Before the printing press, few people had a Bible of their own. It was a shared book. People read together. The Old Testament was the Jewish community’s story. New Testament letters were for churches. The Gospels were communal memories, reflected in the way the Synoptics use identical phrases to tell Jesus’ story.
Then the printing press gave us each a Bible of our own. Reading it as a private book, we fragmented into 40,000+ denominations. There are people in our culture who promote the notion that a text can mean whatever a reader wants (reader-response theory).
Today we tend to read the Bible alone. I bring the Bible into my private world, searching for spiritual guidance for my life. I identify each character with my struggles, glossing over the bigger story of the faithful Father who reigns across the families and generations. Almost imperceptibly, I am the centre of my universe.
But the Bible is not my book. It always belonged to the community of faith. Even the choice of its contents was communal. To be in the New Testament, a book needed to represent the teaching of the apostles and be recognized across a wide geographical spectrum. Our Bible is the canon of the church — the standard recognized by the community that assembles under Jesus’ kingship.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not asking you to stop reading on your own. I’m asking you to read it communally, in conversation with others. Its meaning is never a matter of private interpretation.
How can we read communally? Suggestions:
- Literally read it together. Gather in small groups. Listen to how others think the text would have been understood in its original context. Then inspire each other with how we could respond today.
- Engage with what others say about the text. Even when you’re on your own, be inspired by others’ commentaries, podcasts, blogs, and study notes.
- Listen to diverse perspectives. How has the text has been understood in other traditions, cultures, and times (e.g. early church fathers)?
- Even when reading alone, use a communal mindset. Ask what God wants of us, rather than of me. Assume the word you as plural: that’s the case more often than not.
Our Father cares for each individual child in his care, but his goal is to build us into a unified family. Christ wants no one to miss out, but his goal is to incorporate us into his kingdom. The Spirit regenerates each individual, but he knits us together to form God’s dwelling. Each individual matters, but the goal is always communal.
The Bible is the story we’re living in. As we discover our place in the community of God, we know how to perform its story together. Even when a king gives a specific task to an individual, it’s always for the benefit of all. So let’s read communally, even when the text speaks of individuals.
All Scripture is inspired, exhaled by God to shape us as the community under his leadership. Together we benefit from its teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Doing this together equips each of us to do the good things our Lord wants done (2 Timothy 3:16-17).