The PC(USA) Bible Content Exam is coming up.
This has been on my mind a lot, for some reason. So, to get it off my mind, I tried to think seriously about what I would do if I had to take the BCE in August – that is, a little over 30 days from now.
Ideally, of course, I would already actually have read all of the actual Bible at least once. Ideally, in fact, I would have read all of the Bible more than once, and some parts of it lots of times.
But we do not live in an ideal world. Many seminarians have not read the whole Bible even once, for a variety of reasonable reasons.
Moreover, although this is hard for me to relate to personally, I also understand that sacred text is not everyone’s hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top. I get that for some people it’s more like broccoli or kale: indubitably beneficial, even indispensable, but not binge-worthy.
On top of that, the Bible is formidable.
Especially if we haven’t read it yet.
I am firmly convinced that the main “trick” to passing the current PC(USA) Bible Content Exam is actually to have read the actual Bible. Because recognizing “key passages” and knowing where they are in the Bible is much easier when we have encountered them in context, and the more we read the text the easier it gets.
Unfortunately, curling up with the Bible, starting at page one, and reading straight through to page 1,150 or so may be a good way to become convinced that the whole “reading the Bible” project is hopeless and we might as well go drink beer (“proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” after all) and rely on prayer alone. My guess is that this urge to rely on beer and prayer could hit in earnest around the middle of Exodus, maybe chapter 25 or so, when the ratio of detail to forward narrative motion increases pretty significantly.
With this in mind, I tried to think about how I would approach the project of reading through the Bible “fast and focused” in the next 30 days or so, if I had to do that. This is what I came up with:
Using my go-to copy of the Bible (which is not a study edition), this plan requires reading between 30 and 40 pages most days. It’s a lot, but not an impossible lot. Different people read at different rates, but my educated guess is that most seminarians could do this in not more than 2 hours a day.
Aside: Yes, I fully expect people to laugh at that last statement. I know it’s hard for people to make an hour or two available in their schedules for something that isn’t already there. That’s one reason I, myself, don’t go to the gym. Still, if I were planning to take the Bible Content Exam in August and I hadn’t actually read the actual Bible yet, I think I might be able to make that time, or some of it.
It wouldn’t have to be two-hour block of time, either. It could work better to break a day’s reading up into a couple of smaller chunks. Still, I would aim to read a lot of material in a single sitting, because once again, my experience has been that it’s easier to remember where things are in a text if you encounter them in context. And the issue with the Bible Content Exam these days is to be aware of where some important things are in the text.
Psalms and Proverbs are off in columns of their own, on this plan, because my personal experience has been that they are lethal to try to read “all at once.” I, myself, have gotten a lot clearer on what’s in those books by reading them in MUCH smaller bits.
I, myself, would read the Psalms one at a time, spaced throughout the day. (The Muslim Pro phone app works well for this purpose, because it will alert you five times a day, at Muslim prayer times in your zip code; when you get an alert, you can read a Psalm; Bible Gateway has a phone app, too, with the NRSV as an option, which you can use to scroll through the Psalms this way.)
While I believe that everything in the Bible matters, it seems to me that some of the Psalms are WAY more memorable and critical than others. I would make a 3×5 card for each Psalm I “like”/recognize, with the number of the Psalm at the top, and a note on the card that reminds me why I “like”/recognize it (e.g., Psalm 1 “blessed is the man”, Psalm 2 “why do the nations rage” , Psalm 8 “how majestic is your name”; … you get the idea). That way, when you have a few extra minutes [yes, I hear the even more sardonic laughter], you can flip through those cards and get a little extra memory juice.
Proverbs I’d read one chapter at a time. Except for chapters 1-8, which is like a book of its own. About Woman Wisdom.
None of this is scientific, or approved by the denomination, or guaranteed, or anything like that. I offer it with good intentions, but since we all know what road is paved with those, also with the warning “use at your own risk.”
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t offer it at all if I didn’t think it might be helpful. This is just what I would do if I were faced with the challenge of reading through the whole Bible in a short time, with the goal of remembering something useful about what I’d read. It is based, to some extent, on the way I “chunk” what I know about the Bible for myself these days, based on having actually read the actual Bible many times.
I have some further thoughts about how I would use this review plan, including how I would read some of the individual books, which I’ll put in another post.
Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Holy One your God is with you wherever you go.