Biblical Illiteracy Is a Big Problem—for Christians

Biblical Illiteracy Is a Big Problem—for Christians February 26, 2019


Whenever Trump feels like he’s in trouble, he begins pandering to his evangelical base. After all, that’s where he’s found so much support. Earlier this year, he tweeted about biblical literacy classes and seemed super excited about states offering classes for studying the Bible. And while he’s right that many “Bible literacy” bills have been introduced, none of them have passed.

As a Christian and a student of the Christian Scriptures, I’m glad these bills haven’t been finding any traction. It’s always strange to me that the same group that’s so worried about some secret Muslim agenda to instill Sharia law are the ones trying to ensure that the government gives Christianity a cultural leg up—a constitutional no-no.

That said, I agree that we have a biblical literacy problem, but it’s not simply because people don’t read Scripture. There are a lot of people reading the Bible semi-regularly who struggle in their understanding of Scripture (but they’re usually the last know).

Saying that reading the Bible cures biblical literacy is kind of like saying that malnourishment is cured by eating. The truth is that a lot of people are malnourished because of how they eat.

We can attribute the problem of Biblical illiteracy to a few issues (although there are plenty more):

1. People don’t read the Bible

The fact that people don’t read the Bible isn’t the only reason for biblical illiteracy, but it’s a big one. That said, I don’t expect people who have no interest in learning about my faith to read my scriptures. But I do expect people who adhere to my faith to read them. A Christian that doesn’t bother reading their own scripture is like an athlete that never works out. The great irony is when that athlete complains about the lack of exercise in America.

That’s one of the most significant issues with biblical understanding in this country. Many of the people who profess to be Christian have an understanding of Scripture that’s pieced together from sermons they’ve heard, Facebook memes they’ve seen, and books they’ve read.

Christians who spend more than 10 minutes a week in their Bibles are quite rare—yet they often think that they’re experts on the content.

2. People only digest morsels of Scripture

Inserting chapters and verses into the Bible have provided a lot of convenience for finding or quoting passages, but chapters and verses are not Scripture. (And don’t get me started on the headings inserted over pericopes.)

These additions have made it super easy to discover our “life verses” and quickly identify passages we want tattooed onto our torsos, but they can actually diminish our biblical understanding. Reading or even memorizing a couple of verses doesn’t increase our literacy if we don’t understand how those verses fit into a book’s broader framework, narrative, or argument.

Also, our inclusion of chapters and verses cause our minds to read passages differently. Many of the original authors’ thoughts don’t end where the chapters do, and when we fall into the mental trap of completing the thought and starting a new one at the chapter break, we’re creating problems for ourselves.

3. Topical study isn’t Bible study

Too often we look to Scripture or pastors to explain what the Bible says about a current event or a social issue. When we pull out passages to answer those questions, we haven’t increased our biblical understanding, and we might be increasing our ignorance.

The scriptures made sense to a particular people from a particular time in a particular set of circumstances. Until we understand the culture packaging Scripture comes wrapped in, we’re going to butcher Scripture’s relevance. (Of course, fully understanding Scripture’s original intent isn’t always possible—which should make us handle it with humility.)

Even when the language appears to address a current issue or event directly, the context can dramatically affect the interpretation for modern people. The goal isn’t to bring my questions to bear on Scripture, but to understand the author’s intent. Once I do that, I can begin the touchy and dangerous work of applying that intent to my own context.

4. It isn’t about us as individuals

A lot of times we pick up the Bible to see what God’s saying to “Me.” We’ve so individualized salvation that we think the Bible is a special message to each of us independent of each other. So much damage is done to the New Testament because we’ve been trained to read it as if it’s a letter to us as individuals that’s only concerned with where we’re going when we die.

Both the Old and New Testaments are about God’s forming of a community of people that belong to him. Throughout most of the New Testament, the pronouns “you” and “your” refer to church communities and not individuals. When you begin to see Scripture through its intended communal lens, it dramatically changes how you interpret it.

We’ve created a culture of biblical interpretation that sees no problem singing worship songs with lines like, “You took the fall, and thought of me above all.” We’ve created a glut of devotional Bibles that cater to our personal life experiences and interests: the Patriot Bible (yes, really), the Athlete’s Bible, the Prophecy Study Bible, etc. Approaching the Bible through the lens of our roles and specific interests doesn’t help us to take the Bible on its own merits.

If you approach Scripture looking for a specific application that applies to your experience, you’ll never interpret correctly. Don’t get me wrong, it does apply to you . . . as a potential member of God’s community.

5. We bring our isms to bear on Scripture

Whether you’re a Calvinist, Armenian, conservative, liberal, etc., you need to be careful not to read Scripture in a way that merely supports or champions your position.

Most of the ways we identify ourselves are modern constructs that have nothing to do with the Bible. When we read through their lenses, we inevitably skew Scripture toward justifying our positions. But the Bible doesn’t exist to vindicate our perspectives. Besides that, when we read through our identities, we highlight the parts that bolster our arguments and ignore elements that should make us question them.

If you think the Bible always agrees with you, that’s one of the biggest signs that you’re biblically malnourished. Real familiarity with Scripture should lead us to deeper self-reflection (and acceptance). If it helps to fuel an us-vs.-them worldview or a culture-war construct, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s not the problem we think it is

If you told me that there was a biblical literacy problem in America, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. But the problem isn’t that the vast majority of people don’t read the Bible, and it won’t be solved by making them. The problem is that the people who should be reading it, usually don’t. And when they do, they’re scouring it for confirmation and not inspiration.

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