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We Read The Bible All Wrong

Ann Patchett’s novel State Of Wonder opens with this:

The news of Ander Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationary and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.  Who even knew they still made such things?  This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insignificant that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.  Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news.  When she saw him at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

“What,” she said finally.

He opened his mouth and then closed it.  When he tried again, all he could say was, “It’s snowing.

“I heard on the radio it was going to.”  The window in the lab where she worked faced out into the hall and so she never saw the weather until lunchtime.  She waited for a minute for Mr. Fox to say what he had come to say.  She didn’t think he had come all this way from his office in the snow, a good ten buildings away, to give her a weather report, but he only stood there in the frame of the open door, unable either to enter the room or stay out of it.  “Are you alright?”

“Eckman’s dead,” he managed to say before his voice broke, and then with no explanation he gave her the letter to show her just how little about this awful fact he knew.

 

“Well,” you’re thinking, “that sure is nice writing and I am more than a little intrigued to find out what happened to this Eckman fellow and what is the deal between Mr. Fox and Ms. Marina, but what in the world does this have to do with your post title about reading the bible all wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Can you imagine what we would be doing to Patchett’s breathless prose if we chopped it up into verses?  If it read something like this?

(1) The news of Ander Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationary and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. 

(2) Who even knew they still made such things?  This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insignificant that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. 

(3) Mr. Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news.  When she saw him at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

 

What had been seamless is now mechanical; what had been lyrical is now linear.  It’s not the way Patchett writes (thank God), nor is it the way we read.  Dividing her prose up like that does violence to the beauty of her art.

And to a large extent, that’s what we do to both the theological brilliance and the literary artistry of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  We take their prose and we interrupt it by artificially dividing it into chapters and then micro-dividing it into verses . . . all of which were added between 1227 and 1551 AD (and AD is, of course AM, AM, AL, and AJ!).

So . . . what to do?  Am I recommending all of us ditch our suddenly suspect chapter-and-verse bibles?

No.

But I DO recommend you add something like the NIV Books Of The Bible to your repertoire, as it is the complete text of the biblical library without the later additions of chapter and verse.

 

books of the bible

 

And then I recommend you read one of the Gospels — start with Mark as it is both the shortest AND it’s my favorite — and read it in a single sitting.  Not a chapter per night.  Instead, snuggle up with a good read that tells epic history with a novelist’s flair.  That’s how you read the bible all right.

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