the third: find a friend, or friends, who will make this voyage of exploration with you. I find it helps to have someone with whom to compare notes, someone who will throw the ball back.
Eventually I hope this young man will want to join our church Bible class where, with a trained teacher, we go deeper than any of us could alone. But at first I think it’s more fun and meaningful just to experiment and compare reactions with a friend.
The Bible scary? On the contrary. The Bible takes the scare out of living and puts purpose, joy and faith in its place.
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