The Trajectory of Biblical Literacy

Bible3 (250x227) biblical literacyGeorge Lindbeck, longtime professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, once commented on the trajectory of biblical literacy during his decades-long teaching career. Phil Ryken, who attended the meeting, recently shared Lindbeck’s comment. According to him, Lindbeck lamented the fact that evangelical students at the end of his teaching career know less about the Bible than the non-Christian students he taught at the beginning of his career. That’s a remarkable transition in just one lifetime.

People often lament that today’s students just aren’t like they used to be. Apparently students in earlier generations wrote like Hemmingway, reasoned like Aristotle, read 1,000 pages an hour with total recall, and never complained about doing homework. I think they could also capture moonlight with their hands and weave it into magical cloaks that would let them fly to the stars. They were impressive beings.

Obviously I’m a little skeptical about some of the criticisms often leveled at today’s students. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with this one. The overwhelming consensus of those involved in biblical education, whether in the church or in academia, is that we have witnessed a monumental shift in biblical literacy in just a few decades.

People often say that the church is only one generation away from losing its commitment to the gospel and the Bible. Lindeck’s comment is a powerful reminder of how true that can be.

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3 Responses to “The Trajectory of Biblical Literacy”

  1. edwardtbabinski August 23, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    It’s not that kids aren’t reading. Look at the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games series, but the art of storytelling, of the novel, drama (video and TV) has advanced beyond biblical times. The Bible isn’t THAT gripping or enveloping compared even with the Dr. Who series (many bibliobloggers or Bible loving bloggers are into Dr. Who these days from James McGrath to Mark Goodacre including some conservative ones), neither are there any new stories being added to the biblical canon as there are to the Dr. Who canon, which is ongoing. So boredom of some sort is bound to set in.

    The Bible in the end seems to be most prized by Christian apologists, secular scholars intent on uncovering some particular puzzle, and “true believers” intent on not being “of the world” but concentrating instead on becoming a quote-meister, a living Bible.

    We are probably at that place in human social evolution where doctrinal/dogmatic religious ideas are being questioned — as well as religious (and/or human) ideals being mixed and matched in new formulations like what happens in genes as they mutate. We are daring to create new mythologies, new stories that enthrall, teach and move us. Our own new worlds and mythologies, from superheroes in comic books and movies, the dramatic arts in general, as well as today’s heroes of science.

    So where does that leave religions, people of THE book? Is there a best book in the world? One story to rule them all?

    I’d say that even the best book remains a mere book, and not life itself. Even the best book is one that can eventually bore you, if only through repetition. Be open to the best in every person, every experience and every book, and use your better judgment, built upon a lifetime of your own experiences. Books are not life, and cannot lead your life for you. You must decide. Even Bible believers have to decide which passages in Scripture deserve greater emphasis than others. And if an action commends itself to your conscience you don’t need a book to also tell you whether it is “good” or not.

  2. edwardtbabinski August 23, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    BETTER VERSION: It’s not that kids aren’t reading or into dramas or heroes, but the art of storytelling has advanced beyond biblical times. The Bible isn’t THAT gripping or enthralling these days, it’s just a tale about a particular “land” in the OT, and a tale about heaven being overhead and hell below in the NT. Neither does the Bible feature such familiar modern day literary devices as parody, frame story, in media res, back story, and romance (not to be confused with the Song of Song’s love poem with no story to go with it, which is also not to be confused with becoming a bride of Christ), which according to many literary experts could have improved the drama of the tales. Neither are there any new stories being added to the biblical canon as there are to the Dr. Who canon, which is ongoing. So boredom of some sort is bound to set in.

    The Bible seems to be most prized by conservative Christian apologists; and by “true believers” intent on not being “of the world” but concentrating instead on becoming a a living Bible, and by secular scholars intent on uncovering some particular puzzle. And even the apologists are lamenting how little Christians now their own Bible, and concerned that even Evangelicals are unable to arrive at the same interpretations of Genesis and Revelation among other passages or sections.

    We are at that place in human social evolution where doctrinal/dogmatic religious ideas are being questioned — as well as religious (and/or human) ideals being mixed and matched to form new stories — like what happens in genes as they mutate. We are mutating our own memes, daring to create new stories that enthrall, teach and move us. We are boldly creating new internal worlds and mythologies, superheroes, heroes of science.

    So where does that leave the people of THE book? Is there a best book in the world? One story to rule them all?

    Even the best book remains a mere book, and not life itself. Even the best book is one that can eventually bore you, if only through repetition. Be open to the best in every person, every experience and every book, and use your better judgment, built upon a lifetime of your own experiences. Books are not life, and cannot lead your life for you. You must decide. Even Bible believers have to decide which passages in Scripture deserve greater emphasis than others. And if an action commends itself to your conscience you don’t need a book to also tell you whether it is “good” or not.

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