Biblical Literacy and Preaching (Part 3)

9 Mar

Introduction

As I’ve been saying in the two previous posts on this subject, there is a pervasive argument currently ongoing. Both those in positions of church leadership (as well as denominations), and professional academics alike, not only create, but also perpetuate the demand for biblical literacy. The basic argument runs like this: that low levels of biblical literacy lead directly to a lack of general literacy in society.

Correspondingly, it is maintained, higher levels of biblical literacy lead not only to higher levels of literacy in general, but also brings about a greater appreciation for the art and literature of Western society. Much of this, it is pointed out, draws its inspiration from Scripture, whether via allusion or directly.

It is certainly the case that much of Western art and literature is either based upon, or is saturated with, Scriptural references or allusions. Organizations such as the Bible Literacy Project, for example, claim that their sole desire is to increase biblical literacy in society in general (apart from proselytizing). They are compelled by the belief that Western societies need a strong education in the Scriptures, in order that citizens can more greatly appreciate the literary and artistic contributions of Western society.[1] Hank Hanegraaff goes even one step further, positing for example that much of the current “biblical illiteracy comes as a direct result of a failure to recognize that the DNA of western civilization comes from a biblical worldview.”[2]

Privileging of Western Art and Literature

Such seemingly worthwhile goals, however, are not free from problems and detractors. In terms of professional academics and organizations that link biblical literacy to Western civilization, art and culture, Avalos points out that first of all, such a stance typically involves a Eurocentric and culturally biased point of view. The problem with this is that in general, it fails to take into account the multicultural and ethnically diverse Western societies of today.

Why, Avalos asks, should Western art and literature be privileged over that of other cultures?[3] This move in reality merely restricts art and literature to a privileged set of readings within the traditional “literary canon,” and thereby excludes much of non-Western art and literature from positive contributions to academic and societal life.

The second problem with the literary academic point of view regarding the need for higher levels of biblical literacy involves the very definition of literacy itself. Such a view, argues Hine, “is accompanied at times by a form of cultural philistinism…because it places high value on written literacy to the neglect of other forms, sometimes with a political edge.”[4] Furthermore, all too often those in the academic guild are accused of being guilty of maintaining a “legacy of secrecy” around the Bible. This is seen by the use of insider knowledge, technical jargon or exclusive use of dead languages (Greek and Hebrew, Latin) to promulgate, justify and further their own existence as an academic, professorial class of experts.

Linking Biblical Literacy and Discipleship

The second major stakeholder identified in calls for increased biblical literacy are those clergy, churches and denominations—typically among the more theologically conservative—that say they are alarmed by low levels of biblical literacy, both in the church and in the wider society. This segment of the church maintains that the very foundations of Western society are crumbling; this is due to a lack of engagement with, and submission to, the authority of the Bible. This, it is claimed, is doing damage not just to the church, but to society at large also.

For centuries churches have held to the long-standing “notion that increasing biblical literacy… will improve the moral behaviour of the population.”[5] Scholars like Jeynes, in a 2009 survey of American biblical literacy, even suggested that “Bible courses could have a positive effect on student behaviour as well as academic success.”[6] 

Some church leaders, for example, would even go so far as to state that such a lack of engagement, memorization of and submission to the text is blatantly sin; and worse yet, that Christians who do not regularly read their Bibles are placing themselves in danger of God’s judgement.[7] Citing research statistics from the LifeWay organization, Ed Stetzer states that it is a truism that “Engaging the Bible impacts one’s spiritual maturity more than any other discipleship attribute. In fact, ‘reading the Bible’ topped our list of things we found impacting spiritual maturity.”[8]

The connection between Bible literacy and Christlikeness is obvious, claims Hansen, but it must go beyond simply pursuing knowledge of the text for its own sake. Rather, he maintains, the Bible changes the way people live “but not by merely offering them tips for parenting or financial freedom. Rather, the Bible gets them in touch with the Holy Spirit, who conforms them to Christ’s image.”[9] Therefore, he concludes: “Biblical literacy is a precursor to biblical transformation.”[10]

Stetzer agrees with such a statement, and emphatically holds that “No matter how you look at it, Bible engagement is related to spiritual growth. Growing Christians don’t just read the Bible; they value and engage it because God is at work in their lives.”[11] 

In addition to the connection between with the text of Scripture and discipleship, Stetzer additionally identifies two other areas of life affected by biblical engagement—or distinct lack thereof. He first believes that there is a connection between biblical literacy and mission, citing “strong evidence that the lack of Bible engagement coincides with the growing problem of a lack of mission engagement.”[12] He defines this as involvement in foreign missions, witnessing to a non-believer or even confessing that one is a Christian to a non-believer.

Second, he believes that those who regularly engage with Scripture become “better” churchgoers since they are more participatory in the life and ministries of the church, whereas those “who lack Bible engagement tend to be terrible church members.”[13] He defines “bad church members” as those who are uninvolved in various church programs, don’t pray for other believers, and who fail to serve within the church in some capacity.

Conclusion

If the claims of Stetzer, Jeynes, Hansen and others are to be believed, then the church is in serious trouble. Those who do not read their Bibles regularly, and exhibit low levels of biblical literacy, are “bad Christians” who clearly won’t become like Christ, and who do little for their church. Conversely, those Christians who do read their Bibles regularly, and have high levels of biblical literacy, will be “good Christians” who are involved with their churches and mission to a higher degree. Is this indeed the case, however? Can simply “reading your Bible” transform you into a “good Christian” who becomes like Christ through a process of osmosis?

In the next installment of this series on biblical literacy, Part 4, I’ll begin to analyze critically the motives behind such statements as those of Hansen, Jeynes, Stetzer and others. It is certainly interesting to begin to unpack some of the driving forces behind the urgent calls for increased biblical literacy, both within churches and denominations, and Western society as a whole.

Footnotes

[1] See www.bibleliteracy.org for more information.

[2] Funaro, Vincent. “Bible Answer Man Discusses Biblical Illiteracy, Joel Osteen, and Essential Christian Doctrine.” The Christian Post (http://www.christianpost.com/news/bible-answer-man-discusses-biblical-illiteracy-joel-osteen-and-essential-christian-doctrine-82240/). Accessed 3rd March 2015.

[3] Avalos, “Is Biblical Illiteracy a Bad Thing?” 48.

[4] Hine, Iona. “The Quest for Biblical Literacy: Curricula, Culture and Case Studies.” In Rethinking Biblical Literacy. Edwards, Katie, ed. London: Bloomsbury (2015): 65.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Berding states, for example: “Almost everyone I know spends more time on one of these activities [social media, television and video games] 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.” Berding, “The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy.”

[8] Stetzer, Ed. “Biblical Literacy by the Numbers: Fixing the Problem.” Christianity Today Online (October 29th, 2014): http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/october/biblical-literacy-by-numbers-3.html (Accessed 3rd March 2015); italics his.

[9] Hansen, Collin. “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible.” Christianity Today (May 2010): 41.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Stetzer, “Biblical Literacy by the Numbers.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

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