The Game Show Network has a (basic-cable) hit on its hands with The American Bible Challenge, a new quiz-show hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
GSN says the show features contestants who: “compete based on their knowledge of the Bible. Utilizing current as well as historical references, questions will be drawn from the rich, dense narrative found in the world’s best-selling book.”
It’s not quite true that the game is based on “knowledge of the Bible, but about trivia extracted from the Bible. The book’s “rich, dense narrative” isn’t really the point. Mastering Bible trivia is not the same thing as understanding the Bible. It can actually be something done instead of understanding the Bible.
As Stephen P. Hale writes, the game: “treats the Bible as a series of trivia questions. In asking simple and straightforward questions about details, The American Bible Challenge never gets around to looking at what the Bible actually says.”
Hale notes that a question in the first episode asked: “What three objects does the Scripture tell us were at the last supper?” The answer there isn’t really trivia — these things are important to Christians. But the format threatens to trivialize the bread and wine, the cup, the basin and towel, by disregarding what they mean or why they are meaningful. (And isn’t that five objects, at least?)
I’m not questioning or disparaging the intent of the show’s creators. This problem isn’t a function of intent, but of structure. It can ask about lists and place-names, but not about meaning — about what, where and who, but never about why.
This misleads in the same way it always does when someone “teaches to the test.” When the Bible becomes raw material for a trivia quiz, its readers become people who can buzz-in and correctly provide both sets of names for Daniel’s three friends, but not people who can tell you anything about what it means to live faithfully in exile.
Details disregarding context produce an out-of-context understanding of the text and a disregard for its meaning. I’m not speculating here. I grew up among young-earth creationists and premillennial dispensationalists, so I know exactly what it means to approach the Bible primarily as a source of out-of-context trivia. And thus I also know what it means to later have to re-learn to read the Bible.The American Bible Challenge strikes me as a smiling, cheerful variation of Mr. Gradgrind’s definition of a horse. Here, again, is that wonderful scene from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times:
“Girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”
“Sissy Jupe, sir,” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”
“It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,” returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
“Then he has no business to do it,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”
“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.”
Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
“We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”
“If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.”
“You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?”
“Oh yes, sir.”
“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.”
… “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”