I am not sure when it happened, but here we are again.
Christianity Today recently published an article about the unfortunate mislabeling of ‘book studies’ as ‘Bible studies.’
“…Biblical illiteracy pervades our churches,” writes author Jen Wilkin, “unintentionally aided by our labeling.”
I have the sinking feeling that our labeling is not the only force generating the unintended consequence of biblical illiteracy. It seems likely that we’re falling for a familiar trap.
Wilkin later quotes Howard Hendricks’ challenge to bible teachers, “Never do for your students what they can do for themselves.”
On the issue of Biblical illiteracy, Hugh Whelchel, writing for the antithetical for Faith, Work & Economics, exposits a 2013 LifeWay Research study on the consumption of the Bible by Protestants outside of a church setting. Roughly equal respondents indicated they read the Bible ‘every day’ and ‘rarely or never’ (both approximately 18%). Whelchel juxtaposes these poles with the overwhelming indication that nearly all (90%) responders “desire to please and honor Jesus in all that [they] do.” The conclusion of the author is that the disconnection between regular bible reading and the desire to properly honor Jesus is a bold indication of the problem of biblical illiteracy.
How can we serve a God we do not know, and we do not know Him because we have not learned who He is — and He desires to be served — through His gift of scripture?
Yet, I am left with a few questions of my own to answer:
What is the proper way to read scripture? The improper way? When we read the scriptures, are we reading them properly? Who can determine the right and wrong ways?
How do we properly interpret passages for our own times and experiences?
Who interprets these passages most properly?
Are we served by yielding the interpretation to an authority? How do we identify ‘safe’ authorities for the interpretation of scripture?
I have some answers to these questions, but not all of them. And I am not entirely confident in the answers I have, which only leads me to more questions.
And so, in a glut of unanswered or partially answered questions, the Bible becomes a kind of magical relic, best left to the hands of an expert with the right pedigree and more training to interpret than a layperson like me.
In a world of experts, we all feel a bit like we’re hacking our way through each day, anyhow. Why leave the interpretation of scripture to chance?
Majoring in Minors
The corporate exposition of the Word of God doesn’t often do much to help the average Joe. I have listened to plenty of sermon series that may spend hours on a mere handful of verses. There is often nothing deep about this kind of ‘deep dive’ into the text; it is often the same shallow pool of self-help behavior modification, emphasizing not the power of the Spirit of God in one’s life, but instead demonstrating the ability of the preacher to find enough tangential examples of a truism he can speak on for 30 minutes.
And this isn’t just the worn out territory of bad preachers. John Piper, arguably one of the most influential and oft-cited preachers of truth in our time, has a sermon series expositing Romans verse by verse that takes 6.4 days of listening to complete. That’s 153.6 hours of preaching!
So much for Peter’s measly 200 words in Solomon’s Colonnade in Acts 3 that grew the church by 5000 men and their families.
And so what are we to make of it?
I can read Romans and give it a fair amount of contemplation, internalizing Paul’s words and applying them to my life in a meaningful way, praying over them and breathing them in, studying the characteristics of our God through the text and in my life, and still have 150 or so hours to spare for Pastor John.
Am I doing something wrong?
The Written Word and the Living Word
The late Dr. Knox Chamblin, Pauline scholar and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, in a survey course covering the Gospel accounts and the book of Acts recorded by the University for posterity, talks of “the Written Word” (that is the Bible) corresponding directly to “the Living Word,” (that is Christ).
And it is that Living Word, and his Paraclete – that is, one made of the same stuff, the Holy Spirit – that transformed a knower of only the Written Word into a Proclaimer of the Living Word. Saul the Persecutor of Christians knew more of the Scripture than most, as he was a learned and trained ‘expert.’ But, it was an encounter with the Living Word on that Damascus Road that made all the difference.
So what do we make of those who, in history, had little access to the Written Word, but abundant access to the Living Word?
What do we make of those who, even today, have such abundant access to the Written Word, but so little access to the Living Word?
Which of the two – if either – is the expert?
The issue of Biblical Illiteracy is perhaps one side of a problem we don’t want to recognize. Perhaps there is more yeast in our pews than we’d like to admit. Perhaps the issue is the same lukewarm, milquetoast boys yearning merely to be fed that we’ve known throughout history.
On the other side of that coin – and the side that is perhaps the Chicken in this Egg scenario – is the expert pastor and his expert staff designing just the kind of comfortable experience where overeating is expected.
Our churches are more like chain restaurants than family kitchens. The food is too often rather bland and predictable. The wait staff is generally friendly to the customers, but their real relationships are with one another. The customers don’t expect to help cook or serve. They’ll never wash a dish, no matter how backed up things get.
The family kitchen is a much different atmosphere and there is more work to be done when the dishes need washing, the food needs cooking, or the table needs setting, the relationships are different and deeper. When brothers and sisters aren’t present, they are missed and asked about and checked on.
And the food comes from old recipes. The flavors come with memories and are passed down to new generations.
That is family and it is the kind of experience with the Living Word that drove the disciples to connect the dots of scripture from their family history to their family future.
“Never do for your students what they can do for themselves.” Allow church to be a family kitchen. Let us wash dishes. Let us lose track of time. Let us make mistakes. Let us get to know one another. This is how you make bible literacy a topic that matters, because it is a matter of family.
This is how “worker learns to do the good work,” and to be a “worker unashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”