Is Biblical Literacy Really the Problem?

If you’ve listened to NPR or read blogs like this one over the past six months, you’ve probably heard something about the Pew Forum’s latest study on religious practice in America. The survey confirmed statistically what has been conventional wisdom for quite a while. Mainline Protestants are losing members, more Americans are describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated, and younger Americans are increasingly likely to identify as nothing in particular. Mainliners have lost around five percent of their members in the past five years. My own denomination, the ELCA, has lost around fifteen percent of its members over a similar amount of time. While there is no shortage of theories for why this shift has come about or what the church should do about it, there is one issue that comes up repeatedly: Biblical literacy.

Before diving into this, I should point out that I think Biblical literacy is a good thing. If you don’t have some basic familiarity with your faith’s scriptures, then your engagement with others will always be limited. Scriptures provide us with a common narrative through which we can define our own experiences. If you’re interested in inter-religious work, then having control over your faith’s teachings is invaluable. Even if you just speak English, you’re probably using phrases from the King James Bible. So the problem isn’t Biblical literacy itself. The problem is the way we’re talking about Biblical literacy.

There’s been a belief common among many that the solution to declining church attendance is to teach people more about the Bible.  Collin Hansen, writing for Christianity Today, echoes this idea in his claim that “biblical literacy is a precursor to biblical transformation.” Teach people more about the Bible, the argument goes, and they’ll be back in church soon after. It’s an appealing argument, but it doesn’t hold up in practice. Trying to increase church attendance by increasing Biblical literacy is like pushing on a string. That lower church attendance has led to lower Biblical literacy, does not mean that raising Biblical literacy can increase church attendance.

Focusing on Biblical literacy is also problematic because it keeps the church from identifying the real problem. The steep decline in attendance numbers has perpetuated a “crisis” mentality, leading many to look to solutions before identifying the problem. Because Biblical literacy is easy to quantify (see the attention-grabbing statistics in any article on the topic) and can be taught, it is tempting to think that it must be the solution.

Yet pushing Biblical literacy as the way to revive the church may actually make the problem worse. My hunch is that declining membership has less to do with people being uninterested in the Bible and more to do with a perception that the church is too insular and exclusive. If that is the case then the last thing the church needs to do is bemoan the state of Biblical literacy. It is a sad reality that the church often appears to be more distraught over the percent of Americans who can name the four gospels than the number of Americans who live in food-insecure households or the percent of American children who live below the poverty line (17.9 million and 21.9%). Though conversations about poverty and injustices often occur inside churches, they rarely affect the public perception of the church. By lamenting the state of Biblical literacy, the church runs the risk of coming off as even more insular and isolated from the world around it.

Perhaps what the church needs to focus on developing is not Biblical literacy, but Biblical activism. It is one thing to know what the Bible says, but it is another thing entirely to understand what it charges us to do. We would be wise to spend less time telling people what is in the Bible and invest more time showing them what it means.

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7 thoughts on “Is Biblical Literacy Really the Problem?

  1. At the risk of inflaming my colleagues, i think I agree with you. I tried to say that years ago, when in the Hein Fry lectures I asserted that the issue was not HOW to teach the Bible, but helping people to understand WHY they might want to learn with, from, against, for it.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dr. Hess. I’ll try to track down a copy of your lectures. I’m glad to have some feedback from someone at Luther Seminary.

  3. I would more carefully nuance my perspective on the issue. I think there is a great interest in the Bible as inspirational story and entertainment, as evidenced by the ratings success of The Bible on The History Channel. However, this does not necessarily translate into either biblical literacy on its teachings or following it by way of appropriate lifestyle and activism. Scholars like Stephen Prothero have bemoaned our religious illiteracy problem, which is especially problematic within the Christian tradition. However, I do agree that addressing biblical illiteracy is not the cure for the decline of American and Western churches. The formula for addressing this involves a number of areas, and church leaders must resist the temptation to slip into simplistic educational formulas that do not include critical self-reflection.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts John. I think you’re absolutely right about the disconnect between popular interest in the Bible and meaningful engagement with the texts. I’ll have to look into Stephen Prothero’s work.

  5. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for this great post! A couple thoughts:

    I love your point that “Scripture provides us with common narrative through which we can define our own experiences.” This is great in emphasizing a shared history/language among Christians, but I wonder to what extent this is true, especially given the variety of ways in which different Christian denominations interpret Scripture. I think at face value, Scripture provides this common narrative you speak of, but in practice, the narrative can be manipulated to serve the goals of a certain group.

    I’m also curious to know what exactly it means for churches to use and promote biblical literacy. Does this mean offering more bible study classes? Talking about Scripture more during the service itself? I absolutely agree with your point that there is a “perception that the church is too insular and exclusive.” I hope there’s a way to move away from that into a greater focus on social justice and living out the gospel (rather than just talking about it), like you say at the end!

    1. That’s a really great question. I do think you are exactly right that “common narrative” can often be a subjective term. Who is and isn’t allowed to claim the narrative? One example of a narrative being claimed by an ostracised group is the African-American community’s reappropriation of the Exodus narrative in the early nineteenth century.

      The issue of how Biblical literacy is approached in churches is a complicated one. Most of the emphasis takes place outside of worship in educational settings (Sunday schools, adult forums, etc.). Biblical literacy is a tough issue because evaluating it is difficult. Many of the ways we evaluate Biblical literacy are conducive to a “trivia-style” knowledge of the text. To have a more critical engagement with the text, there would need to be a way to evaluate church programs more holistically. Designing integrated and comprehensive evaluations for church education programs is a huge issue right now.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and your insightful comments.

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