Biblical Literacy and Preaching (Part 2)

10 Feb

Introduction

Part 2 of this study on the topic of biblical literacy, cultural appropriations of the Scripture, and the possible impact upon preaching, will take a look in this post at an important issue in this discussion.

First of all, I want to explore the driving need behind the various entreaties toward increased biblical literacy. I’ll also seek to identify the voices and stakeholders involved in the discussion, and critically evaluate certain of the motives behind such appeals for higher levels of biblical literacy. It is my suggestion that many of the calls for biblical literacy today are based upon the theological notion that the Scripture itself, as the Word of God, possesses objective and neutral qualities that render it above culture, neutral and objectively true.

This conviction–by no means uncommon today–draws its understanding largely from the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, which in some traditions ultimately developed into a universalist belief: that the printed text of Scripture contained its own inherent authority and power, both for conversion and discipleship. Within certain theological traditions (typically more conservative or fundametalist traditions), such views of Scripture can further develop into biblicism and bibliolatry. This in turn may be a major driver behind many of the current calls for increased levels of biblical literacy, both within society and the church also.

The truly interesting point in all of this discussion is this: that biblical literacy today has not completely vanished from Western society, but instead is changing toward a more media-based model of cultural appropriations of the Scriptures. This reality offers new means of engagement, both with contemporary culture and the text also. Such cultural appropriations of the Scriptures can be refreshing, since they tend to challenge received readings of the text, along with the hegemony of traditional understandings of the Bible. We’ll examine these in more detail in future posts, so stay tuned to this discussion!

Calls for Biblical Literacy: Identifying Stakeholders

We begin the investigation of the subject of biblical literacy by asking two key questions: first, which voices are calling for increased levels of biblical literacy today? Second, what are the driving forces, agendas and motives behind such entreaties? As noted in Part 1 of this series, there can be little doubt that many who decry the low levels of biblical literacy represent a wide spectrum of interests. Those bemoaning the lack of biblical literacy today believe first that not only is biblical literacy is declining at a rapid pace, but that second, biblical literacy should be at the forefront of both secular and theological education.

Additionally, many deplore the lowered levels of biblical literacy within religious organizations also, such as churches and synagogues. Collins, for example, points out that this would seem like a self-evident problem that urgently needs to be resolved. He remarks, “The established position [of those calling for higher levels of biblical literacy] appears, therefore, to be one which posits the ‘loss’ of the Bible as a self-evident problem to be rectified in our modern, biblically illiterate society” (1).

The first stage of the investigation concerns the identification of those voices within society currently calling for higher levels of biblical literacy. Those keeping the discussion for increased biblical literacy at the forefront of public consciousness come from four main sources, each of which is identified as a “stakeholder” in the discussion with clearly identifiable motives.

The first stakeholder that can be identified are literary academics (both Christian and secular) who teach English literature; the second stakeholder in the discussion are academics who teach the Bible professionally in theological schools; the third stakeholders involve various church leaders and professional clergy (including both individual churches and entire denominations); and finally, the fourth stakeholder in the discussion belongs to that of Bible publishers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all four stakeholders have attendant high levels of vested interest in keeping the issue of biblical literacy to the forefront. Clearly professional academics do, since it justifies their jobs and keeps them in employment, whether they are teachers of English literature, or professional biblical scholars. Churches, clergy and denominations would benefit from such a desire for increased biblical literacy, because it justifies their position as “experts” who alone are able to increase biblical literacy among their congregations.  Finally, Bible publishers have a highly vested interest, since there is a clear connection between profits from sales of Bibles and increased biblical literacy.

Driving Motivations and Forces

The above observations have led some to charge that those within academic and ecclesial professions are more concerned with promoting and maintaining their own power, than in altruistically helping achieve higher levels of biblical literacy “for its own sake.” Hector Avalos, for example, maintains that “biblical studies, as we know it, is still largely a religionist and apologetic enterprise meant to serve the needs of faith communities. It is still part of an ecclesial-academic complex” (2). As noted in Part 1 of this series, professional academics such as Prothero, by calling so stridently for increased levels of biblical literacy within society, are therefore identified as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution.

Views on the paucity of biblical literacy, such as Prothero’s and others, argues Avalos, “represents a continuation of elitist and Eurocentric top-down views of education and literature…The demand for the Bible is created and perpetuated by the powers that be, and the professoriate is part of that”(3). In addition, there have also been recent negative reactions to the notion that the Bible should be taught in public schools, since many fear that teachers are unable to separate teaching from preaching and proselytizing (4).

Biblical Literacy: A Recent Phenomenon?

Perhaps somewhat ironically, however, the issue of biblical illiteracy is actually a fairly recent, modern phenomenon. This is only something that has even become an issue over the last few centuries. Up until the time of the Reformation, for example, throughout the Middle Ages, church authorities actively discouraged the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Furthermore, they made it both illegal and heretical to do so. For a layperson to possess a copy of a Bible in the vernacular could be–quite literally–a death sentence.

The result of this control over the text (typically the Latin Vulgate, which most people could not even read), meant that the Catholic Church exercised complete hegemony over biblical interpretation and the gospel message. This obviously formed a major part of their power base within society, both socially and politically. Luther and other reformers, by translating the Bible into the vernacular, posed a direct threat to the authority of the Catholic Church. One of the major aims of the reformers, then, was to place the Bible into the hands of the average Christian privately to read and interpret Scripture for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Spirit. 

Preaching during the Reformation took on major significance also. The reformers placed special primacy on biblical-expository style sermons in the vernacular, rather in Latin. Reformation church leaders also encouraged their flocks to check the validity of the preacher’s interpretations by studying the Scriptures for themselves, which was clearly a major departure from the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

Conclusion

Despite these seeming advancements in overall literacy within Western society, however, over the intervening centuries, as the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and North America, the technologies it spawned have led increasingly to a culture of consumerism and isolation. This has contributed directly to a major loss of community shared prior to the Industrial Revolution, with its agrarian-based economy.

The parish system gave way to mass-migration into major industrial cities so people could find work in mills, factories, warehouses and offices. This massive societal shift not only had a huge impact on parish churches, which relied on a stable base of attendees living within a defined geographical area. In turn it has also led people to have less and less time for religion in general. In the hustle and bustle of work and play, nowadays it would seem also that people increasingly have less and less time to sit and read the Bible also.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll take a closer look at the motives behind some of these calls for increased biblical literacy. Do lower levels of biblical literacy have a corresponding, and knock-on effect, across society also? And even more pressing is this question: do lowered levels of biblical literacy in churches affect discipleship, church involvement, and mission to the community and to the world? If scholars such as Stetzer and others are to be believed, then a major reason for the church’s lack of relevance in the world missionally would be causally, and directly, linked to lowered levels of biblical literacy.

Footnotes

(1) Collins, Matthew A. “Loss of the Bible and the Bible in Lost: Biblical Literacy and Mainstream Television.” In Rethinking Biblical Literacy. Edwards, Katie, ed. London: Bloomsbury (2015): 72.

(2) Avalos, Hector. “In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy.” Bible and Interpretation (April 2010). http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/literate357930.shtml (Accessed 10.3.2015).

(3) Avalos, Hector. “Is Biblical Illiteracy a Bad Thing? Reflections on Bibliolatry in the Modern Academy.” Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin Volume 38 Number 2 (April 2009): 49.

(4)  See, for example, the 2007 article by Mehta in the LA Times entitled “Bible Finds a Place in Schools” (http://articles.latimes.com/2007/aug/05/local/me-bible5).

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