Biblical literacy is a topic I have not addressed in two years but in the time since it is an issue that has regularly cropped up. My definition of biblical literacy then was more than being good at Bible trivia but being equipped to handle the text responsibly. Literacy, as I learnt when I wrote the first series of posts on it, is a more complex phenomenon than simply being able to read and write in a particular language. The Bible itself is a collection of ancient texts that developed within an ancient culture, designed to accomplish certain things together. It is therefore a particular form of communication and as such a person has to specifically learn how to read, hear and think scripture. Since then my observation that most Christians are not Bible literate remains unchanged.
I have noticed there are various levels of biblical literacy. I roughly put them into three broad categories. On tier one are those who know popular verses and stories and normally quote scripture out of context. They literally know very little about the Bible but because they are vaguely familiar with it they think they know it. The vast majority of Christians I have encountered throughout my life are on this level. The second tier of people actually know the Bible. These are the type of people who study scripture not in a piece meal, quote mining fashion. These are the people who can compete in Bible knowledge quizzes. The handicap of these people is they do not know how the books of the Bible, particularly the Old and New Testaments, fit and work together. Those on third tier do have that map of scripture as a unified whole. While those on the second tier are much fewer than those on the first, those on the third tier are an even smaller group.
The other thing I have noticed interacting with people is that communication between these different levels of biblical literacy is often very difficult. This is because even though they all consider the Bible to be important, what they mean by that can be quite disparate. They each have pretty distinctive views of scripture. As I recently discovered, even with in a Christian tradition, where you have more or less doctrinal concord, theories of the Bible can be very different. Not recognising this on my part has led to some very confusing and frustrating conversations where I think we should understand one another but we clearly do not. During an episode of OnScript I came across some scholarship that helped me understand biblical literacy and the challenges to it much better.
In the above interview, Dr Brent Strawn discussed his latest book The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment. He drew the on the analogy the Old Testament being a language and demonstrating from research in the US (his primary audience) that the Old Testament is a dying language. By that analogy fluency in the New Testament is also bad since the New is founded on the Old. This language analogy resonated with me because it naturally complements and builds upon the idea of biblical literacy. While literacy is a more abstract concept, fluency is the about how proficient a speaker is. Dr Strawn’s work has also helped me understand why I do not understand those I think I should understand.
When a language falls into disuse or is not widely spoken, that is it loses many fluent speakers, it is showing signs of decay and death. One such sign is comething linguists call pidginization. Here in Ghana and many other sub-Saharan African countries we are very familiar with pidgin. It is a non-native language with a very limited vocabulary of a few words to allow for rudimentary conversation. Similarly, most Christians belong to the first tier of biblical literacy who speak this pidginized form of Bible e.g. “God gives Law, Moses receive”, “David kills Goliath!”, “Jesus is born, preaches, dies, rises again” etc. Absolutely no fluency in scripture. They can only tell you the main things without any detail or context. I have had debates with friends on theological issues where I have had to quote for them the scripture they are appealing to in disagreeing with me. Funnily enough, it never occurs to them they are way out of their depth. They react that way not just because they speak pidgin-Bible. Something else has happened as well.
Creole is when a pidgnized language gets mixed with another language and forms an entirely new language. When this happens to Christians and the way they use the Bible, they say things which are superficially biblical but it is actually a misappropriation of biblical language. This often gives them the false impression that they know the Bible when it is only shallow knowledge of it. With a little probing they are found out. I find in listening to Christian talk, whether sermons or conversations with individuals, we share some biblical vocabulary but we are saying very different things. Cultural Christianity in Ghana, which I have written about several times, is a great example of this. It is a version of Christianity syncretised with the indigenous polytheistic worldview. Automatically its Bible talk is creolized as well. Another popular creole in Ghana and the larger Charismatic world is Word of Faith doctrine. Unlike cultural Christianity, some adherents know the Bible well, which is a good thing, therefore you could say they have the standard vocabulary of biblical language but the problem is their theological grammar and syntax is not very good.
Problems in biblical literacy are not new. However, the language analogy exposes an important dimension of the problem. Multilingual people know they are proficient in a second language when they can think in that language without it being a mental translation. Fluency in a language requires being a capable thinker in that language. The church’s lack of fluency in scripture means we cannot reason or imagine in biblical categories. We cannot think within its worldview so we cannot articulate it. This is apparent when you challenge someone to expound from scripture a belief they have without appealing to isolated proof texts. It could simply be a biblically unsupported belief but in my experience most people’s theologies lack biblical grounding. This is a colossal systemic failure in church culture.
Language is a communal phenomenon. You acquire it as you live among its native speakers. The New Testament was produced within the early Jesus movement. When you read the New Testament it is dripping with various references and allusions to the Old Testament, which was their Bible and it is apparent they were fluent in it, far more than we are today. This means they could think within a biblical framework. You could not preach a sermon like Hebrews today because the Old Testament references would be lost on the congregation. Paul emphasised the renewal of the mind which only happens when your worldview is reconfigured through the sacred writings fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. So when Christians do not know scripture it is a very alarming thing because it means we are not equipped to have new ways of thinking without which we cannot live as new people. When Jesus came he preached this new vision of the Tanakh culminating in him. So even within the Jewish world, they had to acquire this familiar yet radically new biblical dialect. Paul had to teach the Gentiles this Jesus shaped Logos, the A – Z of all creation. No matter what period or culture, the Jesus view of scripture, is a foreign language you have to learn. Our communal failure to learn this language also means our teachers, which includes the previous generation, have failed us.
Even though in Dr Strawn’s work the diagnosis is grim, he believes the Bible, like other languages, can be revived. To push the linguistic analogy a little, further Dead ancient languages can be reconstructed. Hebrew was itself a dead language for about a millennium and it was revived using the Bible. I know Bible fluency can emerge in a community because I know it can be taught an individual. I am such a person who has moved through the tiers of biblical literacy. If we put in the effort we can usher in a new generation of biblically fluent Christians. Scripture being a new language means we must always speak it to grasp it and there are always new things to learn about it. Scripture is God’s word for us and as his people we need to know how to speak his language.