The New America and the New Bible Illiteracy

The New <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />America and the New Bible Illiteracy<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Clearly there is a need to treat biblical illiteracy in this
country with all the urgency of a medical emergency.
          I recently spent a week in Paris for no better reason than it's Paris.  I had studied there years ago and visited many times since, and yet I found myself returning to the same places-Altitude 95 on the Eiffel Tower for dinner, Notre Dame for the choir, and the Louvre-because it's the Louvre. But perhaps my favorite spot in Paris is Ste. Chappelle.
          Built by King Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns, part of the "True Cross," and other supposed relics from the Holy Land, the chapel is almost swallowed up today by the Palais of Justice on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame.  The climb up the spiral staircase to the second floor chapel is well worth the effort.  There you see the most breath-taking stained glass windows in the world.
The tiny chapel's walls consist almost entirely of glass--6,588 square feet of gorgeous glass.  A regular stop for students on European study tours and tourists alike, everyone stands in breathless awe before the glass.  Most also stand in ignorance of what they're looking at.
          The 1,134 scenes on the windows depict the Christian story from the Garden of Eden to the end, Genesis through Revelation.  The great rose window depicts the Apocalypse.  Without a knowledge of the Bible, however, the brilliant windows of Ste. Chappelle are just pieces of cut glass.
          In a Los Angeles Times article, professor of humanities at Yale University Harold Bloom observed, "The Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, educational system, and our entire history until the last 20 to 30 years."  What Bloom has described is the difference between Old America and New America."[1]  Old America was Bible literate; New America is not.
          First, let's define terms.  What do we mean when we talk about Bible literacy?  Is Bible literacy different from reading literacy?  Can a person who is non-literate be Bible literate? 
In a chapel address at Okalahoma Baptist University, Dr. Rick Byargeon's observed that "In a world where postmodern themes infiltrate thought processes, Americans are losing knowledge of biblical texts and how to interpret them."  As a part of OBU's Herschel H. Hobbs lectureship series, Byargeon commented, "The term 'illiteracy' immediately brings to mind the inability to read or write, but in the case of Americans, it is becoming 'a lack or familiarity with language or literature.'"[2]
          The Difficulty of Defining Literacy
Everyone claims to know what literacy is; just ask them.  But defining literacy isn't as easy as it may appear.  Bible literacy may well fall into St. Augustine's timely category: "I know what it is until you ask me."
Ohio Eminent Scholar, professor of English and History, Harvey Graff argues that we are today in the midst of a 'literacy myth.'  He claims we do not know precisely what we mean by literacy.[3] 

About 90 million Americans are functionally illiterate.
The Family Literacy Council defines literacy as: "The ability to read, write and communicate in one's native language, to compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals and live to the best of one's ability."[4] 
But according to The Literacy Action, Inc. (LAI), the current meaning of literacy in America is: "the ability to read, write and speak in English and compute and solve problems on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals and develop one's knowledge and potential."[5]
            While definitions vary, traditional definitions of literacy almost always include reading, writing and speaking a language.
          Bible Literacy
          If experts cannot define simple literacy, how do we expect to agree on a definition for Bible illiteracy?  We probably can't.
          Nonetheless, for our purposes here, let's establish that when we talk about Bible illiteracy in America we are not talking about the inability of some Americans to read.     
A functional illiterate is one who has begun to read and write in school but who did not progress beyond eight grades, and did not continue to read and write regularly after dropping out of school.  Within two years of dropping out of school, those who fall into this category often can read simple sentences but no longer commonly receive, recall, or reproduce concepts, ideas, precepts, and principles through literary means. In France, the common terminology that is used to describe functional illiteracy is "educational wastage."[6]
            As I am using the term "Bible illiteracy", the definition relates to a lack of familiarity with the Bible, not to a lack of ability to read it.  Bible illiteracy is not the unfortunate, unintentional inability to read and understand Scripture; it is the unfortunate, unintentional neglect of Scripture.
          Bible literacy as behavior  
  Since Bible literacy is difficult to define in linguistic terms, given the variations of understanding with what constitutes literacy, let's define it in behavioral terms.  If you are biblically literate, what will you be able to do?  What is the behavior of a biblically literate person?

Bible literacy occurs when a person, with access to a Bible in                      a language he or she understands, consistently reads or hears                  the truth of the Word of God with personal understanding                        and grows toward spiritual maturity as an outcome.

           There is much more to understanding and obeying the Bible than just Bible literacy.  Reading is fundamental, but it isn't enough.  Just reading the Bible or hearing it read doesn't qualify as spiritual maturity.  However, taking the first baby steps toward spiritual maturity means taking initial steps in Bible literacy.  You have to read the Bible before you can interpret it and apply it.  If we neglect the text of Scripture, spiritual maturity will always be an unrealized pipedream.
          Charting Bible Illiteracy
Early in my thinking about this subject I developed a scale for Bible literacy.  It's a continuum, a line along which each of us finds ourselves in relationship to how well we relate to the Bible and its Author.  This scale demonstrates that there is much more to Bible literacy than simply reading.
          Each increment of this scale moves a person from pagan ignorance of the Bible to full connectivity with the Author and full activity in service to Him.  Note the progression from darkness to light.

-3      No knowledge of the Bible at all.
                   A Bible?  What's a Bible?  I have never seen a Bible before and I
 don't know what you're talking about.
-2      Familiarity with the Bible but no trust in its claims or authority.
                   A Bible?  Yes, I have one someplace, but it's just for people like my
 grandmother.  I don't read the Bible because I don't think it's what some
 people claim it to be.  It has no impact on my life.
-1      Familiarity with the Bible but minimal trust in it's claims or
authority and never read it or hear its truth so the Bible has little
or no personal impact on your life.
                   A Bible?  Yes, I have one but there's not much in it that appeals to
 me.  I don't know if it's what it claims to be or not.  Who's to say?  It has
 little influence on me because I don't read it.
+1     Trust in the Bible and its claims and authority but only
          occasionally read it or hear its truth so the Bible has only
occasional personal impact on your life.
                   A Bible?  Yes, it's God's Word.  I believe it's inspired by God and
should be read and obeyed, but I only occasionally get around to reading
it myself. In fact, I have three copies, but I don't read any of them more
than once a week.
+2     Trust in the Bible and its claims and authority and regularly read
it or hear its truth with understanding so the Bible has regular
personal impact on your life.
          A Bible?  Yes, I have one and read it regularly.  I believe it's
inspired by God.  I'm in a Bible reading program at church.  I also read a
verse or two along with my devotional book on a fairly regular basis.
+3     Trust in the Bible and its claims and authority and daily read it or
hear its truth so the Bible produces a passion to connect
personally with the Author and induces the reader to share Him
with others.
          A Bible?  Read it?  Are you kidding?  I want to know God so badly
that I devour the Bible daily.  I used to read a couple of verses along with
my devotional but now that's not enough for me.  Through reading God's
Word I get to know Him intimately and, as a result, I am energized to
share God's story with my friends and family.
          Ultimately, the goal of reading the Bible is to develop such a degree of faith in its claims and understanding of its content that you passionately connect with its Author and share Him consistently with your friends and family.  Anything short of this is short of the goal of Bible literacy. 
However, Bible literacy, as defined in this book, occurs when we begin to read the Word of God, gain some understanding from it, and allow it to have regular impact on our lives.  That's not full-blown spiritual maturity, but neither is it the full-blown neglect of Scripture that is so prevalent in the Church today.  Bible literacy, then, occurs at about a +2 with the goal of moving on to a +3. 
          Finding your position
          The key question you should ask yourself is: Where am I on this continuum?  Am I in the minus column or the plus column?  And if I am in the plus column, what am I receiving from my Bible that truly influences my life and connects me with God and service to Him?

No one should be satisfied with a +2, but it's the place to start just as Bible literacy is the place to start on the road to spiritual maturity.
In my thinking, Bible literacy does not indicate full spiritual maturity, but it is a necessary first step on the road to full spiritual maturity.  The only way to become mature in Christ is to through the door of Bible literacy.
We are now ready to talk seriously about what I think is the number one issue facing both the depth and growth of the Church-creeping Bible illiteracy.  In the next chapter we will trace the five decades of decline in Bible literacy from the 1960s to the present.  If you were born after 1960, Bible literacy has all but disappeared in your lifetime.

[1]  Harold Bloom, "How Can We Teach Them Shakespeare When They've Never Read Chaucer?", The Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2004.

[2]  Rick Byargeon, "Biblical Illiteracy Confronted In Spring Hobbs Lecture," 04/02/01

[3]  Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth
Century (New York: Acadmeic Press, 1979).



[6]  UNESCO has recommended the following definition:  "A person is functionally illiterate who cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community's development."
Read more in:
How America Forgot the Bible and Why It Matters To You
(Crossway Books)
                            Check it out at yur local Christian bookstore or                           
go online at or call 1-800-759-2425

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