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The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy

January 31st, 2010
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Here’s an interesting analysis of a “problem”that is, in truth, a crisis. Thanks to Justin Taylor for this post. David Nienhuis, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, has a helpful piece in the Modern Reformation on the problem of evangelical students “familiar” with the Bible but still essentially illiterate.

Here’s an excerpt on how it happened:

Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we’re all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential “seekers” shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.

He goes on to describe the difference between those transformed by the Word and those who are merely informed quoters of the Word:

To make a real difference in people’s lives, biblical literacy programs will have to do more than simply encourage believers to memorize a select set of Bible verses. They will have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible, living languages are embedded in actual human communities that are constituted by particular habits, values, practices, stories, and exemplars. We don’t memorize languages; we use them and live through them. As Paulo Freire reminded us, literacy enables us to read both the word and the world. Language mediates our reality, expands our horizons, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions. Literacy therefore isn’t simply about possessing a static ability to read and write; it is a dynamic reality, a never-ending life practice that involves putting those skills to work in reshaping our identity and transforming our world. Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers.

Toward the end he lays out his vision:

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.

The whole thing is worth a careful read.

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  1. Garry Trammell
    January 31st, 2010 at 09:37 | #1

    Absolutely spot on.

  2. Richard
    January 31st, 2010 at 09:46 | #2

    It is a terrific article. Its wisdom hit me and critique of evangelicalism’s tendency to just memorize passages of Scripture instead of reading the text. Powerful stuff.

  3. Janet Young
    January 31st, 2010 at 12:05 | #3

    Great article! I have posted it on my Facebook profile and fear I may offend some of my FB friends, BUT it is great food for thought that needs to be shared and discussed.

  4. January 31st, 2010 at 12:31 | #4

    Oh my goodness, David Nienhuis has absolutely ‘nailed it’. Wonderful article, thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. Lindsey
    February 1st, 2010 at 10:39 | #5

    Very good article. But let’s be careful about pointing fingers. This isn’t just an “American Evangelical Christian” problem. I think it encompasses pretty much all of the Christian churches in America including Lutherans.

    • February 1st, 2010 at 13:32 | #6

      Lindsey, I ask you please to read more carefully before you comment. The blog post is quoting Evangelicals critiquing Evangelicalism.

  6. Karen Keil
    February 1st, 2010 at 12:07 | #7

    The article has said what I’ve thought for a long time. I’ve felt that structured Bible study methodology wasn’t really taught and post-confirmation I was on my own. Even so, I found out I was more knowledgeable on the Bible than many of my peers based on discussions with them. The Mormon church has a more structured system of scripture and doctrine study for its members from young to old. For high school youth, they have set up “seminaries” near the high schools in many areas where students attend before school or after school for classes in scriptures and doctrine. I don’t think the Lutheran church would go that far, but it should investigate more structured Bible approaches to encourage its members to enroll in. The Lutheran Study Bible is a great book to use for the structured Bible approaches.

  7. Bethany Kilcrease
    February 1st, 2010 at 17:03 | #8

    As a history professor at a Roman Catholic liberal arts college in the upper Midwest, I would have to argue that Catholic biblical literacy is probably the worst. My husband (who teaches theology and humanities at this college as well) and I are consistently shocked when students (almost all of whom were raised Catholic), for example, do not know the difference between the Old and New Testament. This can’t but be a major problem for the Roman Catholic church today. At the risk of sounding overly triumphalist, I would wager that the LCMS has about the best biblical literacy among its members of any American denomination. Just one story: My husband was guest lecturing in 2 of my World History classes about the Jews in their ancient Near Eastern historical context. The students were unable to identify Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, etc. However, when my husband asked if anyone knew a biblical story about a snake on a pole, one student responded correctly with the Numbers account of the bronze serpent. To me, this was simply amazing, given the inability of anyone else to say anything at all about Abraham or Jacob. I, therefore, had a suspicion and talked to the student later. Sure enough, she’s LCMS.

  8. Karen Keil
    February 2nd, 2010 at 09:58 | #9

    Further comment–I know the article was written by an Evangelical criticizing other Evangelicals. Still, it makes me think. My suggestion that Lutherans should formally teach a structured Bible read/study approach(es) in confirmation and beyond to encourage members to follow is based on personal observations. My father who grew up WELS attended church every Sunday and was confirmed as a teenager. He did not and does not study the Bible on a personal regular basis that I can ever remember. He apparently expects the church services to do all that for him and thinks that study bibles with notes and center reference columns are for preachers only. My siblings after confirmation did not do personal Bible study, even though my youngest sister did return to the Bible later when she was and still is travelling a tough road. I continued to read/study the Bible after confirmation but not on a continued structured basis, even though I could have followed some of the suggested approaches in the “How to Study the Bible” articles found in general Protestant study Bibles (ex. Thompson Chain Reference). As for other Protestants, one story: As a high school student, I talked to a regular Baptist churchgoer student about the Bible and found out she didn’t know a lot about it. She didn’t know what the Book of Job was about until I gave a summary. She then asked how I knew about Job. I said I read it. She to my utter surprise got defensive. I found it of great interest to hear about many former Baptists here on this website becoming Lutherans because they felt there was not much offered beyond ‘getting saved’ to grow into mature Christians. That made me think. Lutheran church services are deep with much material–liturgy, hymns and long Bible readings, as well as the sermons.

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