Addressing Biblical Illiteracy

Posted: January 26, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Discipleship/Sanctification, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

David Nienhuis, a professor at Seattle Pacific University (a Christian college) describes his students’ ignorance of the Bible and traces it to a long trend in American evangelicalism that has valued morality and emotion more than knowledge of the Bible and of doctrine.  This, he believes, has led the church to a quite shallow place of consumer-driven religious experiences and widespread “moral therapeutic deism,” quoting Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s phrase.  In his conclusion, he describes the weaknesses of a current focus on quoting Scripture and offers a solution:

[The goal of producing “informed quoters”] is part of what I find troubling about what appears to be the dominant model of biblical literacy employed among evangelicals in their attempts to raise children of faith. This approach emphasizes the memorization of discrete Bible verses and “facts,” mostly in the service of evangelism and apologetics. By mastery of passages that are deemed doctrinally relevant and emotionally empowering, it is hoped that believing youth will be equipped to own their faith, share it with seekers, and defend it against detractors. Most of the students in my classes who consider themselves “familiar with the Bible” have been trained to approach Scripture in this fashion….

I observe two common problems with students who have become “familiar with the Bible” in this way. First, many of them struggle to actually read the text as it is presented to them on the page. Just last week, several of my Bible survey students expressed their surprise and disappointment that “years of church attendance and AWANA Bible memory competitions” never trained them to engage the actual text of the Bible. They weren’t trained to be readers; they were trained to be quoters. One in particular noted that all these years she had relied on someone else to tell her what snippets of the Bible were significant enough for her to know. But whenever she was alone with the text, she felt swamped by its staggering depth and breadth; so if she read the Bible at all, her method typically involved skimming the Scriptures in search of the passages she already knew and loved. This method of “reading” (if it can be called that) is seriously limited, if not dangerous, because it reduces the Bible to a grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader’s prior commitments.

Second, this method leads students to uncritically assume that doctrinal reflection is exhausted by the capacity to quote a much-loved proof-text. In doing this they suppose not only that the passage they are quoting is entirely perspicuous as it stands (in complete isolation from its literary and historical context), but also that the cited text is capable of performing as a summary of the entire biblical witness on the matter at hand. In this they are sometimes led to uncritically conclude that Christians who believe differently from them are either incompetent or willfully disobedient. They are therefore often surprised (and occasionally profoundly demoralized) when they read the verse in its actual literary context and discover that the meaning they had come to invest in it is not completely commensurate with the plain sense of the text on the page. Those of my students who are quick to quote Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast”) are sometimes shocked to read the subsequent verse 10 (“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”). Those who have memorized Romans 10:9 (“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”) are often horrified to read Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21 (“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”). In fact it requires both a far more substantive grasp of Scripture and a capacity for careful doctrinal reflection to know how to negotiate the rich plenitude of the biblical witness. Unfortunately my students’ encounter with the Bible’s depth and breadth often leaves those who have been raised to quote verses feeling very insecure in their faith.

So what then shall we do? What is biblical literacy? Coming to an agreed-upon definition is itself part of the problem. I think all would agree that, at base, it involves a more detailed understanding of the Bible’s actual content. This requires: (1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant); (2) training in the particular “orienteering” skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and (3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints. The survey courses we teach at SPU seek to do these very things. But in the end we want to do more than fill believing heads with objective knowledge about the Bible; we want to empower our whole community–students, faculty, and staff–to buck the cultural trends and take up the spiritual discipline of reading Scripture. It is not enough for a Christian university to function as an outpost of the academy; it must also take up the task of serving the church by becoming an abbey for spiritual growth and an apostolate for cultural change. Through our newly established Center for Biblical and Theological Education, we are working to create a reading program–a lectionary of sorts–that will contribute to the formation of readers who come to cherish a relationship not with the “astonishingly malleable Jesus” of American culture, but with the particular God whose story is related in the Bible and celebrated in the Christian church. We want to create a community ethos of habitual, orderly, communal ingestion of the revelatory text. We do so in the hope that the Spirit of God will transform readers into hearers who know what it is to abide before the mirror of the Word long enough to become enscripturated doers; that is, people of faith who are adept at interpreting their individual stories and those of their culture through the grand story of God as it is made known in the Bible.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor

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