I often use the analogy that learning to read the Bible is like learning to drive a car. Driving a car is surprisingly easy – in an open field or a clear road. Anyone can do it. Driving a car in London is another story. The same can be said about the Bible. Anyone can read the Bible – if you have one in your own language and aren’t too concerned with interpretation. But reading it properly – learning to ‘follow the rules’, ‘understand the signs’ and ‘navigate the territory’ – is another story.
In a car we might occasionally take a scenic drive with no particular destination in mind, just enjoying the scenery and letting the road carry us along. That can be fun now and again. But normally we drive to get somewhere. If it’s a new place, we plan the route, set the GPS, pay careful attention to the road signs, the speed limits, and any hazards along the way. We can easily forget, having grown up in a ‘driving culture’, how much training that takes, how much experience before feeling comfortable and competent, and how scary it was when we took our first driving lessons!
The Bible is similar. We can read for fun – but it’s actually a difficult and challenging book, with interpretational dilemmas, unfamiliar genres, strange words and symbolism, ancient cultures, history, language – and a lot of hazards. We may understand the words, but we can easily get ‘lost’ searching for the right meaning, or feel frustrated in the unfamiliar territory of Hebrew poetry or Levitical law.
Eugene Peterson suggests it’s dangerous to read the Bible without any training. Who would hand their child the keys to the family car at 16 and say, ‘here you go – have fun!’ No, we say, ‘now you’re ready for your driver’s training – read the Highway Code and we’ll find you an instructor’. Reckless driving leads to accidents and death. Reckless interpretation has led to wars, crusades, corruption and injustice.
To drive legally, we have to pass a test and get a licence. To drive well we learn to operate the vehicle in challenging conditions and circumstances, follow the road signs, navigate, and respond to hazards – including other drivers! This comes with training and experience. Likewise, to read the Bible well needs training and experience – and hopefully a good instructor. There’s no test before beginning – but we’ll often be tested along the way!