The Crisis of Biblical Literacy

November 2015 Feature Article

The “crisis of biblical literacy” among Christians is now well known. It has been reported in various journals for over 20 years now. The 17 October 2014 issue of the Christianity Today reports:

Study after study in the last quarter-century has revealed that American Christians increasingly don’t read their Bibles, don’t engage their Bibles, and don’t know their Bibles. It’s obvious: We are living in a post-biblically literate culture.

The situation in Singapore is not much better. To alleviate the problem, several Christian organizations are now taking steps to promote the reading and teaching of Scripture. The Bible Society of Singapore and Project Timothy are two of such organizations here in Singapore.

The problem of biblical literacy is much worse and more complicated than is reported or realized. Reports on biblical literacy usually cites the majority of lay Christians not reading or knowing very little about the content of the Bible. This problem is worse than is realized if we include the many who do read it regularly and who show they know the Bible by their frequent citation of biblical text but who for the most part misread or misinterpret the Bible. These are effectively illiterate. The very low level of biblical literacy is also rampant among those who teach the Bible in Sunday Schools, in Bible Study or fellowship groups and also over the pulpits. It also occurs among the clergy and those who teach others how to teach and preach the Bible.

It may seem odd that those who regularly read the Bible and write messages based on the Bible to preach it or teach it can be considered as biblically illiterate or have a low level of biblical literacy. Is not “literacy” defined as “the ability to read and write”?

Actually it is has been realized for some time now that the standard dictionary’s definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write” is no longer adequate. One cannot assume that just because a person can read and write, he can read and understand all texts correctly and is capable of using what he has read appropriately and effectively.

There is now a realization that literacy must include critical and effective functioning. Critical ability is necessary so that one can differentiate right from wrong interpretations. Effective functioning is necessary so that one can translate the information given and apply it in a way intended by the text. A man who having read a manual on how to repair a television yet does not know how to follow the instructions to repair his television is essentially no different from his child who cannot read it. As far as that manual is concerned, he is effectively illiterate.

There is also the realization that literacy is not something as simple as completing a course of study or passing a series of tests. Literacy is something that can be gained incrementally in a continuum and over a lifelong process. This is especially so when we realize that what is needed to read various texts and various media is not just literacy but multiple literacies. Persons literate in a particular text, such as poetic text or historical prose, may be illiterate in scientific, computational or even legal texts. The ability to interpret one narrative text does not necessarily mean having the competency to interpret other narrative texts. Literacy acquisition must be a lifelong process because linguists, literary experts and biblical scholars are still gaining new useful insights on text processing and interpretation of texts.

The concept of literacy is now better understood and is being redefined. A working definition given by UNESCO is this:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential and to participate fully in their community and wider society. (The Plurality of Literacy and Its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO: 2004)

This expanded understanding of literacy has important implications for those who teach the Bible or who promote biblical literacy. Firstly, it highlights to us the complexity of biblical literacy. It is possible that those reading and teaching the bible in the homes or in churches may be doing so with a very low level of understanding of the biblical text. Secondly, we should help our members have a critical ability to differentiate right from wrong readings of scripture based on sound linguistics and literary principles. Thirdly, we need to help Christians use the biblical texts according to their intended function and be able to differentiate a right application from a wrong application. This requires learning how to identify the intended rhetorical function of various genre, books and passages and also how to do contextualization. Fourthly, we need to realize that just because we have the skill to understand or teach a particular book of the bible, it does not mean we have the skill to understand or teach other books. This calls for a lifelong learning for all; the laity, the clergy and the academicians in the seminaries.

I have mentioned that the problem of biblical literacy is worse than what is reported. Let me highlight four specific problems that mask the low level of biblical literacy prevalent among Christians: The first is the atomistic reading of biblical text; the second is the failure to take seriously the multi-contextual nature of all biblical texts, the third is the use of biblical texts beyond their intended rhetorical function; and finally, the failure to properly recontexualize the message of the Bible when we apply them in different time and context. I shall just elaborate on the first.

Most of the biblical books are intended to be read as a continuous whole. These include the longer books like Judges, Job, Ezekiel, Matthew, Romans, Hebrews and Revelation. Either there is a central plot line that runs right through the book or the different parts of the book are arranged and function together to form a chain of argument. For some books, the continuous whole may mean going beyond one book. For example, Exodus is but part of the plot from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The book of Acts is a sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Those with an eye for holistic reading of the Bible tell us that even the books which were previously thought of as random compilations of unrelated parts such as Psalms, Proverbs or James, are actually organized in certain logical order to function and be read like a book. Finally there are those books which are indeed separate books but they are intended to be read with certain other books as foils or counter foils- such as Joshua is to be read in conjunction with Judges and Ezra with Nehemiah.

So to read in Genesis about Sarah being held captive by Pharaoh and about Jacob and his wives in the crutches of Laban without seeing its connection to the Exodus account of Israel’s captivity (slavery) in Egypt and to Deuteronomy’s anticipation of Israel’s exile foretold, is to miss the larger intended theological message. Similarly, to read the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel without seeing its connection to the Samaritans and the Gentiles being accepted into the kingdom of God in Acts also misses out an important point of Luke’s Gospel. Reading Psalm 8 as God giving all human beings the right to rule all creation without considering that the adjacent psalms are actually cries of David as king against his enemies and the Davidic Kingship theme in Psalm 1-2 serves as an important frame to read the whole Psalter in the hope of God fulfilling his promise to restore the Davidic kingship is to misread a passage anthropologically when it is intended christologically.

A look at the reading of scripture recorded in the Bible reveals that for the most part they are intended to be read holistically (Exo 24:7, Deut 31:11; Josh 8:34; Neh 8:3; Isa 29:11-12; Jer 36:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; Rev 22:18-19). If the books of the Bible are intended to be read holistically, then much of our reading and preaching of the Bible err in its atomistic approach. Reading or preaching one part of the book without considering how it functions within the whole book, may cause us to mistake the tree for the woods. We are not only missing the main theme or the rhetorical function of the book; we misinterpret the passage and read into it some ideas foreign to the book. Drawing application from every short passage instead of deriving application based on the whole book may be akin to attempting to build a house out of one brick or a beam. Sadly, much of our devotional reading of Scripture, the preaching and teaching of the Bible in churches, and the way preaching or teaching of the Bible is taught in seminaries are mostly based on atomistic reading and preaching of biblical text. There is a need to teach the reading and preaching of whole books.

The story in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” strikes a similar vein. The twist at the end of this story highlights to us the need to read in full before making a premature conclusion. Applying a small passage before reading the whole book may lead us to imitate the many “laudable” things the pigs did but only to realize at the end that the author is actually against what the pigs were doing. Christians who do no know how to read text holistically or contextually, can easily be misled to radical extremism and imitate what the pigs do in the “ Animal Farm”.

Dealing with the problem of biblical literacy should now be a matter of public concern. There are at least three reasons why it is so. First, how Christians read their biblical text will affect how we live in the public square: our clothing, our diet, our leisure activities, our ethics and our involvement in social issues. Second, it affects the way we view and relate to others: our neighbours, our government, those of different cultural or economic groups, those of other faiths or ethnicity, and those with differing ethical values. Third, it can affect how others relate to us: positively as people whose view and participation are to be welcome, or negatively, as people whose views are best kept to ourselves and whose participation is to be curtailed.

How Christians read the Bible and even how adherents of other religions read their religious text can no longer be said to be of the concern for the individual or the religious leaders of the various religions. It should be a matter of public concern too.

In today’s world where our education is more focused on reading computer, engineering and financial texts than on literary texts or historical documents, we cannot assume that people know how to read and interpret religious texts which are more akin to literary or historical texts. Well-educated Christians who have a high regard for the Scripture but who have low level of biblical literacy can be misled by others who distort the teachings of the Bible. This is also true for members of other religions. The official stance of Islam in Singapore and that of many Islamic scholars elsewhere is that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the chief characteristic of God in the Quran is mercy. According to these scholars, those who use the Quran to call for radical violence have taken the teachings of the Quran out of context. Yet recently, we read that well-educated Muslims have been radicalized by certain teachings to leave their family and profession to join ISIS in the war.

For this reason some governments now realize it is no longer wise to ignore how various religious communities read their religious texts. Christians in places of influence should not just be concerned with how their fellow Christian read texts; they should also help promote competent contextual reading of literary and religious text to the general public. While we have no right to dictate how people of other religions read and interpret their texts, the way we read and interpret our text holistically and contextually can be a model for others to follow. Christians are supposed to be light of the world; we should also set an example in competent reading of text. It is important to teach proper reading of biblical text not only at home, in church and in the seminaries, but also in the public arena as well.


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David Lang is an Associate Professor at the Singapore Bible College. He teaches Theology, New Testament and Hermeneutics .