Christians are a people of the book—but I fear we’ve grown illiterate.
69% of adult Americans consider themselves Biblically literate according to a study conducted in 2013 by the Barna Group. But the same study found that 58% of American Christians are not interested in Biblical insight on how to live their lives.
Instead, the survey found that the highest-ranking topic about which we look to the Bible for wisdom was death. This disconnect between reading God’s Word and believing that God’s Word applies directly to our lives is troubling.
Further, many churches don’t have Bible studies anymore. Instead, we have community groups and Sunday school classes, in which we talk about feelings, but rarely open the Bible. Even when we do attempt to study Scripture on Sunday mornings we boil God’s word into spiritual slogans like “God helps those who help themselves” (which is not in the Bible).
This habit we have of oversimplifying or even inventing what we think is in Scripture popped up as one factor in the recent controversy over the movie Noah. Some Christians are upset that, for instance, the movie portrays Noah getting drunk (which is in the Bible) or the idea he was a vegetarian (on which the Bible is not explicitly vocal, but which reasonably could be derived from a reading of the Biblical law).
Worse, though, is the way Scripture is leaking out of our worship services. On any given Sunday morning in America, pastors stuff sermons with personal anecdotes to make the Scripture text interesting and relevant. In our attempt to make worship approachable we’ve exchanged liturgy drawn from Scripture with extemporaneous speaking.
When I challenged a pastor on the number of personal anecdotes in his sermons, he said, “People need personal application. Without it, what’s the point?”
What is the point?
We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are a people of the book. Instead, we have become a people of words—but they are our words, made in our image, and if we’re not careful our faith will be too.
What might it look like to take Biblical literacy seriously?
Fewer words in our worship. This is counterintuitive, but worship is a time marked and set apart from the world, and the world is filled with words. From marketing to social media to basic conversation, we do not lack for chatter in our daily life. To take Biblical literacy seriously means to see God’s word as sacred and therefore different from every other word. It means allowing silence and music and other sensory experiences to fill our worship, instead of just normal talk.
Preaching to the text rather than to the application. When we take Biblical literacy, seriously we assert a belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit is active in our reading of God’s word. Biblical literacy requires us to forgo our own understanding and to practice listening to God by way of the text. Our preaching needs to begin and end in the stories of Scripture rather than personal anecdotes. The Bible does not need to be made interesting, relevant, or applicable by salesmanship. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to apply God’s word to our lives—not the other way around.
Learn how to read from our poets. Our modern impulse is to read quickly and efficiently. We like our lessons literal and our answers clear. Jesus taught in parables because they were an easy to remember in a nonliterate society. Those parables are still powerful today, but Scripture does not fit into a single genre. To take Biblical literacy seriously we must learn to read like poets, who are comfortable in ambiguity. A poet reads for the images language can evoke. Further, a poem never has one meaning or a single application. A poem refuses to be winnowed down like that and when we learn to read like poets we will stop treating Scripture in this manner. We can begin to hear God’s still, small voice from the whirlwind.
When we ignore the question of literacy we risk becoming unmoored from the reason we worship together in the first place. If we are Biblically illiterate then what is the point?
Jesus Christ is the point.
All our activity—the worship, mission trips, committee meetings, and personal devotions —has a single purpose: to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. The truth is simple: we cannot be God’s people unless we are a people of the Book.