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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  • BruceOcala

    Spot on! Great piece! Thanks

  • Jayson Bradley

    Thank you!

  • Josh

    Amen! I especially love how you call out the notion that “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.” This is why I’m attracted to teachers like Tim Mackie who are so careful to explain Biblical context and preach that the Bible is one unified story that leads to Jesus.

  • Better awareness of the historical-critical method of looking at holy texts would indeed be wonderful, teaching in public classes all over the place, but it’d involve the sort of intellectual honesty that makes many people’s blood boil. Learning that some of the writings by St. Paul were forged? Witnessing the contradictions between the Gospels when it comes to the birth and early life of Jesus? And that’s just the beginning.

  • soter phile

    So you think instilling a distrust of the Bible & devaluing it would get more people to read it?
    That’s not how it became the most read book in history.

    Ironically for you, the very churches that advocate your preferred positions are the ones dying precipitously.

    Never mind that what you appear to mean by ‘intellectual honesty’ is only reading one side of the scholarship. That’s merely seeking affirmation, not information.

  • BruceOcala

    Thanks for reinforcing the title and message of the post – “Biblical illiteracy is a big problem” as you seem to be a stunning advocate for superficiality. Perfect. And wrong.

  • olbab

    A quibble – “one unified story”. Holy cow.

  • Josh

    Oh man! If that’s a surprising message for you to hear I’m so excited for you! The Bible isn’t written as a rule book or theology dictionary or as a collection of inspirational writings. Open up the Bible to page 1 and read the opening words. “In the beginning…”
    Then, turn to the last chapter of the Bible where you read this: “…and they reigned for ever and ever.” The Bible is telling us how to read it! The Bible is telling a story from beginning to end: An epic narrative about how God has appointed humanity as his partners to oversee this amazing world. It is about how we have ruined that partnership and how God is restoring us and our world through Jesus.

    Preaching the gospel means that from Genesis to Revelation we see the whole Bible is one unfolding story of God’s love and saving grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 5 that whole Bible is about Him (“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill”), and Luke records for us that Jesus taught the disciples “all the things concerning himself from the Law and the Prophets” (the Hebrew Bible). So, either Jesus is a megalomaniac, or Jesus is who He says He is and the whole Bible is about Him. If I’m a follower of Jesus than wouldn’t I want to follow Jesus’s understanding of the Old Testament?

    If we explain any text in isolation from Jesus, then we fail to say the very thing that He said it’s about. He said it’s about Him! So, for example, if we think Daniel is ultimately about “Dare to be a Daniel” it’s not about Jesus. If we think The Revelation is about Israel and Russia, it’s not about Jesus. And though Jesus is not the content of the whole Bible he IS the center of whole Bible. It all points towards to Him. And the unified message of the Bible is that God will save His people. Any point we drop into Habakkuk or 2 Timothy or Isiah or Deuteronomy will be connected to the main road – it will serve the main storyline, which is the Good News of what God is doing in the world through the person of Jesus.

    I’ll finish with this. Look at Genesis 3, where God makes a promise that he will defeat evil (crush the serpent) through the seed of the woman. Who is God talking about?! And then we’re given basically a genealogy through the rest of Genesis showing that linage. And then the New Testament opens with a genealogy ending with Jesus. If we can’t see the cross when Joseph says “what you meant for evil God meant for good” in the conclusion of Genesis then we’re missing the whole unity of the Bible. And that’s something that I think many Christians are missing. We are missing that the Bible we have is the Bible God has given to His people, and through His partnership with humans we, in effect, have a Bible inspired by one Author and therefore that author has a unified story He is telling. 2 Timothy 3:36 “All Scripture is breathed out by God”.

    This is a very well-established idea and one that is worth exploring if you’re not familiar with it. Here are some resources:

    God Bless!

  • ‘Distrust’ and ‘devaluing’? Those are your words, not mine. Approaching the Bible as it is and using one’s mind to interpret it in context in no way means giving up on Christianity or its tenets.

    As far as churches dying, yes, organized religion is dying in the U.S. This extends beyond mainline churches to evangelical ones to fundamentalist ones and more. I don’t see how that proves your point.

  • Ron Swaren

    Just started to read this, and thought it was about intellectual comprehension. Saw the second word, and figured it was another political screed. No thanks.

  • kontradiction

    Totally agree! Learning the historical origins of the Bible would pull the rug out from under so many fundamentalists, ending their tyranny of certainty. More generally, it could promote a critical re-examination of beliefs, and maybe a more humane application of ancient wisdom to current problems.

  • John Gills

    A parallel concern of mine is the way so many people’s concept of hell and the satanic merely reflects vague images from Dante and Milton with little or no actual biblical basis.

  • amylynn1022

    A minor quibble – strictly speaking, teaching a course on the Bible is not actually unconstitutional, even in a public school, anymore than having your class read Dante or Milton. The problem is that it would have to be a secular course – the Bible as literature or the Bible in historical context – rather than a theological or doctrinal Bible course. And that approach risks offending people who do read it literally. I do not even want think about how the local evangelical or fundamentalist church would respond to kids being taught the Documentary Hypothesis regarding the Pentateuch or the Two Source Hypothesis to the synoptic problem. I find it to be a case of “be careful what you wish for”. I actually wouldn’t have a problem with an elective course on the Bible at the local public high school that approached the Bible as literature and discussed current Bible criticism but I am a Unitarian Universalist.

  • Brandon Roberts