I recently listened to a podcast episode by Uniquely Woman on the history of what has become known as the “quiet time” – the portion of the day in which Christians read their Bibles, usually in an arm chair or at a farmhouse table with a mug of coffee and open journal for note-taking (you’ve probably seen this on Instagram before).
The episode pointed out something I found interesting: the “quiet time” is a relatively recent practice in Christian history. And for people with young children or a busy work life, “quiet” is unattainable. The “quiet time” also depicts a shift in the history of Bible reading that is distinctly modern: it puts the focus on the individual — What is God telling me? How does this passage apply to my life? – rather than on a community: What is God teaching us? How does this passage apply to us?
For centuries, few people had access to books, as they were rare and expensive to produce. And none but the wealthy were able to read and write. That means most Christians, up until the last 500 years or so, were unable to have a “quiet time” as it is depicted today. And in many countries around the world, books and literacy are still unattainable.
If there’s any common theme pushed by evangelical ministries today, it’s the importance of reading your Bible every day, or else God can’t use you, you’ll start “backsliding,” your faith will become weak. But the Bible never actually says this!
Now I’m not saying that it isn’t important to read the Bible and spend time with God. But I can’t help noticing that the overwhelming emphasis on individual time is in direct contrast to how most Christians, and Jews then and now, understood Scripture. They learned via oral tradition, passing down stories from generation to generation. And they did so in groups. Whenever Jesus preached, he did so before a crowd, rather than handing out pamphlets to study independently.
It’s pretty common for evangelists to simply hand out tracts that instruct the reader to pray the “sinner’s prayer” (also not found in Scripture – but that’s a topic for another day). Maybe they describe a little of what cosmic transformation takes place. There’s a great deal of emphasis on personal sin and the need for redemption. But from my experience, handing out the tract is the only communication the preacher ever has with his or her recipient. They don’t follow up to get them connected – or as some call it, “plugged in” – to a local church or Bible study. And that’s missing so much of what the faithful life is supposed to look like.
Admittedly, I haven’t had the best of luck with Bible study groups in the past. I’m either too liberal or too conservative, depending on the church, and haven’t always established meaningful connections with people. But I’ve resolved to give it another go. The Bible may be unchanging, but the lenses through which other people read it – people whose lives look radically different from mine – contain invaluable insight. Even if I disagree with someone’s interpretation (or vice versa), being challenged is part of the point. Otherwise, there is no growth.