“…making good sense of the Bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is a hard thing to do.”
The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy
In recent years, there has been a common lament among Christian leaders and educators about the demise of biblical literacy among Christians. More in more at Christian universities, college freshmen are showing up to first year Bible classes with less and less knowledge of the Bible—facts, stories, and memorized passages. Here is some of the evidence (with somewhat of a linear progression):
- Less Bible reading. Fewer Christians include a regular practice of Bible reading in their personal lives. This parallels the fact that people do less of any kind of reading in our day and time. Less reading of the Bible translates into less exposure, learning, and remembering of the Bible.
- Disconnected and fragmented Bible reading. The popular devotional books such as Jesus Calling have replaced Bible reading for many Christians. Though these resources may be encouraging, even inspiring, the inclusion of scripture passages presents a random, patchworked connection to the Bible that is really a disconnection as readers experience fragments of the Bible rather than experiencing context.
- Loss of the broader context of the Bible. If Christians are losing the understanding of passages within their context of a larger story or book of the Bible, then even more, Christians are losing a connection to the context of the whole story of the Bible. Rather than experiencing God’s full story unfold from Old Testament to New Testament as it is rooted in real human experience, the Bible becomes a source book of quotes.
- Greater connection to a prevailing cultural story. Losing the story of the Bible causes Christians to miss how God called his people to live against the cultural mainstream—and the struggles that kind of living produced. When Christianity became the dominant culture, people, for the most part, bought in. Now that Christianity is not the dominant culture, many Christians have found it easier to stick with the cultural mainstream, even creating a kind of faith that allows for giving up very little.
- Cliché Christianity. Popular Christianity has become captivated by clichés that communicate half-truths—bumper sticker theology, as some call it. Here are some examples: everything happens for a reason; God helps those who help themselves; God won’t give you more than you can handle; love the sinner, hate the sin; God is my co-pilot. While these statements capture some truth, they are more likely to lead us astray.
The Problem of Biblical Literacy
Now, I am all for knowing the Bible well, but those concerned about biblical literacy sometimes misplace their passion. Facts are good to know, but there is the unfortunate side effect that we assume the more obscure the fact memorized, the better one knows the Bible. Memorizing verses from the Bible to be recalled and quoted at opportune moments is good, but our choice of passages tend to be highly selective and over-personalized. Growing our knowledge through Bible study—getting in deep with the history, language, etc., especially to teach—is important to do, but knowledge often leads to pride and a false sense of certainty. In other words, biblical literacy can be a misplaced goal rather than the means to a better end goal—a life of faithfulness.
Misunderstanding biblical literacy can have devastating consequences. I can know my way around the Bible and still be a jerk (as seen too well in our current culture of those who proclaim to love the Bible). In the style of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3: If I can name the OT kings and prophets, but do not have not love, it’s useless trivia. If I can quote a thousand verses by heart, but do not have love, it’s just empty words. If I plunge the depths of scripture for wisdom and knowledge, but do not have love, it’s just a waste of time.
A Better Biblical Literacy
More than being able to recite lists or point to favorite verses (memorized or not), biblical literacy is better understood as a task that moves us toward learning and internalizing the story of the Bible. At the end of the day, biblical literacy—knowing the Bible—should lead us toward being shaped in the image of Christ. If reading and studying the Bible doesn’t do this, then we are missing the point. We are not reading for information only. We are reading for transformation. What we learn from and about the Bible should not make us arrogant; rather, scripture leads us toward humility and repentance.
A Better Reading of the Bible
A better biblical literacy grows out of a better reading of the Bible. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Read the Bible as story. One scholar sees the story of the Bible in five acts: Creation, Fall, Israel, Church, and the fifth act is our ongoing story. Another sees the story in seven acts: Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conversation, Christ, Church, Consummation. Still another sees it as three acts: Theocracy (God as King), Monarchy (Humans as kings), and Christocracy (Christ as King)
- Read chunks of the Bible. Read multiple chapters, or even whole books of the Bible, in one sitting. This gets you familiar with the context of your favorite Bible verses.
- Read parts of the Bible you tend to avoid. The Bible has tough spots. Read them anyway.
- Read the Bible aloud with others. It sounds different when listening and it is different when you are required to say each word aloud.
- Read various versions of the Bible. Reading a passage in more than one translation can give you new insight on the various possible meanings of Greek and Hebrew words (without needing to know Greek and Hebrew).
- Read the Bible with an openness to repentance. Rather than reading the Bible to support what you already know, approach it with openness and an ear to hear God speak through the text.
- Read the New Testament (NT) in light of the Old Testament (OT). Christians often believe the NT sheds light on the OT. We do better to see it the other way around. This takes time and work, but look for how the NT uses the language of the OT.
- Read on your own schedule. One of the obstacles to regular Bible reading is giving up when we can’t do it every day. Create your own pathway through the Bible. One way to do this is to start with the shortest books of the Bible. Once you read one, put a check mark by its name in the Table of Contents (or on a list of the 66 books you keep in notebook or separate piece of paper). Work your way through until you check them all off. So what if it takes you two, three, or even five years.
 Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003), p. xv.