UK Christians’ confidence in the Bible is worryingly low. So what can be done to reignite interest in scripture?

A hungry hairless cat, a rotting corpse, an ash-filled, shadowy valley and a scared survivor: in this post-apocalyptic world, gangs of marauding motorcyclists pillage anything they can find, and the most prized possession on the planet is a book, whose words are known to be powerful and whose message is the only hope to save humankind. The Book of Eli is a recently released action film, where the nomad warrior hero, played by Denzel Washington, is charged with delivering the last remaining copy of the Bible – a King James Version – to a safe location for reprinting.

The film couldn’t have been better timed: 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the first ever King James Version. And the message of the film is also timely. Unlike in this Hollywood blockbuster, we have a myriad of different Bible translations, versions and designs available to us, but the question remains: who can read it? Outside of the church, children are growing up with very little understanding of the key stories of the Bible. An eight-year-old who thinks that Jesus’ father wore a coat of many colours would sadly stand out as being among the more informed. Gary Bishop was leading an Eden team in inner-city Manchester recently, when he went into a school and asked the class if they could name the first book of the Bible. When met with 30 blank faces, he prompted them by telling them that it began with G, to which a lone voice suggested the answer was ‘Jesus’.

Kerry-Anne Cooper was advertising an evangelistic event at her local secondary school. She gave out free sweets along with a little slip of paper, on which was written: ‘The best things in life are free. John 3:16’. After a while, one lad came up to her and asked, ‘Who is this John I have to meet at quarter past three? And where do I meet him?’

‘God helps those who help themselves’

Adults too seem to have lost whatever biblical knowledge they used to have. Although many people would be able to identify some common turns of phrase that originate in the Bible, it seems they would also be as likely to suggest Shakespeare or Dickens as the source! I heard the story this week of a man who was asked to read Romans 2 at a friend’s commendation service, making several references to ‘genitals’ throughout; he had never come across the word ‘gentiles’ before. Apparently, members of the congregation had to stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to try to control their laughter.

But what is most worrying is that biblical literacy is in trouble in the church. Commissioned by Bible Society and the largest survey of its kind, Taking the Pulse uncovered shocking results from more than 3,000 church members and leaders from across the UK. Only 47% of church leaders would say they were very confident in their knowledge of the Bible, and 14% of non-leaders. Just three in five church leaders read the Bible daily, 22% of churchgoers do not believe the Bible is divinely inspired, and 61% admit that the Bible has not affected any decisions they made during the previous week.

Do not admit adultery

When my son was four years old, I told him the story of the widow of Zarephath. Half way through I realised he probably didn’t know what a widow was, so I paused to ask him. He confidently replied that he totally understood, because he had several weirdos in his class at school. I love these amusing misunderstandings. I have heard of Sunday school kids thinking Noah was married to Joan of Arc, or that Moses received the ten commandments on Mount Cyanide. I was teaching the Lord’s Prayer in an all-age service whenone child suggested it said ‘Forgive us our bypasses’. Only last month I did a quiz with our church teenagers during which the only one of Paul’s letters they could think of was the one to the Philistines.

Now turn with me to Hezekiah 6:2...

But it turns out that even adults are struggling, and this is really no laughing matter. Fewer and fewer of us are able to locate a passage easily in the Bible, and the average member of the congregation will be unable to tell who came first historically: Abraham, Moses or David. We struggle to find time or motivation to read the Bible, we struggle to understand what we are reading, and we struggle to know what to do with the text. These three interrelated areas are worth looking at in more detail.

1. Competence

Two-thirds of UK churchgoers find it difficult to read the Bible on a regular basis. This may be due to busy lives, other calls on our attention, or a lack of induction into the faith and mentoring in effective Bible study skills. Many of us know the experience of starting to read the Bible from cover to cover only to lose our way (and sometimes all hope) in Leviticus. We may dip into the Bible occasionally, but fail to understand how the passage we are reading fits into God’s big plans for the universe. As we lose touch with the main stories, characters and ideas, and fail to see how the text fits into a historical or theological timeline, we tend to default into an ad hoc approach to Bible reading, relying on Sunday sermons and small group meetings to give us enough to get by. This lack of depth to our Bible reading often means we resort to relying solely on a small handful of Bible stories and our favourite verses, outsourcing our discernment to trusted elders who tell us what to believe. It can be a vicious circle – the less we read the Bible, the more unfamiliar it seems; and the more unfamiliar the Bible, the less we read it.

The result of this is that the Church becomes vulnerable. In an age of celebrity preachers, Twitter and VideoCasting, I am finding that preachers with the strongest views on secondary issues often get the biggest following. This can often distort our grasp of the Bible. I posted a link to one of these preachers on my Facebook wall recently, to provoke a discussion. The presenting issue was his statement that ‘stay-at-home dads are as good as unbelievers’. Thermonuclear war broke out on the comments page, with 68 comments posted in a few hours. Many of the comments were full of energy and passion, revealing entrenched positions on both sides, but it was hard to find strong biblical reasoning.

If the Church becomes biblically illiterate it will remain immature, vulnerable to the latest trends and manipulation and, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:14, ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching’. If biblical illiteracy persists, then instead of Christ leading his church through his word, Christians are in danger of being directed by big personalities who win a hearing with the loudest voice or the funniest jokes.

2. Confidence

Militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins have wobbled the confidence of many Christians that the Bible can be taken seriously. Take for example a single sentence from The God Delusion (Bantam Press):

‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’

This statement hits us hard because we can see where Dawkins gets his ammunition. Our own Bible reading reveals uncomfortable instances of God ordering the death of Canaanities, providing legal justification for stoning unruly children, and sending the angel of death on the firstborn children of Egypt. But because preachers often avoid these passages, and we dare not ask the awkward questions, we can become vulnerable to Dawkins’ vociferous litany of difficult-toswallow Old Testament passages. And Dawkins is not a lone voice of critique; he has been joined by Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Philip Pullman, David Attenborough, Sam Harris and others who have gradually worn down and undermined our confidence; so we have been fed over the years with convincing arguments that the Bible message is irrelevant, even untrue. The vicious spiral away from scripture continues, as the less confident we are in the Bible, the less we read it; and the less we read it, the less confident we are to meet its opponents face on.

The resulting danger of this is that the Church becomes silent. This is a double problem – if we do not know what we believe, it is impossible for us to share our faith. But secondly, if we do not know why we believe what we believe, then faced with a few articulate and angry atheists we fear the whole culture is against us, and we go into hiding. But now is not the time to hide away. Now is the time to set the record straight. The God of the Old Testament is creative, loving, just, forgiving, patient, gracious, generous, liberating to women and men, the young and the elderly, the stranger, the disabled, the criminals and the outcasts. We cannot remain silent while the world is hearing the libellous claims of those who misinterpret the Bible out of ignorance and anger.

3. Coherence

The basic skills of reading a passage of the Bible, working out what it meant in its original context and what its implications are for our lives, is fast disappearing from our churches. This is combined with a tendency for thematic preaching that jumps straight to personal application and promotes a haphazard approach, rarely working systematically through books or looking at the verses being preached on in context. At one multi-organisational conference I attended, a mission leader based his whole sermon on unity on Isaiah 44:12–13, holding up the cooperation of the blacksmith and the carpenter as an ideal for us to emulate. On reading the passage in context, it is evident that this model partnership was actually joint labour to build an idol, to which the prophet said: ‘Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame.’ Needless to say this part was not mentioned in the mission leader’s homily.

I was not sure whether to be more shocked at the blatant misuse of scripture on the part of the mission leader, or on the willingness of the 300 missionaries to nod along to the talk. Because congregations are less biblically literate than they used to be, there is often less accountability for preachers: they can twist the text to present arguments for their own agendas more easily, which again models an unhelpful method of Bible teaching. As a result, Christians are feeling the gap between the biblical worldview and life today more keenly than ever, leading to a crisis of coherence. We often read the Bible with little understanding of how to translate it into how we should live as Christians; when faced with difficulties, we have no idea how to find help, advice and encouragement in the word of God. The vicious spiral carries on: the more irrelevant the Bible seems to be to us, the less we read it; and the less we read it and apply it, the more irrelevant it becomes.

The result of this is that the Church becomes ineffective. Paul explains that the role of Bible teachers in the local church is to ‘equip [God’s] people for works of service’ (Ephesians 4:12) or, as he puts it in 2 Timothy 3:16–17: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ If there is no coherence between the Bible and life, or between the Bible and ministry, then God’s word is not functioning as the food that nourishes the Church or the lamp that lights its path. If God’s word is not equipping us for the good works that God has given us to do, we can expect our churches to become impotent and redundant. On the other hand, if we want to see more transformation in our society, more people coming to know Christ, more effective pastoral care or community engagement, then we need a biblically literate church.

The overall picture

The overall picture is that diminishing competence in biblical literacy, diminishing confidence in biblical truth, and diminishing coherence between a biblical worldview and our own life and service for God has led to a lack of appetite for the Bible. It is leading to our churches becoming more vulnerable to manipulation, more silent about its message, and more ineffective in mission. The good news is that if the cycle can be reversed, then biblical competence, confidence and coherence can rekindle our interest in reading, defending and living out the Bible, and enable us to rebuild a strong, vocal and effective church. The vicious spiral can be turned into a virtuous one. On this positive note, the Taking the Pulse survey showed that Christians are ‘impressively confident in the authority and status of the Bible’, that it is ‘regarded as an important driver of spiritual growth’ and is seen as a ‘constant description of God in the face of a constantly changing world’. Although we may be struggling with biblical appetite, it seems we are no less committed to what we would still claim as the most treasured book on our bookshelf.

Taking advantage of this window of opportunity and celebrating the Bible’s free availability in our land, this quadcentenial year of the Bible sees more than 100 mission agencies, Bible colleges, festivals and denominations coming together to help turn the tide on biblical illiteracy. In an unprecedented unity of vision, Spring Harvest, Keswick, The Proclamation Trust, Bible Society, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and scores more have helping the church come to experience God’s word afresh right at the heart of their plans for the year ahead. There is a simple message to this Biblefresh initiative: in 2011, invest in ways to help the church read and experience the Bible better together, and invest in translating God’s word and training up leaders at every level in the church to better teach and train others to grow in confidence, competence and coherence.

Eat this Book

The UK Church has so many resources it literally doesn’t know what to do with them. Or, as Rob Bell comments in his commendation for Biblefresh, ‘familiarity has bred unfamiliarity’. The irony is that there are still people around the world who are desperate to hold and read a Bible in their own language. This struck me as I was watching a scene in the video for Linkin Park’s song, ‘What I’ve done’, which shows an overweight man stuffing his face with an enormous greasy burger before cutting to a girl who is wasting away due to anorexia, then to a malnourished famine victim starving to death. One person binges while another one starves; one starves because they won’t eat, while another starves because they can’t eat. This image of unequally distributed resources can also be applied to the Bible. Millions of people around the world have no access to it in a language that they can understand, while every day we walk past bookshops crammed full of Bibles in different translations, paraphrases, bindings and formats, which remain unused and unopened.

There are people almost starving to death spiritually, through no choice of their own, while we in the West suffer from biblical anorexia. We must work together urgently to address this worldwide injustice. This year pray that the UK Church will not wither away for lack of nourishment, but will regain its appetite for the Bible, and become empowered and equipped to speak out and live out the word.

Let your love, GOD, shape my life with salvation, exactly as you promised; Then I’ll be able to stand up to mockery because I trusted your Word. Don’t ever deprive me of truth, not ever – your commandments are what I depend on. Oh, I’ll guard with my life what you’ve revealed to me, guard it now, guard it ever; And I’ll stride freely through wide open spaces as I look for your truth and your wisdom; Then I’ll tell the world what I find, speak out boldly in public, unembarrassed. I cherish your commandments – oh, how I love them! – relishing every fragment of your counsel. Remember what you said to me, your servant – I hang on to these words for dear life! Psalm 119:41– 49 (The Message)

Biblefresh Pledges

Bible reading:

Why not adopt a WeightWatchers approach to Bible reading in 2011? Allow reading the Bible as community to act as both encouragement and incentive to persevere when times are hard. Many churches are doing the Bible in a year from CWR, others are doing the Essential 100 from Scripture Union, Bible Society and Wycliffe. Last year, 20,000 young people bought the Soul Survivor Bible in an academic year – why not think of joining in when it starts again this summer?

Bible training:

Many preachers, if they received any training at all in preaching, did so a long time ago. House group leaders, youth leaders and Sunday school teachers often do more Bible teaching per week than the preacher, yet many have received no training at all. Why not invest in skilling or reskilling them to do an even better job? Bible colleges and agencies are running beginner and refresher courses all around the country. Think about attending one of the major festivals that has Bible training at its heart this year.

Bible translation:

On the 400th year celebrating the Bible, why not think of creative ways your church can raise funds, but also raise awareness about Bible poverty around the world? Team your church up with a church hungry for scripture – maybe hunger will be contagious.

Bible experiences:

Theatre companies, film competitions, fashion shows, passion plays, viral campaigns, photo competitions, creative arts days, Bible Readathons are taking place around the country, helping your church get creative to experience the Bible in new ways.

Great books to get your biblical nerve back again:

1. A Walk Through the Bible, by Lesslie Newbigin, (SPCK) In less than 100 pages, Newbigin takes you through the whole story of the Bible. Brilliant stuff.

2. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, (SU) An excellent and challenging book to help you understand how to interpret the Bible for yourself.

3. The God I Don’t Understand, by Chris Wright, (Zondervan) A very helpful book on difficult questions raised by the Bible. The chapter on genocide in the Old Testament is worth the price of the whole book.

4. How we got the Bible, by Neil R Lightfoot, (Bethany House) Dan Brown, eat your heart out – here’s the lowdown on how we really got the Bible.

5. Scapegoats, Shambles and Shibboleths, by Martin Manser, (Hodder Stoughton) Find out just how many everyday phrases have their origins in the Bible.

6. Biblefresh Handbook, (Authentic Media) Jam-packed with creative ideas on how to make the Bible come alive in your church in 2011.

Recommended Reading:

In The Beginning: The Story Of The King James Bible And How It Changed A Nation, A Language And A Culture, by Alister McGrath (Hodder and Stoughton)

The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version, by Derek Wilson (Lion Hudson)