Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God's Word

Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God's Word

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by George Guthrie

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The Bible may be the most-purchased book in the world, but it is often the least read and least applied due to a basic lack of understanding and motivation on the part of readers. Read the Bible for Life aims to improve biblical literacy in the culture and the church by simultaneously moving readers toward greater skill in reading the Bible well and toward a


The Bible may be the most-purchased book in the world, but it is often the least read and least applied due to a basic lack of understanding and motivation on the part of readers. Read the Bible for Life aims to improve biblical literacy in the culture and the church by simultaneously moving readers toward greater skill in reading the Bible well and toward a deeper commitment to applying Scripture to everyday life.

Through a series of down-to-earth conversations with some of today’s brightest scholars, author George Guthrie discusses the basic tools and attitudes needed to read the Bible more effectively. Chapters focus on the various types of literature in Scripture and how to read them well. For instance, how should we read a psalm differently than we read a parable?

How should we read a story of the Old Testament differently than we read a letter from Paul? How can we engage these various parts of Scripture in a way that is truly life-changing? The book also discusses issues such as reading the Bible in context, choosing and reading a Bible translation, reading in times of sorrow or suffering, and reading the Bible with your family. As we better understand how to read the Bible skillfully, we begin to see how every person of the Bible, every psalm, and every teaching fits into the Bible’s powerful, overarching story, and we begin to realize our place in the story God is still writing in the world.


"In the church's dry desert of biblical illiteracy, this book is a drink of cold, refreshing water. With pastoral sensitivity and practical skill, George Guthrie is equipping us to know, understand, and apply the treasures of God's Word in a way that will transform our lives and our communities for the glory of our God. I wholeheartedly recommend Read the Bible For Life for every Christian and every leader in the church." 

David Platt, New York Times best-selling author of Radical 

"In a culture where biblical illiteracy continues to spread like the proverbial plague, George Guthrie has introduced a healing medicine in the form of Read the Bible for Life. This overview of the Bible's nature and content will be welcomed in churches intent on developing biblically grounded followers of Christ. The book's conversational approach provides an easy entry for a generation that tends to read only headlines. With fresh insights for the long time student of God's Word and accessible material for the new student, it is a resource I recommend for all believers."

Ed Stetzer, coauthor, Transformational Church 

"The genuine give and take of conversation is key to the Christian community's deeper grasp of the Scriptures. Read the Bible for Life is a celebration of biblical conversation between friends who really love the Word. Hopefully, lots of people will join in." 

Michael Card, award-winning musician and author

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As a Bible scholar at Union University, one of the oldest American universities in the Southern Baptist tradition, Guthrie has tracked the decline in biblical literacy with consternation. With earlier books (The Structure of Hebrews and Biblical Greek Exegesis) best suited for academia, Guthrie has switched gears to produce a reader-friendly, digestible, biblical literacy study program that includes this book as well as a participant’s workbook, study leader’s CD-ROM, and three DVDs for group use. Anyone “touched by the English language or Western culture,” argues Guthrie, should be conversant in biblical literature. Through informal kitchen-table conversations with evangelical scholars, Guthrie guides the reader through a study of historical context, differences in Bible translations, varieties of literary genres, and finally a heartfelt devotional on how to read the Bible in a postmodern world. Though successful in reaching beyond a Southern Baptist audience, Guthrie remains limited by the Protestant concept of “progressive revelation,” which prefers later parts of the Bible over earlier ones, a concept not accepted by Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians. (Jan.)

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Your Guide to Understanding & Living God's Word

B&H Publishing Group

Copyright © 2011 George H. Guthrie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8054-6454-2


Invitation to a Conversation

Could we sit down for a conversation? As I write this introduction, I am tapping away on my laptop in a popular coffee shop, and I would love it if we could have a cup of coffee and talk about the Bible. How to read it well. How to understand it. How to live it. Or perhaps we could sit in front of our fireplace at home, eating my wife's chocolate-chip scones and sipping hot tea. There is nothing better than a rich conversation with a friend about important matters, and it is made all the better over a hot drink; a little music in the background doesn't hurt either. But since you are where you are at the moment and I am where I am, we will just have to make do, meeting in the pages of this book. So grab a coffee or tea, find a comfortable chair, and let's have our conversation.

Why I Wrote This Book

Let me tell you why I went to the trouble of writing this book. To be honest, I really didn't have time to write it, but I felt strongly that it needed to be written—almost demanded to be written—and written as soon as possible. There are two main reasons.

It Is Important That We Read the Bible

First, I believe with all my heart, on a number of levels, that it is important that we read the Bible and read it well. When I say "we," I am not just thinking about those of us who are committed followers of Jesus Christ, although I want to speak to my fellow believers in just a moment. I mean "we" as in everyone touched by the English language or Western culture (and that includes the vast majority of people in the world these days). In The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch writes:

No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible. Literate people in India, whose religious traditions are not based on the Bible but whose common language is English, must know about the Bible in order to understand English within their own country. All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the "wisdom of Solomon" is wise or foolish, or whether saying "My cup runneth over" means the person feels fortunate or unfortunate.

Whether you are describing someone as "the salt of the earth," or saying that you have "fought the good fight," or suggesting that a friend "go the extra mile," or speaking of a small amount as "a drop in the bucket," or saying, "I escaped by the skin of my teeth," you are speaking the language of the Bible. You and I have picked up such phrases along the way from newspapers, movies, and the chatter swirling around us as we have listened our way through life, but these phrases are cultural hand-me-downs, woven into the English language by long exposure to the King James Version of the Bible or through important works of literature, which in turn borrowed the language of the Bible. For instance, did you know that there are more than thirteen hundred documented quotations and allusions to the Bible in the writings of Shakespeare? Shakespeare at times wrote with a quill in his right hand while the Bible was in his left.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in one 2005 survey 98 percent of high school English teachers suggested that students who are biblically literate have an edge academically over those who are not, and in 2006 English professors from the top universities in the United States agreed that "regardless of a person's faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible," saying that the Bible is "indispensable" and "absolutely crucial" for a person who wishes to be considered well educated.

However, not only has the Bible marked literature and the English language, it also has shaped political and social realities that we take for granted. Until English translations of the Bible began to be produced in the fourteenth century, the Bible was locked away in the gilded cage of the Latin tongue and locked up so well that many priests in England did not have the skills necessary to read and understand it, much less teach it to others. In Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, Benson Bobrick notes that access to the Bible, brought about by the sacrificial work of Bible translators like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, taught people to think, and the wide reading of the Bible led to an explosion in the printing of books. This rise in literacy eventually brought down the unjust powers of the day. Bobrick writes, "Once the people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular, which led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings."

As Western culture continued to develop, the Bible gave impetus for movements that have made the world a better place. Thomas Cahill, in The Gifts of the Jews, comments:

Without the Bible we would never have known the abolitionist movement, the prison-reform movement, the anti-war movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the movement of indigenous and dispossessed peoples for their human rights, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the free-speech and pro-democracy movements in such Far Eastern countries as South Korea, the Philippines, and even China. These movements of modern times have all employed the language of the Bible.

However, not only has the Bible been a culture-shaping influence in the past. It continues to be the best-selling book in the world year after year and thus constitutes a powerful world-shaping force to this day. Each and every year about 25 million copies of the Bible are sold in the United States, and some 100 million copies are sold around the world. Globally, another 400 million copies of all or part of the Scriptures are distributed by the United Bible Societies. Such figures dwarf and put in perspective even cultural phenomena of the moment, like the Harry Potter series. As Boston pastor of the early twentieth century, A. Z. Conrad, suggests, the Bible "outlives, out lifts, outloves, outreaches, outranks, outruns all other books." Consequently, if we look at the role of the Bible in the world from the standpoint of language and culture, it is important that we understand the literature of the Bible.

Now let me speak directly to those of us who consider ourselves to be followers of Jesus (and the rest of you are welcome to listen in; this stuff might be pertinent for you someday). My brothers and sisters, you know that for us the Bible is not just another influential body of literature. It is a "living" book because it comes from and leads to a living Lord. Hebrews 4:12 reads, "For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart." In other words, God's Word, wielded by the Holy Spirit, has the power to sort us out spiritually, to surprise and confront us, growing us in relationship with our Lord Christ.

Thus, reading the Bible ought to at once be as encouraging as a mother's gentle touch and, at moments, as unsettling and disturbing as a violent storm. In his work entitled Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson rightly notes concerning the Bible, "We open this Book and find that page after page it takes us off guard, surprises us, and draws us into its reality, pulls us into participation with God on his terms." This should be our experience of reading the Bible as we move from dry duty, beyond a checklist Christianity, slogging through the "reading of the day," to an experience of the Bible that might be called a "disrupting delight." If we are not being moved in heart and moved to new places in life—new levels of obedience to God—we are not really reading the Bible the way God wants us to.

Whereas the Bible has affected our culture and language, it defines and develops us as Christ followers. Take away the Bible and we cease to exist. It is both foundation and fuel of spiritual vitality for a Christian. Accordingly, there are many reasons we as believers need to read the Bible on a consistent basis. We need to read the Bible to know the truth. We want to think clearly about what God says is true and valuable (2 Pet. 1:20–21). We read the Bible to know God in a personal relationship (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 4:8–9; 1 Tim. 4:16). We read the Bible to live well for God in this world, and living out His will expresses our love for Him (John 14:23–24; Rom. 12:2; 1 Thess. 4:1–8; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). We read the Bible to experience God's freedom, grace, peace, and hope (John 8:32; Rom. 15:4; 2 Pet. 1:2). We read the Bible because it gives us joy (Ps. 119:111). We read the Bible to grow spiritually, as we reject conformity to the world and are changed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1–2; 1 Pet. 2:1–2). We read the Bible to minister to other Christ followers and to those who have yet to respond to the gospel, experiencing God's approval for work well done (Josh. 1:8; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16–17). We read the Bible to guard ourselves from sin and error (Eph. 6:11–17; 2 Pet. 2:1–2). We read the Bible to be built up as a Christian community with others in the body of Christ (Acts 20:32; Eph. 4:14–16).

The Holy Spirit produces these outcomes in the life of the believer, using the Word to grow us in spiritual maturity. Not surprisingly, in a recent survey of churchgoers by LifeWay Research, the number one predictor of spiritual maturity among those who regularly attend church was reading the Bible daily. As the great minister and philanthropist George Müller put it, "The vigor of our spiritual life will be in exact proportion to the place held by the Bible in our life and thoughts."

I say it again, my first reason for writing this book is that it is important that we read the Bible and read it well.

We Are Not Reading the Bible

Second, we are not reading the Bible. I wish you could hear my tone through these letters I am dropping down on the page. I don't want to sound alarmist, critical, or preachy. I am excited that you have joined me in this conversation, and I don't want to lose you here. But let me speak frankly. I am concerned about where we are currently in terms of our reading of the Bible, and I want you to be concerned with me. Let me say it again: we are not reading the Bible, much less reading it well.

I have been struck by this fact as I have worked with bright young college students at my university where the average score on the ACT for incoming freshmen is over twenty-five. We just had 120 prospective students on our campus last weekend, all of whom had scored over thirty-one on the ACT. (For those of you not connected to the academic world, that's very good.) My students are exceptionally bright, and the vast majority, though not all, come out of the church.

For several years I have been conducting brief biblical literacy exams at the beginning of my New Testament Survey course. The questions on the exam are straightforward, multiple-choice queries such as: Which of these books is from the New Testament? Whom did Pontius Pilate release during Jesus' trial? How many temptations did Jesus experience in the wilderness? Where would you look in the Bible to find the Sermon on the Mount?

Last fall the average score on the exam was 57 percent. The averages from classes over the past few years have ranged between 50 percent and 70 percent, but most of the time the average is closer to 50 percent. This is not unique to my students but is consistent with what other professors are finding at top Christian universities all over the United States. Our students, even those coming out of the church, simply are no longer grounded in the basics of the Bible's story. In just a moment I will suggest why I think this is, but let me paint the picture of our current situation a bit more broadly for you.

My students mirror a striking cultural phenomenon that pervades the English-speaking world. At least for the past half century biblical literacy has been in a whirlpool-like spiral downward, sucking a basic understanding of the Bible's stories and once-familiar phrases into a blank space in the culture's collective mind. It used to be that a public speaker could make allusions to key stories of the Bible and assume that most of his or her audience would catch them. No more. For instance, in 2001 Dick Meyer, a CBS News commentator, had a puzzled response to such an allusion in President Bush's inaugural address. Meyer confessed, "There were a few phrases in the speech I just didn't get. One was, 'When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.'" Meyer concluded, "I hope there's not a quiz."

Speaking of growing biblical illiteracy in the broader culture, George Lindbeck comments: "The decline of biblical literacy has been abrupt and pervasive.... The decline affects intellectuals and non-intellectuals, the religious and the non-religious, those inside the churches and those outside, clergy and laity." In his recent book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn't, Stephen Prothero writes, "The Gospel of John instructs Christians to 'search the scriptures' ..., but little searching, and even less finding is being done." Prothero reports that more than 10 percent of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Only 50 percent can name one of the four Gospels and less than half can name the first book of the Bible.

Literary critic George Steiner adds: "As any high-school or college teacher will testify, allusions to even the most celebrated biblical texts now draw a blank.... The King James Bible and the Luther Bible provided much of our civilization with its alphabet or referential immediacy, not only in the spheres of personal and public piety but in those of politics, social institutions, and the life of the literary and aesthetic imagination."

In other words, the Bible is in a slow fade from our collective conversation, not only in the realm of spiritual and church life but also in the realms of politics, social institutions, literature, and the arts.

If you are a practicing Christian, you may be thinking, Surely those of us who attend church regularly do much better than the average person on the street! I'm afraid not. As indicated by my students' performance on biblical literacy quizzes, we aren't getting it either. Ask one hundred church members if they have read the Bible today, and eighty-four of them will say no. Ask them if they have read the Bible at least once in the past week, and sixty-eight of them will say no. Even more disconcerting, ask those one hundred church members if reading or studying the Bible has made any significant difference in the way they live their lives. Only thirty-seven out of one hundred will say yes.

Since we as Christians should be "people of the Book," something is wrong with this picture. We should know the Bible well, but we really don't. All of the polls show that those who claim to be evangelical Christians only do marginally better than their nonbelieving neighbors when asked questions about the content of the Bible, and a biblical view of the world is not making inroads into how we think about and live our lives. Hymn writer William Cowper's words come to mind: "While thousands, careless of the damning sin, Kiss the Book's outside who ne'er look within." Brothers and sisters, we simply must do better. Our biblical illiteracy hurts us personally, hurts our churches, hurts our witness, and, thus, hurts the advancement of the gospel in the world.

Why Is This Happening?

You might be asking, "So, why is this happening?" My guess is that many factors are causing the current slide into ever deeper levels of biblical illiteracy. Let me mention four.

First, reading generally is on the decline, in spite of the fact that and myriads of other book outlets are pouring millions of volumes into the streets every year. A significant portion of the population simply does not read anything beyond clips in the newspaper, or brief magazine articles, or bits and blogs on the Internet. In fact, according to a 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Education one out of seven American adults functions at or below basic literacy levels. Also, a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, entitled "Reading at Risk," found that only 56.6 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop from a decade earlier; and the reading of literary works is in an even steeper rate of decline. This, of course, is going to affect the way we read (or don't read) the Bible. It also says something to those of us who are parents about the importance of teaching our children to love and read books if we want them to be readers of the Bible.


Excerpted from READ THE BIBLE FOR LIFE by GEORGE H. GUTHRIE Copyright © 2011 by George H. Guthrie. Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Meet the Author

George H. Guthrie is the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He helped establish and is now a Senior Fellow at Union’s Ryan Center for Biblical Studies, which is committed to promoting sound Bible reading, study, and interpretation at the grassroots level of the church. Guthrie has also participated in developing or revising several popular Bible translations including the HCSB, English Standard Version, and New Living Translation.

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Read the Bible for Life 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Just from the sample I can tell this is a totally worthless book. If you can't write a understandable intro I certainly won't waste my time.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is this a Bible ornot