Disorientation and the Inevitable Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy

In Yuval Levin’s much-praised recent book, The Fractured Republic, the political analyst comments on how one of the defining marks of American public life thus far in the twenty-first century is undoubtedly disorientation. He writes:

“It’s as if we cannot quite figure where we stand, and therefore where we’re headed…we live in a period of profound transformation.”

For Christians, this disorientation feels even more pronounced. We feel the force not just of societal change, but of our faith’s rapidly changing place within that society. Like the early remnants of a sandcastle after the first tide has come and gone, we see the clumped heaps of a tower that remains and so find ourselves at once both wistfully looking back to supposed ‘glory-days’, and anxiously looking forward, apprehensive of the change that’s still to come.

And perhaps the most marked of these signs of disorientation is what pollster George Barna has called the ‘crisis of biblical illiteracy’. Indeed the very phrase is enough to draw out knowing shakes of the head and deep, long, sighs from the faithful.

Sadly it’s a crisis that makes for fairly dramatic statistics. One poll revealed 12% of American adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Here in the UK the Bible Society surveyed children aged 8-15 and found that a third couldn’t identify the Nativity as a biblical story. That percentage doubled for Jonah. Can you take more? One in three children thought Harry Potter was in the Bible, and over half thought The Hunger Games might have been too. For a second it’s ditzy funny, and then you realise it’s just plain desperate. DeYoung & Gilbert have described how the Bible’s increasingly peripheral place in the West has “spawned a rising generation of postmodern biblical illiterates”.

Moving from Familiar Stories to Finding Our Place in The Story

But how do we tend to respond to these statistics? Well, there’s probably two typical quick-fire reactions. The first is blame. Biblical illiteracy? Yep, that’ll be the fault of our consumer culture’s carte-du-jour of endless options. And, of course, throw into the mix the distracting banality of social media, and if together those aren’t enough of a ’cause’, then we can always assign fault to liberal Christianity’s gentle erosion of a high view of Scripture. Blame.

And the second reaction? Well, it’s obvious: more Bible, right? We need to fight for the Bible back in our schools, lobby the Bible back in the town hall, and of course press for a new reformation and put confident Bible teaching back in the pulpit. Unless we get more Bible then we may as well give up any hope of people being able to distinguish their King David from their Dumbledore, or their Peter from their Peeta. Biblical Illiteracy + more Bible = biblical literacy, right?!

But whoever came up with that ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’ idiom was onto something. Because when it comes to knowing the Bible, being able to identify a few trees is a very different thing to standing in awe of the whole forest. Maybe in our fervour to reverse this outbreak of biblical illiteracy, we’ve forgotten that facts and stories are not what we’re after.

The real challenge of biblical illiteracy is moving beyond familiarity with Bible stories to introducing people to the Bible’s big story.

And never mind surveys of British schoolchildren, those of us in the pastorate probably need to up our game for a start. Surely the ultimate evidence of biblical illiteracy is when Christians don’t even treat the Bible as one big story. Surely that shows we’ve misunderstood what the Bible is for? Not only can we suffer from a recurring inability to read Bible verses in the context of their particular book, but – and perhaps more devastatingly – we often fail to place those books within the context of one overarching biblical narrative. 

Why would we want to see a generation grow up well versed in the accounts of Joseph, Joshua, and Jonah, if they still failed to set them within God’s great story of redemption. Herman Bavinck put it well when he noted that the Bible doesn’t consist of “a number of disconnected words and isolated facts but [that it] is one single historical and organic whole, a mighty world-controlling and world-renewing system of testimonies and acts of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, 340).

And as we see this big story, we see a bigger Jesus: a Christ who doesn’t just rock up by chance in Israel one day, but one who has been promised and longed for. The Author has stepped onto the pages and has come as a better Adam, a perfect law-keeper, a suffering servant. He will right every wrong, stand in our place, restore us to our Maker, and bring about the perfect world we long for.

Only God’s Story Can Bear the ‘Burden of Identity’

Of course, those of us who feel we have benefited from having the Scriptures taught to us as a unified story will feel particularly strongly about this. I remember being handed a copy of Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture as a fresh-faced teenager and being told to dive deep. Wow, I felt like I’d never spotted Luke 24:27 before. Then it was on to Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan and my mind was well and truly blown. So of course it’s right that we care about right exegesis and bang the table for biblical theology.

And yet what if recovering the Bible’s big story is actually about more than ‘right theology’? What if this was the very thing our fractured world needs right now?

In the face of the gaping cavern of biblical illiteracy, what if sharing this ‘big story’ is what will truly bring the hope and stability that is so absent in our disorientated cultural moment?

A fascinating series of articles appeared in the Irish Times earlier this year, examining several common cultural identities currently inhabited across modern Europe. And yet the editor, Ian Maleney, observed that despite their diversity, there was a shared characteristic amongst them: the “exhausting and attritional effort” it takes us to both maintain these identities and then ‘perform’ them in front of others. We are desperate for something that relieves us of the “burden of identity”.

One telling example was the notion of the ‘hipster’. Maleney comments on how it has become almost cringeful; too obvious, too intentional, another “visible, shameful evidence” of this burdensome quest for meaning. He then concluded the series with this striking comment:

“Living in a world that says we can always do better, a world that consistently presents the impossible and unreachable as ordinary and everyday, we live with the cruel optimism that we might uncover “a meaningful narrative” about who we are. This is the dream. Where can I get it, and how much does it cost?”

Like a plane desperately struggling to find its equilibrium in the midst of heavy turbulence, our culture is desperately turning to these personal narratives to find hope and permanence, but slowly finding they can’t just can’t take the strain. 

Thankfully, this is where resources like the recent evangelistic series, Life Explored, or Glynn Harrison’s excellent book, A Better Story, are helping us move in the right direction. For kids (and adults!) there’s The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible. Likewise, it’s been interesting to observe how various university Christian groups in the UK have been using the concept of Story in their evangelistic mission weeks to seeming great effect, and it was also the focus of this year’s Evangelism Conference (talks available here).

As we feel the disorientation of a growing cultural unfamiliarity with the Bible, our response is not to champion the Scriptures for the sake of Bible trivia, but rather to communicate that in this book we have the only story of reality that can bear the weight of our personal struggles for meaning and substance.

Are you sitting comfortably?