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Bottomless Chapters

The philosopher Mortimer Adler defined great books as being those books that we can and should read again and again. “We need not read other books more than once to get all that they have to say. But we can always go deeper into great books. As sources of enlightenment, they are inexhaustible.”

Above all, this is true about the Bible. As I read somewhere (I can’t track it down now), the Bible isn’t the kind of book about which you can say, “Oh, I’ve read that.” The common practice of reading the Bible through in a year doesn’t exist because there is a special virtue in timing your reading to an annual calendar, but rather as a pointer to the fact that we can never come to the end of our Bible reading.

C.S. Lewis’ words about books that we enjoy are even more true about the Bible: “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” If we believe that in the Bible we are meeting with the word of God, it’s impossible to think that we’d read it just once.

The whole Bible bears our ceaselessly returning attention, but most of us who have read and reread the Bible over the course of our lives also recognize that some parts especially reward these return visits. This doesn’t mean we promote a “canon within the canon” (picking out favourite parts at the expense of other parts). What it means is that there are sections of the Bible that especially strike us by their depth. They contain worlds within worlds, riches so deep that we could explore them for a lifetime and know that we will never be done with them.

“We can always go deeper,” Adler wrote. Within the covers of our Bibles there are places that we would all do well to visit as often as possible, and with as much attention as we can muster.

The whole Bible will never stop speaking to us, but some chapters and pages in the Bible especially strike me as bottomless chapters. I’ll briefly note just a few here:

Genesis 1-3: The opening chapters of the Bible give us a vision for who we are, where we stand in the world, and what’s gone wrong. We are reminded in chapter 1 that God is the maker of all things, the creator of a beautiful and good world, and that he has placed upon humanity the special dignity of being his image-bearers. As chapter 2 unfolds we see the blessing of caring for the world in harmony with the earth, the animals and other humans. But chapter 3 not only sets the paradigm for our failure but shows us the repercussions of human sin: it distorts our perceptions and damages our relationships with God, with each other, with the earth, and with ourselves. Our selfishness and stubbornness and penchant for blame all begin here, and we can see in this chapter a reflection even of our failures today. No matter how many times I read these chapters, they reawaken my sense of both the glory and tragedy of humanity and return me to my need (and our need) for a loving, saving God.

Matthew 26: Continuing on from the theme of sin in Genesis 3, this chapter (and its parallels in Mark 14 and Luke 22) gives us a window into humanity’s darkest hour. This is the account of the night before Good Friday, and moment by moment, scene by scene, we see ourselves at our worst. Nobody escapes guiltless: the religious leaders plot together against him, one of the disciples agrees to betray Jesus to the authorities and then follows through on it, and one of Jesus’ closest friends denies knowing Jesus. In the centre of it all, Jesus serves a last supper to his disciples, proclaiming to them that he is about to give his life on their behalf. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” as Paul wrote to the Romans.

2 Corinthians 5: In the midst of a letter written out of a deep sense of pain and suffering (both emotional and physical), the apostle Paul composes one of his most beautiful chapters about the hope that we have in Christ, the hope of the resurrection. “For while we are in this tent [our frail bodies in a broken world], we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed [free from bodily life] but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling [our redeemed, resurrection bodies in God’s new creation], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4). As if that wasn’t enough, the second half of this chapter is even more wonderful, as he reflects on God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ and the privilege we have of sharing that reconciliation with others. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (5:19).

I could surely discuss at least a couple dozen other chapters here. This list would certainly include Romans 5 and 8, Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 3, Hebrews 2, and Revelation 21, just to limit it to New Testament passages. What about you? What “bottomless chapters” have been important and formative in your meditation and reflection on Scripture?

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