Cultural, biblical literacy is pretty poor and getting worse. I know this because the freshman survey course I teach on the Bible at a Christian college is long on inexperience. Even the kids who grew up going to Sunday School know very little about the Bible (makes you wonder what they’re doing in Sunday School).
Their biggest difficulty in rectifying this situation is the Bible itself. It’s a tough book to navigate without a little guidance. It doesn’t read like other books that our students read. It’s not just the number of ancient references and practices they have to encounter–the literature of the Bible just moves differently.
(As an aside, I think part of this is that the Bible is very sparse on the inner motivations or internal dialogue of characters, the focus of much modern literature. But I digress).
So, how do you take people with very little experience with Scripture and make reading it an experience they can value and long for? A lot can and should be said on this subject (and perhaps I will in future posts), but I want to begin with one observation.
One of my Bible professors, Tom Olbricht, use to pull the change out of his pocket in class (I try to do this with my students, but never seem to have any change). All of it is worth something, he would say, but its not all of equal value. This is true with Scripture as well. It’s all worth something, but its not all equally meaningful. Reading Scripture well is an attempt to discover which parts are the $100 bill and which are the nickels and dimes.
Jesus recognized this. There were weightier matters for him. Paul knew that some things were of first importance, others evidently of lesser importance. And all of us who have read Scripture for awhile know this as well. We have come to value or appeal to some texts over others.
So, how do you find the $100 bills? There are many ways to get after this question. We learn a lot, for instance, from noticing which stories get used over and over again in Scripture. For instance, there are numerous recitals in the OT, places where Israel pauses to get their story straight, to remember what they are up to in the world. The only story that appears in each of these is the story of the Exodus. Not only that, but the Exodus is alluded to over and over again throughout Scripture. We are on high ground in Scripture when we are dealing with the Exodus story.
Compare this story with, for instance, the “prayer of Jabez,” the focus of a wildly popular book a few years ago. The prayer of Jabez is an obscure biblical story. It never gets used again or appealed to anywhere else in Scripture, and it doesn’t pick up valuable, prominent themes that inform prayer elsewhere in Scripture. It may be a nickel or a dime, and likely shouldn’t be the model for your prayer life.
But we also learn things about the $100 bill from the structure of the Bible. The big narratives come first, both in the OT and NT. The gospels were not the first documents produced by the earliest Christians. In fact, the gospel of John may be one of the latest to be written. But they appear first in the NT. Evidently, understanding the story of Jesus might be a key to understanding the rest of the NT, and coming to a Christian understanding of the rest of the Bible. I don’t have a problem telling people that if they’re interested in the Bible as a door into Christian understanding, they should start with the gospels.
Now telling people inexperienced with the Bible that some parts are more valuable than others is perhaps not much of a short-cut in cultivating a meaningful relationship with Scripture. But I think its an important guiding principle, and helpful to know when encountering the often times disorienting world of this ancient text.