Friday, May 01, 2009

Sunday Reflections for May 3, 2009: "Biblical illiteracy"

The denomination I belong to, the ELCA, is in the midst of a five year effort to promote reading the Bible called the Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI). I’ve been involved with a couple similar efforts earlier in my career and know the challenges such programs face. BOFI has appeared especially problematic to me primarily because its conception was so vague. Where earlier programs had highly developed (and expensive) materials at their center, BOFI seems to be more of a scatter gun approach with an optimistic simplicity verging on “open the Bible and they will come”.

Recently I became involved in an online discussion about BOFI on its web site. (It came to a premature and bizarre conclusion but that’s another story.) The posts I wrote helped me to realize how I have come around almost 180 degrees from beliefs I had when I first entered the ministry. In brief, where I once believed everyone should share my enthusiasm for reading and studying the Bible, now I see it as a much more esoteric activity requiring an interest few people share and an education few people have acquired. Coming from a Lutheran this borders on heresy.

The problem BOFI is trying address, it claims, is that of biblical illiteracy. As almost any preacher will tell you, it’s almost impossible to underestimate how little people today know about the Bible. One interesting item from the online discussion was the report of a survey comparing people’s attitudes toward the Bible and their knowledge of the Bible. Basically it showed that people who claimed a belief in biblical inerrancy generally had as little knowledge of biblical content as everyone else. So according to this survey, people who think the Bible is the verbatim “word of God” aren’t even reading it all that much! That Christians, including fundamentalists, don’t know their own scriptures is a sign that something very odd is going on.

Not surprisingly perhaps, those who proposed BOFI did so because they assume biblical illiteracy is a bad thing. From what I can tell, however, there was little or no discussion or defense of this notion. Had that happened, I think this “initiative” (a suspiciously vague word) might have had a clearer focus.

All this got started when the North Carolina Synod sent a “memorial” (formal request) to the ELCA asking it to address the problem of the lack of consensus in the church about the authority of the Bible or how to interpret it. In other words, they were asking the ELCA to clarify, just what is the Bible and how do we use it?

The memorial obviously arises out of concern over a number of issues the ELCA is struggling with and differences over how to use and interpret the Bible in resolving these differences. This problem has been festering for a long time and may well have come to a breaking point. The ELCA sexuality task force noted in its final report that a lack of consensus about the Bible is one of the main causes of division over issues of sexuality. No doubt this will be on full display at the churchwide assembly this August in Minneapolis.

Curiously, BOFI sidesteps this issue and yet claims to be a response to the memorial’s concerns. The assumption seems to be that all we have to do is get people to read the Bible and somehow our differences about it will get resolved. Well, I don’t believe that for a minute. The Reformers knew the Bible backwards and forwards and fought among themselves like tigers for decades. Their arguments have gone on to this day, if somewhat less ferociously. Indeed, both sides in the current controversy over homosexuality have ample supplies of Ph D theologians and biblical scholars arguing their respective cases.

Which raises the complaint one sometimes hears from nonreligious people and even from church members: “Why read the Bible? It just starts lots of arguments.” And so we are back where we started from: Why read the Bible? Perhaps BOFI’s unspoken response to the memorial is that we really don’t think the Bible is going to resolve these controversies. Certainly the church’s own history doesn’t give much support to such a hope.

The problem is that we can’t use the Bible to decide what the Bible is or how to read it. I could write a book which begins, “This is the perfect word of God and you must believe everything written here,” but you the reader must decide what to make of that. And the Bible isn’t anywhere near that clear! In fact, there are even arguments within the Bible about how to read the Bible. Anyone who thinks reading the Bible will resolve questions about homosexuality, abortion, the death penalty, gender roles, evolution, or any other contemporary controversy obviously hasn’t read it.

The questions raised by the North Carolina Synod are certainly legitimate and serious ones but BOFI is not going to resolve them. They do need to be resolved somehow, however. The sexuality task force’s final report basically says, “We can’t go on like this”. If, as expected, this summer’s churchwide assembly approves the task force’s recommendation to recognize gay relationships and allow openly gay clergy, then the ELCA will at least be rejecting one literalistic way of reading and interpreting the Bible. (Some would argue this was done forty years ago when the predecessor Lutheran churches approved the ordination of women.) Perhaps then the church can move on to address the questions raised in the memorial in a more systematic way, in order to have a consistent guide on biblical authority and interpretation for church action in the future.

But this still leaves us with the Book of Faith Initiative. If BOFI isn’t addressing the question of what the Bible is or how to read and interpret it, then what is its purpose? Just why are we trying to get people to read the Bible? Is it, really, all that important? We’ll turn to those questions next time.

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