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If I Can Find My Bible, What Do I Do Next?

by Virginia Smith

Where is it now, that beautiful Bible your grandparents gave you for Christmas? In the back of a drawer? On the top closet shelf? Worse yet, is it still in the box it came in, resting safely in some now forgotten spot in the house?

Wherever it is, it may have a way of making you feel guilty even when it isn't in plain sight. Why guilty? Perhaps because deep inside you know it isn't just an ordinary book. Many people call it the Word of God, and that makes you feel that you really should pay some attention to it. Maybe you've even tried a few times to get into the Bible but didn't have much success. So you put it back in the gift box, deciding that you really don't know enough about this complicated and thick best-seller called the Bible.

Don't Sell Yourself Short

Don't be too quick to put down your knowledge of the Bible. You probably know more than you think. Every time you go to Sunday Mass, you hear many passages quoted directly from the Bible. In fact, the whole first part of the Mass is called the Liturgy of the Word, and when Word is capitalized like that, it means the Word of God. So when we read or listen to parts of the Bible, we're really hearing God speaking to us.

In this Liturgy of the Word, the Church presents us with three Scriptural readings each Sunday. The first is nearly always from the Old Testament. The second is usually from one of the epistles. "Epistle" is simply another word for "letter," and there are 21 of those in the New Testament written by a number of different people. The third and last reading is always from one of the four Gospels. That's because for us as Christians, no part of the Bible can ever be as important as the Gospels, accounts of Jesus' life and teachings. Since we are his followers (disciples), we find in the Gospels almost everything on which we center our belief.

When we hear the Scriptures read in short sections a week apart, however, we tend to lose the continuity of the story. It's not like a miniseries, where much of the next episode is spent reviewing what happened before. We might forget what happened before the passage we're hearing now and miss the connections between this week and last. And, unlike most miniseries, the Gospels are life-changing, with power to influence the direction of your life. So it's good to have the total picture, the big story, in mind.

Gospels are not merely stories or simple biographies. In school, you've read a lot of biographies of great people, and you know that these are the tales of their lives from start to finish. A Gospel isn't like that, and we shouldn't expect it to be. A Gospel tells episodes from Jesus' life and teachings, usually those things the writer thought we most needed to know.

Behind the Scenes With Gospel Writers

Anybody who writes anything has a reason for doing it. When you write a term paper, you have a very good reason for doing that: You won't get out of that class if you don't!

Gospel writers weren't that different. They all had reasons for writing what they did about Jesus, and their reasons were different because they lived in different times and places among different kinds of people.

Suppose you decided to write a gospel. How would you go about it? It might be pretty much the same as writing a letter to a friend. First, you'd decide what that friend would be most interested in hearing. Once you've settled on what you're going to say, you would probably get most of that information from your own experience. None of us can speak from any other perspective than our own.

Those are two factors behind each of the Gospels. The individual writers wrote those parts of Jesus' life which they felt best suited the people for whom they were writing, and they wrote from their own experience. The men who were the authorities behind two of the Gospels, Matthew and John, knew Jesus personally. The other two, Mark and Luke, more than likely did not. But all four told the same story from different perspectives.

Mark's perspective, for example, was shaped by the absence of Jesus from the earth for some 35 to 40 years. The eyewitness generation, those who actually knew Jesus and heard him speak, were dying, either of natural causes or in the persecution by Roman Emperor Nero. Little communities of Christians were springing up all around the Mediterranean world. They needed an organized account of Jesus' public life to safeguard the accuracy of his teaching and preserve what the eyewitness generation had always provided by word of mouth.

Mark very possibly composed his Gospel in Rome where his Christian community, mostly people who converted from ancient pagan religions, was in real danger. These people could be arrested, imprisoned, even killed for their new faith, and they wanted to know, as you would, whether this faith was worth putting their lives on the line for. Mark, therefore, says much about discipleship, what it really means to follow Jesus, pointing out that Jesus never said it would be easy.

So, then, would a Gospel be a good place to start your Bible reading? Absolutely, because it's the center of Christian faith. Just don't expect any one Gospel to give you the whole story or to tell the story exactly like another Gospel.

Which Gospel would be best to read first? It really doesn't matter. You might scan a little of each to see which writing style you like best. You may find one you like so well you want to stick with it. By all means, do. But if you don't have a preference, Mark makes a good starting point. It's the shortest Gospel and is written in such a fast-paced style that it's sometimes called the action Gospel. In this Youth Update, it is being used as an example throughout.

One Gospel = One Book

Let's say you have now opened your Bible to the Gospel of Mark—or have tried to. Maybe you can't find it. If that's the case, head for the table of contents. This is your road map through the Bible. Generally speaking, you'll see two bold titles: Old Testament and New Testament. The word "testament" simply means covenant or solemn agreement between two parties. In the Bible, those two parties are almost always God and God's people. The Old Testament could also be called the Hebrew Scriptures since it's the part of the Bible still used by our Jewish friends as their Scriptures. The New Testament, which you'll notice is considerably shorter, could be called the Christian Scriptures because everything is centered on Jesus. So that's easy to remember: For anything happening before the time of Jesus, go to the Old Testament; for anything dealing with Jesus' life or the early Christian period, refer to the New Testament.

For now, go right to the New Testament section and look up the page number for the Gospel of Mark. All New Testaments are arranged exactly the same way, so you can count on Mark always being the second book of any New Testament you pick up.

Upon turning to Mark's Gospel, the first thing that meets your eye may not be the text of the Gospel at all, but rather an introduction. This introduction can help dig deeper into what this Gospel is all about, but right now all you want to do is read the book. And Mark is a book all by itself. The Bible is really a whole collection of books. The word Bible is taken from a Greek word that means "books." And that's books, plural. When you examine your Bible's table of contents, every title you see is a separate book and no more intended to be read one right after the other than books on a library shelf.

Back to Mark: Now that you've found him, enjoy him. Just read the book the way you ordinarily do, start to finish. Mark is reasonably compact, so if you can set aside a good part of an afternoon or evening and read the whole Gospel, you'll get more out of it than you ever have hearing short snatches on Sundays.

For one thing, you'll understand two people much better: Jesus and Mark himself. As you read through Mark's account, Jesus will begin to take shape as a real person with a personality you can easily identify with in your own life. You'll see Jesus as a man on the go. This is a Jesus not a lot different from you at the end of a busy day: tired, stressed out, wanting nothing so much as to be given a little space. But he doesn't get much. People are always crowding around wanting something from him, even when he tries to take time to eat!

You'll understand Mark a little better, too, after you read enough of his work to see what's important to him in Jesus' ministry. Maybe you'll relate well to his writing style since it's like today's fast-paced media method with its emphasis on the main message.

As you read through Mark this first time, pay little or no attention to chapter headings and verse numbers. Those are helpful later when you're really digging into this book and need some reference points. But Mark didn't put those numbers there. None of the biblical writers did. Chapter and verse numbers were added much later to help us. But just so you'll know how they work, suppose you run across a reference that reads: Mt 6:9-13. That would mean the reading is from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 9-13. Look that up and you find Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer.

Don't spend time on footnotes or cross references this first time through. Pausing constantly to look something up disrupts the flow of the story and the flavor of the writing. For now, all you want to do is read. When you finish, don't worry about how much you might not understand. Think of how much you do understand, things you see in an entirely new way, things that make Jesus real—as if he were right there with you.

Jesus, Up Close and Personal

As a matter of fact, Jesus is right there with you. When Christians read the Gospels, they're not reading about some ancient hero who's long dead and gone. They're reading about the living Jesus. Jesus is as alive today as he was in any of the episodes Mark describes. That's why Jesus' resurrection is the most important event in history for Christians. It means that, even though we can't see him, Jesus exists in a new kind of glorified body right now—today. And we can talk to him and try to live the way he asked us to (that's what it means to be a disciple) because someday we're going to move on to a new and more fantastic part of our lives with Jesus in our glorified bodies in the kingdom. That's such great news that all the Gospel writers talk about it. It's the central event of the entire New Testament.

After reading Mark, you might like to find out how another writer handles the subject. A good place to turn next would be the Gospel of Luke. Read it the same way you read Mark, right straight through, without looking up references or reading notes. After all, this is your "get-acquainted" tour of the Bible. There'll be plenty of time to revisit these books later, and then you can linger longer.

Where To Next?

Having gotten a pretty solid grounding in Jesus' words and deeds through two of the Gospels, where to next? Since the Gospels take you only as far as the end of Jesus' earthly life, it might be interesting to find out what happened after he left this little planet and returned to his place with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The Acts of the Apostles is written by Luke, so you'll already be familiar with the writing style, and you'll know the kinds of things Luke likes to emphasize (we're purposely not telling you what those are because it's much more fun to discover them for yourself).

While Acts tells about many events in the early days of Christianity, it shouldn't be viewed as a history book. It doesn't tell everything that happened, just those events the author thought would give us the best idea of how Jesus' followers preached his message and how they spread it all across the known world (which, for them, was primarily the regions around the Mediterranean Sea). You'll meet a great character in Acts who doesn't appear in the Gospels because he wasn't a disciple in Jesus' lifetime.

Paul is the central figure in the second part of Acts. Here is a fascinating man. When you first meet him, he hates Jesus' followers and is making a career out of tossing them in prison. On his way to a city called Damascus to continue arresting Christians, he has an unusual encounter with the risen Jesus which changes his whole life. How? That's for you to find out as you get into the Acts.

Acts is an adventure story from beginning to end. You may not be able to put it down, so don't. Read right through it as you did with the Gospels. You'll receive an exciting picture of how Christianity began.

Worried about these little groups of Christians, but unable to see them very often, Paul wrote them a number of letters. Some of these are preserved as part of the New Testament, and they may be found right after the Acts. Don't look for neat, chronological order here, either. The letters are arranged according to their length (longest to shortest), rather than the order in which they were written. While this may seem an unusual way to line them up, it does mean that once you have become acquainted with their order, you will know where to locate them in any edition of the Bible.

From the New to the Old

Aren't we going backward in all this? We started with the New Testament and have said almost nothing about the Old. The reason is that the wonderful story of Jesus is by far the most interesting and most familiar to Christians, especially Christians who may be blowing the dust off their Bibles for the first time in ages. Following that story helps a newcomer feel at home with the Word of God. Reading the books as books without regard for study helps build confidence in a person's ability to read the Bible profitably. Even though it may be just a first reading, everyone gets something out of it, and most people get a lot!

Does it matter, then, if we read the Old Testament at all? Oh, yes. If it didn't matter, the Church would hardly include an Old Testament reading in every Sunday Liturgy of the Word. The Hebrew Scriptures are every bit as much the inspired Word of God as the Christian Scriptures. In the 46 books that make up that section of the Bible, there are all kinds of beautiful songs and poetry, intriguing history and amazing stories. As Christians, we see the coming of Jesus as savior of the human race foretold on Old Testament pages. Getting into all of that is great fun, but it's an enterprise for another time. In the meantime, get acquainted with the marvelous collection of books you hold in your hands!

Virginia Smith chairs the religion department at Billings Central Catholic High School and is Director of Religious Education for Holy Rosary Parish, also in Billings, Montana. She is coauthor of Scripture From Scratch, a basic Bible study program to he published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in spring 1991.

Youth Update advisers who previewed this issue, suggesting helpful changes and asking questions of the author, are Nathaniel Belvo, Corina Dalton, David Grooms, Lisa Lehman and Kathy Nartker. Mary Ehret, youth minister for the three parishes of St. Augustine, Germantown; St. Henry, South Dayton; and Our Lady of Good Hope, Miamisburg, Ohio, convened this group which represents all three parishes.

Q.

While you seem excited about this Gospel-writing, I can't imagine why I would ever choose to write one. Give me a reason.

A.

Since I've been using Mark as an example, I'm going to go with him. He had no inkling that he was creating a new literary form—a Gospel. He simply wanted to tell his world about the wonders of Jesus. The word gospel means good news. You enjoy sharing good news, especially when you know it will excite the other person as much as it's excited you. Mark knew that he was on to the greatest news in all of history up to that point.

Not every writer chooses to write in the gospel format, but people who choose to write have some news or some insight into it. The Gospels are accounts that continue to inspire people to write today—to write in ways as different as theology, poetry and fiction. When you catch the excitement of this book we call holy, you may invent some new form of your own. Or, others will read you like a book and be able to tell that you have read and chosen to live the Gospels.

Q.

You say that people really wanted to read what the Gospel writers had to say. Surely nobody wanted to hear about the Crucifixion and all that other bad news.

A.

Oh, but they did. People who knew and loved Jesus (or had heard about him) and thought of him as the Son of God wanted to know why he had to die at all and such a terrible death at that. They wondered what the Resurrection meant. Should it be taken seriously? What did it all mean? They were hungry for answers to some very big questions.

In today's news reporting, we hear the "spin" or the "color" or some analyst's perception of events. The Gospels are four accounts of how what seemed like bad news was banner-headline good news—not just for a few days, but for all time.

Q.

If Mark and Luke didn't know Jesus, what led them to write Gospels?

A.

What would lead a writer today to publish a life of Abraham Lincoln or an account of the Civil War? Great people of history are fascinating, and many people want to know what they said and why they said it. Jesus had this kind of impact and more! By the time the Gospels came into being, very few eyewitnesses were alive, but more and more people were coming to believe in Jesus and his message.

Jesus himself encouraged that kind of belief when he said to his friend Thomas after the Resurrection, "You became a believer because you saw me. Blest are they who have not seen and have believed" (John 20:29).

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