In a 2004 Gallup study of over one thousand American teens, nearly 60 percent of those who self-identified as evangelical were not able to correctly identify Cain as the one who said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and over half could not identify either "Blessed are the poor in spirit" as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount or "the road to Damascus" as the place where Saul/Paul's blinding vision occurred. In each of these questions, evangelical teens fared only slightly better than their non-evangelical counterparts.
These numbers serve to underscore the now widespread recognition that the Bible continues to hold pride of place as "America's favorite unopened text" (to borrow David Gibson's wonderful phrase), even among many Christians. As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, I know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students--around 95 percent of them--are Christians, and half of them typically report that they currently attend nondenominational evangelical churches. Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade. In the most recent survey, only half were able to identify which biblical book begins with the line, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Barely more than half knew where to turn in the Bible to read about the first Passover. Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23 percent were able to order four key events from Israel's history (Israelites enter the promised land; David is made king; Israel is divided in two; and the people of Judah go into exile), and only 32 percent were able to sequence four similarly important events from the New Testament (Jesus was baptized; Peter denies Jesus; the Spirit descends at Pentecost; and John has a vision on the island of Patmos). These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84 percent knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible's larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text--even though a full 86 percent of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith.
Dr. Nienhuis correctly draws a connection between American evangelicalism's tortured relationship with the Bible and theology to the so-called Second Great Awakening and the rise of revivalism.
Indeed, a good bit of the blame for the existing crisis has to fall at the feet of historic American evangelicalism itself. In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't, Stephen Prothero has drawn our attention to various religious shifts that took place as a result of the evangelistic Second Great Awakening that shook American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, key characteristics of which continue to typify contemporary evangelical attitudes. For instance, there was a shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education. While this strategy resulted in increased conversions and the creation of numerous popular nondenominational voluntary associations, it also had the effect of requiring Christians to agree to disagree when it came to doctrinal matters. There was a corresponding shift from the Bible to Jesus, as more and more Christians came to believe that the key test of Christian faithfulness was not the affirmation of a creed or catechism, or knowledge of the biblical text, but the capacity to claim an emotional relationship with what Prothero calls "an astonishingly malleable Jesus--an American Jesus buffeted here and there by the shifting winds of the nation's social and cultural preoccupations."Nienhuis continues with a helpful critique of certain models of Bible teaching and concludes with some suggestions for leading Christians into substantive biblical literacy.
The most important shift, according to Prothero, was the shift from theology to morality. The nondenominationalist trend among Protestants tended to avoid doctrinal conflicts by searching for agreements in the moral realm. Christian socialists, such as Charles Sheldon, taught us to ask not "What does the Bible say?" but "What would Jesus do?" Advocates of the Social Gospel, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, taught that it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles' Creed.
Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we're all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential "seekers" shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.
So what then shall we do? What is biblical literacy? Coming to an agreed-upon definition is itself part of the problem. I think all would agree that, at base, it involves a more detailed understanding of the Bible's actual content. This requires: (1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant); (2) training in the particular "orienteering" skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and (3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints. The survey courses we teach at SPU seek to do these very things. But in the end we want to do more than fill believing heads with objective knowledge about the Bible; we want to empower our whole community--students, faculty, and staff--to buck the cultural trends and take up the spiritual discipline of reading Scripture. It is not enough for a Christian university to function as an outpost of the academy; it must also take up the task of serving the church by becoming an abbey for spiritual growth and an apostolate for cultural change. Through our newly established Center for Biblical and Theological Education, we are working to create a reading program--a lectionary of sorts--that will contribute to the formation of readers who come to cherish a relationship not with the "astonishingly malleable Jesus" of American culture, but with the particular God whose story is related in the Bible and celebrated in the Christian church. We want to create a community ethos of habitual, orderly, communal ingestion of the revelatory text. We do so in the hope that the Spirit of God will transform readers into hearers who know what it is to abide before the mirror of the Word long enough to become enscripturated doers; that is, people of faith who are adept at interpreting their individual stories and those of their culture through the grand story of God as it is made known in the Bible.
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