“Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.”—Calvin Miller
I live in a quaint American town—a Norman Rockwellian picture of small-town USA. There’s a church on almost every corner and a palpable sense of nostalgia down every street.
It’s a farm town full of old Dutch families who still resort to their mother tongue when certain feelings need expression. Inevitably, someone is going to tell you that they’re “benouwd” when they’re feeling anxious, depressed, crammed into an stuffy room.
A proudly devout and principled people, they’re generally disciplined in practice, conservative in perspective, and uncompromising in posture.
They’re wonderful despite their love of terrible treats like double-salted licorice. Seriously . . . that stuff is beyond nasty.
The downward trajectory of biblical literacy
One thing I find interesting is how values have been passed down and received in this close-knit community. It’s an interesting look at what happens to Christianity when it becomes part of a community’s identity.
If you stop nearly anyone on the sidewalk, they’ll tell you that Christianity is one of their most important and primary identifiers. You’ll find the streets are packed on Sunday morning as nearly everyone, en masse, floods the town’s churches.
[pullquote]I meet more and more twenty- and thirty-somethings who, although raised in the church, are unfamiliar with the most of the Scriptures.[/pullquote]But I’ve noticed a serious generational downturn in biblical literacy.
There are quite a few people in their seventies who I’ve had the most interesting scriptural discussions with and, peppered throughout normal, run-of-the-mill conversations, they’ll drop nuggets that reveal how they draw on a deep, treasured reservoir of Scripture in their everyday lives. But I meet more and more twenty- and thirty-somethings who, although they were raised in the church and have a generally high view of Christianity, are unfamiliar with the much of the Scriptures.
On a sociological level, it’s fascinating to see this generational devolution of scriptural literacy happen. It’s curious because there hasn’t really been a loss of Christianity as a cultural identity. Younger generations still value church attendance, as well as Christian literature, music, and radio. While there are many of the trappings of Christianity, there is a loss of depth and breadth of biblical understanding.
But don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this is a problem specific to my town—and it’s definitely not universal. But it’s representative of a growing problem with Christians everywhere. It’s just particularly telling to find it in towns with such a strong “Christian” identity.
This is not an ideological problem
You might be tempted to think that this increasing lack in biblical depth is an ideological problem. I assure you it’s not. There are people with the highest view of Scripture who are not investing time in their holiest book. I know plenty of conservatives or inerrantists whose scriptural knowledge is as fleeting as those they would accuse of not valuing the Bible enough—sometimes more so.
I have, more than once, found myself in the strange position of defending a theological position to a person who was frustrated that I held it, but didn’t have the biblical background to understand why they disagreed with me.
One issue is that people think that, because they’ve been immersed in Christian culture, they have a greater biblical understanding than they do. In a recent Barna report, 81% of U.S. adults considered themselves fairly knowledgeable of the Bible but only 43% were able to name the first five books in the Old Testament, 81% of self-identified Christians contend that spiritual maturity is achieved by following biblical rules, and only 4% believe that poverty is a concern for the church.
How has this happened?
I think part of the problem is that Christians now prop up their biblical understanding with secondary sources: they read Max Lucado books, they watch their favorite pastors online, they listen to Christian music, they read Christian romance novels. And because all these sources use biblical language, allusions, and passages, there’s a feeling that biblical understanding is being increased—but that’s not necessarily the case.
Even many of the Bible studies we’re part of focus on topics and use the Bible as a tool to reinforce a theological perspective rather than a living book that, with the help of the Spirit, speaks for itself. We’re really good at tearing apart pericopes and verses, but we’re losing our ability to understand books as a whole. We love hearing about different ways certain Greek words can be understood or translated (a Christian habit that, in the wrong hands, creates more problems [pullquote]Pretty soon you see the entire Bible as prooftexts and proverbs[/pullquote]than it cures), but we don’t understand how a lament might be read and understood differently than a letter or a proverb.
The way we dissect Scripture at verse level without understanding each book’s entirety, makes us like mad scientists, busy trying to understand everything at a molecular level, and no longer able see the beauty of a tree or recognize conceptual principles like love or loyalty.
There are many problems with trying to draw your biblical understanding out of secondary sources:
- Your knowledge of the Bible becomes piecemeal. Pretty soon you see the entire Bible as prooftexts and proverbs and there is no context for anything.
- You filter your understanding of passages through the interpretive lens of others. 1 Corinthians 13 is so much more than a backdrop for Amish romance novels, and Jeremiah 29:11 (the only verse from Jeremiah that most people know) has a more profound context and meaning than “God’s going to ensure nothing bad ever happens to me.”
- You inherit strong, dogmatic theological and ideological stances that you might not hold if you had a firmer grasp on the Bible.
- You value the Bible as a concept and not a living document. The reformers fought for was the idea of “sola scriptura,” that Scripture would be the sole basis for Christian authority. With that came the desire that people would be able to read and experience the Bible for themselves instead of having the Church be Scripture’s sole interpreter. But if we are going anywhere else more than we’re going to the Scripture, then we have taken interpretive responsibility out of the hands of the church and have given it to anyone. This can be incredible dangerous if you don’t have enough Scriptural acumen to know nonsense when you read it.
- You miss out on experiencing the revelation of spiritually quickened Scripture. If you haven’t had the supernatural experience of the Spirit illuminating Scripture, you’re missing out on one of the greatest joys of the Christian life.
I am in no way suggesting that there’s anything wrong with reading Christian books or listening to sermons. I’m simply saying that it is no substitute for reading, digesting, and experiencing the Word for yourself. It’s messy business to dive into Scripture without an interpreter. It will leave you frustrated and full of questions, and I think there’s a blessing in learning to be okay with that. In fact, I think there is sometimes more to be gained by living within our unanswered questions than there is to run immediately from Scripture to commentary.
So what do we do?
I want to encourage you to make 2015 a year where you get serious about all that Scripture you’re unfamiliar with. Dive into the prophets and law. It’s going to take discipline and effort. It definitely won’t feel fruitful or fun at times, but I assure you there’s value in it. Read the entire Bible this year—even if it’s just to say you’ve done it.
Read large passages at a time. Ignore chapters, verses, and headings. Try to understand a whole book before you try and dissect it into pieces. I wrote a post about taming your Bible study which had some good tips in it (if I may say so myself).
I have a really good friend who cares deeply about biblical literacy and runs a site called The Overview Bible Project. Part of the project required that he re-read the Bible in order that he might write (what turned out to be really insightful) summaries for each book. His site also has wonderful infographics and more stuff on the way. If you’re a johnny-come-lately to the Bible, it’s a wonderful place to start.
So I am laying down the gauntlet. I don’t write this to shame anyone, but if you, like me, need to spend some more time in 2015 investing in experiencing Scripture first hand—I encourage you to join me.
“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”―Søren Kierkegaard