Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sunday Reflections for May 10, 2009: "Biblical illiteracy" (conclusion)

(This continues last Sunday’s Reflections column posted below on May 1.)

I’ve basically stopped encouraging people to read the Bible. Well, that’s not entirely true. I still think it’s very worth reading but I just know that most people aren’t going to do it whatever I say or think. Reading the Bible nowadays is kind of like flossing: everybody agrees it’s something we should do but how many of us actually do it? I know how dental hygienists feel.

The ELCA’s Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI) was launched last year as an attempt to improve “biblical literacy” in the church. Its stated goal is to make us “more fluent in the first language of faith, the language of Scripture.” I’m sorry to burst people’s bubbles but it “ain’t gonna happen”. And it seems as if the church already knows it. Thus far BOFI looks both unfocused and half-hearted. I was at a pastors’ meeting a couple months ago where the opinion was expressed that BOFI seems to have fizzled out. No one there disagreed. The BOFI web site trumpets that “Bible studies are coming!” Coming? Nearly two years after the initiative was approved and a year after it was formally begun they’re still only “coming”? It doesn’t seem the ELCA’s heart is really in this.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has enjoyed using the phrase “first language of faith” in talking about the Bible. That probably is a good way to describe it because it helps make clear what a problem the church has on its hands. For the reality is that this is a language fewer and fewer church members speak anymore. Regardless of the Bible translation one uses, the concepts in its pages are becoming increasingly meaningless and/or incomprehensible. Without this “language” people can no longer speak or think about their faith in Christian terms.

BOFI’s basic flaw is that it doesn’t recognize where the problem lies. It’s not with the people—it’s with the book. The Bible simply is a difficult book to read. There are good reasons why fewer and fewer people read it or are familiar with it. It is an ancient book (collection of books, of course), by multiple authors, in languages no one speaks anymore and which are difficult to translate. It assumes a world view vastly different from our own. It often talks about topics and issues which are meaningless to us and/or of no interest. Other than that, it’s great!

The simple reality is that people aren’t much interested in reading 2000 year old books of any kind. Calling such a book “The Holy Bible” doesn’t change that. Of course, someone can simply pick it up and begin reading and find it of value. People have done this on their own for generations. The reality today, however, is that for more and more people (especially if they’re under 50) this experience is of little or no value. They might as well be reading the phone book. I’ve led many Bible studies. I try to use the Bible a lot in my preaching. The biggest obstacle in both instances is that there is just so much explaining to do!

I have been asked many times what the best Bible translation is. Now I usually chuckle and say, “That depends what you want.” Most people say they want the version that’s easiest to read. Fine, but be aware that will also be the most inaccurate. “Oh, but I want it to be accurate.” Okay, but then it’s going to be hard to read. The “best” translations try to find some happy medium, such as the NRSV we use on Sunday mornings. Still, it is very much a compromise and you are never sure whether what you are hearing or reading is actually the thought of the biblical writer or that of the translator or of a centuries long tradition of translation and interpretation.

Does it matter? For what is often called “devotional reading”, perhaps not. But this kind of reading is often dependent on years of previous experience which most people no longer have. Such people often pick up the Bible expecting great things but quickly get lost in meandering passages of obscure history, ritual regulations, genealogies, exotic poetry, or even nightmarish prophesy. They soon put it down and head for the “Spirituality” section of the book store for something more understandable and relevant.

Where it very much matters is when we try to make personal or societal decisions based on what the Bible purportedly teaches. In recent years there have been multiple issues on which “Bible believing Christians” have taken combative stands based on what they believe the Bible says. In many of these cases I think they have based their positions on a serious misreading of biblical texts, attempting to uncritically apply ancient thought to modern issues, many of which the biblical writers couldn’t have even imagined let alone understood.

I do believe the Bible has some profound things to say about a variety of theological and existential questions—about God and about life, if you will. But they take effort to “tease out” because the Bible is an ancient document, written in a fashion we are not accustomed to and with a worldview very different from ours. Often ignoring this, the church today is stretching and straining the Bible to be things it isn’t and to speak to us on topics it knows nothing about.

Frankly, I think our biggest problem may be laziness. Even in the ancient world the Bible wasn’t treated as an answer book, which is what we often want it to be. Those who actually read it were few, and their opinions about it were listened to only if they had many years of study and reflection under their belts. Modern scholarship has actually discovered a great deal about the Bible but much of it is ignored because it doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Modern biblical study’s totally unsurprising conclusion is that the Bible is theology, through and through. Thus, it isn’t history, biology, geology, astronomy, economics, political science, psychology or any of the other contemporary subjects which so fascinate us and about which we have so many questions. For answers to them, we must look elsewhere.

So the question the church must answer is, does theology matter anymore? Because it is afraid that it really doesn’t is one of the main reasons the church wants the Bible to be something other than what it is. As a result, preachers proclaim to their congregations their opinions about marriage, personal finance, child rearing, homosexuality, international relations, health and fitness, and countless other topics, but hide and disguise them with isolated and out-of-context Bible verses. And the innocent parishioners respond in approving amazement, “He/she makes the Bible so clear.” Yeah, right.

The church does indeed have a Bible problem but it’s not people’s ignorance about it. The question is whether the church can let the Bible be what it is: the collected thoughts of a particular ancient people, containing their prejudices and ignorance but also some genuinely profound insight into living with God and with one another in our paradoxical world of beauty and pain, purpose and confusion.

Given that the Bible has been the foundation of the church’s life, the question arises: Is that enough? If it is, then the church needs to do the hard work of figuring out how the Bible as it really is, warts and all if you will, can function that way. If that Bible isn’t enough, then we have arrived at the epicenter of the church’s crisis today. In that case, it must either find a new foundation for its being and purpose or recognize that the current decline will continue to its inevitable conclusion. To me, unimaginative and half-hearted efforts like BOFI make it seem that the church, if only subconsciously, has already made its decision.


Obie Holmen said...


Your posts have me thinking ... not about big picture of declining church and not middling picture of how BOFI could be better structured but small picture and how I might better approach my own teaching. I think you're right, honesty is called for in dealing with what scripture is and not lowering our eyes and mumbling in the face of stale preconceptions. I think you're right too, that changes in faith that may result are more honest and mature.

I am less pessimistic than you about the state of spirituality in America today. Church declining, yes, but spirituality, no. My 31 year old daughter is a prime example. She may drop into a Greek orthodox church on Easter after celebrating passover with her Jewish friends. She is heavily into Yoga which she refers to as her "Shabbat", a still place of solace. I think her "unbelieving faith" is mature and healthy, unfettered of dogma and creedalism. She is one of the most spiritual persons I know.

With your post, I see your own blog url, and I'm going to add this comment there also, and add your blog to my blogroll.

Doug said...

Actually I agree with you Obie. While I think the church is fading I definitely believe people will continue to meet their spiritual needs in a variety of ways. I think your daughter's experience is a perfect example of this. Here in Chicago, especially for those in their 20s and 30s, this type of spiritual/religious smorgasboard approach is not at all unusual. I suspect this kind of experimentation may go on for quite awhile.