BreakPoint: How Not to Read the Bible


John Stonestreet

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Good news? Half of Americans are Bible users. Bad news? It doesn’t seem to matter.

Last month the Barna Group released its annual “State of the Bible” survey, and the results seemed pretty promising. For example, half of Americans are Bible users. And almost six in ten Americans say that reading the Bible has “transformed their life.”

But on the same day I read about Barna’s “State of the Bible” survey, this headline caught my eye: “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues.” That from Gallup.

Since Gallup has been surveying people on such topics, more Americans than ever before view the following as “morally permissible”:  Divorce, sex between a man and a woman outside of marriage, gay relations, having a baby out of wedlock, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography, and polygamy, among other things.

So … Half of Americans are Bible users, that number has remained pretty steady, and yet more Americans than ever are changing their views (in the wrong direction) about serious moral issues.

What’s going on here?  Well, first we need to know what we mean by “Bible users.” In the context of the Barna survey, “Bible Users” are defined as people who “engage with the Bible” outside of church “at least three to four times a year.”

Three or four times a year? That’s a pretty low bar.

Now, that’s not to say that the Barna survey isn’t valuable. It actually says a lot, especially about how so many of us use the Bible: As a quick source of inspiration. As place to get answers or affirmation. We open the Bible, find a verse or two, maybe a parable or a story we like, then we apply it out of context to whatever situation we find ourselves in, and move on.

I think it was Phillip Yancey who called this the “moral mcnuggett” approach to the Bible. It may taste good, but it’s no way to feed a Christian worldview. Our task is not to merely make use of the Scripture, but to handle it rightly. We mustn’t merely find those verses or parables that encourage us. All Scripture is inspired, including those parts that stretch, challenge, and yes, even offend us.

Among the talks I give to parents and students is one called “How not to Read the Bible.” A key point is that if the Bible is indeed God’s authoritative Word, it isn’t merely true in what it says, but also in how it chooses to say what it says.

The Bible God gave us isn’t a “self-help” book, an answer book, nor is it a random collection of stories like Aesop’s Fables or a random collection of inspirational quotes and sayings. Those kinds of books look different than the Bible does.

What God gave us was a metanarrative – or a big, overarching Story of history. It’s a grand epic of the all the universe ever was, is and will be, interspersed with specific teachings on the nature of God and how He has chosen to work in the world. In it, God reveals Who He Is, His created purpose, His work in history—specifically through an obscure but enduring tribe of people known as the Israelites—His becoming one of us in Jesus Christ, whose suffering, death, and resurrection has atoned for the sins of the world, and His promise to raise us from the dead and establish a new Heavens and a new Earth.

And he does it through historical narratives, poetry, proverbs, love songs, gospels, and instruction. All of which carry the redemptive story towards it culmination, pointing to the centrality of Jesus Christ, through whom and for whom all things were made, and in whom all things hold together.

There’s simply no way to comprehend the enormous scope and power of this Great Story in three or four encounters a year.

This week on the BreakPoint podcast, you can find my talk “How not to Read the Bible.” Truth be told, I spend a great deal of time on how to read the Bible, with ideas on how to approach the Scriptures as it is.

So please, check out our podcast at




How not to Read the Bible: God’s Story vs. Moral McNuggets

As John emphasizes, Scripture forms and informs us and our worldview. So it’s vitally important to be true “Bible users,” spending consistent, regular time reading and meditating on God’s Word. Be sure to listen to John’s interview with Dr. Vanhoozer and his podcast on “How not to Read the Bible,” both linked below:

BreakPoint Podcast: Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer: The Vocation and Ministry of Theology

BreakPoint Podcast: John Stonestreet: How not to Read the Bible


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