Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Does Anyone Read the Bible Anymore?

I confess that I have never read a software license through to the end. Oh I tried one or twice. But after trying to be a conscientious and informed end user I gave up, clicked I agree and got on with the installation. I don't know how many programs I have loaded over the years, but I do know that my default response every time is, "yes, I agree". Sooner or later this is going to come back to haunt me and I will end up owing someone everything I own because I did not read the small print.

Today's picture and saying is borrowed from Jame McGrath. At first I did no think much about it, but then the more I pondered it the more I realized how true it is. Many who identify themselves as Christians know very little of the Bible. They claim to know it, but in truth anything they know is secondhand knowledge from a pastor, television, and other sources. The Bible has a mythical status in our society, but few really know what is in it. And even they do know a verse or a story chances are they do not know the wider context or perhaps where to find it. We are a society that is biblically illiterate.

Unfortunately this is not just a problem among the laity. The level of biblical illiteracy in the average incoming seminary student is astounding. I am constantly surprised how little people training for the ministry actually know about the Bible. I am not talking about critical issues. No, its the basic stuff. Most people have a few stories that they know, but probably have never read. I remember a student in one class who was shocked to read about the strange clothing John the Baptist wore. The student had never read this before! Is this not basic Sunday school material?

I am not sure what is the root of the problem. Maybe it has always been like this and I have always had an unusually odd level of biblical knowledge. But if a group is going to claim that the Bible is the source of their authority you would think they would actually be somewhat familiar with it. But then again, I imagine there are few Americans who have ever read the US Constitution.

I suppose part of the problem is that we often approach the Bible to see what we can get from it. We are looking for promises, answers, etc. But how often do we read it just to be familiar with it?Perhaps if we knew more of it we would be more careful how we use it. But the fact is most of us simply swallow whole what someone else tells us is in the Bible and we hit the button that says "I agree load it up." I wonder how different society might be if the people who claim to be living "according to biblical principles" actually had read some of it.

What do you think? I am off base here or have you noticed a growing biblical illiteracy among people identifying themselves as Christians? Is there an identifiable root cause?


  1. I think in one sense, it's almost shocking, considering how vehemently Christians will insist that all their beliefs are "Bible-based". How can that really be, if they don't even know what's in the Bible?

    On the other hand, I think it's a problem that modern Christians have turned the religion from being a Christ-centric faith to a Bible-centric faith. I suspect the early Christians were a lot less concerned with what the Jewish papyri had to say, and a lot more concerned with simply talking about Jesus based on the various second- and third-hand eyewitness testimonies they had heard.

  2. A good word Dr. Byron, I am always challenged in my heart when I spend too much time studying the Bible and not enough time reading it for my own spiritual nourishment. Maybe I should stop blogging and go and read my Bible.
    An interesting thought in the above comment. It seems to me that faith gets a little tougher when the only source we have for understanding Jesus (other than the Holy Spirit and prayer of course) is our Bible. All of a sudden the Bible becomes more important. I hear what you’re saying though; Christianity is primarily a relationship with Christ. However, that same relationship is utterly dependent upon reliable written accounts of his life and teaching. It isn’t so easy to walk out the balance in perspective I’m finding.

  3. Could someone help me get this huge log out of my eye before I comment?

    I have definitely seen this problem as well and I have a feeling some of if stems from (post?)modern exegetical focus.

    So many lay people have been burnt because they say "well the Bible says it right here" and the opposing side of the debate has a scripture to throw out as well. So what eventually wins in the bible verse fight? Proper exegesis and the original language. I can speak from experience that once someone throws down the "well if you go back to the original greek" card I have to back off and say "ok I have to take your word on it." If this happens too often the natural response is either:
    1) learn the original languages
    2) stop standing so firmly on sola scriptura

    For most lay people learning the original languages isn't a realistic option and instead of constantly getting burnt by the greek card they just back off of scripture and focus more experience, tradition, or reason... or maybe this is just me who does this?


  4. I'm torn on this question. On one hand, I'm often shocked by a growing "Bible illiteracy" as you put it, but I must remember that (for myself), at the same time that the problem's been growing, I've also been becoming more "Bible literate", so it's difficult to get a steady perspective.

    I wonder if the biggest contributing factor is the way society has become increasingly post-Christian. I don't know if there ever was a time when everyone could discuss Ezekiel in depth, but I'm constantly surprised how few people (outside the church) are aware of basic parables and sayings of Christ. So when one does attend church, we have a lot more educating work to do to get someone up to speed. And when they walk out of church, it's not reinforced by society at large.

  5. It's because we are a culture that is taught to engage in the immediate pleasures, not taking the time to read. At my Bible College there is a consistent effort to avoid doing homework as much as possible so people can play xbox or games, only doing their schoolwork basically to get a decent grade or to not fail. It's quite sad, I basically hide in my room all day reading stuff and find myself isolated from most of the student body here.

    Of course, that's what you get when your youth pastors just have you do silly games every Wednesday night, only tacking on a little 5 minute devotion, and any discussion that last over 5 minutes is usually people talking past each other or asking questions no one has answers to because no one does any homework or Bible reading, including the youth pastor.

    We are just a lazy culture.

  6. I think Teluog is right on! I've heard too many fellow students say, "C's make degrees". For some reason that doesn't sound right coming from seminarians.

  7. Have you read the Sunday school curriculum published these days? It is not like when us old-timers were in 5th grade. I taught Sunday school a few years ago and was appalled by how few actual Bible stories were included. The thrust of the lessons focused on what I would call socialization issues and what stories were included were heavily edited.

    The sad fact is that without those Bible stories to form the core of the faith, the next generation of believers will be vulnerable to every wind of doctrine.

  8. JB
    Some read it to have excuses for one debate or another, someone swallow hook line and sinker, but don't realize they're the bait. Over the years I've realized that I didn't chew the meat and spit out the bones as Wade Taylor used to tell us and I too swallowed without reading myself, questioning the people and or investigating the context. It came up in a conversation, last week and now you made me think about this again...and respond. Guess that's your job.

  9. The point I guess is that most of us are content on what we have now. We don't want to be more Christ like. Any way the point Christ like by itself is lost in modern Christianity.We see many preachers running for money and getting profit or merchandising in the name of Jesus. that is all I get when I tell people about Christ, they say i know it and I am shocked to hear that one lady i talked to told me that Koran is making sense to her than the Bible.The most feared religion in the world is Islam because they do it what they believe but we don't.