by Alyssa J. Wynne
The Rev. Marek Zabriskie, rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh, enjoyed the warmth emitting from a lit fireplace and the leisure of reading periodicals and journals on the table before him, when the idea of what would later become the “The Bible Challenge” sparked in his mind. In a newsletter from a close friend’s parish, he read about an invitation to read the Bible in a year and was inspired.
He began that night, Christmas 2010, with Genesis, and as he read on he added a chapter from the New Testament and a psalm to each day’s reading. Zabriskie said that he felt “so spiritually alive” from this reading that he knew God was “nudging” him to share this experience with others.
He decided to invite people in his parish, where he has been rector since 1995, and numerous others to join him on a one-year journey through the Bible – the whole Bible. The result was that more than 180 church members, and more than 90 individuals beyond the church, responded to his personal messages to count them in.
“In my experience, only one in 20 people who pick up the Bible to try to read it, cover-to-cover, ever makes it,” Zabriskie said.
Zabriskie explained that people have difficulty when reading the Bible because they read it like the newspaper, as if everything is factual and not symbolic. But even the newspaper has subjective sections in the editorials and reviews.
“A newspaper contains a lot of different genres of writing,” Zabriskie said. “The same way the Bible has lots of different genres of literature. As you read through that, you have to develop some sensitivity that you don’t read a song as though it’s factual or a blow-by-blow event. There’s a great truth embodied, but it’s not a factual accounting, and those are things people need help with.”
He added that Episcopalians statistically display a higher level of education, but have the lowest biblical literacy (according to research by Diana Butler Bass). Zabriskie attributed that to a number of things, including the ornate decorations and art within the church, and the low, once-a-month attendance rate of the average Episcopalian. Both of these elements work against people when remembering the scripture from Sunday morning.
Zabriskie relied on “accountability” – weekly reminders and weekly prayer that named Bible Challenge participants – to encourage them to continue reading. He recognized that “group strength” was necessary for those who would have difficulty staying motivated.
“It dawned on me that, if you do something like this, you could actually start to change the spiritual DNA of a parish,” Zabriskie said.
During his time in the priesthood and before the Bible Challenge, Zabriskie had been reading “The Daily Office,” which touched the surface of Bible passages but prevented him from delving further into the texts to rediscover their meaning. He felt he had been “swimming in the shallow end of the swimming pool” because he wasn’t delving deeper into the scripture he read.
“It [The Bible Challenge] was like a gift from God to me because I wasn’t really looking to do this at all,” Zabriskie said. “It was more about a journey of the heart, and other people that were doing this were finding a similar experience.”
The Bible Challenge had a ripple effect on the religious community, expanding to other parishes and dioceses to eventually encompass more than 2,500 churches in over 40 countries. The ecumenical program eventually resulted in a companion text, “The Bible Challenge,” and a handful of other supplementary readings.
After a friend from London suggested that Zabriskie not make “The Bible Challenge” an “American read” of the Bible, Zabriskie invited 102 biblical theologians, scholars and members of the hierarchy from around the world for their comments. Each writer contributed a daily meditation of about 250 words, a question or two about the reading, and a prayer.
“The approach I have here is to help people read the Bible prayerfully,” Zabriskie said. “Episcopalians have spent far too much time trying to examine the Bible like a surgeon or physician dissecting a body. What matters most is you read the Bible as a love letter written by God directly to each of us, to guide us in our daily life.”
Zabriskie has been working with Forward Movement, publisher of “The Bible Challenge,” to create shorter and more in-depth 50-day Bible challenges. He hopes that his work will help the reader to “extract the wisdom” from the ancient text of the Bible.
“Reading the entire Bible in a year is a staggering endeavor, but we live in a culture of challenges,” Zabriskie said.
The books provide a greater measure of freedom for people who want to read the Bible but are too busy to attend a weekly class. So Zabriskie brings the church to them through his Bible challenges, pamphlets, his personal blog and other online resources available through the Center for Biblical Studies.
Zabriskie has also adapted programs for readers of all ages and all Bible-reading experience levels. He found that some theodicy questions, which are questions asking why God permits evil, may be too heavy for young readers, but essential for adults to “wrestle with.” These levels include a Parent-Child Bible Challenge and a Teen Bible Challenge, and each reading program varies in the amount of New Testament, Old Testament and psalms that it includes.
Zabriskie explained that he consistently encourages this triad, because it is essential to remaining interested and focused in the reading.
“If you had to eat meatloaf for 15 days in a row, it would not be a fun event,” Zabriskie said, comparing the balanced program to a well-balanced meal. “But if you had a side salad that varied everyday – that’s the psalm – and a desert that was really good everyday – that’s the New Testament – you could probably stomach having to eat meatloaf 15 days in a row.”
Since he joined the clergy at St. Thomas’ Church, in Ft. Washington, the church has “expanded from 30 to 85 ministries” and the current membership is around 1,350.
Zabriskie said that before he came along, the church was “ripe for growth.” But he admitted that reworking the scripture through The Bible Challenge has helped the overall atmosphere of unity in the church by changing its “spiritual DNA.”