This past week I was interviewed by Thom Schultz, the CEO of Group Publishing, for his “Holy Soup” podcast. Thom interviewed me about whether or not biblical illiteracy is that big of a deal in the church today.
My answer was “No. Biblical illiteracy is not that big of a deal in the church today.”
The interview was only 30 minutes, and so I didn’t have time to say everything I wanted to say about this topic, so over the next few weeks I am going to write a series of posts which explains more. I wrote about biblical illiteracy back in 2013, but I want to say more about it now, and will do so in these posts.
Ironically, this series of posts may seem to undercut everything I do here at RedeemingGod.com. After all, one of the stated goals of this blog and my Podcast is to help you better know and understand the Bible. However, by the end of these posts you will hopefully understand why I believe what I believe about biblical illiteracy and why I still think I should be writing and teaching about Scripture and theology on this website and through my podcast.
So in this first article, I simply want to review why this is an issue in the church today and what some Christian leaders and publications are saying about the so-called problem of biblical illiteracy.
My Primary Problem with the Quest for Biblical Literacy
One of the primary issues I have with the so-called problem of biblical illiteracy is that biblical illiteracy is all in the eye of the beholder. That is, depending on who you ask, biblical literacy has different definitions. That is, even if someone earned a score of 100% on a Bible Trivia quiz, does this mean they are biblically literate? What if someone memorized the entire Bible? Does that make them biblically literate?
Even if you said “Yes” to these questions, does knowing Bible facts, Bible trivia, and thousands of Bible verses actually help you live, love, and look more like Jesus? The answer is clearly “No.”
While it might be true that studies have shown that people don’t know much about the Bible, studies have also shown that even those who are Bible experts don’t often look or act all that much different from people who are ignorant about the Bible. Sometimes the Bible experts behave less like Jesus than those who know next-to-nothing about the Bible.
So for me, the whole quest for increasing people’s biblical literacy level is wrongheaded from the get-go. If there is no direct correlation between gaining Bible knowledge and facts and actually living like a follower of Jesus, then what’s the big deal about becoming biblically literate?
Anyway, I will write about all this a lot more in future articles. In this article, I simply want to show you what some people are saying about biblical illiteracy in the church today and respond briefly to their concerns.
Is Biblical Illiteracy an Epidemic?
A recent article written by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today argued that we are facing an epidemic of biblical illiteracy in our churches today.
After laying out his case and citing some statistics, Ed Stetzer said that the following eight activities indicate that someone was more likely to be biblically literate.
- Confessing sins and wrongdoings to God and asking for forgiveness
- Following Jesus Christ for years
- Being willing to obey God, no matter the cost
- Praying for the spiritual status of unbelievers
- Reading a book about increasing spiritual growth
- Being discipled or mentored one-on-one by a more spiritually mature Christian
- Memorizing Bible verses
- Attending a small group focused on Bible study
I don’t know how Ed Stetzer came up with this list, but I disagree with each one of the points. I do not think that such activities are all that important for the Christian life. Yes, if someone does these things, they might gain more Bible knowledge, but who cares?
Again, what matters most? Knowing Bible trivia, or living and loving like Jesus? Since doing these eight activities will not necessarily lead to people loving their neighbors and interacting with the world with lives of grace (but is just as likely to lead to the exact opposite!), what’s the point?
To see what I mean, consider these eight items again from a different perspective.
- Confessing sins. Why oh why do some Christians always start with the issue of sin? Why are so infatuated with sin? When we begin with sin, this leads us to start focusing not only on our own failures, but also on the failures and “sins” of others, which leads us to develop attitudes of judgmentalism, condemnation, and accusation. Such attitudes more closely resemble Satan than Jesus. Maybe rather than focus people on sin, we can point people to God’s love, grace (neither of which are mentioned in this list!!!), and unconditional forgiveness. Yes, the first item on the list does talk about asking God for forgiveness, but this too simply reveals a lack of understanding about God’s forgiveness. God has already forgiven all people for all their sins no matter what. If we Christians really want to bring up sin, maybe we should bring it up that way instead. Instead of saying, “Confess and repent of your sin!” we could say, “Hey! Sin is not that big of a deal to God. He’s already forgiven you for everything! That just shows you what kind of God He is!” I think this would be much better. Talking about sin and confessing sin is not that good of an indicator that someone knows the Bible (or the heart of God, for that matter).
- Following Jesus Christ for years. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Who gets to decide who is following Jesus? If sitting in a pew and attending Bible studies is what it means to follow Jesus, why is it that so many people who “follow Jesus” in this way don’t act much like Jesus after years of “following” Him? Again, this supposed indicator of biblical literacy is too vague to be of any help.
- Being willing to obey God, no matter the cost. Again, by whose definition? What is “obeying God”? The people who blow up abortion clinics think they are obeying God. Christians who hate Donald Trump think they are obeying God. Christians who hate Hillary Clinton think they are obeying God. Christians who hate Muslims or LGBT people or gun owners or police or CEOs of oil companies or Osama or Obama all think they are obeying God. Lots of these Christians fill our pulpits and have initials after their names and would consider themselves Bible experts. But I sometimes wonder how much they really know about “obeying God.”
- Praying for the spiritual status of unbelievers. I find this item the saddest of all. Praying for unbelievers? Just praying? What about loving? What about befriending? What about serving? I am writing a book right now (tentatively titled Cruciform Pastoral Leadership … I hope to publish it this fall … make sure you are on my mailing list to be notified when it comes out) which contains a chapter called “Let Prayer Meetings Cease.” In this chapter, I bemoan the fact that we Christians often use prayer meetings as a substitute for actual love and service to others. Rather than go help our neighbor with his drug problem or dead son, we would rather bring it up at a prayer meeting and put it on the prayer chain. We often pray, “God! How come you aren’t doing anything about this situation?” and I believe He says right back, “How come you aren’t? I’m trying, but you won’t go!” Anyway, I don’t think that praying for unbelievers is a good indication of biblical literacy at all.
- Reading a book about increasing spiritual growth. This item is only true if they are reading one of my books … THAT’S A JOKE! Again, the problem here is what how to define the idea. What book? By which author? There is so much garbage in the Christian publishing world today, I firmly believe that reading some of these books will actually mess up your understanding of Scripture more than help it. So there is no connection whatsoever between reading books (even if they are my books) and spiritual growth, spiritual maturity, or biblical literacy. Related to this, why the emphasis on books? I love to read. I read a lot. But I don’t think for a second that because I read a lot, I am closer to God than those who hardly read at all. I will tell you a story later in this series of posts about a man I know who is literally illiterate. He doesn’t know how to read. He has never read a single sentence in his life. But I believe he is closer to the heart of God than I ever hope to be. So reading books means nothing about state of someone’s heart or spiritual grown.
- Being disciple by someone who is more spiritually mature. I am all in favor of discipleship. But again, what is discipleship? The way it is most often defined in Christian circles today is sitting in a room with books on our laps while someone tells us things. But that is not biblical discipleship, and so will not lead to biblical literacy, and will definitely not lead to biblical living. Furthermore, who is the more spiritually mature Christian, and what are they telling you to do? Just because you are in a discipleship relationship, this does not mean that you are actually becoming more like Jesus.
- Memorizing Bible verses. I have memorized a lot of Bible verses in my life time. I have even memorized entire books of the Bible. But I now consider all of that memorization a complete waste of time. I have met atheists who have more of the Bible memorized than I do. Bible memorization might help you win a memorization contest, but it’s not that good for much else. Why do I say all this? Because anyone can memorize and quote Bible verses. Satan quotes Scripture at Jesus, after all. Satan can probably quote the entire Bible. So for me, what is most important is not Bible memorization, but Bible understanding, and more important still is Bible application. Understanding and living 1 Bible verse is better than memorizing 100.
- Attending a small group Bible study. My answer to this is the same point I have been making over and over. I just don’t think it is that important for people to be constantly studying the Bible. We have too many Bible studies and not enough Bible living. Instead, we should get off our butts and go put into practice whatever it is we already know. And when we have exhausted that (in about 90 years), we can feel free to come back to the Bible for more. In my neighborhood, there are two families that have regular Bible studies in their homes. Every week, 7-10 cars show up like clockwork at these houses, and the people carry in their Bibles, and then 90 minutes later, carry them back out and drive off. In our neighborhood, the people who host these Bible studies have the reputation for being rude, spiteful, and complainers. They do not help, love, or serve anyone along the street unless you agree to attend their church. Yet they have regular Bible studies every week. Tell me, would you consider them to be “biblically literate”?
I think you see the point. Who cares about biblical illiteracy in the church today, since (1) it is nearly impossible to define and (2) those who supposedly have it don’t act any more (sometimes less) like Jesus than those who don’t.
Let’s look at one more article.
Is Biblical Illiteracy a Crisis?
Biola University published an article saying that biblical illiteracy was a crisis. They said it was because we spend too much time on TV, movies, social media, and video games.
Yes, we humans waste a lot of time. No argument from me there.
But I am not sure that Bible study is a good substitute. I often think that maybe Bible study is the biggest waste of time, because we think it is what God wants us to do, when really, He wants us to get out there and love others. And guess what? Loving others requires us to learn something about the life and culture of the people we want to love. So in one sense, watching TV and spending time on social media might be a good use of our time, because such activities allows us to engage with our neighbors and co-workers in activities and discussions that are meaningful to them.
By spending time with others where they are at, we can learn to love and minister and serve those in our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
I work at a secular workplace. For the past eight years, I have noticed that the most ineffective Christians are those who know nothing about TV, movies, social media, and video games. But wow do they know their Bibles! And everybody knows that they know their Bibles, because they are always carrying it around and quoting from it and talking about what they learned in church last Sunday. Which is why nobody wants to talk to them, befriend them, or hang out with them.
But I hang out on social media. I watch movies and TV shows. I play games. Why? Well, for one, because such things are fun (*gasp*), but also because I love the people I work with and I love talking about these things with them, and even joining them in these sorts of activities.
TV, movies, social media, and video games is where much of the world resides, and if we want to build relationships with people in this world so that we can show the gospel to them through our lives, we not only needs some understanding of the gospel, but also some understanding of secular culture and leisure time activities.
Speaking of which, I have such confidence in the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as a wind that moves wherever He wills, I am certain that the Holy Spirit is teaching people about Himself through TV, movies, music, social media, and video games. We just have to have eyes to see it. The person with spiritual eyes will see more of the gospel in Harry Potter than the person without spiritual eyes will see of the gospel in the Bible.
So Biblical Illiteracy is not that big of a deal
I will have much more to say about this topic in future posts, but I think you get the point I will be making.
On every day of the week, I will take someone who loves like Jesus even if they don’t know His words over someone who can quote all the words of Jesus but don’t do what He says.
And guess what? Despite what we might hear from some pulpits and read in some books, it is quite possible to do what Jesus says without knowing what Jesus says. I see it all the time. Have you?
What do you think about the issue of Biblical illiteracy in the church today? Is it a crisis? Is it an epidemic? Or are there other and better things to focus on? How would you respond to the points by Ed Stezter above? Weigh in below!