Empowering Christians through Biblical Literacy

April 27th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

“I was watching Joel Osteen the other day, and he said that the Bible says [Controversial Topic A] is wrong. But, we’ve talked about things differently here… so, is it wrong or not?”

We were sitting in Bible study when the woman posed the question. She was earnest and expectant.

Despite the fact that I’m clergy, and grew up as a clergy kid, I’ve never been a big consumer of “Christian” media. So it’s been a bit of a surprise, entering the ministry, to discover how many of my parishioners are. They watch Christian broadcasting and listen to Christian radio and shop at Christian bookstores for Christian perspectives on a whole range of topics.

If you’ve ever watched Osteen, you know that he begins his sermons, not with ancient words or a prayer paraphrased from Psalm 19, but by asking the audience to chant with him:

“This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive; I’ll never be the same. In Jesus’ name, God bless you.”

Critics of Osteen are troubled by the fact that this mantra is generally the most mention the Christian holy book gets in his sermons. His preaching wouldn’t be considered “biblical” in most homiletical circles. And yet, his audience apparently trusts him to tell them what the Bible says.

Many Americans, and many Christians, seem content to allow others to instruct them on what the Bible says. Even among those who carry their Bibles to worship with them, even among those who own several copies, Americans are sorely, and perhaps surprisingly, lacking in biblical knowledge.

A study released by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life last fall showed the extent of that lack. Participants were asked thirty-two religious knowledge questions: about the Bible, Christian doctrine, world religions, and the role of religion in public life. The average respondent answered only half of the questions correctly. Christians as a whole – Catholics, Protestants, and evangelicals; black, white, and Hispanic – did better on questions about the Bible and their own tradition, but still managed, on average, only 4.2 correct answers out of seven.

It wasn’t always this way, says Stephen Prothero, professor in the Religion Department at Boston University and author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (2007). For a long time in this country, well into the 19th century, literacy meant biblical literacy. The Bible was Americans’ “first reading primer.”

“Ironically, what first contributed to the downturn was the rise of American evangelicalism, which stressed a religion of the heart instead of the head. Christians became concerned more with having a personal relationship with Jesus than with what he actually said.”

Widespread biblical knowledge took a further hit when the Bible, which had long been taught in the public schools in this country – as a source of moral instruction and for devotional purposes – was taken out of school curricula. Christians often bemoan this moment – but it happened a lot earlier than we tend to think. I actually asked Dr. Prothero to repeat himself when he told me about this: “Many schools stopped using the Bible as the basis of curricula in the mid-nineteenth century.”

“The nineteenth century?” I asked. “Not the twentieth? Around the 1960s?”

“No, it was the nineteenth, following one of the big waves of Catholic immigration. Protestants and Catholics couldn’t agree on which Bible – whose Bible – to teach. So they took it out entirely.”

So much for the secular war on Christian America…

“It is true that the Supreme Court officially ended devotional reading of the Bible in classrooms in the early 1960s, but by then, biblical knowledge had already waned significantly.”

My need for clarification over those dates reflects the basic assumptions of my congregation as well. We’re in line with the findings of the Pew survey in this way: most know that a teacher in a public school can’t lead a prayer (though in our state of Illinois, an injunction prohibiting the institution of a “moment of silence” was just lifted), but most are unaware that teachers can offer instruction on the Bible as literature or Christianity as a world religion among others.

This is a too-common trend among Americans: the reverence of documents and traditions we actually know very little about. Chief among these are the Constitution and the Bible.

Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, writes about the Bible and consumerism in America – noting that despite downward trends in book sales overall, the Bible continues to be purchased at an incredible rate. This is interesting, he argues, given Americans’ general lack of knowledge about its content, an irony that leads him to conclude that the Bible is “the most revered book never read.”

In American culture today, the Bible is often seen as a divisive text; it is used too regularly by folks on all sides of the culture wars to cast aspersions, condemn, or condone violence and ignorance. One major reason that’s been allowed to happen is that the average Christian doesn’t know what’s actually in the Bible. The Bible is thus easily simplified and politicized, and too few voices are raised to correct the perception… perhaps because we’re afraid of admitting how little we know.

Prothero comments, “This is one of my favorite things about the Puritans. They really wrestled with the biblical text. They knew it wasn’t one coherent narrative, knew that it contradicts itself. And they didn’t look to it as an answer book.”

As Christians, we claim that Scripture is a primary authority for understanding who God is and discerning God’s call in the world. In the Wesleyan tradition, we also claim (I tell my confirmation students) that we can best come to understand Scripture when we read it in conversation and tension with reason, tradition, and experience.

We have hermeneutical tools for understanding God’s Word, but we can’t discern how all of these things are held together unless we actually read and learn about the text. Complicating matters is the fact that these texts are confusing and complex. Just as often as we are impressed by the way the voice of the Spirit reaches across the centuries, we founder under the weight of history; the concerns of our ancient ancestors in the faith are often not our concerns.

Perhaps because so many in our pews (and in our pulpits) are unsure how to develop a workable biblical hermeneutic, American Christians, for all the flattening of formal hierarchies in our churches, government, and culture, rely on “authorities” to tell them the meaning – clear-cut and unambiguous – of the Scriptures.

For Stephen Prothero (and for me) this is one of the saddest, and strangest, developments in the story of American Christians’ relationship with the Bible. “One of the key concerns of the Protestant Reformation was that people had to rely on the priesthood to interpret the Bible for them. Making it available to them, in their own language, was an incredible moment of liberation.”

Convicted by the notion that our ignorance was holding us captive, our congregation, beginning last September, took up J. Ellsworth Kalas’ The Grand Sweep: 365 Days from Genesis through Revelation, as a church-wide program encouraging biblical literacy. There are daily readings and devotional guides for those reading on their own; adult Sunday school classes and mid-week Bible studies (both meeting off-site, at a nearby Borders and a local college); and weekly sermons and a daily blog, written by the pastoral staff.

There are challenges to doing a project such as this, especially in the preaching: Christmas found us in Samuel… and so we preached on the coming of Christ and remembered the covenant with David. It’s an exciting challenge for me, though, providing explicit reason to draw in scholarly resources and talk about the nature of interpretation with my congregation.

It has proven to be liberating for all of us.

But learning about religion in America is not simply a task for Christians; Prothero’s book is concerned with public life, and the fact that many issues we face as a nation in a global society have religious dimensions. As I write, the world is watching protests in Egypt, and wondering how things will evolve. Will there be freedom? Or will this be “another Iran”? An understanding of Islam in Egypt and Iran would surely help us make sense of these events.

That day in Bible study, when the woman asked about Joel Osteen, we were talking about 2 Chronicles and how its account of the history of Judah and the Northern Kingdom differs from that in Kings, because the author has different questions he’s trying to answer for the people. I asked, “What questions do we bring to the text? How do our historical realities shape the questions we ask?”

The controversial issue was homosexuality – about marriage and adoption. This conversation took place the day after the retired Bishops issued their recent statement calling on the General Conference to do away with our disciplinary language about how “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

I shared this and reminded her of what we’ve been discerning together: that the Scriptures don’t say just one thing about anything. The Bible is, instead, one long story, with twists and turns and so very many characters, all with different concerns. This story reveals so much to us about who we are, who God is, and the content of the divine conversation with humanity through the ages.

I told her how glad I was that she was asking questions like this. And then I asked her, “Based on your reading, what do you think?”

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