This year my home church embarked upon Biblica’s Community Bible Experience which is a reading plan that takes you through the New Testament in 8 week (39 days: 5 readings per week plus a grace day at the end).
Last week was the 8th week from the beginning of the year which marks the end of the reading plan for those of us who began in the first week of January. I just finished on Friday past and so I’d like to share my thoughts on the experience and in the process encourage you to consider trying something similar in your home church, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I found the Experience to have two separate yet complimentary dimensions: The Bible Dimension and The Community Dimension. This week we will consider The Bible Dimension and next week we will conclude by looking at The Community Dimension.
The Bible Dimension
The Community Bible Experience is more than just another Bible reading plan. It is quite a peculiar plan because you need to purchase a specially formatted Bible in order to take part. This specially formatted Bible has a single column of text with all the headings and chapter and verse numbers removed as well as having the books in a different order. Biblica have aptly named this Bible format: The Books of the Bible in order to emphasise a return to the original literary nature of the books in the Bible. The reasoning behind this move is that, according to their research, less and less people are reading the Bible, especially those unfamiliar with the traditional formatting of the Bible (double column with headings, chapters and verse numbers). The Books of the Bible is a way to reengage Christians, and non-Christians, with the Bible as a book of many books and to help them immerse themselves in the storyline of the Scriptures.
As a great lover of books I applaud the tremendous effort on Biblica’s part to return the Bible to its rightful place as a wonderful piece of literature from its exile as a mere book of references. Of course, the Bible is more than just great literature but it is not less, so why shouldn’t it be presented as such? As a big fan of single column formatting (and an avowed dissenter of double columns) I am very supportive of this move. The practice of double column formatting can largely be traced back to the early days of the printing press when, due to the immense amount of text to be contained in each Bible, it was not cost effective to print in single column format. That day, thankfully, is over and we can now easily print Bibles in a single column format, though granted, they are considerable bulkier. My preference for single column formatting is purely aesthetic but shouldn’t beauty be a factor in Bible design?
This return to presenting the Bible as literature to be read and enjoyed, as it comes in whole books, rather than harvested for a verse for today here or a daily promise there is further promulgated by a change in book order. This is, for me, one of the best features of The Books of the Bible because the way the books are ordered seems much more logical than the traditional ordering which was generally based on book length more than anything else (e.g. the major and minor prophets and Paul’s letters). For example, Luke and Acts are rejoined to form one book, as they were originally intended to be read, instead of being divided by the Gospel according to John. Another change is that all Paul’s letters are now in chronological order (according to the most recent scholarship) so you begin with 1 and 2 Thessalonians rather than Romans which allows the reader, in some ways, to experience the life of Paul through his letters from his second missionary journey up to his impending death in Rome (2 Timothy). Similarly, the books of the Old Testament have been reorganised into three sections: Covenant History, Prophets, Writings. Like Luke-Acts, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings have been consolidated into one book: Samuel-Kings. The Prophets have been placed in chronological order (or as close as scholars can tell, anyway) which I find personally helpful as I always feel a little lost in terms of chronology when reading the Prophets. (I will include a list of all the books and their orders at the end). I really appreciate what Biblica have done here. I find their book order to be very helpful as it contributes to a significantly more enjoyable reading experience, especially in how they have shaped the New Testament around the Gospel accounts rather than having them one after another. I would love if all Bible’s adopted this kind of ordering in which books of the Bible are brought together according to genres/corpora and, when possible, chronologically (see below).
Furthermore, by removing headings and chapter and verse numbers the reader is better able to discern the flow of the text which was previously obscured (however much or little). I have certainly found this to be true of headings which needlessly break up the text into manageable chunks thereby disconnecting what is said from what has already been said and functioning as an unhelpful and unnecessary interpretive lens through which to read the passage. Of course, the designers of The Books of the Bible have left gaps between sections to indicate breaks in the narrative or shifts in the thought of the author. In some ways these function in much the same way that headings do and at times I found myself guessing what heading might have went in the space between sections. However, I believe a blank space is better than an inserted heading because it doesn’t presume to interpret what is about to be read but at the same time allows the reader to stop and reflect on what they’ve read without making it seem that the next section is somehow disconnected from what came before.
The same argument applies to the removal of chapter and verse numbers, though I feel less strongly about this. It is all too easy to isolate verses and make them mean what we want them to mean rather than what the author intended them to mean. However, it does pose problems for ease of location in a church setting or for study purposes (e.g. books, Bible studies, etc.). Isaiah is a nice place to start but trying to find anything in there without a map (i.e. chapters and verses) would be quite difficult! That being said, the bottom of each page does contains the chapter and verse range so it is not impossible to find a passage in a book like Isaiah so it could conceivable be used in a church or Bible study setting. However, for anyone who needs to make reference to a specific passage (e.g. in a book, Bible study, blog, etc.) it would prove problematic. I suppose with Google we no longer need to memorise chapter and verse numbers because they are just a click away if we know how a particular sentence reads which would solve the problem of referencing for writers. I don’t know that this kind of Bible could ever replace the traditional Bible (with its chapter and verse numbers) because referencing will always be necessary in books but I think it meets a definite need in the church today and so for that reason, I believe, it has a bright future.
Overall, I am very impressed with this new Bible format and I would highly recommend having a Bible that allows you to read it unobscured by headings and chapter and verse numbers because it does allow you to follow the flow of books much easier than the traditional formatting.
For those of you who favour the ESV Crossway are bringing out their own version of The Books of the Bible in May called the ESV Reader’s Bible, beyond removing headings and verse numbers (chapter numbers will remain in the margin apart from the text) I don’t know if it will share The Books of the Bible’s book ordering.
Song of Songs