On Biblical Illiteracy

So part of this post is sort of reactionary in nature, but a lot of this has been brewing within me for a few years or so. As I’ve mentioned previously, I studied Biblical Studies for my undergraduate degree and a good portion of this was learning the ancient languages of the Bible, and more importantly, techniques for exegesis and hermeneutics. What I have found since gaining these skills and knowledge with specific texts is that the majority of people that I run into who are interested or are proclaimed Christians have no real idea or in-depth knowledge of their holy text or sources for their beliefs. Most people I encounter know surface level information about books or history, can quote some snappy verses that are inspiring, and rehash simplified teachings from their favorite pastors/speakers. And you know – some of this is fine. I can’t expect everyone to learn Koine Greek. The real issue occurs when the teachings and interpretations that they’ve held aren’t well-founded, or even wholly orthodox.

Take for example this lovely article. For fun, I decided to browse this site just to get a feel for it, and to see why so many of my friends kept sharing articles from it. The last thing I expected was someone trying to argue that Jesus was a capitalist. Reed innocuously goes about listing why Jesus would not be a progressive, and to be honest, I agree with him. This is only because Jesus lived in the 1st century CE Israel and was under a different sociopolitical structure than 21st century America. To superimpose our view upon the text and choose to interpret certain passages out of their larger framework gives us an incomplete picture to work with. Relating the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to the idea of smart investment is an obvious Western, capitalist reading into the text. Perhaps one should consider that Jesus did not exist to demonstrate proper attitudes for government laws and functions, but to bring restoration to the world while thwarting the effects of sin. A conservative friend once pointedly asked me if I thought Jesus would be a liberal or conservative – I dryly remarked that I thought he’d be an anarchist.

Another general issue I have come to notice within Christian communities is the idea that our soul is good but our body is bad. This reflects sort of a modern Gnosticism that is widely accepted and understood to be correct. It’s very dualistic, sort of similar in the way that people think that God and Satan are equal in power (they’re not). Our bodies are not made evil, much like our souls/spirits are not either. The physical is just as sacred as the spiritual. Thus, when individuals disbelieve in climate change or the need to take care of this world because of their hope for heaven, they misunderstand God’s intention in the first place. The Book of Revelation, which is every Evangelical’s/Dispensationalist’s favorite for doomsday prophecy, speaks about not only the destruction of the earth but the recreation and restoration of it so that it can be perfect (Revelation 21). This world we live in, as well as our bodies, have significance and they shouldn’t be treated as inferior to spiritual things.

The ease of interpretation and understanding among people seems to always hinder the teaching of biblical backgrounds or hermeneutics. Sometimes there’s this view that laity just don’t have a mind for all the specific details, or rather, the message must be simplified in order not to confuse them. Not only do these views put down the majority of one’s religious community, but it also begs to question the idea of interpretation. We all have biases and interpretations that we bring to a text. A lot of this may be rooted in our need to gain immediate relevancy from the text to place into our lives (or in Reed’s case, into our governments). However, how can one know what the text means if one doesn’t know what it meant? Think of some of the cryptic parables in the Gospels, or perhaps the most spoken of. Was the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4 really about church planting or evangelizing others, when Jesus was talking specifically to a Jewish audience in the text?

So often we want to read a text and quickly apply it to our lives. But we must force ourselves to slow down and consider the text – what was the author trying to portray? Are there any allusions here? Why? Of course application is necessary, for it causes us to ponder how the text impacts ourselves and our community. The text would mean nothing if it did not speak today in any form. But without laying some of the groundwork, this application may become shallow and superficial (e.g. the “prosperity gospel”).

My hope is that we may begin to move towards a standard of biblical literacy across all Christian denominations and traditions. By doing so we may try to avoid limiting ourselves to a niche of understanding based upon our biases. We might rather stretch ourselves to think differently. After learning what it probably meant, then we can suppose what it can mean for us today.



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