What Exactly is Biblical Literacy?

Ezekiel eating the scroll (Eze. 3:1)

OK quick – what are the first three books of the Bible? Was Paul one of the twelve disciples? Did Abraham lead the Israelites out of Egypt?

If you can’t answer these questions (though I really hope you can) you shouldn’t be surprised. Research has shown that most Americans know very little about the Bible – presumably much less than what was known a generation ago.

“…A Famine in the Land”

Pastors, authors and pundits are saying that we are in a famine in terms of our biblical literacy. This famine is not due to lack of access though. According to the Barna Group, “Nearly nine out of 10 adults and teens report owning a Bible, a proportion that has held steady over six years.” The problem comes in that according to the same research only about 35% of those responding read the Bible once a week or more, and over 40% read it less than once a year if at all (not counting reading in church). Because the Bible isn’t read routinely by many in our society, we’ve lost that knowledge of it that was once considered a given.

Some point to the loss of Biblical speech in the public sphere, including government and public schools, as one reason the culture has become biblically illiterate. Ask others and you’ll get a variety of answers: don’t have the time, it’s too confusing, it’s boring, it doesn’t “speak to me”, I don’t know where to start, I’m not smart enough. Add our cultural cynicism towards Christianity and the Bible to the equation and it’s not too difficult to see there’s a lot working against Biblical literacy.

While Christian leaders like to point fingers at “the world” regarding Biblical illiteracy, there are plenty of ways that the Christian culture has shot itself in the foot when it comes to encouraging people to read the Bible. Study Bibles are a great example. I love my study Bible. I appreciate its cross-references, explanations of the translated words, illustrations, and context-rich commentary. I love this stuff so much that so many times I’ll sit down to read the Bible and not even get past the introduction to the book! While certainly helpful, the sheer volume of information on a page can make the simple act of reading difficult. Publishers push out study Bibles like candy too.

Adding to the haze are all of the books about biblical history, context, commentary, application, and other reference books that may lead some readers to believe that they can’t fully understand or read the Bible on their own, or simply take the place of Bible reading as well. Even our worship services have changed so that it’s not necessary to bring your Bible to church because it’s up on the screen overhead.

These factors have led many to say that Biblical literacy is at an all-time low, and that we need to do more to raise the general knowledge of the Bible and it’s contents, especially among Christians. That’s true, but let’s look a bit at what is meant by “Biblical literacy”. Which is surprisingly hard to do.

The Problem of the Problem: What is Biblical Literacy?

There’s been a lot of talk about the decline in readers of the Bible, but it’s hard to get a clear picture of the problem at times. References to “survey results” are sometimes vague and tangential, sort of like references to “nine out of ten dentists”.  What is asked in these surveys is usually never addressed. Some refer to anecdotal evidence or even TV “man-on-the-street” videos, which are intended to be comedic rather than research. It’s also rarely clear if when asked if people read “the Bible” if what is meant is a paper-and-page book, an app, an e-book, or a daily devotional. So there’s a cloud around the research that is thicker than it needs to be.

More importantly I think, “Biblical literacy” has been defined simply as the acquisition and accumulation of facts about and contained in the Bible, and the ability to recall those facts immediately. An online Biblical literacy quiz created by Biola University includes questions such as “in Daniel’s dream, how many beasts emerged from the sea?” and “who was Eutychus?” Is this what is meant by Biblical literacy? Is it true that, as Albert Mohler says, biblical knowledge is “the central aim of ministry?”

Furthermore, what exactly is the baseline by which we judge literacy according to this view? Granted, one would expect someone with a basic knowledge of the Bible to be able to name the four gospels. But should someone who is “Biblically literate” be able to name the kings of Israel and Judah in order? Exactly how much knowledge is required, and what facts are significant enough to know? There is no standard except that what the reviewer decides upon (keeping in mind that the reviewer is basing the test on what they know and assume that everyone should know the same information).

Literacy is about more than facts

I think if we want to talk about Biblical literacy, we need to move beyond seeing it as the result of merely acquired knowledge about it. Literacy has typically referred to the ability to read, write and communicate. Biblical literacy according to the view presented above would add that not only should one read the Bible but know it through memorization and recall. Steelman, Pierce, and Koppenhaver though note that literacy also involves the ability to create meaning from what is read and written:  “To be literate is to be able to gather and to construct meaning using written language”. It’s not just facts and the ability to recall them, but the ability to use them to create meaning: about life, about God, about the world, and my place in all of it. It’s one thing to read a book, and another to be able to recall facts contained in that book. But it is quite another thing entirely to allow the narrative contained in that book to shape your thinking. This past summer my oldest son probably read ten books at least. I’m not kidding. But can he recall minute details about each one? Has each shaped or changed his view about something? Even though he read a lot, is he literate?

To really understand and improve Biblical literacy, we need to move beyond seeing it as a source of trivia – which I feel the previously mentioned view does. It involves facts, but no meaning behind those facts. Our world today is not starved for more facts about anything, but it is starving for meaning. In this way I disagree with Mohler’s argument that ministry is primarily about dispensing knowledge. You can have lots of knowledge about something and have it not impact your life. Where I went to seminary there were plenty of students who were reading the Bible scrupulously in the original languages, memorizing facts and knowledge by the bucketful, and yet did not consider themselves followers of Christ. In the same way that memorizing the periodic table doesn’t make me a chemist, becoming a biblical scholar doesn’t make me a Christian. Facts don’t change lives or the world, it’s the meaning created by people using those facts and applying them personally.

Part of reclaiming that meaning involves reclaiming our Bible – not from outside forces, but from what we’ve done to it. Take something as innocent as chapter and verse markings. While we might think that it came handed down from heaven with all those numbers inserted in the text, the Bible never had chapter indicators until the ninth century, and our common numbered verses didn’t appear until the 16th. While these have added to the ability to refer to passages very specifically (even to parts of verses) it also allows us to remove those passages from their context completely. The Bible becomes a collection of verses rather than a narrative. The Bible has become commoditized, atomized, and personalized to the point that it’s become, according to Glenn Paauw, a sad shadow of what it was.

“…the long-term accumulation of all these additives has turned the Bible into something it is not. The Bible is not a reference book. It is not a numbered collection of 30,000 individual truthlets to be searched out, verse-jacked, and piled up into giant hammers of righteousness for whacking each other. It is also not a basket of little spiritual feathers to be fluffed up into giant pillows to make us feel better.”

Biblical literacy has to begin not with accumulating truthlets, but with reading, understanding, and finding meaning in the grand truth of scripture. It begins with reading and hearing of course, and yes the pundits are right in that Christians should be reading the Bible more. But you have to ask the question why? I fear that what we currently think of as Biblical literacy makes knowledge the end rather than the means to an end, and simply makes “Biblical literacy” another form of works righteousness. “I know more about the Bible than most Christians, and they should know as much as I do. And I certainly wish those unwashed heathens read it more too!”

In Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 3 he is given a scroll by God and told to eat it. Ezekiel ingests the very word of God. But that is not the end – he is told to “…go and give its message to the people of Israel. (NLT)” That is Biblical literacy. To promote it, we need to move beyond reading the Bible as a textbook we will be quizzed on at some future time.

4 thoughts on “What Exactly is Biblical Literacy?

  1. Dear writer, your article has helped me understand what Biblical Literacy is to a great extent. And so, I’d like to ask if can share your article in my college magazine?
    It’s called Faithlink. I’m from Nagaland, a small state in India.

  2. Good point made – it inspired me to write a Bible quiz to present to people at Friday Night Market night in our area.


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