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A Musing on Biblical Literacy and the Rule of Love

One of the things that shouldn’t surprise me but recently did is the lack of Biblically literacy in our current world. I was at an event recently, and I ended up asking a bright high school student what the four gospels are.

I tried to help her out by starting with Matthew…

She looked at me puzzled and responded Christopher, Joshua, and Jimmy.

Again, it shouldn’t surprise me, and I guess I shouldn’t feel quite so bad as she also did not know the names of the four Beatles, and at one time, it was said they were more popular than Jesus.

However, as I try not to rely simply on anecdotes, I researched to see if there were any studies on this topic.

Not to my surprise, there are surveys and research on this topic, including research by the Barna Group, Pew Research Foundation, and the Lifeway Research Group.

A 2015 Lifeway Research Group study found that only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40 percent of the people attending read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost 1 in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible—essentially the same number who read it every day.

A United Kingdom Bible Society study surveyed British children and found many could not identify familiar Bible stories. When given a list of stories, almost 1 in 3 didn’t choose the Nativity as part of the Bible, and over half (59 percent) didn’t know that Jonah being swallowed by the great fish is in the Bible.

British parents didn’t do much better. Around 30 percent of parents don’t know Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the Good Samaritan are in the Bible. To make matters worse, 27 percent think Superman is or might be a biblical story. More than 1 in 3 believe the same about Harry Potter. And more than half (54 percent) believe The Hunger Games is or might be a story from the Bible.

In 2021, a Barna study found that over one-third of U.S. adults (34%) read the Bible once a week or more, while half (50%) read the Bible less than twice a year (including “never”). Between these two extremes, we find those who read the Bible more than twice a year but not weekly (16%). Overall, one in six U.S. adults (16%) reads the Bible most days during the week, up from 12 percent in 2020.

This data reflects much of what the data says about the role of the Christian faith in our nation today.

Of course, this lack of biblical literacy shouldn’t surprise us as, in general, reading is on the decline among our population. In fact, WordsRated, which is a non-commercial, international research data and analytics group, completed a 2022 study that concluded more than half of adults (51.57%) haven’t read a full book in over a year, that 22.01% of adults haven’t read a book in over 3 years and that 10.83% of adults haven’t read a book in more than 10 years.

However, while all this information about the state of literacy and reading saddens me as an educator, the lack of Biblical literacy and Biblical scholarship is downright dangerous.

While some of you may consider that last sentence hyperbole, I respectfully disagree. More and more, the Bible is being used as a weapon by those seeking to divide and point towards a worldview of us versus them. Additionally, some folks have made up statements claiming they are in the Bible but are actually nowhere to be found in sacred texts, including:

· “God helps those who help themselves.” ...

· “God never gives you more than you can handle.” ...

· “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” ...

· “Spare the rod; spoil the child.”

· “Nobody's perfect.” (Or “Everyone makes mistakes.”) ...

· “Hate the sin, love the sinner. ..”

One writer, in discussing falsely quoting scripture, says the following:

Pretending that some quotes are from the Bible and misinterpreting Bible verses can bring more harm than good. Here are a few reasons it's dangerous to spread fake Bible quotes:

· They can support false teaching or doctrine, leading people to believe in lies instead of the truth.

· They can mislead people about what the Bible says, resulting in misinformed decision-making.

· They can indirectly manipulate or control people to make them act against their best interests.

It’s crucial to be aware of the dangers of fake Bible quotes and be sensitive and knowledgeable enough to identify them when we hear them. No Christian should take advantage of others by misquoting and misunderstanding what God actually said.

I mention all of this not just to get on my soapbox but as a reminder to us all that we should engage in both reading the text and learning about it via study that goes beyond the words but also the initial context and meaning.

This type of analysis is described best by two German phrases, the Sitz im Leben and Sitz in Volksleben, which roughly translates to “setting in life" and "setting in the life of the people," respectively. This type of study and scholarship refers to the social, ethnic, and cultural setting of a particular era. When interpreting the text, the Sitz im Leben and Volksleben have to be taken into consideration in order to allow a proper interpretation.

Thus, the oft-quoted, “Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it” is simply not true because the Word of God is not that simple – it never has been. Jesus pointed that fact out in almost every encounter he had with the Pharisees, which in the end, were always about what the scriptures said or did not say.

I guess the point of my musing is this – we as Christians need to spend time in the word and do it faithfully by making it a consistent practice and one that relies on the community, which includes scholars across ages and disciplines. And finally, we need to share the truth we discover to further the call of the saints who came before us, which we call the Great Ends of the Church, which are delineated in our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order (F-1.0304.)

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind

  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God

  • The maintenance of divine worship

  • The preservation of the truth

  • The promotion of social righteousness

  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Of course, finally, and most importantly, the scriptures must always be viewed in what is known as the Rule of Love, which is articulated so well in our denomination’s document entitled Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture, which says:

The fundamental expression of God's will is the two-fold commandment to love God and neighbor, and all interpretations are to be judged by the question whether they offer and support the love given and commanded by God. When interpretations do not meet this criterion, it must be asked whether the text has been used correctly in the light of the whole Scripture and its subject.

Any interpretation of Scripture is wrong that separates or sets in opposition love for God and love for fellow human being, including both love expressed in individual relations and in human community (social justice).

No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons either within or outside of the church. Such results from the interpretation of Scripture plainly indicate that the rule of love has not been honored. This rule reminds us forcefully that as the rule of faith and life, Scripture is to be interpreted not just to discover what we are to think or what benefits we receive from God in Christ, but to discover how we are to live.

May we each study faithfully, with minds and hearts open, and always through the lens of love.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Alleluia Amen.



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