Krista Dalton Wonders Who Should Read the Bible

Krista Dalton

Theologian and Jewish Studies expert Krista Dalton wonders whether everyone should be given equal access to the Bible:

All one has to do is visit the popular “Bible Students Say…”  Twitter account to see countless more examples where it often appears the student just didn’t really understand how to read the English text, let alone derive the cultural and/or literary meaning.

Now perhaps I’m overly critical because of my years pursuing an Education degree, working in high school history classes where students could barely read the textbook, let alone write me a brief paragraph of reflection.  But college illiteracy is stunning educators everywhere, and I think it is time for religious and religion educators to address the situation.

We must seriously ask, “How do we approach biblical and/or other religious textual education in an ever growing world where practical illiteracy is on the rise?” Can I truly expect students to appreciate a text’s literary elements, cultural context, and narrative purpose? What are we to do when students with poor reading skills read the text and derive obviously incorrect interpretations? Or for pastors, when it is a person in your own church community? As I encountered on more than one occasion in my graduate assistant office, some students will protest, “it is just my way of reading the Bible!”

via Should Everyone Really Read the Bible? « Krista Dalton @KristaNDalton.

  • Tom

    You say you are an educator. Teach them.

  • Brianna Kocka

    This is a weirdly serendipitous post. Someone in my life just asked me to interpret Matthew 24 for them, and I told them that I did not feel comfortable doing so because I do not know enough about the context, the original language, etc., (and that’s after having done part of my undergrad studying the Bible, and doing some class work in seminary).

    I think there either needs to be a radical teaching of hermeneutics and literary theory, especially for the young, or that religious texts should be interpreted by those who have the proper academic and scholarly ability to do so.

    • Brianna Kocka


    • Krista (@KristaNDalton)

      I definitely agree with you! But what do we do when people do not want the education or the help?

      • Dan Hauge

        I hope this response doesn’t come off as flippant, but my honest response is: there’s very little we can do. We can hope, patiently try to teach more, encourage better Bible reading in whatever context we can, but at the end of the day, people do have freedom to do things badly, don’t they? I mean, exactly how could we possibly go about “not letting” certain people interpret the Bible?

  • Dan Hauge

    There are some decent responses over on her blog–my first instinct is to say that we need more conversation, better teaching, more dialogue, not trying to take the Bible out of people’s hands (and exactly how could that even be possible in today’s hyper-dissemination of information world anyway?)

  • Travis Mamone

    Cool, she edited my two e-books!

  • Lausten North

    This reminds of the father guy trying to argue for his son’s grade in “A Serious Man”, trying to claim that the problem is a clash of cultures.

  • Nathan Hill

    I agree that there is a challenge here – how do we unpack and make scripture accessible to people in a way that makes sense? I don’t agree that taking the Bible away from people is going to be helpful, but I am a Disciple of Christ and that is part of our identity from the beginning.

    Granted, I think this is what was brilliant about Rob Bell’s Nouma videos – visually pleasing, theologically rich, contextual, fascinating teachings. In some ways, the challenge is to the teachers and educators to be more creative using the variety of changing media to tell the story. There are people trying to do this – how do we make it more accessible? We won’t get far by handing people Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament, as good as it may be. NT Wright’s gospels for everyone series may be a step in the right direction. What about our own contextual/bible study wikipedia?

    Good question.

  • Wes Ellis

    I’ve been pondering these things for some years now and I’m not sure exactly what to do. The Bible is, perhaps, too complex for any casual reading or the average reader–after all; it’s a compilation of many books, by many authors with different perspectives, from a different culture half-way around the world (assuming you’re in the US), written in three different languages (none being English), spanning over generations, written over 2,000 years ago! That really can get you second-guessing the project of the Reformation, of taking the Bible off of the desk of the Papacy… perhaps we’d like to place it back onto the desk of the scholar.

    But, on the other hand, intellectual reading is not the only reading. People, reading the Bible in the context of community, sharing their experiences and passions, can read the Scriptures together and be inspired to do incredible things. The Bible, though complex, is also simple. We don’t need to make scholars out of every reader. We don’t need to expect every reader to be a scholar, and we don’t need to relegate all hermeneutic authority to the “experts” and sages. Anyone can be inspired by it, anyone can find hope in it… But what we must make sure that people know is that the book(s) they’re reading should not be taken lightly… it’s a powerful thing we’re wielding… at worst, it can be a weapon.

  • Ric Shewell

    It would be good to remember that the Bible has usually been opened in the context of worship.

  • Phil Miller

    It’s not really illiteracy she’s complaining about, but rather a lack of critical thinking skills. Obviously if people were illiterate we wouldn’t have to worry about them reading at all. Perhaps the solution to her problem is to quit teaching the peons how to read at all.

    I’m tempted to give a serious answer to this question, but, really, this almost seems like an article from the Onion. At its heart, it’s not much different than saying we should require an IQ test for people to be able to vote. Of course people will read the Bible and come to wrong conclusions sometime. People will read USA Today and come to wrong conclusions. In a world where we can’t control other people, we can’t totally prevent other people from being wrong. Freedom is scary, but the opposite is usually scarier.

    • Ratchet

      Agreed, Phil, and well said. I can’t figure out how this question about the bible is different from the question applied to any other piece of literature–or the USA Today–or the major problem we have with tested-and-licensed drivers who can’t drive properly and safely.
      I sound flip but I’m willing to listen to answers that help me understand any nuance I’m missing.

    • Krista (@KristaNDalton)

      I think you’ve definitely picked up on the fact that the question is “tongue in cheek.” But I think the lack of critical thinking skills you acknowledge (although I would argue many of my students were practically illiterate, meaning they could read a very limited vocabulary) should adjust the way educators and pastors approach the biblical text. I also see a big difference between asking “should people read a text” and “should people be allowed to read a text.” Should we wage a search of every house for Bibles? Ha, no! But how can we adjust our approach to reflect the fact that many people will not be able to actually understand the written words.
      Should the Church continue its stance that “read the Bible and God will speak to you”?

      Thanks for responding!

      • Phil Miller

        Well, there are more resources available in the way of commentaries, online courses, and other things for pastors than ever before. If you’re asking what’s preventing an uneducated rube from putting up a sign outside his house and calling it a church, but that’s been the case for a while now.

        I’ve got to say that in my experience that preaching in a more accessible style is more prevalent now than before. I think many pastors are learning that they can’t assume that everyone in their congregation knows the back-story of the Biblical narrative, so they are less likely to treat texts as isolated nuggets of truth. Of course that still happens some places, and it probably will in the future.

      • Dan Hauge

        Ha–yeah, I could sort of tell your question was tongue in cheek, but I was having trouble locating exactly what the question was underneath it, so thanks for clarifying :) .

        I’d say that I really would like to see the church emphasize more the need for good study and cultural understanding as part and parcel of reading the Bible. What I see in my own community isn’t so much really bad Bible interpretation, but people who are taught that they should just ‘read the Word’, and they try, and end up just getting confused and bored by a lot of it because they don’t have the background and context that actually makes it more interesting. So I would love to see pastors switch from ‘just read your Bible every day’ to ‘read your Bible in community with teachers and books, and don’t be surprised if a lot of it is hard to understand, we need to be patient, and to help you, and be in this together with the wider church’

  • Amy

    There are various Biblical scholars who have studied the Bible for many years and even they can’t agree on what it says. Some of them are at extreme ends of the spectrum regarding what the Bible says about this or that. So who would decide who could read the Bible for themselves and who couldn’t? Who decides which “camp” has the correct interpretation?

  • Curtis

    My therapist often gently reminds me to avoid using the word “should”, because it only serves to diminish the worth of oneself and others. But anyone may read the Bible who wants to. There are many good reasons to read it. It is the most published book in the world. It provides great insight into Western culture. You might come across some entertaining stories. And you may even gain some personal insight, if you happen upon the really good parts.

  • Patrick

    I think Shane Hipps touches on this brilliantly in books like Flickering Pixels. He says that we are moving from a text-driven culture back to an image-driven culture, much as it was before the Reformation and the printing press put the text into the average person’s hands. In a post-Reformation text-driven culture, the focus tended to be on Paul and deep theological understandings. In the PRE-Reformation, image-driven culture, the focus was on stories about Jesus, because they were more easily relatable in an image (it’s hard to depict Romans 3 in a picture). This is where I think Nathan above is on to something with the Nooma videos. Rob Bell manages to present theological understandings in an image-driven way. The way we as people process information is changing. And the way that we as pastors and educators PRESENT that information must change, too. Of course, that begs the question of whether we’re just contributing to an increasingly image-driven (perhaps illiterate) culture with diminished capacity for critical thinking…

    • Curtis

      Even at the zenith of the enlightened, post-reformation, text-driven world population, what percentage of the global population truly possessed the capacity to properly read and interpret any given text? 5%? 10%?

      Is the goal to train elite scholars, or to engage all people of the Earth with the Gospel? If it is the former, then rigorous, text-driven analysis is necessary. But my sense is that God is at work among all people, not only among scholars.

      The printing press moved the Gospel away from scholars and gave it to the masses. It invited improper interpretations and misunderstanding, but also invited full participation by everyone in the life of the church. Similarly, new media has the potential to move the Gospel further beyond the walls of church and academics, but also invites the potential for abuse and misunderstanding.

      Instead of undo emphasis on the medium, and on getting the understanding of the medium “just right”, we should be relying more on the collective wisdom of the community and on human experience. Perhaps the current movement away from text will allow us to re-claim a more community-based, experiential, universally accessible understanding of the Gospel, rather than a Gospel that depends on all humans getting the interpretation of a specific text “just right”.

    • R. Jay Pearson

      Patrick, you wrote: “that begs the question of whether we’re just contributing to an increasingly image-driven (perhaps illiterate) culture with diminished capacity for critical thinking…

      I fear this is fast becoming the case.

  • Curtis

    “What are we to do when students with poor reading skills read the text and derive obviously incorrect interpretations?”

    The problem is not reading skills, alone. The problem is the exaggerated emphasis and value we place on interpretation of the Bible. This over-emphasis on Biblical interpretation allows bad interpretation to slip immediately into bad theology.

    The worship of the Bible alone, outside of context of history, community, and the entire presence of God, is the problem. Not bad reading skills.

    • Paul W

      I thought this article a bit strange. I think this is because it strikes me as so intuitive that a major way of overcoming ‘poor reading skills’ is by READING.

      Who is going to be against books about developing reading techniques for various types of literature (e.g., Mortimer J. Adler’s ‘How to Read a Book). But can anything really replace the actual practice reading in becoming a better reader?

  • R. Jay Pearson

    Ohhh man, reading the “Bible Students Say…” Twitter feed was painful.

    So here’s my take . . .

    1) College students should not be allowed to advance until they are proficient in writing and reading, particularly critical reading and exposition. Unfortunately, too many colleges these days seem to define “proficient” as “first grade level.” This may not be fair of me to say, but if we’re not upping the bar, then we’re lowering it. And we really, really need to up the bar, especially in the U.S. My own experience concerns me deeply as I am now encountering a “140 characters or less” generation that does not know how to communicate or express ideas intelligently.

    2) Before any student takes any course in Biblical studies (by which I mean, critical study of specific books in the Bible), they should first be required to complete two courses, over two semesters, covering the history of the Bible, the social, political and religious contexts in which its contents came about, its various writing styles and themes, and so on. In many cases, students interested in Biblical studies already arrive at college with preconceived notions (usually from parents, church, etc.) about what the Bible is. And in many of those cases, certain ideas about the Bible must by necessity be deconstructed.

    So in an academic setting, I believe a student should complete some hefty prerequisites before advancing to courses where they dive into critical analyses of the Bible’s texts.

  • Luke Allison


    Is this an issue of practical illiteracy (limited vocabulary combined with lack of comprehension/integrational abilities), or inability? Have many of these students simply not moved beyond an egocentric and pre-operational way of thinking about their existence? My experience working with high school students and young adults (some well into their twenties), is that many are vacillating between an egocentric and “ethnocentric” framework for existence…very few have moved into any kind of skepticism or anything resembling “postmodern values.”

    I’d be interested to hear more of what your experience has been. I’m on the local church level, but the issues raised in your post resonate strongly with me. My colleagues and I (all seminarians) have noticed that the Bible retains a “precious” status to the point that any detailed discussion of it results in existential annoyance or a perceived destruction of solid footing.

    In answer to the question in the post’s title: Only those whose interpretation is 100 percent accurate, of course! So….basically me.

  • T.S.Gay

    Besides some people not being allowed to read the Bible- here’s a few more things that shouldn’t be allowed:

    Funny sayings on sweaters
    An afro on a hip hopped jewish boy
    Porn star mustaches
    Extra tight tee shirts
    70′s track shorts and headband
    Black rimmed glasses

  • vandelay

    She didn’t really say that some people should be ALLOWED to read the Bible, though I’m not at all surprised that Jones would put such an authoritarian spin on it.

    • vandelay

      should *not* be

  • Jubal DiGriz

    I favor the notion that the problem isn’t really Biblical illiteracy (I suspect a larger number of people read the Bible, and they do so more often than ever before), but the lack of peer criticism. Ideas are best distilled and refined when subjected to a strong acid.

    The “Bible Students Say” twitter to me mostly looks like people who have developed in an insular or hyper-liberal environment and are not used to having to thoughtfully defend their interpretations.

  • Shira

    You wrote: “What are we to do when students with poor reading skills read the text and derive obviously incorrect interpretations?”

    It seems to me that there are two problems here. First, we do not teach kids to read with attention to the questions that arise as they read. This is, I think, the fundamental skill of good readers, and it needs to be taught AS a skill. Often kids are taught from an early age to accept as fact whatever is presented in their texts, but teachers ought instead to teach kids to question texts. (This is what I did in the several years when I homeschooled my daughter, and it worked well.)

    This skill should be exercised even more carefully when reading old texts, translated texts, and texts compiled of several source texts. But with the Bible especially, neither kids nor adults are generally encouraged (outside specialty courses) to read with questions. I am not a fan of revered canons, whether religious or secular. The Bible and the US Constitution are two texts that are very much harmed by the reverence and obedience they inspire in devoted readers. (in my opinion, of course).


  • Frank McManus

    My first response to this post was a reaction to the overall cultural situation: the way we’ve gone from being a society that valued literacy, logic and critical thinking and was making some small progress toward increasing the number of people who could effectively participate in those things, to a society that effectively places money/power above all else — and those who have money and power know that literacy, logic and critical thinking are bad for their bottom line. So I figured, if you persist in intellectual pursuits, you just have to accept that you’re going to be interacting with illiterates. Give ‘em bad grades — what else is there to do?

    Then I realized the question is really about whether it’s possible to teach more effectively in this environment — are there methods that work better than the traditional lecture, short essay, research paper, final exam style of education? Maybe there are: why are Khan Academy videos and TED talks so popular? Because they work. How?

    I don’t know; I’m not an educator. But maybe a way forward is to analyze things that actually DO seem to be working so as to find better methods.

  • Frank McManus

    Reading through Bible Students Say, I realized the tweets all sound like things kids in 8th grade would say — by the time they’re in grad school, they’ll start sounding like college freshmen. (And that’s not even sarcasm.)

    Maybe this is the problem: we no longer ask kids in 8th grade to do this kind of intellectual work, i.e., acquire a decent vocabulary, learn to read anything more demanding than Twilight, learn to spell, learn to answer questions, write sentences in English, develop lines of thought, etc. So they have to do these things when they arrive in college, in the limited time available when they’re not drunk. And neither the classroom structure nor the obligatory drinking makes it easy for them.

    My question is: what’s happening in middle school and high school that students end up like this?