Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The bible is not just a set of isolated verses

Christians love bible verses. We like to memorise them, quote them, engrave them on knick-knacks, recite them in churches, stick them on fridges, use them in arguments and sometimes even paint them on placards.

There’s nothing wrong with this. The bible is the word of God. The more we memorise, recite and see bible verses, the better able we are to remember what God has to say about any situation. But it’s important that we remember that the bible is not just a set of isolated verses.

The other day I heard someone say that Christians often spend more time discussing bible verses than they do discussing bible stories. And that’s interesting, because the bible itself is one incredible story. And the bible verses that we quote or memorise really only make sense in the context of that story.

Obviously, it’s a bit harder to memorise bible stories or engrave them on vases. One of the reasons why bible verses are so popular is because they’re short.

But I also wonder whether one of the reasons we like bible verses so much is because they feed our ego. Look at the face of someone who gives you an exact quote from the bible, along with chapter and verse. There’s usually at least a little bit of smugness there. Now compare it with the face of someone who says, ‘Well I don’t know where it is, and I’m not sure of the exact words, but doesn’t the bible say something about this?’ It’s completely different. The latter person is also embarrassed that they don’t have it all memorised.

In reality, though, the person who does not know chapter and verse may have a better understanding of what the bible says. Because they’re not just looking for an isolated verse that they can use with pride in a discussion. They actually may be looking at the whole thing. It’s not their aim to search for a bible verse to tuck away for future use. It’s their aim to actually read the bible.

And often I think, when we focus so much on verses, we forget where they were used and in what context. They’re isolated from the rest of the bible. And then because we know these verses better than we know the story, we use them in different ways, ways that perhaps don’t even make sense when we consider the story in which they were placed.

I’ve got a confession to make. I have read the bible, searching for verses to highlight. And I’ve gotten very annoyed when there’s a really great passage in the bible, but no single verse that stands out as a good one to highlight. I am looking for one verse. And I can’t find one verse. The whole passage is brilliant. But no single verse by itself carries the same impact.

Do we ever just look for the single, highlight-able verses, and miss the meaning of the passages and stories that we have also read? Do we maybe even skim through them, looking for those verses that can be taken in isolation?

I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that when the Holy Spirit inspired the bible, he wasn’t making sure that all Christians had a handful of bible verses that they could write on greeting cards and stick on fridges. The bible’s purpose is not just to provide short, quick sayings that are easy to highlight, easy to memorise and easy to use. It’s a story. And it’s the whole story that’s important.

Have you ever had a discussion with people about a novel? I have to admit, I’m not much of a fiction reader. But my mum studied literature at university and so I’ve heard a few of those types of conversations. When people who love literature discuss a book, they very rarely take out one or two sentences to quote at people. They discuss the characters, they discuss the story, they discuss the style, they discuss the themes, they discuss the meaning. Because all of those things are more important that what the fifth chapter, fourth paragraph, third sentence says word for word.

And yes, it is quite possible to go to a book club and point out one or two sentences that particularly stood out. But no good book discussion is going to revolve solely around those isolated quotes. It’s the story that is important. It is the story that they love.

And understanding the story of the bible is more important than knowing a whole heap of bible verses by heart.
(The image is The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John, courtesy of Wikipedia.)


  1. In a cultural context, the Bible is used as a basis for a multitude of social inferences—symbols and metaphors used as shortcuts for particular doctrines or teachings of a particular community. The cutting-apart effect comes from referring to the moral of one particular story to refer to the entire story; much like people might refer to a particular Aesop’s fable by citing the moral or a particular line that not only triggers recollection of the story, but also frames the context of the verse. “Sour grapes.”

    By way of community this effect can be stretched to such an extreme of personal scholarship that people begin to find themselves feeling authoritative by knowing particular verses word for word, chapter and line. Exactly as you bring up above: it adds a veneer of piety to their presentation.

  2. Hi Carmina,

    Thanks for your comments. I wonder whether verses that began as a way of referring to the whole story start to take on their own significance. In other words, the short cut becomes more important than the story. Much as in the example you use of 'sour grapes', the phrase is very well known, but the story has almost been forgotten.

    Also, I guess the other side to this shortcut method is that, when there is no easily identifiable verse, the shortcut is not used and so the story or passage is passed over in favour of ones that do have an easily identifiable bible verse.




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