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.
Mark, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this. I think its important, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time working with students, who would rather read about awkward vampires than the Exodus story.
I plan to write some more. I’m not sure I’ve come to understand how to reach my freshman apart from their need to make a good grade in my course. But I am learning a lot about what the Bible is to them.
I agree Mark, and, yes, we are sounding more like our parents. Kids’ parents aren’t reading their Bible. Grandparents probably did, but not Mom and Dad. I have about 5 different types of Daily Bibles, in either a 1 Year or 2 Year format – all are great – and I rotate annually or bi-annually to keep it fresh. I share this with others at church and about 95% of the time people look at me like I have a third eye.
My Sunday School class began reading and watching “The Story” a few months back, and it has resonated well with most. The Story is the NIV version edited down to 31 stories. While it’s a little light, it at least gets you in the pool. The videos by Randy Frazee are excellent.
Kent, you’re right about the parents of our kids not reading. And you’re to be commended for your practices. May your tribe increase. What is that keeps you reading?
Good question Mark. I guess finding that $100 bill tucked away in the middle of something you’ve read a dozen times. You rub your eyes, and wonder how you missed it, or forgot about it. BTW – I’ve casually tried on-line versions of Daily reading, and I always fail miserably – just can’t get wrapped around a computer screen for meditation.
I have been reading a lot about a “Christocentric” hermeneutic – especially in response to Biblicism. Is this a new hermeneutic or is it just newly re-acquired by some theology writers and bloggers?
You mention the gospels as a key to understanding the rest of the NT. Do you see this as a key to understanding the OT also? Can I legitimately use the Jesus lens to deal with OT scriptures that make god a monster (and opposite of the God revealed in Jesus)? It works for me at my level of interpretive skills but I have good friends who will resist this when it clashes with their systematic theology.
Shannon, people have certainly been talking about a Christocentric hermeneutic for a long time. The writer of Hebrews says as much, “in these last days he has spoken to us through a son.” However, I think there are problems with a Christocentric hermeneutic. I prefer to think of a gospel hermeneutic or even a theocentric hermeneutic related to Christ. The gospels are not only about Jesus, but about how God is being faithful to the promises made to Israel. Jesus points beyond himself in the gospels to the Kingdom of God (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke), etc. There are other problems with a Christocentric hermeneutic, but I’ll go into that perhaps in a post.
Your larger concern, however, I think is valid. Jesus’ teaching about the coming Kingdom of God does call into question some perspectives about God offered in other parts of the Bible. Not every part of the OT is implicated in the picture we have of God in the gospels. Some parts get left behind.