For some time now, people have been rightly concerned about the trajectory of biblical literacy. Talking to those who have been teaching Bible/theology for many years, they all say that one of the greatest challenges they face is that people just don’t know the Bible like they used to. So they spend far more time teaching basic biblical literacy and consequently less time building on that foundation.
And it’s a real problem, one that affects people’s ability to understand the whole scope of what the Bible has to say, how that relates to individual stories and verses, and how all of it connects to the challenging issues that people face every day.
But it’s a problem that we will not solve by mastering Bible trivia.
I had a conversation a while back with someone who was a little frustrated after hearing a Bible teacher lament the decline of biblical literacy. The teacher had asked the study group a few questions, and after no one seemed the know the answers, made several comments about the state of the church and lack of attention to solid Bible teaching. But the person I was talking to was frustrated and confused because she had grown up in a church with solid Bible teaching and did not consider herself to be biblically illiterate. So what was going on?
The problem was that the teacher was focused more on mastery of Bible trivia than real biblical literacy. For example, one of the questions he asked was which gospel is the only one to record the parable of the workers in the vineyard (the one where they all get paid the same). I can’t remember all of the other questions, but they were along the same lines. For this teacher, failing to know details like this means that you don’t really know your Bible.
I have at least three problems with this.
1. A Recipe for Spiritual Pride
First, I remember growing up as a kid in the church and participating in Bible trivia contests. It was fun and maybe a great way to get kids to pay close attention to the Bible. But for many of us, it was an exercise in spiritual pride. Those who could answer the most questions right were clearly the most mature, the spiritual elites. When we equate Christian maturity with mastering minutia, we’re setting the table for many to think of spiritual growth as equivalent to winning another pie-shaped wedge for their heavenly board game.
2. A Painting Is More than Its Pixels
Another lesson I learned from growing up on a steady diet of Bible trivia: you can memorize the details and still not know the story. Biblical literacy is more than memorizing a set of interesting details about the story. Biblical literacy is immersing yourself in the story so that you are drawn up into the grand sweep of the narrative and begin to live in the world that it creates. You’ll pick up a lot of interesting trivia along the way, kind of like a Tolkein fan might be able to tell you where orcs came from or why there shouldn’t have been any elves at Helm’s Deep in the movie. But those details are the garnish. The meal is the story itself.
Telling people that biblical literacy is about learning Bible trivia is like telling people that you can best appreciate a painting by looking at each detail individually. That’s part of it, but the real glory of the painting is in the whole picture. If you’re not careful, focusing just on the details can turn people from art lovers into art analysts. There’s a big difference.
3. Trivia in the World of Google
Finally, to a tech-savvy generation, mastering this kind of Bible knowledge seems like a complete waste of time. You may not know who the left-handed judge was, but Google can tell you in 0.34 seconds. Longest book in the Bible? Depending on how you count, it’s either Psalms (verses) or Jeremiah (words). That required a .035 second search and clicking on the first link. You get the point.
Regardless of what you think about whether it’s a good idea to outsource memorization like this, it’s a reality that you can’t ignore. In the world that Google created, many fail to see the value in memorizing things they can find quickly online. You may be able to convince them that Bible trivia is important enough to store directly in the brain itself, but you’ll need to do a really good sales job. Younger Christians in particular tend to be somewhat skeptical about such claims.
And here’s my real concern. If we tell people that biblical literacy is a problem (which it is) and then equate biblical literacy with Bible trivia, many will conclude that it’s not really a problem because they can just get the trivia answers online. That may work for trivia, but not for real literacy. A Google search can’t immerse you in the story, helping you reflect on the bigger themes, gradually transforming you into the image of the Son, changing the way you view the entire world as a result. Google can do many things, but it can’t do that.
If you know the trivia, great. The devil isn’t in the details; it’s in the way that we sometimes use the details to neglect the story itself. Biblical literacy is far more than Bible trivia. And suggesting otherwise contributes to the problem, not the solution.