A conversation with author Glenn Paauw on why we need to read a newly formatted Bible – together.
As a college student in a classical literature course, I was rattled to find that the beginning of Genesis sounded in style like creation narratives of other religions. For the first time, I recognized the genre of the opening of Genesis. Author Glenn Paauw asserts that partly why I hadn’t observed the genre before is that most of our contemporary Bibles are formatted as reference books instead. (He also points out that it’s an injustice to Bible understanding for readers not to have a sense of the Bible’s history, to regard it, he describes, as falling from the sky in one piece.) He urges the use of a Bible without chapter and verse numbers, section headings, cross references, and double columns. Books such as Luke and Acts by the same author or I and II Samuel and I and II Kings are combined visually as one.
Glenn is vice president of global Bible engagement at Biblica (formerly International Bible Society) and a senior fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. In his new book Saving the Bible from Ourselves (IVP), he’s seeking to revolutionize the way we see and read the Bible. I’ve heard about the transformation this can cause from one of my friends who participated in a Bible reading group he influenced: she told me she started to recognize Scripture in context without legalism.
Glenn gave me permission to abbreviate the interview for space, and he also provided me with a list of resources at the end for reading the Bible communally within its literary genres.
HP: You have concerns with the current format of the Bible. You call it the modernist Bible. What is the modernist Bible?
Glenn Paauw: The modernist Bible is a format of the Bible that was created in the modern period. All of the additions we’ve made to the Bible and the way we’ve laid out the text is a modernist phenomenon. Before that the Scriptures were not mass-produced—the printing and mass producing of the Bible coincided with this new format of the Bible, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that chapters and verses came together into a single Bible.
The Geneva Bible brought them together, and sadly made every single verse number a separate paragraph in two columns on the page, which effectively obliterated any literary aspect of the text at all. Suddenly what the Bible looked like was a list of numbered spiritual statements, each of them individually paragraphed, and the message visually was these are meant to be read alone and understood alone and out of context.
The contention in my book is that this new modern format, which we then added cross-reference systems, which were first developed in the same period—section headings, footnotes—all this additional material created the Bible that was really a modern reference book rather than a reading book. In fact, our practices have followed the new form.
HP: Give me a sense of the negative implications of that form.
GP: There was no such thing as proof texting before the appearance of the format of the modern Bible. Before that you just don’t see the practices in the church. Nobody produced a list of supposed biblical doctrines and then backed them up with a list of proof texts. That way of using the Bible was born when the format of the Bible became something that was conducive to that. It tells people that the Bible is a certain kind of thing, and it can be used a certain kind of way.
When you change the form of something, you change what people perceive the content is. Instead of seeing a letter, a song, a story, a proverb, a prophecy, what you see is a numbered list of statements. It all looks the same. You’re inclined to not pay attention to literary genre because they just look like a list of propositions. It harms our apprehension of the Bible in very specific ways when we change the way the Bible looks.
HP: Why would formatting biblical books according to literary genre help us in reading the Bible?
GP: Anytime an author writes anything, they’re really proposing a covenant with a reader. When they choose a particular genre, what they’re doing is offering a covenant to a reader to say, “I’m going to write according to the usual conventions of this way of writing.” If I’m writing apocalyptic literature in the first century, the reader seeing that it’s an apocalypse agrees to interpret it appropriately according to the conventions of an apocalypse.
It’s a certain way of writing, metaphorical, teaching a truth. If the reader breaks that covenant, then there is a high probability that they will misapprehend, misunderstand, misinterpret what the author was intending to do.
If I see a Hebrew proverb and I take it as an absolute promise because it’s just this isolated spiritual statement rather than a Hebrew wisdom writing, then I will misinterpret it because I will think that this is the way that things are always supposed to go—God is making a promise to me versus saying this is a general description of how things go for the most part if you follow this way of living. It’s not an absolute promise, and there are lots of counter examples.
In all these ways—poetry, Hebrew parallelism, the nature of biblical prophecy, stories—all the ways of interpreting these things become harder to do if we don’t show people what kind of literary writing they are. So, formatting is a huge help to readers if it’s done well so that they will interpret and understand the Bible well.
HP: One of your arguments is that we need to be reading a Bible like that together. Why do we need to be reading the Bible together?
GP: The Bible is basically a community-formation book—that’s what its own intention is. Another part of modernity was the growth of individualism. We became individualists right at the same time that other aspects of the modern period really grew and came to fruition. Individualism is right in there with the other things like segmentation, quantification, these other things that we’ve done to the Bible. Suddenly, we have a new technology that makes the Bible available to everybody for the first time, never happened before in history. Bibles start getting mass produced and given to more and more people.
Partly because of the influence of the Reformation, they’re being told that they are priests, the priesthood of believers. They believe they can start reading it and understanding it on their own. All the things the Bible is doing to address communities in its teachings and stories to be worked out communally, people start thinking the primary reference is them as an individual. When Paul writes, “you should do this,” that fact is that’s [you] plural in Greek, and he’s writing to a community, but we’ve all been conditioned to read those as if it was just for me in isolation without reference to other people—just something I’m supposed to do in my own life between me and God.
HP: What would it look like for a contemporary Christian community to read the Bible together?
GP: This is where what we need is a series of new practices that we start adopting. What I’m hoping for is that this new format of the Bible will grow, what I’m calling a reader’s Bible—a respect to literary text, and then groups of people will start experiencing the Bible more and more together. It’s not that individual Bible reading or study is bad. It’s that we’ve done that to the neglect of communal experiences.
Part of the shift here is reading to come first, and study is a secondary thing. We read first, study second. All study should be in context of reading, especially whole books—the contrast between feasting and snacking on the Bible to use the food metaphor. If communities will start feasting together, and that means, I think that instead of always thinking when we get together that we should be doing some intensive Bible study, what if we read the text together? Simply experienced it in big pieces and let it wash over us so we really got to know whole literary units rather than studying some micro-part.
I think it’s a recovery for us to get together with other people, just simply experience the Bible read or listened to in bigger chunks and then to process it communally more than we do instead of always thinking of individualistic application as the first thing. What if we started saying, “What does that do to the life of the community?” “What does it do to our life together?” Not just me as individual.
HP: The heart of your book is the ongoing story of Scripture. What you’re saying is if we read the Bible this way—if we read it with this new formatting, if we read it together, if we read whole books at a time—we’ll begin to see that ongoing story and that we’ll also start to imagine our roles in the ongoing story. What could be the impact of that on Christianity?
GP: I think it is potentially a very big deal and a very positive impact overall. What happens the other way is if you think the Bible is a list of little statements that I can pick and choose from, and I’m putting those statements into my life—the Bible has something to say to me, whether a few pieces of it that can encourage me or correct me or instruct me.
If I read the Bible as a narrative where all the books come together to tell God’s great story, and then if I am invited into that story, it’s a much bigger thing than trying to fit the Bible into the smaller story of my life. My entire life is taken up into the story of the Scriptures, which is an unfinished story—it’s not done yet. It’s actually the same story that we’re living, we’re just in a new thing, a different time and place later in the story, but we’re supposed to be living out the same trajectory of redemption and recovery.
Resources for reader’s Bibles and reading communally
ESV Reader’s Bible (Free of verse numbers, section headings, translation notes, and double columns.) https://www.crossway.org/bibles/esv-readers-bible-cob/
ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set (Forthcoming, handsome cloth over board.) https://www.crossway.org/bibles/esv-readers-bible-six-volume-set-none-cob/
NIV Books of the Bible (Free of chapter and verse numbers, section headings, footnotes, and double columns. Divisions inside books shaped more by author’s original intention. Books originally intended to be a unit treated that way. Easier-to-understand order of books.) http://www.zondervan.com/the-books-of-the-bible-niv-2
Bibliotheca (Free of chapter and verse numbers, section headings, cross references, and notes. Thicker paper. Beautifully bound. Four volumes.) http://www.bibliotheca.co/#about
Community Bible Experience (Book-club-like program through Biblica that uses the NIV Books of the Bible) http://www.biblica.com/en-us/cbe/
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.