The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy « Biola Magazine
By Kenneth Berding
Stacey Irvine ate almost nothing but chicken nuggets for 15 years. She never tasted fruits or vegetables. She occasionally supplemented her diet with French fries. One day her tongue started to swell and she couldn’t catch her breath. She was rushed to the hospital, her airway was forced open, and they stuck an IV in her arm to start pumping in the nutrients she needed. After saving her life, the medical staff sent her home, but not before they warned her that she needed to change her diet or prepare herself for an early death.
I’ve heard people call it a famine. A famine of knowing the Bible. During a famine people waste away for lack of sustenance. Some people die. Those who remain need nourishment; they need to be revived. And if they have any hope of remaining alive over time, their life situation has to change in conspicuous ways.
During normal famines people don’t have access to the food they need. But Stacey Irvine could have eaten anything she wanted. She had resources, opportunity and presumably all the encouragement she needed to eat well. Can you imagine what would happen if all of us decided to follow her example and discontinued eating all but non-nutritious foodstuff? If we happened to beat the odds and live, we undoubtedly would suffer in the long run from nutrition-related chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
Like Stacey Irvine, we’re killing ourselves. It’s surely not for lack of resources; nevertheless, we are in fact starving ourselves to death.
Christians used to be known as “people of one book.” Sure, they read, studied and shared other books. But the book they cared about more than all others combined was the Bible. They memorized it, meditated on it, talked about it and taught it to others. We don’t do that anymore, and in a very real sense we’re starving ourselves to death.
A Famine Of Bible Knowledge
Does this sound overly alarmist to you? People who have studied the trends don’t think so.
Wheaton College professor Timothy Larsen comments that “it has been demonstrated that biblical literacy has continued to decline. … Gallup polls have tracked this descent to a current ‘record low.’”
In “The 9 Most Important Issues Facing the Evangelical Church,” theologian Michael Vlach cites “Biblical Illiteracy in the Church” as his final concern. He agrees with George Barna’s assessment that “the Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy.”
New Testament scholar David Nienhuis summarizes his understanding of the situation in an article titled “The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy: A View from the Classroom”:
For well over twenty years now, Christian leaders have been lamenting the loss of general biblical literacy in America. … Some among us may be tempted to seek odd solace in the recognition that our culture is increasingly post-Christian. … Much to our embarrassment, however, it has become increasingly clear that the situation is really no better among confessing Christians, even those who claim to hold the Bible in high regard.
If I sound alarmist, I’m not alone.
These days many of us don’t even know basic facts about the Bible. I remember a student — not a new believer — who asked a question after class about Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. She wanted to know whether this was the same Saul who was king over Israel. No. King Saul’s story is found in the Old Testament; the Saul of Acts — also known as Paul — is found in the New Testament.
I can’t imagine such a thing happening to a group of German Lutherans in the 16th century, or to English Puritans in the 17th century, or to Wesleyans in the 18th century, or to modern Chinese-mainland Christians even if they only have access to a few Bibles in their house church. Or even to our believing great-grandparents in the United States. My paternal grandfather, who never came into personal relationship with Jesus Christ, read his Bible regularly and had many passages committed to memory.
When I was teaching at a college in New York, I assigned each student to write a biographical sketch of an Old Testament character. I came across the following line in a paper about the Old Testament figure Joshua: “Joshua was the son of a nun.” This student clearly didn’t know that Nun was the name of Joshua’s father, nor apparently did he realize that Catholic nuns weren’t around during the time of the Old Testament. But I’m sure it created quite a stir at the convent!
Meditating Day And Night
In the book of Amos, people who experienced a “famine of hearing the words of the Lord” are portrayed as undergoing divine judgment. Amos paints a picture of people without access to God’s revelation searching for a message from God like desperate people — hungry and dehydrated — in search of food and water (Amos 8:11–12). In Amos they want it, but are not permitted it. In our case, although we have unlimited access, we often don’t want it.
The irony is intense. Who would deliberately and knowingly put himself under God’s judgment? Would someone move his family to a land that was soon to suffer drought if he knew ahead of time that God was going to send a judgment of drought to that land (Amos 8:13)? Are we somehow positioning ourselves in the domain of God’s judgment when we spiritually starve ourselves by not “hearing the words of God” (Amos 8:11–12)? Is this what happens when we severely limit our engagement with the Word of God?
When God commissioned Joshua (the son of Nun), he charged him with these words: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Josh. 1:8). How often should you meditate on it? Day and night. Why? So that you do what is in it.
The Old Testament book of Psalms leads off with these words:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Ps. 1:1–3)
And in another psalm: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Have you ever wondered how it could be his meditation all the day? The psalmist didn’t have the Bible on his smart phone. Did he carry around a big scroll under his arm? No, he had memorized the passages he was meditating on and was thinking about them. He had committed large sections of the Bible to memory.
The easiest way to memorize the Bible is to divide it into chunks and then read one 10- or 15-minute portion over and over again aloud until you know the entire passage. This method of memorizing is painless, edifying and only requires a bit of consistent time. I know precious few who memorize any Bible verses at all, much less large chunks of the Bible, and yet it’s not as hard as most people make it out to be. And it can change your life.
Are you aware that the New Testament authors included in their writings more than 300 direct quotations from the Old Testament writers — not counting hundreds of other allusions and echoes of Old Testament language? There is no evidence that any of these authors actually looked up the references as they wrote. They simply knew their Bibles — that is, the parts of the Bible that had already been written. How did they come to know it so well? They worked on it “day and night.” They saturated themselves in it.
How Did We Get Here?
So how is it that we find ourselves in the middle of a famine?
Every time I teach a class called Biblical Interpretation & Spiritual Formation, I ask my students why it is that so few people in this generation are really zealous about the things of God. I can’t remember a time when I’ve asked that question when someone hasn’t mentioned distractions. Social networking, texting, television, video games and places dedicated to amusement (“amusement” parks, for example) pull our attention away from God’s Word. These fun and interesting activities occupy time that we could spend reading, studying and memorizing the Bible and they distract our thoughts during time we could spend meditating on God’s Word throughout the day. When we walk from one meeting to another, are our thoughts naturally moving to Scripture and prayer? As we leave a college class session, are we thinking on the things of God that we have learned from the Bible? Or do we immediately check to see whether someone has messaged us?
In 1986, Neil Postman published an influential cultural essay titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He argued that personal freedoms would disappear not when a totalitarian government imposed oppression from the outside (like George Orwell pictured in his book 1984), but rather when people came “to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think” (like Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World). Postman wrote:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
As Huxley noted in a later book (mentioned by Postman), we have “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
We shouldn’t assume that these distractions have no effect on our perceptions of God. One of my college-aged daughters was working at a Christian summer day camp. On one occasion she was talking with a group of elementary kids about what God is like. One girl in her group responded, “I believe that there are lots of different gods, like we saw in Hercules. Some are good and some are bad.” She was referring to the Disney movie Hercules, which she had watched that morning at the camp. This child’s understanding of God was, at least to some degree, shaped by the polytheism displayed in the movie she had been shown at a Christian day camp.
Might it be that our commitment to fun has resulted in famine, our laughter has yielded loss, and our distractions are ultimately leading to our destruction?
2. Misplaced Priorities
Priorities are not as simple as “God first, family second and church third.” What does that expression mean anyway? Every time I have to choose between reading my Bible and spending time with my children, should I read my Bible? No. Priorities aren’t based upon a simple hierarchy; they require the proper balance of activities in relationship to one another. But it is a fitting question to ask: For a person who is working full time, what is the appropriate quantity of time that should be spent (on average) with one’s spouse or children, in house or yard work, exercising and resting? How much time should you devote to building relationships with unbelieving neighbors or serving in your church?
Let’s grant for the sake of discussion that the exact balance of priorities will vary somewhat from person to person. Does this mean that we can weight our priorities any way we want? Absolutely not. “Meditating day and night” on God’s Word is something that everyone must do. It is basic to the Christian life. It seems to me, then, that in any weighting of priorities the following scenarios are out of bounds:
- More time watching television than reading/studying/memorizing God’s Word
- More time on social networking sites than reading God’s Word
- More time playing video games than reading God’s Word
Almost everyone I know spends more time on one of these activities than they do reading, studying and memorizing the Bible. Shall we call this anything other than what it is? We don’t like to talk about sin, but this is sin. James says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). We need a revival of the Bible. And many of us need to repent of our misplaced priorities.
3. Unwarranted Overconfidence
Of all the diverse comments I have heard from Christians over the years, the one that disturbs me perhaps more than any other is, “We already know more of the Bible than we put into practice anyway.” This comment betrays far more about the speaker than it does about reality. First, it demonstrates that the one who said it isn’t trying very hard to learn the Bible. Second, it reveals that the speaker is passive about applying it. And third, it confirms that the speaker assumes everyone shares the same passive attitude about the Bible.
To what end? Should we stop studying the Bible until we have perfectly put into practice what we already know? The assumptions behind this statement are not only misplaced; they are patently false. We actually don’t know enough about the Bible, we aren’t putting enough effort into learning it, and everyone doesn’t agree about this.
My sense is that comments like these are most often made by people who have grown up in the church but who have never personally committed themselves to learning the Word. So let’s get honest for a moment. How many of us who grew up in the church learned more than a few disconnected Bible stories simply because we attended Sunday schools and youth groups? Unless we decided at some point to begin to read and learn the Bible on our own, we never even learned how to find anything in the Bible, not even the stories. (Example: In what book of the Bible is the story of King Saul whom we mentioned earlier? Answer: 1 Samuel.) We learned precious little about biblical theology. (Example: How are the Old Testament sacrifices related to the coming of Christ?) We didn’t learn why we believe what we claim to believe. (Example: How do we know that the Bible is true in what it claims?)
In short, the sense that we know a lot about the Bible because we grew up going to church is misguided. Someone who comes to know Christ later in life and devotes himself to reading and learning God’s Word will quickly surpass the person who relies upon the passive “learning” that he thinks he acquired from hanging around the church when he was young.
4. The Pretext Of Being Too Busy
I want to be careful about this one. Some people are dreadfully busy and have no easy way of getting out of their plight. I think of single moms who have to work full time just to make ends meet, who spend every evening — all evening long — attending to the needs of their children (food, laundry, schoolwork), falling exhausted into bed at night. Some people are simply busier than others, and some of those who are excessively busy cannot easily change their lot in life.
But on this one point we really shouldn’t budge: Reading and learning the Bible is such a fundamental priority for all who want to call themselves “Christians” that even a person in the category described above is not exempt. Does she sleep at all at night? Then let her cut into some of that sleep and read her Bible. Does she drive to work? Then she should listen to God’s Word as she drives to and from work. (By the way, before printing presses, most people learned God’s Word orally. It is an underrated but very useful way to learn and memorize the Scriptures.) Does she eat dinner with her children or tuck them into their beds? Then she can take out her Bible and read a paragraph or two to them during one of those times.
Maxine Gowing is a woman in my church who came to the Lord at the age of 34. She was working two jobs and raising three children on her own at the time. If anyone had the right to be excused from engaging with the Bible, she did. But the woman who spiritually mentored Maxine strongly emphasized from Day One how important it was to read and memorize the Bible. So Maxine set to it. She read through the Bible cover to cover every year. She memorized seven verses a week for 15 weeks out of the year. Then she reviewed those verses during the summer. As a result, she committed to memory such incredible books as Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews and 1 John. She told me, “During those difficult years, I always had a verse somewhere in my mind to fall back on. When my hot water heater broke, I was reminded that God cared for me in my need because I knew it from his Word.” She also told me how she grew in confidence about sharing the good news of Christ with people at her work because she knew the Scriptures.
We need more people like Maxine because we’re in the middle of a famine, a famine of “hearing” the Word of God.
Kenneth Berding (M.A. ’96) is a professor of New Testament at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in hermeneutics and biblical interpretation from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book.