By Terry O’Casey
Biblical illiteracy is as great a problem inside the church as out. But preachers—and preaching—can make a difference.
An unchurched neighbor heard me preach about David and Goliath. Afterwards, she said, “Great talk. No stem, no seeds, no sticks, just good stuff!”
My elder translated, “She was complimenting you by saying your sermon was like the best marijuana.” Ah, the joy of being culturally illiterate!
What is our world coming to? A recent British newspaper lamented our lack of biblical literacy. People no longer understand such great lines as, “Blessed are the cheese makers” from Monty Python’s “sermon on the mount” in The Life of Brian. Seriously, the secular world is shouting out the importance of biblical literacy.1
In 2005, the Biblical Literacy Project released a study on the value of biblical literacy in our high schools. One of the anecdotal quotes backed up with statistics was: “Ninety percent of high school English teachers said it was important for both college-bound and ‘regular’ students to be biblically literate.”2
What About the Church?
How is the church’s biblical literacy? A well-known statement from George Gallup Jr. sums it up: “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”
Someone said, “To most Christians, the Bible is like a computer software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click, ‘I agree.’”
Tremper Longman, professor of Old Testament at Westmont College, was grading tests from his Introduction to Old Testament class (filled with students who were in high school a few months earlier) when he lamented on Facebook:
I am grading the first exam of the semester that covers Genesis and Exodus. . . . It is pretty clear from the test . . . they arrive here . . . after years in church with precious little knowledge of the Old Testament. I know a lot of my Facebook friends are pastors (and God bless your ministry). Is there anything we can do about it?3
The list of causes for biblical illiteracy is long; the brush of blame is a thick-napped roller. Here are some possibilities:
• The collapse of Sunday school.
• Boring pastors (descendants of the priest in The Princess Bride—“Mawwiage is what bwings us togethew today.”)
• A lack of Bibles. (However, the Religious News Service said in 2010 if you were to pile up all the Bibles in American houses, you would have a Bible monument 29 million feet tall.)
• Increased value being placed on sporting camps instead of church camps or church attendance.
• A failure of parents to tell Bible stories at bedtime.
• Pop psych, self-help, and Bud Light 15-minute sermonettes.
• Pastors who preach from all different parts of the Bible, but never offer a coherent story thread from Scripture.
The problem is chronic with every generation. Consider these quotes from the past 127 years:
These students are intellectually ambitious and spiritually passionate. They represent almost every Protestant denomination and every state in the country. Most come from strong evangelical churches and possess a long history of personal devotion and Christian involvement. They use the Bible regularly—but curiously—few genuinely know its stories.
—Professor Gary Burge, Wheaton College, in a 1999 Christianity Today article4
There is not one church member in a hundred who can give an intelligent answer to the question: “What are the main doctrines of the Christian religion?” What is the matter with the teaching that produces such poor results?
—Professor L.B. Paton, Hartford Theological Seminary, 1915
The ignorance of the Bible, characteristic of the average applicant for entrance to the first year of the theological seminary, is at once amazing and lamentable.
—The Old Testament Student, 1886
It would appear fighting biblical illiteracy is an age-old problem. We might consider these options:
We could send our future church leaders to seminaries that stress Jesus was born in Nazareth. We could exorcise the myth of his Bethlehem birth that started when ancient editors took Old Testament “prophecies” and wrote historical fiction into the Gospels. (That’s known as vaticinium ex eventu). Next, tell how King David and his exploits are examples of an “invented hero.” Then log on to Amazon and order A New New Testament, in which one scholar cherry-picks books for his canon (including the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary Magdalene). Then our young preachers can arise (with humility and confidence of the “well assured results of critical scholarship”5) and inspire their congregations to read their Bible more, a book, they will add, that radically misrepresents and falsely parades itself as God’s Word. (How’s your blood pressure, O reader?)
Perhaps we need to quit shooting down the text with our hypercritical lifeless analyses. Our deconstructive, historical revisionism guts not merely the story, but the lives of people who were meant to be resurrected by the message. We damn ministers to failure when we school them in these methodologies.
Let’s stress immersion! Immerse ourselves in the Word all through the week so that even our everyday language is seasoned with blessings and salted with echoes of Scripture. Each time we open the Word, let’s poise ourselves like well-studied pilgrims entering Israel to experience the Terra Sancta. Let our page-turning fingers walk our mind’s eyes into the biblical scenes doing “enter-active” exegesis.
Whether we are teaching daily at the university, or working with a group of preachers weekly on our sermons, we can practice three key steps to increase biblical literacy:
Mine deeply the Word of God—Were we brought up to believe there is only one point to every parable? And the verse for that is? Long before postmodernism, rabbis said that when we enter the Scriptures, look for the 70 facets of this jeweled infinite wonder, for one interpretation is only one facet. As Christians, all of us need to be scholars. What Jacob Neusner said of the Jewish people is true for all of us. We all can become virtuosos of the verses of Scripture.
Subscribe to Biblical Archaeology Review. Get a great set or three of Bible commentaries (both timeless and cutting edge). Gain knowledge of Internet resources. Go down, down into God’s gold mine with headlamp and extra batteries, with a pickax and a sense of profound expectation.
But remember, mining can be dangerous. Never, never mine alone! Go with older miners as well as minors; head down the shaft with people of different life experiences to bring out more of those 70 facets. You will be impatient for Sunday. With excited mind and heart, you will teach with a contagious enthusiasm. Throw out the monotone that lulls people to sleep. Throw out the idea you have to be chained to the pulpit like some ferocious Chihuahua. With Bible in hand, Word in mind, love in your heart, share God’s great message. But wait, we are not done!
Multisensory the passage—We open timeless stories to lead people back to the Scriptures. Run with young David those 14 hilly miles from Bethlehem to Socoh. Crest the hill with the sun to your back. See David wearing his “Bethlehem High” varsity track letterman jacket. Look down in stunned silence into the Valley of Elah. Hear the Bravehearts of Saul shouting against the dominant culture of the day. Bring those story experiences of the past to the present.
Remember what Augustine said. It was not the superior logic, but the story that convinced him to become a believer.
Look at “me” before “thee”—Long before we say, “Ah, this verse will slay that uncircumcised elder who has taunted me for 40 board meetings in a row,” ask, “Where am I in this passage?” Am I an Israeli running from Goliath’s taunts? Am I Eliab who constantly berates a younger brother or believer? Or am I David saying, “This giant is goin’ down”?
To cure hypocrisy I first must work the 12-step moral inventory on me. Then I can find the thee, and help others. We—pastors, professors, parents, and friends—are spiritual pharmacists. In our shop is healing. The medicine we prescribe is powerful. When we know our people, we know which stories to carry for healing.
Biblical literacy is not about mastering a body of literature. Rather, can we embody these accounts and then live out the scriptural stories?
Culture says the one with the most compelling story leads. These biblical stories, when well told, are addictive. They will send people back again and again into the Bible. When Christians know the story, they share in community ancient to present. We are the people of stories that rattle the world: “Let my people go!” “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay,” “Talitha koum! Little girl, get up.” “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”
Some ask of the Bible, “Is it true?” Others ask, “Does it work?” Perhaps the best question would be, “Is it living and active in each of us?” Go! Act out what you have deeply entered into!
1Ian Burrell, “It’s No Laughing Matter,” The Independent, October 18, 2013, accessed at www.independent.co.uk/news/media/tv-radio/its-no-laughing-matter-britain-has-become-a-nation-of-religious-illiterates-who-are-baffled-by-biblical-references-in-monty-python-film-the-life-of-brian-8890338.html.
2Bible Literacy Report, commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, 2005, accessed at www.bibleliteracy.org/secure/documents/bibleliteracyreport2005.pdf.
3Tremper Longman, Facebook.com, February 27, 2010.
4Gary M. Burge, “The Greatest Story Never Read,” Christianity Today, posted August 9, 1999, accessed at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/august9/9t9045.html.
5Ben Witherington, “The Well Assured Results of Scholarship?—Not So Much,” accessed at www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2013/07/24/the-well-assured-results-of-scholarship-not-so-much/.
Terry O’Casey serves as director of the School of Christian Ministry and associate professor of Christian ministry and Bible at Northwest Christian University, Eugene, Oregon. He also serves as copastor with High Lakes Christian church, La Pine, Oregon.