Preaching in the Context of Biblical Illiteracy
Part 1: The Preacher’s Context: Preaching in an Age of Biblical Illiteracy
Biblical illiteracy is at a crisis level not just in our culture in general but in our churches too. A research at Wheaton College, Illinois, US, on the biblical and theological literacy of incoming freshmen have returned some interesting results:
- One-third could not put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ, and Pentecost.
- Half could not sequence the following: Moses in Egypt, Isaac’s birth, Saul’s death, and Judah’s exile.
- One-third could not identify Matthew as an apostle from a list of New Testament names.
- When asked to locate the biblical book supplying a given story, one-third could not find Paul’s travels in Acts, half did not know that the Christmas story was in Matthew, half did not know that the Passover story was in Exodus.
This is the context in which we preach. How have we ended up where we are? What has led us into this age of biblical illiteracy?
Neglect of Christian education.
Christian life has become a matter of experiencing rather than of one of learning. Learning was so important in the early Christian communities and studying or searching the scriptures was of paramount importance in their fellowship. But we are centred on our needs and experience today. We do not study the scriptures but tend just to ‘use’ them for our agenda.
We are influenced by our current culture in this shift. The radical individualism of the modernity has been endorsed and even co-opted by the church. We cater to this narcissistic individualism with a kind of 'needs' based preaching. And this kind of preaching or teaching has a ‘feel good’ orientation. We are not leading people on a pilgrimage of learning but just providing capsules for quick relief and to feel good. Thus our sermons become more therapeutic and less didactic. Our reading or studying is limited to those aspects of religion that particularly talk to our interests. There is too little education.
Loss of biblical narrative.
Even among the bible-reading Christians. We do not let the narratives of the scriptures speak to us; rather we pick and choose useful verses. The story that the biblical narratives are describing does not receive our attention. This is a drastic departure from the way the early Christian communities used the Bible. They found their stories in the story described in the Bible. Biblical narratives were their own narratives. Those narratives embraced the experience and readers of a later age. But we are estranged from the Biblical narratives and hence pick some suitable elements of the biblical text, often neglecting the overall story, and we fail to relate it to our own stories. Or we treat Scripture primarily as a collection of information, be it historical or moral.
This again contributes to a limited understanding of the Bible. Most churchgoers are unable to place a biblical text or reference to an event in its immediate narrative context or in the overall biblical context. To put it simply, the Bible tells us a story which is our story too. Without understanding the story and paying attention to the different levels of this story, one cannot understand the Bible.
Loss of confidence in reading and understanding the Bible.
The Bible has become a strange world we are hesitant to visit. The loss of narrative has surely made us strangers to the biblical story. But there is another reason: studying the Bible has become an expert’s job. The discourses about modern (and postmodern) methodologies have shattered the ordinary people’s confidence in reading and understanding the Bible.
Not that the people in the pews read scholarly discussions about the tools for biblical criticism. Rather they have been watching the scholars and church leaders handling scripture. They have been listening to sermons that came out of rigorous historical-critical exercises. They conclude that they do not have the historical knowledge or the linguistic skills required to study the Bible. Often there is some direct or indirect warning from the establishment that ordinary people are not competent to understand scripture. So we develop a tendency to put our trust in experts to tell us the real meaning.
How then can we preach intelligibly in such a context….? We will explore this in part 2 next week.
- The Rt Revd Dr John Perumbalath, Bishop of Bradwell