Moving beyond the Bible literacy crisis

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Bible literacy is at a crisis point, as Biola professor Kenneth Berding noted in a recent article. But what’s behind the steady drop in Bible reading? Is Bible literacy—knowing more facts about Scripture—really the end goal? And can we turn a generation of non-Bible readers into Bible lovers?

Not reading the Bible is like living on a diet of chicken nuggets and French fries.

That’s how New Testament professor Kenneth Berding puts it. Writing for Biola Magazine, Berding says we’re slowly killing ourselves with a lack of Bible reading. “Christians used to be known as ‘people of one book,’ ” he notes. “They memorized it, meditated on it, talked about it and taught it to others. We don’t do that anymore, and in a very real sense we’re starving ourselves to death.”

Two decades later, the number of occasional Bible readers had fallen by 20 percent. That’s like losing 700 Bible readers every day.

If this sounds a bit alarmist, consider the following. When Gallup measured Bible reading in the 1980s, 3 in 4 Americans claimed to read Scripture at least on occasion. Two decades later, that number had fallen by 20%. That’s like losing 700 Bible readers every day.

Three excuses for not reading the Bible

What’s causing our growing disenchantment with the Bible? Berding identifies a few popular scapegoats—reasons people may give for not reading the Bible that are probably excuses in most cases:

  1. Lack of resources
    “It’s surely not for lack of resources,” Berding writes. At least not in America, anyway. (There’s actually an alarming lack of access to the Bible in other parts of the world.)While Bible ownership has decreased slightly in America—from 92% in 1993 to 88% today—the typical home still has 3 Bibles. A quarter of US households have 6 or more copies of the Scriptures (source: Barna).
  2. Secularization
    If you think it’s because we’re living in a post-Christian culture, Berding wants you to think again. Quoting fellow New Testament professor David Nienhuis, Berding writes, “Much to our embarrassment, it has become increasingly clear that [Bible literacy] is really no better among confessing Christians, even those who claim to hold the Bible in high regard.”
  3. Lack of time
    Is it that people don’t have enough time to read the Bible? That’s certainly the #1 reason people give when asked what keeps them from reading more. Berding emphasizes that for some people, overwhelming busyness is a real issue. Just think of the single mom who has to work multiple jobs to put food on the table.But what about the rest of us? Has “I’m too busy” become a pretext for apathy?The average American watches almost 40 hours of TV per week, according to Nielsen data. That’s more than 5 hours each day. If you add up all forms of media consumption—TV, radio, social media, video gaming—it comes to a whopping 60 hours per week. Surely some of that time could be better spent.

If it’s not a lack of access, growing secularization, or a lack of time, then what’s causing us to read the Bible less than we used to? Could it be, as Berding suggests, a matter of misplaced priorities? “Meditating day and night on God’s Word is something that everyone must do,” he writes. “It is basic to the Christian life.”

But what if there’s even more to it than that? What if it’s not only a matter of misplaced priorities, but also misplaced expectations?

Bible literacy? Or something bigger?

Conversations about Bible reading often focus on Bible literacy—that is, our knowledge of certain facts about God’s Word.

There’s no question our collective knowledge is diminishing. In his article, Kenneth Berding shares about a former student who didn’t know the difference between King Saul and Saul-turned-Paul-the-Apostle. Other anecdotes are not hard to come by—showing, for example, that most American’s can’t name the four Gospels… or identify more than a few of the Ten Commandments… or tell the difference between the Sermon on the Mount and popular (but not biblical) sayings like, “God helps those who help themselves.”

These are not isolated cases. Bible literacy is falling in the church. But is that the real issue? Or is it the symptom of a larger problem?

A Bible lover will become a Bible learner, but a Bible learner will not necessarily become a Bible lover.
-Paul Caminiti, Vice President of Bible Engagement, Biblica

Paul Caminiti, VP for Bible Engagement, Biblica

Paul Caminiti, VP for Bible Engagement, Biblica

“The Bible writers often speak of loving God’s law,” says Paul Caminiti, Biblica’s Vice President for Bible Engagement. “They compared the Scriptures to great treasures like gold and silver, or to delicacies like the finest honey.”

“We’d be better off cultivating Bible lovers rather than Bible learners,” Caminiti suggests. “A Bible lover will become a Bible learner, but a Bible learner will not necessarily become a Bible lover.”

Bible literacy comes as a result of good Bible engagement. But it’s not the end goal. “Bible reading is an acquired taste,” Caminiti says. “If at some point we don’t help people fall in love with Scripture, they will walk away from it. And hundreds do every day.”

The question is, how do we help people acquire a taste for the Bible?

Addicted to Scripture

It’s not as though people don’t care about the Bible. Almost 70% of Americans still believe the Bible is God’s Word. More than 60% say they wish they spent more time reading the Bible (source: Barna).

Caminiti believes it’s not a simple matter of telling people to read their Bibles more. We have to look at how we read. “We won’t reverse the dismal Bible reading trends by simply challenging people to get their priorities straightened out,” Caminiti says. “We have to offer new and better ways of reading the Bible.”

Subsisting on a diet of isolated Bible verses is a recipe for spiritual anemia.
-Paul Caminiti, Vice President of Bible Engagement, Biblica

For one thing, this means less fragmented reading—less “verse of the day” and more reading of whole books. “Philip Yancey once said that the modern church has created an entire culture around Bible McNuggets,” Caminiti shares. “We consume tiny fragments of Scripture outside of their original context. And we’ve just assumed these fragments were nutritious. But subsisting on a diet of isolated verses is a recipe for spiritual anemia.”

But this also means we have to make Bible reading a community exercise again. “That’s how most people originally experienced the Bible,” Caminiti explains. “Churches would gather to hear one of Paul’s letters read out loud. The Israelites would assemble for the public recitation of the Torah [the Jewish law], and then they would spend some time talking about what they’d heard.”

It may seem like a simple formula. But Caminiti believes changing how we read—learning to read whole units of Scripture in their original context and sharing the experience with others—are key to reversing the downward spiral of Bible engagement.

“If we can help people rediscover their love for God’s Word,” Caminiti predicts, “Bible literacy will follow. We’ll see the kind of ‘Bible revival’ that Professor Bergman and many of us long for.”

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Biblica, the International Bible Society, is a worldwide ministry that has been helping people read and understand God’s Word for over 200 years. We are committed to providing the Bible in accurate, contemporary translations and formats so that more people around the world will have the opportunity to be transformed by Jesus Christ. We do this through translation and publishing, by making the Bible accessible, and with innovative Bible engagement programs like Community Bible Experience. To learn more about our ministry and how you can partner with us to share God’s Word with people around the world, go to our ministry page.