Agape Press, November 13, 2002
[Also reprinted at iBelieve.]
Eating from the Smorgasbord
By Daniel Foster
Which book of the Bible contains the Ten Commandments? Who came first: Abraham or Moses? Was Matthew one of the twelve disciples?
It's not only that people in the pews don't believe the clear teachings of Scripture; it's that they are ignorant of what the Bible says. National Bible Week -- November 24 through December 1 -- is a good opportunity to re-examine the level of our national biblical (il)literacy and some potential solutions.
We Americans are a syncretistic bunch, preferring to serve ourselves from the "belief buffet" rather than order up the four-course doctrinal meal. A recent Barna Research Group poll found that just over half of evangelicals reject the doctrine of original sin, choosing instead to believe that people are born neither good nor evil. And these very same people affirmed (as part of the same survey) that "the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings!"
The only way to make sense of these incompatible statements is to chalk them up to biblical illiteracy. Researchers consistently find that people don't know basic names and places of the Bible, let alone foundational doctrines. This is just as true among the churched as the unchurched.
A few years ago, Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, reported in Christianity Today the results of a little Bible literacy test his department applied to incoming freshmen. Of these students -- most of whom came from strong evangelical churches -- a third didn't know that Paul's travels are recorded in Acts or that the Christmas story is found in Matthew.
While writing this article I spoke with Burge, who maintains that biblical illiteracy is still "a universal and growing problem." Burge cites the trend toward a therapeutic emphasis in preaching as part of the problem. "There's not an educational dimension any longer. We're all about the experience, not the facts," he said. And as a result the younger generation is not learning the important stories, people and background of the Bible. This semester, Burge asked 45 seniors in an advanced class to paraphrase, from memory, the Ten Commandments. One student could do it.
I am simultaneously concerned about these reports and energized by them. Concerned because it's clear that now, more than ever before, Christians have a desperate need to study the Bible and have it communicated clearly to them from the pulpit. I am energized because I work in an industry that is focused on promoting and aiding serious study of God's Word among laypeople and leaders alike.
Modern-Day Remedy for a Modern-Day Ailment
I work for a family-owned Bible software company in Washington State. The company is a little over ten years old and still in pursuit of our original vision: to create advanced technology that puts professional-level Bible research within reach of all people. What Gutenberg's printing press was to the popularization of Bible reading, the personal computer is to the spread of Bible reference works and advanced tools. Now ordinary people can do research with the same books and tools used by seminary-trained professionals.
Bible software is not a panacea, but it helps to remedy some of the root causes of biblical illiteracy. Such as lack of time. Busy pastors today lack the time they need to really dive in, explore the Greek or Hebrew, and come to a deep understanding of a Bible passage and its historical and biblical context. How can they responsibly teach a text they have not grappled with?
In many respects, the basic concept of Bible software is as old as libraries. A quality theological library contains hundreds or even thousands of time-tested and new Bible versions and Bible reference works from top publishers (think commentaries, concordances, dictionaries, etc.), organized by author, title and subject. Bible software compacts hundreds of shelf-feet of Bibles and reference books to the size of a few CD-ROMs.
If that sounds a bit overwhelming, be not afraid. Bible software publishers are now starting to offer automation that researches the books for you and presents you with relevant content in response to your query. The metaphor here is the old-fashioned librarian who instinctively knew which books to look in to find answers to your questions.
Pastors, missionaries and seminary students frequently express their amazement that, when using Bible software, sermon preparation takes less time but results in higher-quality, Bible-based teaching! When those in leadership get a hold of the best technology available for working with God's Word, they can engage in quality study at any time under any circumstances.
John Taylor, who pastors a small church in Mason, Michigan, while holding down another job, raising four kids and working on a book, expresses a common frustration:
"It just seems that there is never enough time to do everything. Because I place a lot of value on study and sermon preparation, I found myself spending many late nights, and most of my 'free' hours, preparing upcoming sermons, with books and Bibles spread everywhere. I constantly carried a huge briefcase and an additional book tote between my home and church office.
"Now [Bible software] has enabled me to streamline my study time to almost a third of what it was, and allowed me to carry an entire library on my laptop. This has enabled me to more effectively use free time throughout the day: when I'm waiting to pick someone up, or in a hospital waiting room with someone, or when my wife is driving, etc. My study is more effective, my sermons are better, and I'm finding more time to be with my family! I'm also finding more time to spend with God -- which I believe is incredibly important if I am going to minister effectively. In addition, there are many great resources in the software library that minister to me personally, and give me just the 'pick-up' I need."
Taking It to the Seats
Research confirms that the majority of laypeople, even in Bible-teaching churches, do not study the Bible regularly. Christians simply don't take time to read and understand Scripture. To address such problems, software programmers have designed tools enabling people to develop their own personalized Bible reading plan and read through the Bible in a year, six months, or whatever works for them. And believers with a desire to learn can jump straight from reading a text into studying it in depth using the same professional tools available to scholars.
People are spending more time in front of their computers. We work in front of the screen, entertain ourselves there, maintain relationships via email, and research purchases on the web. Now the computer is becoming a place of Bible research and meditation. By bringing Bible reading and study to the computer, Bible software publishers are bringing it back into people's lives. Believers can go straight from checking their favorite newsgroup or news source to checking what the Bible says on the topic, easily integrating Bible reading into the daily ebb and flow of life.
Pollster George Barna states: "Americans still revere the Bible and like to think of themselves as Bible-believing people, but the evidence suggests otherwise." During National Bible Week -- and every week -- spend some time with your family and spend some time reading the Bible. Let's prove George wrong.
And in case you were wondering, the Ten Commandments are in Exodus and Deuteronomy; Abraham preceded Moses; and yes, Matthew was one of the Twelve.
Daniel Foster (firstname.lastname@example.org) works at Logos Research Systems, a publisher of digital libraries for Bible study. He is the proud new father of a baby girl, Karis Joy.