A couple of weeks ago in one of the United Methodist Facebook groups someone posed the question of how preachers could help with the problem of biblical illiteracy in the pews. My suggestion was to start by addressing the problem of biblical illiteracy in the pulpit; the simple solution being preachers actually reading the Bible through from beginning to end regularly.
If you’ve ever wondered just how divided we United Methodists are, one pastor responded dismissively and quite ironically that early Christians didn’t read the Bible! Well tell that to Luke, the author of Acts, who commends the Bereans for searching the scriptures to confirm the preaching of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:11), not to mention the comprehensive Bible study that Jesus himself had with two despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). How about Paul’s counsel to Timothy to publicly read the scriptures and to preach and teach from the same (1 Tim 4:13)? And what of the statement in Romans 15:4 that the scripture was written for our instruction and encouragement in hope. And who but the biblically illiterate could forget the story of Phillip helping the Ethiopian eunuch to understand what he was reading from the scroll of Isaiah (Acts 8). Revelation 1:3 sums up the importance of scripture reading quite poignantly when it says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it”(NRSV).
***[Look for my first entry on my new blog at Wall to Wall Faith, Hope, and Love]****
Of course there were many who were literally illiterate, but as the above verse alludes, those who could not read had the scripture read to them in church. As a matter of fact, as hard as it is for us to imagine in our churches where the things of God are crammed within a tight window of time not to be exceeded because too many would rather miss the Holy Spirit than miss their next meal, when it was first being circulated the book of Revelation would have been read in its entirety in early church meetings. With its explosive imagery and riveting symbolism the hearing of it in an ancient oral culture must have been an amazing experience; and its call to faithful, uncompromising discipleship must have been incredibly jolting and sobering. I imagine just the experience of hearing Revelation read for those ancient congregations must have been better than the most action-packed movies that Hollywood can offer for some of us.
We should never underestimate the simple power of reading scripture. In the days of spiritual malaise among God’s people in the Old Testament, it was often the simple reading and hearing of the written word that lead to major revival. When kings and religious leaders acquiesced to the pagan world around them, the duty of daily scripture reading was neglected. The king of Israel was supposed to be well-versed in the written word of God; he was supposed to “read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God” by keeping his commandments and leading God’s people to do the same (Deut 17:18-20).
Centuries of neglect left the nation spiritually destitute and under divine wrath. Scripture was not only forgotten, suppressed beneath pagan thought and passion, but entirely lost under idols and pagan practices in the Jerusalem temple itself. When the Law was stumbled upon in the temple and read aloud to Josiah, the king repented. After consulting Huldah, the prophetess, Josiah set out to reform the nation by calling her back to God’s word. He read the word of the Law aloud and together he and the people renewed their commitment to the covenant (1 Kings 22-23).
Spiritual revival came through hearing and heeding the written word of God, as it had before in the days of Jehoshaphat (see 2 Chronicles 17:9 ff). Josiah, also like Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah before him, turned back to the Lord via the word of the Lord and led the religious leaders and the people to do the same. Later, after the return from exile in Babylon, Ezra would lead another renewal movement among God’s people that included the reading and hearing of the Law, the written word of God (Nehemiah 8).
After I responded to the objection that supposedly “early Christians didn’t read the Bible” along the lines of thought above, my unknown colleague reluctantly conceded the point, but still blithely dismissed the notion that Biblical illiteracy is actually a problem. But a problem, a big problem it is; and one, not the only one, but one simple solution, with which I would hope everyone, at least almost everyone could agree, preachers should actually read through scripture in its entirety regularly.
The reason this simple thing is so important is because otherwise there is a much greater danger that any given passage of the Bible may be co-opted, wittingly or unwittingly, by an agenda foreign to the agenda of God as revealed in the Bible itself and most clearly in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to whom and about whom scripture itself testifies (see Luke 24:13-32; John 5:39).
A colleague once said, as if it was entirely inevitable, that we all just interpret the Bible through the lens of our favorite passage, perhaps a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount, John 3:16, or verses from Paul’s letters regarding justification by faith. She’s right that this is often the case. It is also true that we also have the tendency to interpret the Bible through the lens of popular theological doctrines or theologians (i.e. tradition) or a particular political ideology or secular philosophy. But I don’t think that doing so is completely inescapable. In fact we need to try to escape this gravitational pull that so often only leads to distortion and contortion of scripture itself.
In addition to studying its historical and cultural context, one way to do this is to read the Bible through regularly enough that we begin to interpret each passage through the lens of the grand narrative rather than reading the grand narrative through the lens of particular passages and our possibly truncated or distorted interpretations of them. Similarly, with enough time and effort, we will then begin reading the creeds and theological doctrines through the overarching lens of the grand narrative of Scripture rather than just the other way around. Heaven knows we need to read political ideologies and philosophies through the overall lens of scripture rather than the other way around!
When we put in this effort by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, hopefully we will begin to preach from each passage through a mind transformed by the Word rather than one conformed to the world. Some ironically, however, read the Bible through a pantheistic lens, the view that God is everything and everything is God, and unsurprisingly end up insisting in typical pagan fashion that Jesus is only one way to God among many, a position which flies in the face of something as basic as the first three commandments. Some share the lens of Thomas Jefferson’s updated Epicureanism, which led him to actually cut out the parts of the Bible that didn’t fit with his world view. Others read the Bible through the lens of ideas inspired by Marx and Engels, Freud and Jung, Betty Friedan and Kate Millet, or …. Margaret Sanger.
There are those progressive Christians who seem to read the Bible through the window of Planned Parenthood, from the inside out of course. In the face of babies being slaughtered and mutilated mostly in the name of personal comfort and convenience, and coldly and callously sold to the highest bidder, they insist that abortion is a blessing of God, and that it is really those who oppose it who are morally bankrupt. And all of this nonsense simply flies in the face of something as basic as the sixth commandment.
So without a prayerful and thorough regular reading of all of the Bible and a submission to God through it, we will be susceptible to simply using the canvas of scripture to paint a picture far different from the big picture of scripture itself. It may be a T.V. preacher who pulls from passages here and there to paint the picture that God exists to give us everything we want, when the Jesus of the actual Bible says that in order to follow him we must give up everything we have (Luke 14:33). Then there is the therapeutic portrait that the Bible is designed to fuel a feel-good faith, a comfortable Christianity that may help us feel a little better about ourselves but really has no bearing on our lifestyles and behavior in the “real world.” Or it may be a divinity school professor inspired by radical Marxist feminism, who insists that Jesus really didn’t care about how we define marriage and family because he told his disciples that they must hate their families in order to follow him (the proof text – Luke 14:26; see the op-ed here that a progressive colleague insisted was basic biblical interpretation when I said it was one of the worst cases of prooftexting I’d ever seen). Never mind Jesus’ intense warnings about adultery and divorce and his teaching about God’s original intent for marriage evident in creation (Matthew 5 and 19). Or it could even be one who insists that God does indeed sanction child sacrifice on the altar of personal choice to the false god of maximum pleasure (and apparently now profit) with minimum to no responsibility (of course they wouldn’t “frame” it this way), even though God’s word says such a thing never even crossed his mind (Jeremiah 19:5).
If our reading of the Bible is riddled with distortion, contortion, and the downplaying or dismissal of scripture inconvenient to our argument in order to justify our sinfulness and our selfishness then we may need a change of view. Maybe we need to step out of the American Dream, the neo-Marxist sexual revolution, or Planned Parenthood and take a look at these through the broad lens of God’s word, the whole counsel of God. Maybe we need to examine these things from the outside in, through the view from above that only the new birth and the word of God can give us.
Colossians 3:1-11 (NIV) 1Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is youra life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.b 7You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.