Why doesn’t anyone read the Bible anymore?
Okay, so some people do still read the Bible, but most of them aren’t in mainline churches. And even in the more conservative churches, fewer people are reading the Bible than a generation ago. In his 2006 book, The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, Ray Suarez points out a peculiar statistic: polls indicate that more Americans than ever before identify themselves are church-goers while, simultaneously, the rate of biblical illiteracy has never been higher.
In the mainline churches the situation is almost dismal. The chief researcher for one major denomination recently estimated that only about 6%-8% of the members of his denomination attend any kind of formal bible study in a given year and that only about half have ever been to a Bible study in their lives.
So what gives? Most of these churches who have shown so little interest of late in reading the Bible trace their heritage to the Reformation, where the cry of sola scriptura — “Scripture alone” — fueled the spirit of reform.
Or is lack of interest really the problem? I’ve talked with numerous pastors who say that while their members are always asking for Bible studies, when the pastor offers one nobody comes. So either people are just saying they want Bible study but really don’t — which, while not inconceivable doesn’t strike me as probable — or everyday Christians are genuinely interested in Bible study but something keeps them from coming.
I have a hunch that several things contribute to the typical Christian’s lack of motivation to read and study, but I want to focus on one: embarrassment. Yes, that’s right, embarrassment. I suspect that the typical member of a mainline congregation lives in the uncomfortable tension of a) knowing the Bible is important and b) knowing they don’t know much about the Bible. This creates what we might describe as a sense of “free-floating” embarrassment or even shame with regard to Bible study. Further, while most of them are probably aware that the dominant religious option in our culture today — a conservative, literalistic reading of Scripture — is not for them, they aren’t sure what the alternative is, further impairing their ability to read and enjoy the Bible.
Perhaps no one is in a better position to do something about this situation than preachers. Think about it. Almost without a doubt, the most frequent place Christians hear Scripture read is in worship, just before the sermon. Which gives the preachers an incredible opportunity to offer her or his hearers not only a better understanding of the importance of the Bible but also insight and guidance about how to read it with greater understanding and enjoyment.
But how do we do that? How, that is, do we not only preach the Bible, but talk about the Bible in our preaching in a way that opens our hearers to the possibility that they themselves can read and understand the Bible so that the Bible can shape and change their lives?
Let me offer three brief suggestions:
1) Look for opportunities in the lectionary to talk about the Bible. They come up all the time. The first reading on October 4, 2009, for instance (Pentecost 8), is a creation account from Genesis. While it is chosen to match Jesus’ words about divorce in Mark 10, it could also be preached (and, honestly, probably better preached) on its own. Creation accounts are an excellent place to delve into the question of the nature and intention of Scripture. Noting that there are two distinct creation accounts, each with their own specific theological purpose, is an excellent way to invite hearers to imagine that the authors of the Bible never intended to write science but were instead making a confession of faith.
2) Spend some time putting biblical passages in their literary and historical context.
This doesn’t have to be dry. Honest. Comparing Corinth to Manhattan for instance — a major trade city where everyone and everything (including every kind of religion) eventually ends up — can really help hearers understand Paul’s many and specific instructions to the Corinthians, instructions that may or may not relate to our own day and age. Commentaries are excellent resources for learning this kind of information; it will be your job to use it creatively to make the biblical passage more understandable and interesting.
3) Notice the differences in biblical accounts and offer them as windows into the confession of the author. When Matthew describes Jesus as preaching his most famous sermon on a mountain (as opposed to Luke, who describes Jesus preaching on a plain), it’s not that he recorded another version of the same sermon but rather that he’s suggesting to the reader that Jesus is a new Moses. And when Luke relates that the disciples only fell asleep once when Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray (Matthew and Luke say it happened three times), it’s not that Luke wasn’t paying attention but that he has a more sympathetic understanding of the disciples and the challenges of discipleship. Differences in our accounts about Jesus are not problems to be solved but opportunities to be seized as they give us insight into the theological confession of the author. Help your hearers see that.
There are many other ways to help your hearers understand Scripture that you can employ in your preaching and teaching. Let me close by highlighting three resources from Luther Seminary and its faculty that can help you do that.
1) Enter the Bible. This new — and free! — web-based resource is designed with the everyday reader of the Bible as well as pastors in mind. With overviews of every book of the Bible, and articles on numerous passages, as well as Study Paths designed for individual or group learning, this is one website you should tell all your parishioners about! Check it out: www.enterthebible.org
2) In the Company of Preachers: The Bible in Proclamation. This CD, which can be purchased as a single volume or as part of a larger subscription, includes conversation with Tom Long, Anna Carter Florence, and Diane Jacobson on how to teach the Bible in our preaching. It also has four sermons that show how that can be done. Order here: www.luthersem.edu/cbp/company_of_preachers.asp?m=2415
3) Making Sense of Scripture: Big Questions About the Book of Faith. I wrote this book with the average Christian in mind. It is written as a conversation and covers seven of the big questions people have about the Bible — What is the Bible? Is it true, Where did it come from? Is it God’s Word? etc. It can be read on its own or easily used in group study with a Leader Guide and DVD. You can find this at Amazon.com or through Augsburg Fortress at www.augsburgfortress.org/store/item.jsp?clsid=196927&productgroupid=0&isbn=0806699531.
4) Crazy Book: A-Not-So-Stuff Dictionary of Biblical Terms. Rolf Jacobson and company return to their informative and witty format to introduce readers to the books, people, and places of the Bible. You’ll find the book at: www.augsburgfortress.org/store/item.jsp?isbn=0806657650&clsid=196249&productgroupid=0.