Christopher Idle offers some final thoughts on his experience of continuous public readings of the entire Bible with some advice for future marathons
The marathon proceeds. All is well with the superbly organized lists for lectern, bookstall and teapot. The word of God is being read. Is anyone listening? The place should overflow with eager hearers! So should every church every Sunday, but Bible marathons are rare and widely advertised events. At one of the two I attended, a concurrent exhibition of historic Bibles was beautifully mounted in the chancel. At the other, the main gate on three bus routes was festooned with balloons, placards and bunting. Nevertheless, sometimes we were down to two or three hearers, not only at 3 a.m. but mid-afternoon or early evening. Where is everybody? Have we forgotten how to listen?
I cannot say what effect the reading of the Bible had on the hundreds (total) who did – hundreds, not thousands. One day, says Amos, there will be a famine, not of food or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. Are we there yet?
Some readers discovered a new appreciation of the truth, power and beauty of what they read. So did I – once I had overcome my irritation at the inadequacies of those who were surely (I convinced myself) giving of their best. The narrative flow, the pointed rebuke and the exquisite poem survived all the limitations in the quality of the reading.
It was a memorable experience to be immersed for long periods in the consecutive reading of Scripture. The shortest time I stayed was 55 minutes; the longest, a few hours. It often helped to have a Bible open beside me; to follow carefully if the reading was less than clear. Occasionally I glanced down, startled by some unfamiliar phrase. Often I was content to sit back and listen. It helped to bring a coat to sit on.
I most strongly hope that all who read will value not just their fifteen minutes of fame but the truth and the treasure with which they were entrusted; that more may volunteer; and that those who do will prepare well and read even better.
Hearing Gods word in the company of others is a different and arguably more biblical habit than solo listening or silent reading. Imagine the gasps, grimaces or grins spreading round the Corinthian congregation as one of the Apostles letters was read out for the first time! Was the reader ever tempted to interpose, And just listen to this next bit, you lot’?
Public readings in the Bible
When we reached Nehemiah 8, the gripping account of how Ezra and (significantly?) many others read the law of God in the public square, how ironic that our own sacred space was deserted and the reader less than excited! The clatter of saucers somehow failed to suggest the mix of reverence, joy and tears which accompanied that earlier Bible marathon in Jerusalem.
The same went for other models of speaking and hearing. I missed Luke 4, where Jesus reads at Nazareth, and ‘the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him’. I hope they weren’t just gossiping over the biscuits during that half-chapter. Or indeed as our Lord is nailed to the cross; the actual moment is surprisingly easy to miss. But isn’t this why we are all here?
And Peter at Caesarea with Cornelius; surely no one present would willingly miss a word of it – Acts 10.33! But here? Sometimes, it seemed, we needed the Town Clerk of Ephesus to suggest a bit of hush.
Would a cathedral make a grander setting for such enterprises? More resources could be available, more visitors attracted, more groups involved from across a diocese. Some of the local ‘small is beautiful’ character would be lost. It could discourage the less confident volunteers. And it would be someone’s headache to fit the readings around the daily services.
Finishers of the London Marathon get medals, blisters, cramps and liquids. Here, the prizes and pains are invisible but equally real. This is the word of the Lord; so thanks be to God, and to all who made these ‘Biblethons’ happen. One small job is completed; the Holy Spirit’s work goes on.