Biblical Illiteracy

As I travel around the country – and overseas – speaking at churches, Bible colleges, Christian conventions, and so on, one thing I find is the alarming increase in biblical illiteracy. Many believers simply seem to have very little grasp of what is actually in their own Bible.

Many of course simply don’t read it, or at least not very much. Few would have read the entire Bible through, and many just pick and choose a passage here and there, instead of systematically reading through a whole book, let alone the whole Bible.

I find the same level of biblical ignorance or illiteracy on various Christian websites, where many believers write articles or send in comments which reveal an appalling lack of basic biblical knowledge. We are told in Scripture that “My people perish for lack of knowledge” and we are also warned about a famine of the word of God.

No wonder every trendy heterodox teaching that comes along is being lapped up by believers. They have no or little biblical knowledge by which to assess any new teaching that comes their way. Thus they are easy prey not just for the cults and heretical groups, but for even evangelical teachers who have been going off the theological rails.

But it is not just proper Christian doctrine which is at risk because of biblical illiteracy. Not knowing the Bible means we will never properly understand our own history. The truth is, in broad and general terms, without the Bible – and knowledge of it – there would be no Western civilisation.

The Bible is that significant, that had it not been there, we would not have the West as we know it today. Many have pointed this out. Back in 1998 D. James Kennedy wrote a book called What If the Bible Had Never Been Written? In it he demonstrated quite convincingly “the many ways the Book of books has changed our world”.

The Bible has had a tremendous impact on every area of life: politics, literature, science, the arts, law, morality, and so on. Simply to be aware of the monumental influence of this book on the world we live in is important for every one of us.

And no less an uber-atheist than Christopher Hitchens has just come out saying similar things, at least in terms of the King James Bible. With its 400th anniversary this year, many are writing about it. Hitchens may think it is merely a collection of myths, but at least he recognises its great influence.

In a lengthy article for the recent issue of Vanity Fair he argues that our culture, our history, and our language would look radically different if it weren’t for this book. He may not like its content, but he knows just how significant it has been in shaping Western civilisation.

He especially focuses on its enormous literary influence: “A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it ‘relevant’ is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. ‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’ says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?”

Another article appeared just recently, also from unexpected quarters, commenting on our biblical illiteracy. A piece in the glaringly secular Melbourne Age spoke of how ‘Young people no longer know their Bible stories – and our culture may be the poorer for it’.

John Elder says that “many young Australians have no clue about the Good Samaritan, the Great Flood or even Easter. When Jesus went into the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed to God that he might be spared the horror of the cross, he might well have added that ‘by 2011, most kids won’t even know who I am … they’ll be more concerned about why chocolate eggs are delivered by a rabbit’.”

Let me stop there. My wife tells me that this article was read out on a radio station for the visually impaired. She heard the young reader absolutely massacre the word ‘Gethsemane’, pronouncing it as if he had never heard it before. Thus this radio announcer nicely confirmed what Elder is saying.

He continues, “Sixty-three per cent of Australians at the 2006 census identified as Christian, although only a small minority said they attended church regularly. As for young Australians, a Christian Science Monitor survey three years ago found them the least religious in the world. Whether religious or not, few know the basic Christian stories and their meaning.”

After providing a few examples of this, he says, “La Trobe University sociologist John Carroll, agrees, saying the Easter story is powerful in dealing with big questions of life and death regardless of one’s faith. ‘The threat of death, the loss of people close to us; we have to make some sense of that and we find that in the big stories in our culture, and the adult story of Jesus and the Crucifixion is the biggest story of them all.’

“He says the Bible stories about children, especially about the baby Jesus, still have resonance in the non-church community. ‘It’s the adult Jesus story that’s in trouble,’ Professor Carroll says. ‘The story of Good Friday and resurrection is floundering badly. If we lose the tragic Jesus story from the culture, we lose a lot. That symbol of the cross sits on top of Western civilisation.’

“He says the loss of biblical stories from the culture is a direct failing of the Christian churches, who have a responsibility to ‘tell those stories in a way that is engaging today’. Others, such as sociologist David Chalke, say Australians over 30 may retain some knowledge of Bible stories from their primary education, but younger people ‘have been brought up in an actively atheist education system and … don’t know anything about it’.”

It seems there are at least two main culprits here. Yes there is certainly the secularist war against all things Christian. But churches must also shoulder a large portion of the blame. We have been dumbing down our congregations for decades now. We have given them heaps of entertainment, celebrity culture, feel-good therapy, humanist sop, and theologically-empty pep talks.

But we have largely abandoned our responsibility to provide solid, Bible-based teaching and exposition of Scripture. Certainly in many of our youth departments, our young people are being entertained to death but are being starved of basic biblical doctrine and theology.

No wonder biblical illiteracy seems to be at an all time high. The church has a lot to do to turn things around. Sure, there are many solid churches where the Word of God is boldly proclaimed, systematically taught, and courageously defended. But I suspect that these may be the exception to the rule.

Biblical illiteracy will not go away soon unless a concentrated effort is made by all Christian churches to make biblical literacy a chief priority. Until this occurs, we will only see more articles in the secular press bemoaning this decline. And the fact that it is non-Christians that are pointing this out is even more disconcerting.

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