Don’t Panic! There’s Good News Between Those Covers

The Bible can be boring. Not only boring, but complicated.

Blake Nail / 11.10.21

According to researchers, in 2091 you’ll be able to see the Roadster Elon Musk launched into space with Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS telescope. The question is: Would you be able to read the monitor and see the message sprawled across it? DON’T PANIC! This brief saying has also been utilized by bands like Coldplay as the intro song on their album Parachutes. But the saying finds its origin in Douglas Adam’s classic science fiction/absurdist existentialism story, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Arthur Dent finds himself about to be executed along with the rest of the human race, in order for a galactic highway to be built. But before the world explodes due to attacking aliens, Arthur is saved by Ford Prefect who hitchhikes them aboard the alien spacecraft. While Arthur is in complete panic over not only Earth blowing up but the entire the galaxy being opened up to him, Ford hands him a device with the words “DON’T PANIC” across the cover.

I find a similar comparison to a new Christian, one who finds out they were lost in sin and found in Christ — then handed a thick book (likely thicker than any book they’ve ever read before) with pages thinner than tissue paper. This book though, in gold shiny print bears the words: HOLY BIBLE. Not as reassuring or calming as DON’T PANIC, one might note. The shiny gold letters on the Bible can be rather intimidating or maybe even for some, a deterrent.

Even though the Bible is a worldwide bestseller, a vast majority of the world and even the church, have barely read it. Studies have concluded:

One in 5 Americans have read the entire Bible at least once—including 9 percent who’ve read it through multiple times. Just over half (53 percent) have read relatively little of it, and 1 in 10 haven’t read it at all.

For some reason, I’m highly skeptical about one in five, but perhaps I’m being cynical. (Not about America’s religious standing but the ease of readability pertaining to such an ancient text.) All across the church we have strategies to read the Bible. You only need your two working eyes, maybe even just one, to see the industry that surrounds Bible consumption. There are 365-day plans, Bible accountability groups and even apps to remind you (or read to you) sections of the Bible for you to finish it. You would be hard pressed to find another book that is struggling to be read unless you surveyed a high school class working their way through Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird (not a subliminal threat to the site, I promise).

One time at a community group I belonged to, a woman was ‘confessing’ (self-flagellating?) how she hadn’t been reading her Bible enough or spending ample amount of time with God. This resulted in her falling into a panic attack on the couch in the middle of group. She ended up being fine after some water and breathing exercises, but it was no joke. Anxiety runs rampant through the church. Parishioners panic if they are doing enough, if they’ve read enough of their Bible for the week to make sure they are on the right page with God. Or if they haven’t then they dodge the infamous question: Have you been reading your Bible?

I must confess, I’ve read the entire Bible. But only because I pursued a biblical studies degree and had to for school. Would I have read the entire thing, otherwise? I’d like to think so. But there is an elephant in the room we must admit before we can truly see what’s going on with the holy scriptures.

The Bible can be boring. Not only boring, but complicated.

There is no other book the common person reads that needs such intense study and understanding. If one is to truly understand significant portions of the Bible, the Old Testament especially, they would need to have another book almost the size of three bricks that’s a commentary on maybe half of that book of the Bible. (There’s a reason those little orange bibles they pass out on street corners only contain the Psalms and New Testament.) There are no accountability groups for trekking through the Harry Potter series because it’s not particularly difficult and quite a page turner compared to the Bible.

Besides that, from the top down we have an army of experts who fear the freedom God has allowed with his Holy Scriptures. Everyone discusses how thankful they are for Luther giving the scriptures to the people for their own reading and interpretation (me included), but with great power comes great responsibility — as someone’s uncle once put it. And many pastors and academics think it’s a responsibility they must answer to with innumerable commentaries, guides, and roadmaps on how to get the “proper” understanding of Scripture. It can be rather overwhelming and daunting to grapple with Romans when there are no less than twenty commentaries telling you how to read such a text. And yet, still the Law comes for this. It seeks out those of us who struggle with the Bible and points at us in accusation for not reading enough or understanding the message of God.

But while the Bible truly is a dangerous and wild text, one with the opportunity for abuse and mistranslating, it is nevertheless God’s word for humanity and he is far from panicking about the scriptures being in the hands of his creation. In fact, I recall God giving himself as an interpretive Guide for the believer.

Maybe Douglas Adams can also help us out here.

As Adams’ character, Arthur Dent, faces aliens who want to destroy Earth, he clings to a book which provides hope. And across the cover are the easing words: DON’T PANIC. The novel describes these words as necessary: though the book looks insanely complicated to operate, it also keeps intergalactic travelers from panicking. Furthermore, Adams’ friend Arthur C. Clarke says “don’t panic” was perhaps the best advice that Douglas could give humanity.

I’d like to think, and also believe it to be true, that God has those same two words of grace for us as well. Traversing through the Bible can feel eerily similar to being lost in a galaxy with John Calvin’s third use of the law as a bizarre planet you need to read about before landing on — or ancient near eastern sacrificial rituals as Vogon poetry you have yet to understand. However, there is no salvation in reading the Bible in its entirety. We would do good to remember a vast majority of early Christians did not enjoy the advantages of the printing press. God is not watching above and counting the pages read, although it may feel like that sometimes.

God has a word for the single mother with dark circles under her eyes about to pass out while reading through Deuteronomy. It’s the same word he has for the scholar flipping through a stack of ten different commentaries to understand what one Hebrew word means (Thank God for Chad Bird). He whispers “don’t panic” to the both of them.

We can study the Scriptures until we’re blue in the face. We can assign passages to be read for the 365 days of the year and do our best to finish it (Maybe even purchasing the Mockingbird devotional to aid in this goal? Possibly so.). We can even try to hold each other accountable if we feel so inclined and make it a point to set aside time for reading. But the one thing you needn’t do is panic.

Maybe underneath those intimidating shiny, gold engraved letters on the cover of the leather-bound book, in parenthesis if you prefer, should read: DON’T PANIC! For this book tells of a gracious God. One who doesn’t assign required reading before he comes to you. Who doesn’t treat salvation like a grade given after you’ve done the homework. He hands out grace and mercy freely. And as we embark on the journey between the covers, we will be reminded of that truth over and over as God’s cross and empty tomb proclaim those beautiful two words to us: DON’T PANIC!

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