Biblical Illiteracy in Public Life

Why is it that those who seem to know the least about biblical Christianity will often pontificate so freely on the subject? It becomes clear when such people open their mouths that they don’t have a clue as to what is actually written in the Bible. Indeed, one wonders if they in fact have even read the book – even just a few chapters.

Of course we expect such behaviour from the detractors of Christianity. Consider Richard Dawkins for example. His understanding of Scripture is abysmal, yet he pretends that he is some sort of authority on the subject. Even his fellow atheists often cringe when he reveals his complete ignorance, as for example in his book The God Delusion.

But what is really problematic is when people who claim to be Christians – at least of a sort – open their mouths and reveal just how biblically illiterate they really are. Consider one political leader and his basic ignorance of what Biblical Christianity is all about.

A Melbourne Age article reported that tonight Liberal frontbencher Joe Hockey will give a speech at the Sydney Institute in which he will seek to lay out his religious beliefs, at least to a certain extent. That should be interesting.

For the time being I have only the Age account to go on, not the actual full text of his speech. But assuming the quotes presented in the article are reflective of the entire speech, then we have some cause for concern here. He makes it clear that his religious views are very broad indeed. He seems to think that Islam and Christianity, for example, are pretty similar.

And he makes it clear that he is far from conservative in these areas. Indeed, he appears to be heavily into a sort of moral equivalence when it comes to the world’s religions. According to the article, he “strongly embraces multiculturalism, urges tolerance and understanding of other faiths, and says that to judge Islam based on the actions of extremists and terrorists ‘would be no different than judging Christianity on the actions of those who have over the centuries committed atrocities in the name of God and Christ’.”

But the following paragraphs from his speech provide the real cause of concern: “One of the reasons why Christian faith has declined in the Western world is because of the reliance placed on a literal reading of the testaments by church leaders. By encouraging literalist analysis of the Bible, many churches have inadvertently invited people to question the validity of a faith that seems to be based on questionable facts or outdated prescription. And while debate rages about such matters, the true message of the scriptures – of compassion, justice, equality, dignity, forgiveness, charity and respect for other people – inevitably takes a back seat”.

Several issues immediately arise here. Just what is he on about when he talks about a “literalist” approach to Scripture? And what in the world does he mean by “questionable facts or outdated prescription”? From these few paragraphs it is not exactly clear what he is referring to. But barring any further elucidation from his speech, we can only surmise that on a whole range of issues, according to him, we just need to ease up in taking Scripture seriously.

Presumably he has concepts such as creation and other hot potato issues in mind. It would be good to pin him down on what exactly he means by all this. Perhaps someone at the meeting tonight will do just that. As it stands, he seems to be guilty of using religious weasel words here.

In one sense Christians read the Bible as they do any other text. We recognise different genres, figures of speech, metaphorical language, and so on. All that can of course co-exist with a “literal” understanding of the text. But again, I wonder whether Mr Hockey even knows exactly what he means by such objections. Theologically he certainly seems to be appealing to the lowest common denominator here.

Indeed, it all smacks of liberal theology and comparative religions. While this is not the place to go into those matters any further, it does remind me of the comment made by Ronald Knox: “The study of comparative religion makes people comparatively religious”. That pretty well seems to sum up the beliefs of Mr Hockey.

However, it is the final line of his (“the true message of the scriptures – of compassion, justice, equality, dignity, forgiveness, charity and respect for other people”) which really demands a response. The short reply is, sorry Joe, but that is not at all the heart of the Biblical message.

Anyone who has actually read the entire Bible will know that at best, these values and virtues are by products of the real message of Scripture. And that message is of course that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

More fully, the Biblical story goes something like this: We have been made in the image of the personal, infinite triune God. But sin has ruined our love relationship with God. So God himself became incarnate, dwelt among us, living a perfect, sinless life.

Yet Jesus was killed for such a life. But it was part of God’s plan to win back mankind to himself. Those who acknowledge what Jesus did on their behalf, repent, and turn their lives over to Christ as Lord and Saviour will experience forgiveness of sins, new life, a restored relationship with God, and life everlasting.

Out of that restored life with God, we can then indeed seek to live out biblical values such as respect, compassion, and so on. But such values are not sentimental, mushy values, but hard-headed values. Love for example means willing the highest good for the other person.

Biblical love is always connected with truth, and in fact entails hating that which is evil. Such a Biblical understanding of these values would presumably be a far cry from what Mr Hockey has in mind. Hopefully I am wrong. But based on what was reported in this article, he really does not seem to have a sound grasp of the Biblical message at all.

We are told in Scripture to pray for our leaders. So let us keep Mr Hockey in our prayers, trusting that he will in fact spend some time reading the Book which he will speak about tonight. It just might be a life-changing experience for him.

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17 Replies to “Biblical Illiteracy in Public Life”

  1. Here in the UK, David Cameron who is expected to be our next leader, spoke last week on his ‘faith’ in these terms:-

    “I’m a questioning Christian – Teachings of Jesus are a ‘good guide’ to life”

    Many applauded his honesty etc, but I feel comments like this are all too typical nowadays.

    On Christians forums, folks like myself who are traditional or literal, in their reading of Scripture, are fast becoming the minority and we are called ‘fundies’ in a derogatory fashion.

    We are increasingly seen to be intolerant, bigoted, judgemental and lacking love. Of course we are out of step with the ‘spirit of the age’ which so much of Christendom has come to embrace.

    Many seem to talk of a Jesus that I am not familiar with from the Scriptures, however, the Scriptures are something that folks are very comfortable to sit in judgement of and re-interpret, if they are aware of the Scriptures at all.

    I’m often reminded of when Jesus questioned whether he would even find faith when he returned.

    Sorry that’s my whinge for the day.

    Stuart Mackay, UK

  2. I notice that Joe nominates “compassion, justice, equality, dignity, forgiveness…” etc as the true meaning of the scriptures. But if the Bible contains “questionable facts or outdated prescriptions”, how does he know the above values are not part of the unreliable stuff?
    If Joe is the next leader of the Liberal Party, we may see from your article where the Liberals are headed.
    Phil Manley

  3. Hi Bill. Having just read Mr Hockey’s comments, I came straight to your website hoping you had penned a response, and was grateful to find you had indeed already responded! Mr Hockey, as a politician, is speaking rather pragmatically, painting the evangelicals as extreme and his form of religion rather more ‘moderate’ in an attempt to woo mainstream voters. It just doesn’t wash though.
    As an aside to his liberal thelogy, I spent a great deal of last Friday debating liberal theologians on the issue of the Human Rights Act. Of course they were all in favour of such a document, and considered Christian opponents to be fearful and uniformed. My take on their position is that they’ve adopted a lop-sided gospel that is willing to sacrifice God’s framework of marriage and family (issues of righteousness) at the alter of ‘justice’ to some un-named ‘vulnerable’.
    Ben White

  4. I think the same as Phil. If you’re going to view Scripture as “questionable” in one area why bother with it in any area?

    Ewan McDonald.

  5. Oh dear, even from my rather young Christian perspective I can see holes throughout those quotes from Mr. Hockey. He obviously hasn’t looked into the relation between the Muslim extremists and their book. If I were him I would feel rather presumptuous and foolish to say that Church leaders have read the scriptures too literally.
    Further this saddens me because a good friend of mine (Christian friend from Church) said that he thought Joe Hockey was one of the best politicians this country has ever seen. Hope you can report back Bill after the speech.
    Keith Jarrett

  6. Biblical illiteracy has been growing over the last 30-40 years, since the decline of Sunday Schools. Once children could recite the Ten Commandments, several well-known psalms, the Beatitudes, and various texts. Now people who attend churches which would describe themselves as Biblical, never even hear the Bible read as part of a service, let alone an expositional sermon. I know because I have visited some of these churches.
    It is all very easy to blame the liberal churches for debunking the Bible, but the so-called conservative churches have not filled the vacuum they have left. Surveys both here and in the USA have revealed the following:
    A large majority could not put the following into chronological order: Samuel, Paul, Jesus, Adam, and Noah
    A similar majority could not say whether certain well-known texts came from the OT or NT, egs. (without the refs. for the sake of the survey): John 3:16; Psalm 1:1; Psalm 23:1; 1 Cor.13:1.
    I have the survey results tucked away somewhere, but it would take a while to dig it out, but they’re just a couple of points in a depressing list.
    Who is to blame for this? Certainly the liberal churches are, but the conservative churches are even more so. It is hypocritical to trumpet an infallible Bible, and then to fail to read and commit to memory that infallible Bible.
    A text that comes to mind here is Acts 7:53:
    “You who received the Law as ordained by angels but yet did not keep it.”
    That is, the Jewish leaders could affirm all manner of fine orthodox views about the Divine origin, authority, infallibility etc of Scripture, but when it came to acting on it, you could not see them for dust.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  7. A question for Bill and the regular posters: do we see any examples of Biblically literate (or perhaps in light of Hockey’s comments “Biblically literal”) men or women in federal politics?
    Yarran Johnston

  8. Thanks Yarran

    There certainly are some solid Christians in Federal Parliament. Perhaps a tad more can be found in the Coalition than in Labor. But as to how many are Biblically literate is a good question indeed. Not too many come to mind, but for the most part I am not all that familiar with the details of their faith. Presumably if they attend churches with a strong emphasis on Scripture, that may translate into some Biblical literacy. But not necessarily I suspect.

    Murray in his comment lists a few basic marks of Biblical literacy. Whether our Christian pollies would pass such a test is a moot point.

    As an anecdote, many years ago I was giving evidence at a Senate Committee hearing having to do with something about homosexuality. A Senator came up to me and quietly asked me where the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was to be found in the Bible. I told him.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. “Consider Richard Dawkins for example. His understanding of Scripture is abysmal, yet he pretends that he is some sort of authority on the subject.”

    Richard Dawkins is an authority on science and nature and when the bible suggests that the laws of nature can be broken or that there are things outside nature, it is well within his area of expertice.
    I also disagree that Dawkins pretends to be an authority on scripture. He applies standard tools of formal reasoning to the bible. Logical reasoning provides rigid rules that works the same way on all possible texts. I don’t see why the bible should be made an exception or why any one text would require some sort of special education.
    I would agree that any text must be seen in the appropriate historical context, and that this might have an effect on how one should interpret it’s logic. But it is problematic to suggest that in order to make a fair criticism of a book, one has to do more than a proper reading of the text. And this Dawkins has undoubtedly done.
    Alfred Tubble

  10. Thanks Alfred

    Sorry, but I much prefer the more honest and less ideologically driven atheists than true believers and Dawkins’ groupies such as yourself. Those who are not pushing a misotheist agenda cringe at the claims Dawkins makes, such as Michael Ruse who said that The God Delusion “makes me embarrassed to be an atheist”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Murray,

    You are right when you link to the decline of Sunday School, but I would widen the scope and include the decline of preaching, and of real pastoral care (of the spiritual rather than emotional kind)

    Many congregations do not want to do the hard work of learning and understanding the Bible. They want a pep talk. Many preachers don’t want to do the hard work of giving the congregation what they need, rather than what they want. It is too painful to watch them go somewhere else because it’s easier there.

    If we want to blame someone for the mess we are in, we must blame ourselves, the church, and we must repent now of the laziness, worldliness, apathy and ungodliness in our own lives.

    If the salt loses its saltiness…

    God Bless,
    Michael Hutton

  12. Hi Stuart,

    If Cameron is a confused Christian, then the Pope could be described as a confused Buddhist. Consider Cameron’s capitulation to the homosexual agenda:

    Cameron said that one of his “proudest” moments as leader of the Conservatives was when he told a party conference in 2006 that they had a duty to support a “commitment to marriage” among men and women, between a “man and a man, and a woman and a woman”.

    Far from applauding his honesty, we should be exposing his disingenuity.

    Mansel Rogerson

  13. Reading the scriptures, the Bible, is not enough. Many people are capable of reading the Bible and can become “experts” in what is written. Unless those people have a personal encounter with Jesus, the book is just another text. Let’s be realistic, as a book, the Bible contains many conflicts and can be easily criticised. Unfortunately, the “Church” is full of experts. From an “expert” point of view, religions are similar.
    It is not necessary to be a biblical “expert” but it is necessary to understand the Grace of God and to accept the forgiveness that our Lord and Saviour has already purchased for us on the cross. It sounds like Mr Hockey is still to do so.
    Steven Eldridge

  14. You have to recognize that politicians have lots of help in writing speeches. There are issues of timing and positioning for Mr Hockey with potential leadership changes ahead. Those that aid him in writing his speeches would be using some sort of information gained from opinion polls. (I am assuming here)

    What we see is a careful appeal to the majority of voters. I would agree that it is dangerous to play to the crowd, but it does give us some indication of the nature of the crowd. I think I am going and tell someone the truth about Jesus, then i am going to try and find someone else and so on… I might even help to enlighten some “believers”.

    Thanks bill, we owe you a great debt in the work you do.

    R.J. Blake

  15. I just want to comment on what Alfred said a little earlier. If the universe is the way that Dawkin’s describes it, completely reducible to natural causes, then there a lot of things he can’t by definition do. One of those is engage in logical reasoning. I would love Alfred to explain what the rules of logic are in a purely naturalistic worldview. There are gaping holes in Mr. Dawkins’ conclusions and any open-minded person who reads material in response to his should be able to see that.
    Keith Jarrett

  16. I find it rather amusing that Mr Hockey sees the decline of Christianity as stemming from “…the reliance placed on a literal reading of the testaments by church leaders. By encouraging literalist analysis of the Bible, many churches have inadvertently invited people to question the validity of a faith that seems to be based on questionable facts or outdated prescription…..”. Especially considering that it’s been decades since many churches taught their members to believe the Bible as the literal word of God. He could have at least come up with something original instead of that tired nonsense.

    The truth of the matter is that liberal interpretations of the Bible and Higher Criticism has eroded people’s faith in God’s Word. It is also true, as others here have stated, that many people only want their ears tickled. Telling them that Biblical morality does matter does not make them feel all warm and cozy inside and many religious leaders have failed to teach God’s Word for fear of seeming outdated or bigoted or fear of losing membership – and money. They have shown themselves in fear of Man rather than in fear of God. There is a price to pay for this lack of leadership and lack of obedience in Christians in general. It’s called Armageddon.

    Victoria Demona

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