Kenneth Berding (M.A. ’96) is a professor of New Testament at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in hermeneutics and biblical interpretation from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book.
In “The 9 Most Important Issues Facing the Evangelical Church,” theologian Michael Vlach cites “Biblical Illiteracy in the Church” as his final concern. He agrees with George Barna’s assessment that “the Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy.”
... If I sound alarmist, I’m not alone.
These days many of us don’t even know basic facts about the Bible. I remember a student — not a new believer — who asked a question after class about Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. She wanted to know whether this was the same Saul who was king over Israel. No. King Saul’s story is found in the Old Testament; the Saul of Acts — also known as Paul — is found in the New Testament.
I can’t imagine such a thing happening to a group of German Lutherans in the 16th century, or to English Puritans in the 17th century, or to Wesleyans in the 18th century, or to modern Chinese-mainland Christians even if they only have access to a few Bibles in their house church. Or even to our believing great-grandparents in the United States. My paternal grandfather, who never came into personal relationship with Jesus Christ, read his Bible regularly and had many passages committed to memory.
When I was teaching at a college in New York, I assigned each student to write a biographical sketch of an Old Testament character. I came across the following line in a paper about the Old Testament figure Joshua: “Joshua was the son of a nun.” This student clearly didn’t know that Nun was the name of Joshua’s father, nor apparently did he realize that Catholic nuns weren’t around during the time of the Old Testament.
... So how is it that we find ourselves in the middle of a famine?
... In 1986, Neil Postman published an influential cultural essay titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He argued that personal freedoms would disappear not when a totalitarian government imposed oppression from the outside (like George Orwell pictured in his book 1984), but rather when people came “to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think” (like Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World). Postman wrote:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
As Huxley noted in a later book (mentioned by Postman), we have “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
We shouldn’t assume that these distractions have no effect on our perceptions of God. One of my college-aged daughters was working at a Christian summer day camp. On one occasion she was talking with a group of elementary kids about what God is like. One girl in her group responded, “I believe that there are lots of different gods, like we saw in Hercules. Some are good and some are bad.” She was referring to the Disney movie Hercules, which she had watched that morning at the camp. This child’s understanding of God was, at least to some degree, shaped by the polytheism displayed in the movie she had been shown at a Christian day camp.
Might it be that our commitment to fun has resulted in famine, our laughter has yielded loss, and our distractions are ultimately leading to our destruction?
2. Misplaced Priorities
Priorities are not as simple as “God first, family second and church third.” What does that expression mean anyway? Every time I have to choose between reading my Bible and spending time with my children, should I read my Bible? No. Priorities aren’t based upon a simple hierarchy; they require the proper balance of activities in relationship to one another. But it is a fitting question to ask: For a person who is working full time, what is the appropriate quantity of time that should be spent (on average) with one’s spouse or children, in house or yard work, exercising and resting? How much time should you devote to building relationships with unbelieving neighbors or serving in your church?
3. Unwarranted Overconfidence
Of all the diverse comments I have heard from Christians over the years, the one that disturbs me perhaps more than any other is, “We already know more of the Bible than we put into practice anyway.” This comment betrays far more about the speaker than it does about reality. First, it demonstrates that the one who said it isn’t trying very hard to learn the Bible. Second, it reveals that the speaker is passive about applying it. And third, it confirms that the speaker assumes everyone shares the same passive attitude about the Bible.
... My sense is that comments like these are most often made by people who have grown up in the church but who have never personally committed themselves to learning the Word. So let’s get honest for a moment. How many of us who grew up in the church learned more than a few disconnected Bible stories simply because we attended Sunday schools and youth groups? Unless we decided at some point to begin to read and learn the Bible on our own, we never even learned how to find anything in the Bible, not even the stories.
4. The Pretext Of Being Too Busy
I want to be careful about this one. Some people are dreadfully busy and have no easy way of getting out of their plight. I think of single moms who have to work full time just to make ends meet, who spend every evening — all evening long — attending to the needs of their children (food, laundry, schoolwork), falling exhausted into bed at night. Some people are simply busier than others, and some of those who are excessively busy cannot easily change their lot in life.
But on this one point we really shouldn’t budge: Reading and learning the Bible is such a fundamental priority for all who want to call themselves “Christians” that even a person in the category described above is not exempt.
Full article is here.