Monday, January 24, 2011

The Challenge of Bible Illiteracy

Today's blog is an article from Cheryl Catford. A great read from Evangelical Alliance's magazine Faith and Life.

If evangelicals are defined as those who "passionately believe the central claims of the Bible" why are we not that interested in reading the Bible? Bible illiteracy among the general Christian population has reached alarming levels and evangelicals are not far behind. George Barna's research amongst American churches in 2000 revealed that among adult and teen believers the most widely known Bible verse was "God helps those who help themselves" (yes, you're right, it's not in there). For some Australian Christians the only encounter they have with the Bible is when a small portion appears on the screen during the weekly service – there is no need to actually touch a Bible at all.

During my experience of over fifteen years teaching fi rst-year Bible College students I noted a gradual decline in the Bible knowledge those students initially possessed. Although the majority of students had a Christian upbringing, attended Sunday School and even Christian School, very few knew a basic chronology of biblical history or could correctly identify major biblical characters. Some struggled when I required them to write down the Bible books in order and correct spelling ('Galations' is a favourite). When I spoke of the story of Abraham, or Ruth or Paul it was obvious not a few students were unfamiliar with them. The consequent impact of Bible illiteracy upon theology is immense. Barna found that only 43 percent of Bible-believing Baptists in America believed Satan was real and 55 percent affirmed Christ was sinless. My students also held some fairly strange theological ideas. Ah, the stories we could share… 

To what can we attribute this decline in Bible literacy?

Here are some brief suggestions.

The demise of Sunday School.
Sure, we all squirmed through a format that seemed too much like school, but memory verses, Bible stories, and gold stars instilled in generations a basic acquaintance with Scripture. Today, childrens programs are much more entertaining but, unfortunately, the Bible does not always feature prominently.

The atomisation of the Bible.
The Bible has been reduced from a collection of books to a collection of thousands of bits of text. Daily devotionals tackle one verse per day, sermons present one passage and we are encouraged to read a
chapter a day. All these practices are sound if we are able to fi t the pieces back into the big picture – the meta-narrative that the Bible reveals. But so few have been taught or grasped the whole story so the Bible becomes a confusing jumble of unrelated stories or bits of information.

The desire for instant individual gratification.
Often the Bible is treated as the source of instant answers to whatever problem or question the reader has. We resort to lucky dip (open Bible at random and let fi nger land on verse) or command search (just do everything it says, difficult when reading Leviticus) or promise box (select a promise for today) with scant regard to issues of original audience, context or literary sense.

The fear of not being relevant.
We are all rightly concerned that the Bible message connects with the culture; that we engage missionally with our neighbours. However, this concern has resulted in the proliferation of sermons that have little Bible content and seem more like motivational messages. Conversely, the delivery of an exegetically-sound sermon that has no relevance to the hearer's daily existence is at best boring and at worst alienating.

The emphasis on experience.
Somewhere in the 1980s, as the experience of the dynamic of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers became more widespread, emphasis shifted from having 'right doctrine' to 'experiencing God'. The preacher and teacher took a back seat to the worship leader as the oft-neglected emotional aspect of Christianity began to dominate. The old fallacious dichotomy between 'Word" and "Spirit" seemed to force a choice rather than a marriage of the two in the lives of mature believers. 

And the solutions? 

That is for another article but suffice to say all Christian leaders need to take the situation seriously. I, for one, want to pass the baton to a next generation who are biblically literate (without being bibliolatrous), contextually sensitive (without selling out) and spiritually alive (without being excessive). Maybe, we need to begin each conversation with "Read anything good lately?" and hope the answer includes the Bible.

Cheryl Catford
EA National Director

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