Biblical Literacy and Preaching (Part 1)

6 Feb

Introduction

In this series, I will examine the hot-button topic of what has been termed “biblical literacy,” how society’s understanding of biblical literacy is drastically changing, and what the implications of those cultural applications of Scripture mean to preachers currently.

As we’ll see in further detail in this (and future posts), many voices currently decry the apparently appallingly low levels of biblical literacy, both within churches and across society in general. Comparing current levels of biblical literacy in Western societies to that of Victorian Britain, for example, Larsen points out that within the last one hundred and fifty years two significant developments have occurred related to biblical literacy within society, both in Britain and the United States.

A Decline in Overall Literacy?

First, Larsen maintains that there has been a sharp decline in overall biblical literacy, and second, this has been followed by a noticeable decline in overall literacy itself. These two factors are connected, he argues; societies that have a widespread mass culture of reading the Bible also develop into more literate ones. Correspondingly, those with lesser levels of Bible reading also have a diminished culture of reading and literacy in general.[1]

Studies commissioned to chart biblical literacy have consistently demonstrated what appears to be a shocking decline in the most basic elements of biblical knowledge across society, including churches and even in theological schools.[2] For example, Draper points out that oftentimes theology students simply pay “lip service” to their lecturers but in reality their levels of biblical literacy are actually quite low. In reality, claims Draper, students merely do whatever they have to do to pass their courses, but then forget what little biblical knowledge they had upon graduation.[3]

Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, asserted in a 2007 LA Times op-ed article that the low levels of biblical literacy in the United States affects both the church and American society at large. Not only do Christians not know their Bibles in general, he argues furthermore that “an entire generation of Americans is growing up almost entirely ignorant of the most influential book in world history.”[4] A 2006 report, commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, makes the bold claim that “students without knowledge of the Bible are limited in understanding the meaning and importance of the great works of Western and American art.”[5]

Not only does Prothero agree with this claim, he moreover asserts that students who are not exposed to the Bible in public schools will be unable to understand the many of the direct references and allusions in Western art and literature, together with current films and television. He believes that the general lack of biblical knowledge across American culture has become a civic problem with political ramifications. His point is that citizens with low levels of biblical literacy are unable to participate in political discussions involving ethical matters to which the Bible could–and should–contribute.

Prothero holds that these include such hot-topic issues up for much debate in current society: for example, abortion, war and homosexuality. Moreover, he claims, many are also in danger of being hoodwinked by demagogues on both the political and religious left and right, who claim to represent biblical values, but often are misquoting or twisting Scripture to suit their own agendas.

Biblical Literacy and the Church

Prothero is certainly not the only one voicing such concerns. Berding goes even further, extending the argument about the need for higher levels of biblical literacy in churches. He asserts that the widespread biblical illiteracy affecting churches falls into the category of “spiritual starvation.” He asks: “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?”[6]

Stetzer additionally links low levels of biblical literacy to a lack of discipleship, stating that Christians nationwide “have a biblical literacy deficit in part because we have a spiritual maturity deficit. Plenty of research shows the correlation between spiritual maturity and reading the Bible. If you want spiritually mature Christians, get them reading the Bible. That’s a statistical fact, but more importantly, it’s a biblical truth.”[7]

Conclusion

Despite such claims of widespread biblical illiteracy and its apparently attendant negative consequences, it would appear that biblical literacy, while on the face of it a seemingly commendable goal for both the church and the wider society, in reality should not be viewed as a panacea for the ills of both. Simply possessing a high level of biblical literacy is, for example, no guarantee of Christ-likeness. Churches with high levels of biblically literate congregants will not automatically produce mature disciples on that basis. There is not a mechanical or automatic connection; an examination of motives and other issues must be examined in greater detail. The apostle Paul argued, for example, that biblical knowledge alone may tend to “puff up” one’s ego rather than “build up” the church (1 Cor. 8.1).

Moreover, the very term “biblical literacy” in the Western tradition must also be called into question. Postmoderns increasingly view the notion of biblical literacy as little more than a means of control by culturally elite academicians. This in turn serves to reinforce the hegemony of a Western literacy-based culture while at the same time downplaying—or outright suppressing—alternative voices from other cultures. This traditional approach to the Scripture has oftentimes resulted in high degrees of individualism over against community interpretations, loss of contextualization and enculturation of the text, and even extends to possible alienation from one’s own cultural identity.

Read on! The next article, Part 2 in this series exploring the topic of biblical literacy, its cultural appropriations, and the implications of the impact of this entire discussion on preaching.

Footnotes

[1] Larsen, Timothy T. “Literacy and Biblical Knowledge: The Victorian Age and Our Own.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 52 Number 3 (Spring 2009): 528.

[2] See for example the 2014 Barna survey commissioned by the American Bible Society entitled “The State of the Bible 2014.” This can be found on http://www.americanbible.org/features/state-of-the-bible-2015.

[3]Draper, Jonathan A. ‘“Less Literate are Safer’: The Politics of Orality and Literacy in Biblical Interpretation.” Anglican Theological Review Volume 84 Number 2 (Spring 2002): 304.

[4] Prothero, Steven. “We Live in a Land of Biblical Idiots.” LA Times 14th March 2007. http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/14/opinion/oe-prothero14 (accessed 26th August 2015).

[5]The Bible Literacy Project, “Frequently Asked Questions.”   http://www.bibleliteracy.org/Site/Case/index.htm (Accessed 26th August 2015).

[6] Berding, Kenneth. “The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy & What we can do About it.” Biola Magazine Online (Spring 2014): http://magazine.biola.edu/article/14-spring/the-crisis-of-biblical-illiteracy/ (Accessed 3rd March 2015).

[7] Stetzer, Ed. “Dumb and Dumber: How Biblical Illiteracy is Killing Our Nation.” Charisma Magazine Online (October 9, 2014): http://www.charismamag.com/life/culture/21076-dumb-and-dumber-how-biblical-illiteracy-is-killing-our-nation?showall=&limitstart (Accessed 3rd March 2015).

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