Are We Biblically Illiterate?

Our increasing ignorance about Scripture is hurting the Church’s witness

August 30, 2011 by Donald E. Burke


Have you ever described yourself as a Bible-believing Christian? Part of our ethos as Salvationists is that we see ourselves as a people who take the Bible seriously. After all, our first doctrine focuses on the Bible: “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the divine rule of Christian faith and practice.”

A quick analysis of this doctrine reveals several key declarations: God inspired the Bible; the Bible consists of both the Old and New Testaments; these writings are the “divine rule” that teach us what to believe and how to live out our faith.

However, although we affirm Scripture’s importance, biblical literacy among Salvationists (and other Christians) is diminishing rapidly. The Bible plays a decreasing role in most sermons, partly because it is mistakenly viewed as being irrelevant to life in the 21st century. Sunday school curricula often trivialize Scripture in an attempt to be fun or trendy. Bible study groups spend less and less time studying and function more like group therapy sessions. The result is that we can no longer assume a shared knowledge of the Bible, even among Christians. While we might occasionally discuss the Bible, we know less and less about what the Bible actually says and, more importantly, about the demands it makes upon us.

In 2005, American pollster George Barna observed, “American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, our research shows otherwise. And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.” Without doubt, the same is true of Canadians. Barna’s report suggests several reasons for this growing biblical illiteracy:

• people think they know what is important to know
• the importance of Bible teaching in the life of churches has declined
• families are too busy to make Bible learning a priority
• while most parents rely on churches to provide biblical education for their children, the churches themselves rely on volunteer teachers who are poorly prepared to provide effective, reliable instruction
• the messages communicated through our culture often conflict with biblical teachings, causing confusion or an outright rejection of biblical values.

What are we losing in the process? The diminishing prominence of the Bible in our public worship and in our private world comes with a high price. The Church is being assimilated into our dominant culture even as the distinctive voice of Christian faith is being drowned out. Increasingly, we have little to say to the world that doesn’t simply parrot its own values and assertions. We are in danger of becoming ineffectual and redundant.

Of course, this is nothing new. The threat of assimilation by a powerful alternative worldview is a long-standing concern for God’s people. Many biblical books focus on how Israel in the Old Testament, or the Church in the New Testament, maintained its faith in a world that enticed the people of God to blend in. Read the first six chapters of Daniel to learn about the pressure that faced Daniel and his fellow Jews under the Babylonian Empire. Or consider the Apostle Paul’s letters to churches that were often swayed by negative cultural influences. Or think about the Gospel of Mark, which contrasts Israel’s messianic hope for worldly power and influence with Jesus’ message of servanthood and humility. In every instance, the people of God were called upon to maintain their identity in a context that threatened to overwhelm them.

The Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy addresses this problem of assimilation in great detail. It chronicles the transition of Israel from the wilderness to the Promised Land. In the desert, the Israelites daily depended on God for the essentials of life—food, water and safety. In Canaan, however, the abundant resources tempted Israel to increased self-reliance and less dependence on God. Their newfound affluence might lead to amnesia—forgetfulness about who they were and from where they had come. Also, the dominant Canaanite culture might appear more appealing than the rigours of Israelite faith. There was a danger that Israel would simply assimilate into the culture of Canaan.

In anticipation of the transition into Canaan, Moses addressed Israel. He urged the Israelites to remember that God had delivered them from Egyptian slavery and oppression. He reminded them that in the wilderness the Lord had provided their “daily bread.” Finally, in Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Moses exhorted the Israelites to keep the words of the Torah (the Word of God as they knew it) before them at all times. It is important to recall that the Torah was not simply a set of rules; it was also the story of Israel’s relationship with God, including their deliverance from Egypt. Israel was to be a holy people, a people set apart. Moses urged, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NRSV).

The antidote to Canaan’s pervasive cultural influence was to rehearse again and again the story of God’s gracious deliverance and to meditate on its implications for Israel’s life as the people of God. By focusing on the Torah, Israel would be able to withstand the subtle and not-so-subtle influences of Canaanite economics, society and religion. Israelites needed to constantly and intentionally remind each other of the ways in which God had intervened to rescue, preserve and protect them. This would give Israel a fighting chance of surviving as the people of God in the land of Canaan.

Today’s societal influences are even more powerful than those faced by Israel in ancient times. Cultural values are broadcast through the media, in advertising and in countless other ways. Our ethics are shaped by reality shows that set person against person in the effort to win the prize. Advertisers and entertainers, lobbyists and bloggers all project images of the kind of life to which we should aspire, with autonomy and independence valued above community. Immediate gratification is the standard for measuring happiness. Good is determined on the basis of self-interest. And life is ours to shape as we please. These are values that run contrary to our Christian understanding.

As we drift away from our identity as the people of God, we quickly lose sight of the vulnerable among us. In the world’s eyes, the poor are not pretty or appealing. In fact, they are often perceived as a threat to our perfect lifestyle. In an economy that reinforces and rewards affluence, the poor are viewed as collateral damage. A “successful” life becomes more about money and cars, houses and vacations, fortunes and fame, than about faithfulness to the biblical witness and service to God. Without a strong anchor in Scripture, our spirits can become numb to society’s assault on goodness and purity. Our values become indistinguishable from the culture around us and the prophetic voice of our Christian faith is muffled.

Immersion in Scripture is the antidote to worldliness. When read thoughtfully and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, God’s Word provides us with an alternative set of values, lifestyle and worldview. We study the Bible to allow its story to shape us more deeply than the incessant propaganda of the media, the secular ideologies of our time and our inherited tendencies toward self-interest.

In this light, the function of Scripture is not a rulebook or a source of quasi-science; neither is it a reservoir of arcane information that has no impact on who we are and how we live. Rather, Scripture is an ever-present shaping influence in our lives. When it sinks deeply into us, it will help us to maintain our identity as God’s people.

Taking our first doctrine seriously means allowing Scripture, under the Spirit’s continuing inspiration, to shape us in ways that actually make a difference to how we live and witness. If we commit ourselves and make Scripture central to our lives, we will be biblically literate Christians who are salt and light in the world.

Dr. Donald Burke is president and professor of biblical studies at The Salvation Army’s Booth University College in Winnipeg.


Tips for Improving Your Biblical Literacy

The key to learning the Bible is consistency—regular study over a long time will enrich and transform you. Here are some suggestions:

1. Begin your study with one of the Gospels. Start with Matthew, Mark or Luke. Save John’s Gospel for later. One of Paul’s letters, especially Philippians, is a good follow up. Avoid Revelation! It often sidetracks people from the heart of the gospel when read too early in one’s journey into the Bible.

2. Devote several months to each book you study. This will allow the message of the specific biblical book to sink deeply into your heart and mind. Don’t worry about learning everything; take to heart what you do learn. Avoid waterskiing through the Bible; dive deeply into it.

3. Find a good commentary or study guide to help you. Begin with a fairly short commentary that not only explains the biblical text, but also helps you to see its significance for Christian living. If you have difficulty identifying one, e-mail me at donald_burke@boothuc.ca for a recommendation.

4. Listen for God’s Word. I am a firm believer that God not only inspired Scripture, but that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire the Bible when we read it. Intentionally ask God to speak through your study of the Bible.

Comments

  1. I need to give a triple “thumbs up” on this article. Illiteracy of the bible is a big problem to the entire Christian church. I find it ironic that Martin Luther and others risked life and limb to make the bible available to the common man without the interpretation of a priest or the church, and here we are centuries later listening to sermons that interpret for us the truth of scripture without challenge or personal study to know the truth of His word for ourselves. –Herb Presley, administrator of the FaceBook Page, “Fundamentals of the Bible”.

  2. Major Peggy Hendrickson (R) says:

    As a retired officer, of course I’ve noticed how the Army system has changed to try & be more trendy in order to sway people to participate more but it has not worked because those in positions
    of leadership (not all but many) are not totally committed or passionate enough for the souls to be saved. Everything is so generalized these days & every body is rushing from one thing to another that the BIBLE study gets put aside for another time & that time never arrives. In fact, to ask folk to sign up for the Bible study is shameful to see the outcome, no one has time to come together to study the WORD, what can one do in half an hour for study together? Not much! Its no wonder there are so many Bible illiterates. Pray for our ARMY!!

    Its as if the leaders don’t want to rock the boat in being a peculiar people in every sense of the word. God called us to come out from among them & be ye separate. What does that mean? I think we need to get back to the” OLD WELLS of SALVATION where the WATERS are SWEET”!!

    “God Bless you ALL!!

  3. Just read the article and I cannot agree more with the article by Donald Burke and the responses from Major Peggy Hendrickson (R) and Herb Presley. In my current ministry it has become very clear that as mentioned, there is limited basic knowledge of the Scriptures, commitment, and response to the commision of Christ for all believers.

    However, small as it may seem, I do sense a slight movement of interest towards Bible Study where the Bible is the manual and not a DVD or a book study by some great author. We can only pray that that interest will continue to grow. We need also to pray that the church will not be caught up in the theology of social tolerence at the face of any oposition or challenges society puts in front of the church.

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