Christians of all sorts may be People of the Book, along with Jews and Muslims, but not many have read their book from beginning to end, cover to cover.
One Episcopal priest recently issued a challenge for people to devote 2011 to remedying that lack by reading the Bible straight through.
The Rev. Marek Zabriskie, rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, said he was intrigued when he read about a rector in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, the Rev. Frank Allen of St. David's Episcopal Church in Radnor, inviting people to re-read the Bible. Zabriskie said he tore out the article and filed it away, thinking he'd do that some day.
Fast-forward to just after Christmas last year when, Zabriskie said, he began reading the Bible at Genesis after feeling "wiped out" from being part of seven liturgies over three days, including welcoming about 1,200 people on Christmas Eve.
"After about four or five days of this … it dawned on me that I ought to encourage some other people to do this with me," he told Episcopal News Service.
Zabriskie first went to the men in a "Beers, Burgers and the Bible" group he has run for nearly seven years and invited the current members to join him, offering to help them "get across the finish line."
"It started to mushroom," he said, in part because of a sermon he preached on the challenge in late January, to the point where now nearly 215 people are reading. Some are St. Thomas’ members and some are not. They range in age from 90 years to 13 years.
"I believe that taking time to read the Bible for 15 or 30 minutes each day will transform our lives, our marriages and our families," Zabriskie wrote in an invitation to the parish. "It will help us to be better parents, spouses, neighbors, Christians, workers and citizens.
It will help keep our head and our heart in the right place and prepare us for eternity with God. I hope that you will accept the Bible challenge as together we seek to lead more ethical lives."
A message on the parish's website encourages participants to read three chapters of the Old Testament, one psalm and one chapter of the New Testament each day. That simultaneous reading, Zabriskie suggested, will help readers see the connections between those two parts of the Bible.
Any translation will do, Zabriskie said, but the website suggests the New Oxford Annotated Edition of the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. He also suggests readers "skim over or skip the genealogies and Levitical dietary codes in order not to get bogged down, and to complete their reading of the Bible."
In an email to people who sign on to the challenge, Zabriskie offers this advice:
"The key is to get through Leviticus. If you can do this, you are likely to finish the Bible. Too many people bog down at Leviticus and get no further."
Parishioner Sally Williams, director of development at the Germantown Friends School, recently wrote in the St. Thomas’ newsletter that Zabriskie's challenge was "both compelling and intriguing" and she and her husband, Andy, signed on.
"How daunting it was when I pulled my Bible off the shelf for the first time to read for an hour before bed only to realize how much still lay ahead and how hard it was to stay awake," she wrote.
When she turned to her iPad as a diversion, Williams said, she wondered about whether there was an application for the Bible. Sure enough, she found many and decided to choose YouVersion, which suggests a plan for reading the entire Bible in one year's time. It is available in 41 translations in 22 languages as an app for various mobile devices as well as online.
She is following Zabriskie's paired-reading advice, while Andy Williams is reading the Bible straight through on his Kindle. "The most popular book ever published, and I'm only getting around to reading it at 56! Well, better late than never," he wrote in an email.
"These electronic devices will never have the beautiful feel and heft of our leather-bound Bibles," Sally Williams wrote. "We would never tote them along to a funeral or church service. On the other hand, we would never highlight verses that resonate on the delicate pages of our 'real' Bibles either. We can stuff them in a backpack or briefcase, read a few verses at the desk during lunch or while sitting out a flight delay. This versatility has us moving right along, reminded each time we pick up our well-used, ever-present electronic devices that the Bible is there waiting for us."
Others, Zabriskie said, are listening to the Bible as they commute, others have purchased Bibles that break the reading up into 365 chunks and some are using other online Bible reading plans.
While Zabriskie said his experience shows that Episcopalians are often unfamiliar with the breadth and depth of the Bible, and are reluctant evangelists, he noted that the people who have taken on the Bible challenge are actively inviting their friends to join them.
Plus "we're finding people who just don't connect with any church at all in this community who have decided they definitely want to do this," he added. "It's really exciting where it might lead us."
Determined to do whatever he can to help people get to the biblical finish line, Zabriskie and others are offering a variety of supplementary activities, beginning with offering a Bible to anyone who wanted to accept the challenge but didn't own a copy. There are monthly "Intelligent Talk about the Bible" sessions from 4 to 5 p.m. or 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at St. Thomas’ Church. Dr. Pete Enns, a former Old Testament professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and new St. Thomas member, is part of those gatherings.
Zabriskie also invites participants to email or call him with their questions. "I would also love to hear how this spiritual experience is going for you," he says in his welcoming email.
St. Thomas’ Communications Director Jason DeCesareis is creating a Facebook page where Enns and Zabriskie can answer participants' questions about the Bible. Enns and the Rev. Heather Patton-Graham, St. Thomas' associate rector, are putting together a "Bible for Dummies Program." And there's an effort underway to develop what they are calling the "Family Bible Challenge" to help get younger kids involved, Zabriskie said.