This week, I’m attending the Conference on the Bible in American Life in Indianapolis. I thought it would be helpful to share some of what I’m learning here.
This morning, Diane Jacobson (professor of Old Testament and director of the ELCA’s Book of Faith intiative) talked about the challenges facing churches that want to become more engaged with Scripture. If most churches want their congregations to become more biblically fluent—that is, both knowledgable about and actively engaged with Scripture—why is this so difficult?
Jacobson listed ten common challenges that get in the way of becoming biblically fluent, as discovered in the course of the Book of Faith project:
- Shame. Many people are ashamed of what they don’t know about the Bible. Understandably, if somewhat ironically, that means they avoid Bible studies and other useful activities where their ignorance might be exposed.
- Busy-ness. This doesn’t need much explanation—people face many different demands on their time, and don’t feel that they can fit the Bible into their schedules.
- Reading the Bible can be scary. The Bible is different than most other books—for example, starting at the beginning and reading through to the end, the way we read most other books, isn’t necessarily the best way to read the Bible. On top of that, the Bible’s spiritual heft can make it intimdiating to approach. (Jacobson also pointed out that simply reading is scary for many people, as illiteracy is more widespread in the church than many people realize.)
- The violence. It’s no secret that the Bible contains many extremely violent and otherwise upsetting accounts. (See our blogpost, Sex & Violence in the Bible.) For many people, reading the Bible is too uncomfortable.
- Inconsistencies in the Bible. Inconsistencies between different Bible stories have been much-discussed. Scholars and apologists have offered many different ways to understand these inconsistencies, to be sure—but for many Bible readers, they make it hard to take the Bible seriously.
- Bad history with the Bible. Many people have only experienced the Bible when it was being used as a source of argument, or as a weapon to hurt them. You can guess why they’d approach it with reluctance.
- Perceived irrelevance. Many people don’t see how such an old book could still be relevant to their lives today.
- The assumption of literalism. There’s a widespread cultural assumption that the best way to read and interpret the Bible is literally. People with different perspectives can find it tough to find a Bible study in which they’re comfortable.
- Our secular culture of entertainment and individualism. Our entertainment-driven pop culture world has trained us to expect easy, immediate rewards, answers, and gratification. By contrast, getting the most out of the Bible requires careful study, focus, and contemplation. In other words, attaining Bible fluency is hard work!
- The Bible is for the experts. Many people believe that to really understand the Bible, you have to be a trained pastor, scholar, or other expert—and so they see little point in trying themselves. Many of the theological terms and approaches used in the church reinforce this assumption.
Do you recognize any of these obstacles? Have you bumped into any of them in your own pursuit of Bible knowledge? Jacobson noted that while some of these obstacles originate from personal experience or outside cultural factors, some of them are rooted in ideas or behaviors within the church. How have you surmounted these obstacles yourself—and what is your church doing to make it easier for people to achive Bible fluency?