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Misinterpreting “The Beginner’s Bible”

Recently I hit a wave of nostalgia and went shopping. Lo and behold, on one can purchase the 1989 version of “The Beginner’s Bible” for $1.23 plus shipping. Thanks to Amazon, I have on my desk today a copy of the very first Bible I ever read on my own.

The author at work on sermon preparation.

I remember spending a good part of a day reading through the entire thing when I was a kid, and bragging about how I had read through the entire Bible in one sitting. I’m not sure how fully I realized that there was more to the Bible than what was in my illustrated edition. Actually, there were a number of things I eventually had to clear up after reading this Bible so often. The biggest one I remember was how I misunderstood the entire book of Revelation.

The last page of “The Beginner’s Bible” goes like this:

He saw a new Heaven and a new earth. He saw a new city of God. A loud voice said, “God’s people will live with God now…” Then Jesus said, “I am coming soon.” And John said, “YES, JESUS, COME.”

The pictures for Revelation are pretty good too. Golden doors swinging open to reveal a yellow throne surrounded by rainbows with a (clearly male, beard included) outline of God on the throne – and a colorful city with streets of gold, green grass and a blue sky.

Now, at this point in my education, I knew about things like ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and the Middle Ages even – but relatively little about anything that happened between the 15th century and 1993. The first time I read that version of Revelation, I thought that it was referring to the present world. Not the world to come – I thought Revelation explained how we magically got from horses and castles to skyscrapers and space shuttles. My young brain thought that everyone in the whole world knew that, at some point, God came down from the sky and gave us all of the wonderful technology that we have today.

This influenced my beliefs in a number of ways, as you might imagine. I assumed that everyone was a Christian – how could you not be? We have racecars and spaceships, don’t we? Where did those come from if not directly from heaven? The very few nonbelievers must just not understand. I thought that the world of the Bible was in a whole separate category from the world I lived in, divided with a hard line by the events of Revelation, which must have happened sometime around 1492. That’s why no one wore sandals and robes today, and why no one back then had telephones.

These are clearly problematic views. But I had no way of identifying them as problematic views – and no reason to bring them up to my parents, teachers or pastor, because I assumed that I only knew what everyone else knew. I didn’t ask my parents if they thought my views on 2 plus 2 equaling 4 were acceptable, and I didn’t ask them about how unbelievers could ignore God’s miraculous gift of microwave ovens either.

You might sense an analogy coming on, and you’re not wrong. I think I still have some ungrounded assumptions about the Bible lurking in my mind. Things that color my views of the world and other people. They might not be as easy to identify as my unorthodox preterist views on Revelation, but they could be just as damaging or misleading.

It’s worth noting that many of these assumptions come from extrabiblical sources. One easy-to-cite example for your next Bible trivia night is the assumption that there were three wise men at Jesus’ birth; Matthew never tells us how many there are, and many Eastern churches assume there are 12, not three. We only assume there are three because they give three gifts (See Matthew 2). But let’s be honest, the only reason anyone knows there are three kings is because of the Christmas (or Epiphany) carol. Sometimes we put more credence in songs (and perhaps, bestselling apocalyptic Christian fiction series) than we do in the Bible itself.

This is all the more reason to take the Bible seriously and read it critically. Ask questions of it, eliminate your assumptions, identify your biases. A good Bible study ought to not only give you more information about the Bible, it also ought to call your past views into question, even if you end up re-affirming them. And as critically as we examine the Bible, we should examine extrabiblical information about God twice as critically, whether it comes from pastors, Bible paraphrases, worship songs, Christian fiction or any other source.

I’m not advocating against “The Beginner’s Bible” – far from it. That Bible gave me a love of studying God that stays with me today (and, incidentally, is as least partially responsible for my belief that technology is one avenue through which God blesses us). And the cartoons are nice. But let’s not end our study of the Bible there – in fact, let’s not end it at all.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.