In an essay at Modern Reformation, David Nienhuis presents the rather bleak case that Americans are biblically illiterate. What’s worse, their Evangelical counterparts are little better. A professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific, Nienhuis begins his survey of the Christian Scriptures course with a biblical literacy quiz which consistently results in a 50% class average—in other words, an “F.”
The lack of understanding that Christian students and adults have concerning the doctrine, narratives, and unity of the scriptures is not merely embarrassing, but also alarming for multiple reasons. The least of these, but one dear to my heart nonetheless, is that much of British and American literature is decontextualized and frankly, lost, without a decent grasp of Biblical themes, characters, and phrases. Why does the narrator of Moby Dick ask to be called “Ishmael”? Why is a painting of David and Bathsheba hanging on Dimmesdale’s wall in The Scarlet Letter? Without some basic biblical literacy, many passages in English literature are left opaque.
A deeper and more pressing concern is that not a lack of understanding of what we believe and why we believe it leads to an inability to articulate these beliefs. This, according to philosopher Charles Taylor, “undermines the possibilities of reality’…religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality.”
In other words, if a belief or belief system cannot be articulated, it has not penetrated deeply. What is required for biblical literacy is not the memorization of Christian clichés or a select set of Bible verses (the “Roman’s Road,” for example), or even occasional devotional readings; we “have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible, living languages are embedded in actual human communities that are constituted by particular habits, values, practices, stories, and exemplars. We don’t memorize languages; we use them and live through them.” “Biblical literacy programs,” he argues, “need to produce transformed readers.”
One area of concern with current biblical literacy methods is an emphasis on memorizing a few scriptures that are deemed most doctrinally significant, generally in the service of evangelism, but lack deeper context. The portions assigned in programs like AWANA, of which I was a part for the whole of my childhood, emphasize key verses related to the Gospel, but do not cohesively construct a foundation for a holistic biblical perspective. It is not a terrible beginning. The Gospel is central to the Christian faith. Additional teaching is required, though, in order for students to understand the meaning of the verses and their particular contexts, and how these relate to other portions of scripture. We often train students to be mere quoters of scripture, but they also need to become readers and comprehenders of it. Only then may they accurately abide by it.
To put it simply, many churches do not teach the laity how to read and study the Bible. Combine this with a culture that is not fond of reading to begin with, and you get a rather deadly prognosis for the next generation of the church. Neinhuis argues that we must develop “(1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant); (2) training in the particular “orienteering” skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and (3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints.”
In sum, we must create an ecclesial culture soaked in scripture, the language of the faith, that we may articulate and live it out in the world. ‘