|Mercy Street Church of Christ
Biblical Literacy in Decline?
Why is biblical literacy in decline? Consuming careers, less parental involvement in child-rearing, the influence of entertainment media and the video generation, Bible class trends emphasizing application to the exclusion of content – many factors play a role, perhaps. Another key consideration has to do with the way some traditional modes of reading have sown the seeds of Bible neglect.
By the early-to-mid-twentieth century, it had become common among us to treat the text of Scripture as a collection of facts. Preachers and teachers claimed objectivity – after all, they were just taking the text at face value and striving simply to do what it said, either by direct command, a clear example, or an inference that necessarily followed from something said in the text. They would permit nothing unless it could be punctuated with a clear “thus said the Lord,” a supporting text of Scripture. Or so it seemed.
However, a closer inspection reveals that some strong biases were at work-in the way texts were selected, organized and interpreted. Certain topics governed the choice of texts and we had particular favorites. The over-riding question was, “What is necessary for salvation?” We have tended to understand “salvation” as a state of being or an object to possess that gives us the privilege of being admitted to heaven after death. We tended to focus on biblical texts that present salvation this way, highlighting the conditions necessary for being added to the company of the saved.
This emphasis on salvation as an object led us naturally to focus on the external marks of the institution that offers it – the church’s organization and governance, how you obtain membership, what could get you kicked out, what the group goes when it gets together publicly, its policies, its procedures, its name. Controversial issues of the day about such matters were like magnets, drawing out passages of Scripture pro or con, whether they wanted to come or not. Texts especially adaptable to these purposes became favorites – Acts and Paul, for instance. Texts that were harder to press into service could be sidelined – like the Gospels and the Old Testament. Scripture was like a box of materials to rummage through. By finding all the pieces we could build the once-for-all divine pattern of the institutional church and ensure that those in it would enjoy eternal salvation.
These emphases are not all bad, but they require balance. The method uncovered some important things, but masked or minimized others. Questions about institution, membership, public worship procedures – these are all important identity matters the church should consider regularly. On the other hand, a church is not just institutional identity; it is also mission and purpose. Identity and purpose go together, but if we focus on identity and forget to keep asking about purpose, in time institutional identity becomes purpose. Similarly, at one level salvation is a state and it involves the promise of heaven. However, at another level salvation is a process – we “are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Salvation is dynamic and alive, a present experience of ongoing transformation being worked out within and among us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 1:6, 2:12-13; 3:12-14; 2 Peter 1:8).
A “patternistic” hermeneutic tends to blind us to these dimensions of the Bible’s teaching for the church. As we mean it here, patternism assumes that the Bible is an assortment of specific rules dictation belief and practice in select areas, mainly the institutional topics of church polity, public procedure, and membership requirements. The actions of the NT church instruct us in important ways and the desire to attend to those precedents in Scripture is a good one, but patternistic reading is inconsistent with the Bible’s full aims and form.
For one thing, when we treat Scripture like a jumbled box of materials, each piece useful but none more important than any of the others, we blind ourselves to the fact that Scripture has a center of gravity and that individual passages have a literary context. Not much of Scripture fits the category of “rules.” Nor does the Bible itself suggest that a search for the external forms of the institutional church should be our main filter for reading and applying the text.
Another problem is that the Bible does not give patternistic instructions for much of what we’re obliged to do. It’s just not possible to cite a direct and detailed scriptural command for everything the church or the Christian needs to do, such as when to meet for worship, what songs to sing, or how to decide on a career. The “Silence of Scripture” causes problems for a hermeneutic that presumes the Bible ought to speak directly to every subject of concern to the church. Is Scripture’s silence on a topic permissive or prohibitive? Either stance assumes a patternistic approach to Scripture as a rulebook, one that either wants Scripture to provide a direct rule where none is given, or presumes that there maybe areas of life on which Scripture lays no claim – a presumption that is also untrue. The Bible speaks a Word into every situation, but it is not by making it into a rulebook that we best hear its voice.
How does all this relate to a supposed decline in biblical literacy? We are experiencing a response to patternism. If the Bible is essentially an assortment of facts to be learned, useful mainly to build and defend a handful of doctrinal patterns about the institutional church, then a person only needs to know so much. Furthermore, the information is good only for a few things. Once you have the facts down and know what to do with them, there’s not much left to do. Patternistic reading of Scripture can make us lazy, since it presumes that little or no interpretation is necessary. The aim is to comprehend and accept the facts. Patternism can also make us tired. Some people have given upon Bible reading because they find the cataloguing of data to be stale and lifeless, others because they feel that the cataloguing has already been done. Some of us have experienced a patternism infused with a divisive spirit leading to hostile debate, in-fighting, a narrow inflexible focus, and church splits. Texts meant to proclaim redemption were used to revile, with the collateral damage of killing our motivation to study. This has not been everyone’s experience, thankfully, but some have been force-fed the letter of the law so long they now feel a craving for its spirit.
Still others show their frustration with patternism in a different way. They haven’t given up reading the Bible, but in place of “dead” patternism they’ve adopted a devotional-pietistic method that gives them the lively personal experience they have yearned for. Instead of letting institutional agendas call the shots, the search for relationship and emotion guides their reading. This kind of reading has become a popular antidote to the old patternism. Pietistic reading has a place, and its intentions are good, but it has its own shortfalls. Like patternism, it typically ignores the literary context of biblical passages, at times doing violence to the intended meaning. It produces private interpretations that may never be subject to the scrutiny of any community beyond its own, which can be arrogant and elitist about its particular style of spirituality. Pietistic reading tends naively to let personal emotional experience be the final judge of genuine Bible interpretation. This perpetuates the trendy myth that the sole aim of Christianity is to help the individual build a good “personal relationship with the Lord.” But we must remember that many are vulnerable to this myth precisely because they inherited static methods of reading the Bible that were not at all relational.
We cannot reduce Christianity to ideas or to specific positions on issues. If we read the Bible mostly for the sake of debate and to fortify the institution’s boundary markers, we uncover only a small portion of its richness. No wonder many have grown hungry for other aspects of God’s revelation, seeking a word from God for the inner person, something to inform the experience of salvation as a dynamic and growing dimension of this present life. They ask: Could there be more to a relationship with God than knowing and keeping his commands about church? Might Scripture provide help for our other relationships too? Does the Bible only list moral rules for us to keep – or does it also provide resources for keeping them? How can we find Bible texts that give a voice to the hungers and joys and aches and doubts of the spirit?
There have always been godly Christian people among us who knew and taught these dimensions of Scripture. Yet in too many places, the Bible was not being used much to nurture the spiritual life. People became hungry and thirsty. The Bible dried up, so they shelved it. Many have turned to other sources for spiritual renewal, feeding on books and tapes and seminars that stimulate them spiritually, perhaps evening place of Scripture. Some of these resources offer rich, solid stuff. But some are as deficient and narrow as the divisive patternism people are running away from. Many popular resources fall far short of reflecting the depth and balance of Scripture, yet because they offer people something they’ve been missing, they can seem very satisfying, for the moment. The danger is in letting them narrow the priorities of our Bible reading again, according to the special agendas of the new material we’re devouring.
These trends of Biblical neglect are in full swing, but it’s important to realize that they are occurring not because people hate the Bible or have an innate wish to leave us and graze elsewhere. For the most part, it’s happening because they hunger for relationship, a living Word, and life in the Spirit.
We need a restoration of respect for biblical authority. However, we cannot properly honor the text’s authority unless we’re honest about the distance separating us from the text. We are not the original audience of the biblical text, nor is it essentially a book of ordinances immediately portable into our setting. From this standpoint, the problem of “silence” touches all of Scripture, since no verse of it was originally composed directly to address the needs of a twenty-first-century church in America. The distance of language, history, culture, and the fact that we are indirect recipients of literary texts originally aimed at someone else, all create a gap between us and the text. We shouldn’t resent the gap, since this is how God has chosen to speak to us through Scripture. Nevertheless it is often into that gap that we pour our biases and preconceptions, using the text in ways that depart from its spirit. Instead, we can bridge the gap in healthy ways if we:
- respect the literary character of the biblical text
- seek to apprehend the theological core of the Bible overall
- cultivate the spiritual disciplines of good reading.
Footnote: A recent survey of high school students in Churches of Christ shows that most of our youth do not read their Bibles much. Topping the list of reasons: it’s “irrelevant,” “boring,” “unable to keep my attention,” and “simply not helpful.” However, in 1999 and again in 2000, over 500 Abilene Christian University students chose to spend their Spirit Breaks, not in Ft. Lauderdale or Corpus Christi, but on mission campaigns to the poor and the lost. The potential devotion of our youth is unquestionable. But what role the bible will play is an open question.
Jeff Childers, Douglas Foster and Jack Reese. From “Open Bible and Open Hearts” of “The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ.” ACU Press. Copyright 2000. p. 157-163.
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