The Bible Challenge: A 'marathon' of a read

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Mar 26, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Thomas Butler’s days are busy and full; the Flourtown, Pennsylvania, lawyer is in and out of courtrooms, representing clients in commercial litigation lawsuits.

But not before he’s met the Bible Challenge; to read the entire Bible in a year.

“It’s a grounding for me each day,” said Butler, 65, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, who started last January and is anticipating completing the Bible by Easter.

Then he wants to start all over again.

“Reading the Bible from cover to cover is like running a marathon,” Butler said during a recent telephone interview from his office. “Okay, you’ve accomplished it but what have you really done? My conclusion thus far is that there’s a lot more to get out of the Bible and a lot more to be gained by continuing to read the Bible.”

Which is something he’d never considered until he attended a friend’s memorial service at St. Thomas Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 26, 2011. The rector, the Rev. Marek Zabriskie, invited the congregation to join him in the Bible Challenge.

“I’d never thought about reading the Bible before I heard Marek’s invitation,” he recalled. “It was a challenge which on that day struck me as something I wanted to do.”

After starting with Genesis 1 he is nearing the Book of Revelation, and acknowledges it’s taken him more like 15 months, but says the extra time was well spent.

“I used to get up maybe like everybody, rush around, jump in the shower, shave, get dressed, have a quick breakfast and do whatever I was supposed to do that day,” he said.

“Now, I take a half-hour and read the Bible and think about it. I find I’m not rushing as much. It has given me a different context and background in which to view things that are going on in the world and in my life.”

Zabriskie came up with the Bible Challenge in 2010 as a way to rejuvenate his own spiritual life.

Like many busy clergy, “I was feeling spiritually and physically worn down after Christmas, after helping lead seven services in three days,” he said. He decided to challenge himself to read the Bible in a year.

“After three to four days I found it so incredibly spiritually gratifying, that it felt like God put it on my heart to invite others,” he said. He sent an invitation to a few friends, then to church members and then to “those not in our church, who I play tennis with or socialize with and got the same response. I kept on promoting it. We had 50 people within 24 hours.”

And the good news has continued to spread, nationally and globally. “Fifteen dioceses around the world are doing it; ten are in the United States,” he said. “There are 45 churches doing it now and many more going to start. I anticipate we could have members in over a thousand congregations by the end of this year.”

The effort also led to creation of the Center for Biblical Studies (CBS), whose website notes that “many vibrant and growing churches share one thing in common-they have a strong commitment to reaching and reading the Bible.”

“Reading the Bible on a daily basis will inspire many people to start new ministries, make important decisions and significant changes in their lives. It will give them strength and comfort as they face major life challenges and allow them to feel truly alive in Christ,” according to the website.

The Bible Challenge (TBC) can be adapted for individual, congregational, and diocesan use. Although Zabriskie designed a one-year reading schedule it is adjustable for portions of the year, such as a Lenten series on the Psalms, or the New Testament, or a Gospel.

Since its inception, the CBS board has picked up such supporters and advisors as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Frank Griswold and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann. People ages 13 to 93 in churches from England to Nigeria, Tanzania to Pakistan are participating.
TBC encourages participants to read three chapters of the Old Testament, one psalm and one chapter of the New Testament each day. The readings can be downloaded on iPhones, iPads, Kindles, Nooks or CDs.

Participants may start on any day they choose, using a variety of Bible translations, including The Message by Eugene Peterson and The Story by Zondervan as well as age-appropriate versions of the Bible, in order to reach all age groups, he said.

They are asked to begin with Genesis 1-3, Psalm 1 and Matthew 1 on the first day, for example. A meditation posted on the website offers the context for group study: “Today is all about beginnings,” it says, including setting the stage for the creation story in Genesis and connecting it to the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1.

Considering that “bridge” between the old and new testaments is one of the reasons Martha King, 66, a parishioner at St. Peter’s Church in Del Mar, California, in the Diocese of San Diego, joined TBC.

King, a retired English teacher and current Sunday school teacher, is in her third year of Education For Ministry (EFM), a four-year theological education program in the Episcopal Church that includes Scripture study.

“I like what I read in the sense of reflecting on the Bible as a whole,” said King. On March 22 she was on Day 81 of TBC, and had read Joshua 10-12, Psalm 68 and John 2.

“There was a lot of conquering and tribal warfare and God bringing hail down and trapping the kings in their caves and Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temples. I can’t help but see a connection between the Gospel of John and the way Jewish people were tending their temple,” King said. “I definitely find myself more open to the lessons in church on Sunday.”

TBC participants at Grace Church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, started during Lent and are already noticing its effects, according to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg, 55, the rector.

“We’ve been a ‘Father Knows Best’ parish and [TBC] is empowering people to understand they’re called into ministries,” he said of the parish, which has an average Sunday attendance of about 128.

“They ask questions they wouldn’t have asked in the past, are taking a deeper look at their own faith, becoming more thoughtful about it and more intentional in worship.”

He adapted Sunday adult forums into discussion groups. It’s also drawn a handful of people from the community, non-Episcopalians “who frequently stay around for worship afterwards.”

“We say that Scripture, tradition and reason are the three legs of our faith but we don’t spend a lot of time exploring them,” Schaffenburg added. “This allows us to explore, to understand why we believe what we say we believe.”

The Rev. Merrill Wade, rector of St. Matthew’s Church in Austin, Texas, started two discussion groups to support TBC. About 50 people have signed up and are experiencing “a grand opportunity to talk about” scripture and understand it in a different way, he said.

For instance, he says, consider the practice of temple sacrifice, including “grappling with the idea of a burnt sacrifice, of the priest as the butcher and the cook and the holy man, and getting a sense of what it was like to bring the animal to the altar,” he said.

“You think of our lives — we have meatpackers who do it all completely out of our sight, most of us. It arrives as a gunky-looking thing with plastic wrap on it. Nobody prayed over it, nobody thanked the animal for giving up its life. At least in this (temple sacrifice) there was a sense of gratitude that the animal gave its life. Its throat was slit; it was killed, dressed, eaten. In some ways that seems more humane than what we do.”

And tackling other questions: “Why is God in a constant conversation with Moses, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus? What does that say about the way all these texts we’ve woven together and the understanding that all of this was verbal dictation from God, yet Jesus had to go off by himself to pray?”

The church, about five miles north of the campus of the University of Texas, has an average Sunday attendance of about 430.

“We’re not solving problems, we’re learning about how misty the look-back is for us. That we just can’t possibly know what it was like to live in that world and how useful it is to stretch our imaginations.”

Participants are seeing “how much distance there is between pre-monarchy Israel and the 21st century and Austin, Texas. This was a really different world, and they’re getting that,” he said. “The idea that the Bible is benign and God’s just speaking to us in a kind of fanciful way, the idea that the Bible is something easy to read and understand, that’s pretty well been stripped from their consciousness.”

And then there’s that pesky belief that, despite four Scripture lessons weekly and a three-year lectionary cycle, many Episcopalians are biblically illiterate.

The Rev. Paige Blair, 41, St. Peter’s rector, compares the encounter with TBC to living in Boston and taking the subway. “You can know the city like crazy by subway but … to actually find how it’s all connected on the ground really takes walking it, pounding the pavement.”

“Our prayer book is replete with Scripture and … we hear a ton of it in church but it’s excised from its context” on Sunday mornings, she said. “We very happily cut and paste Scripture or have a lectionary insert so people don’t have to thumb through their Bibles” to recognize the connection. “It’s a bit unhinged from its incarnate reality, its 3-D reality in the Bible.”

TBC gives people that context, added Blair, 41. St. Peter’s average Sunday attendance is 310 and all age groups are represented among the 40-some parishioners taking the Bible challenge, from high school students to retirees — even a couple of professors from a nearby Bible college.

That’s in addition to the church’s three regular Bible studies. TBC participants are noticing a new 3-D reality.

“Now they can see where the Decalogue rests in Exodus, where the Lord’s Prayer falls within the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain in Matthew and Luke, respectively,” she says.

Blair said she is grateful to Zabriskie “that he heard the call to just try this himself and that he invited others to join him.

“There are people in Pakistan, in the city where Bin Ladin was found, there are people all over the world engaging this wonderful journey because Marek heard the call of the Spirit and invited others to join him. That’s discipleship, right? This is a real gift.”

—The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent with the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

Comments (5)

  1. Started in January. Today, began 2 Samuel and Acts. Using Oxford Annotated NRSV with fine introductions and footnotes. It’s been a long time since I read the Bible through and am enjoying reading each book in its own integrity and context without skipping around.

  2. Stuart Kenworthy says:

    The church should be grateful for this Spitit-inspired initiative by Fr Marek Zabriskie. A very important and sacred enterrprise and endeavor. And so good for the Episcopal Church. Thank you!

  3. Jerry Emerson (Christ Church Dover DE) says:

    We did this in a small Men’s Group last year. At the beginning we all thought no-way, however as we proceeded all the things mentioned above apply. We found ourselves time and again considering some basic principles like: “original Sin” “God’s Love” “a remnant” “the Law” “our pride”, etc. etc. As pointed out above, yes we Episopalians do feel biblically illiterate, but once doing this one realizes how much of our prayer book comes directly from scripture.
    Doing it in a small group, I think, really helps to keep one at it. I know I needed them to keep me going. Psalm 1:1

  4. Merrill Wade says:

    On behalf of our church, St Matthew’s, Austin, I want to state clearly that the Bible Challenge is going well! Thanks Marek, for starting this, and Pat, for writing a comprehensive article. I believe this will be spiritually transformational for our parish.

  5. Sharon Kelso says:

    On the website for Biblical Studies there is a guide for readings each day. It helps me to stay focused (I’m on day 87). It is, for me, a beautiful way to start my day and gives food for thought as well. I am grateful for the movement that got me back into bible study and reading.

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