How to Explain the Bible to Beginners
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
It’s been a tough year. My dear mother had a heart procedure on Valentines Day which resulted in many complications and subsequent hospital stays. It’s incredibly difficult watching someone you love — who has been so full of life — struggle to regain her strength.
Someone else I love didn’t have the opportunity. One of my dearest friends lost her battle with cancer this spring. Cathy was the funniest human I knew. Despite having dark days, no one could make me laugh like her, and the deep conversations about life and faith that we’ve had over the last 25 years will stay with me until that someday when it’s my turn to see her again.
During the times I visited Cathy in those last months, I got to know her sister who dedicated her life to caring for Cathy, bringing her to oncologist appointments, helping her navigate the healthcare system, going through all the medical bills, finding a nursing home facility that could provide end-of-life care, handling her estate plans, and being Cathy’s advocate during a very scary, sad, and confusing time.
Cathy and I were very different, yet we shared a love of creation and its Creator. It was the bond that held our friendship together. Oh, and the laughter.
As I got to know Sharon, her sister, I saw many similar traits — mannerisms, a caring nature, crazy storytelling ability and, of course, her sense of humor. I felt drawn to her and, since Cathy’s passing, we’ve grown closer. We both agree that this new friendship has been a gift that came out of a very painful loss, and that it helps us still feel a connection to our dearly loved friend and sister.
While Cathy had a deeply rooted faith in Christ, Sharon freely admits she hasn’t felt that way toward God and the church, but the circumstances with Cathy’s illness and her eagerness to see her savior have stirred a longing for Sharon to know Him more.
We’ve talked and emailed over the past few months. In one of those emails Sharon told me that she was trying to read a Bible that Cathy had given her and that it wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. Her mom suggested she start in the Gospel of John, but she didn’t quite understand why she wouldn’t just start at the beginning in Genesis.
Sometimes when we’ve spent years entrenched in the Christian faith, we can forget how overwhelming that big, fat book can be.
Not to mention, the church.
Or, should I say… So. Many. Churches.
Big. Small. Formal. Casual. Subdued. Vibrant. Traditional. Contemporary. Baptism. Communion. Liturgy. Organ. Drums…
It’s enough to make my head spin, let alone someone who isn’t familiar with it all. Needless to say, Sharon was confused and she asked me what I thought. I wrote her my thoughts and she said it helped clear some things up for her.
I share this letter with her permission, hoping it might shed some light for others, too.
A Letter to a Friend — The Bible 101
Some churches are quite a bit more strict than the one I attend. I grew up in a very strict church that really focused on rules. There are some who want that structure and sense of discipline and I don't fault them for it. For me, I prefer a more casual approach.
When I worked for a non-profit ministry, I worked with so many different denominations and came to realize that there are people who love the Lord in many of them, but some just have different ways of expressing it. That said, I don't agree with some of their practices and even some of their teachings, so it’s important to make sure they teach truth from the Bible. Some churches are very low key and traditional and just sing hymns to a piano, while others are more contemporary and have a band with lights and sound systems.
The church I attend is more like the latter... contemporary. I feel like the messages really apply to my life. I don't feel "preached" at by someone who’s “better” than me, but by someone who is just as messed up as I am and helping a fellow follower. I do often feel challenged to consider things in my life and whether I'm loving others well or being my old selfish self. I feel like I'm learning more about a friend and how he loves me and impacted the world and came to save it (and how he just wants me to get to know him more).
It's awesome that you're trying to read the bible. You mentioned that you were going through old letters and cards written to Cathy and discovering things about her you never knew. Think of the Bible in the same way... as letters written to you by people a long time ago to help you get to know Jesus better.
It's cool that Cathy gave you a bible. There are different translations of the Bible (which was originally written in three different languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic). I personally think the King James Version is a little hard to read because it's an old English translation — kind of like reading Shakespeare versus Hemingway. Some people love that Old World writing style (kind of like some people like different styles of music, books, or poetry).
Some people love Handel. Some people love Hip Hop.
If that Old English style isn’t quite your thing, it might be better starting off with an easier "modern day" English version. I have an extra Bible I can give you that I think you will get a lot more out of. I would love for you to have it.
As far as starting off in Genesis, I think that's ok. It's got some great stories. But I do agree with your mom that John is a great one to start with, too.
Let me explain.
See, there's the Old Testament (written before Jesus), and the New Testament (written after he came on the scene). The entire Old Testament points to Jesus and sets the stage for his coming... so it makes a lot of sense to make sure you know who Jesus is and what he taught before you dive into the back story. I'd also suggest reading John — I think it's the best telling of the story of Jesus. My favorite book of the bible is Romans, actually. It really speaks to me.
At first glance, it can seem like the Bible is a hodgepodge of stories and information. Well, that’s kind of true, but in a good way. That’s because the Bible is made up of different kinds of "books" written by various authors... it's really a compilation written over the span of more than 1,000 years by something like 35 different people. So it's not like a normal book that has a single author and a story line from one section to the next.
Think of it this way... Just like you might watch a cable news channel, each program on that channel will have a different production style, host, or topic of interest. Some programs might be a documentary style with stories and personal accounts while others are more technical or straight reporting. But they're all sharing the news. The bible is similar in that it's all sharing the "Good News," but from different perspectives and styles.
Some of the Bible is considered historical — like a documentary (Genesis and John), other parts are more artistic with poetry and prose (Psalms). Some sections are deeply personal letters written to friends (most of Paul’s writings in the New Testament), while others are almost more like record keeping (Leviticus... which I find hard to read).
Either way, don't feel like you have to figure everything out at once... I've been a follower of Jesus for a looooong time and am still figuring things out! But it's rewarding to learn new things about him and myself.
Honestly, there are times I read or hear things I don't understand, but I keep plugging through it knowing that I can never know 100%. Just like you mentioned that you were discovering things about Cathy from the letters you found — it makes you realize you could never know her 100% either... yet we love her all the more.
Well, that's a lot of God talk. Please let me know if it ever feels like I'm pushing God on you... I don't like it when others do that to me, so I try to be sensitive to that.
In an age of texting and Twitter feeds, I think writing letters to those we love is becoming a lost art. Yet without the letters written in the Bible, we’d be hard pressed to know God today without them.
For those who are seeking or struggling to understand why the Bible is written the way it is, I hope this helps.