One of the most religious countries on the earth is also a nation of religious illiterates – Stephen Prothero
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)
The Greatest Book Never Read – evangelicals have become a religious tribe of biblical illiterates. The People of the Book revere the Bible – “but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” For many an evangelical Christian , the word is more a brand than a faith. Evangelicals are identified politically more than theologically; simply another word for ‘Republican’. “This is what religion without religion looks like”, writes Shadi Hamid.
How did we get here?
There are plenty of reasons, and throughout this blog, I’ve been stuck writing the same thing over and over again on the manifold failings of evangelical leadership. We likewise need to examine the effect of those sitting in the pews.
A Christianity Today article entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible, found an appalling scriptural illiteracy among the very biblicists who uphold its every inspired and inerrant word. Only about half of those who define themselves as professing Christians bother to read the Bible. Frankly, it belies a common American lack of curiosity about the known world, confirmed as I taught ninth grade world geography. I had to dumb things down and teach from a seventh grade textbook. Even then I had to soft-ball exams, with students answering, for example, that Hawaii was a country. Jay Leno spelled out this embarrassing national ignorance on his Jaywalking segments.
By and large, Americans are not well-read. And the same goes for evangelicals, where more and more, faith ignorance rules the day. Even at a evangelical seminary, a theology professor was astonished to find incoming students needed remedial training on Bible content. Its a damning confirmation of modern evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism. It’s not that Johnny Evangelical can’t read the Bible. He’s just grown up in an environment where verbalizing the orthodox faith isn’t that important. This lack of Bible-reading explains why we supposed Biblicists assume we know the Bible, when we really don’t.
One could go further. Many evangelicals come pre-loaded a scatter-text of Bible snippets, rather than an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Biblical literacy means more than winning a game of Bible Trivia – a cut-and-paste approach that looks to the Bible as one’s personal answer book. Bible literacy needs to be more than meeting our emotional needs. Rather than approaching the Bible as a “grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader’s prior commitments”, Christians need to be readers seeking the unfolding of God’s redemptive process.
Sunday school is passé. Forget catechism – it’s is for Catholics! Feeling is Believing. Small group relational Bible studies are called inductive, but are more assumptive; weighted by with free-flowing devotionals that don’t force us to wrestle with our Christian belief and practice – or as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer put it, hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures . Today’s blind collectivism arises from little taste for “theology” in what has become a post-denominational movement inexplicably hung together by individual autonomies.
To my mind, foremost in the formation of disciples is having read the Bible cover-to-cover, and frequently. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, we see the arc of Scripture in Creation – Fall – Redemption – New Creation, with its centrality being Jesus Christ. That’s why I recommend against reading the Bible front-to-back. A serious Bible learner should start in the Gospels, which hang the larger narrative together in redemptive completeness.
Where do we go from here?
Americans have an innate quest for authentic spirituality. Even many who are “Dones” turned off by the institutional church remain, like the Bereans, eager to learn more about Jesus. Marva Dawn asked, “will we give away the Church and its gospel power by dumbing it down or by failing to reach out?” One of my favorite writers, Dawn incisively begins at the heart of Christian community: worship.
“My major concern for the Church”, she continued, “has to do with worship, because its character-forming potential is so subtle and barely noticed, and yet worship creates a great impact on the hearts and minds and lives of a congregation’s members. Indeed, how we worship both reveals and forms our identity as persons and communities.”
Why do I paste a book on communal worship into a post on “dumbed-down” Christians? Because the Bible was meant to be read and discussed in gathered community. The locus of that gathering is koinonia, where we “experience God’s grace and power, informed by the written Scriptures, mediated by the Holy Spirit, and based upon the work of Christ on the Cross.”
I assign “dumbed-down” Christians two homework assignment: Buy a fresh Bible and immerse yourself in it. Then read Marva Dawn’s works and introduce her to your congregation.
 Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology Of Worship For This Urgent Time, (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1995), 12.