An article in today’s Religion News Service has me wanting to read Kenneth A. Briggs’ new book on the diminishing place of the bible in North American Christianity, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (Eerdmans). 

In her article for RNS, reporter Emily McFarlane Millar describes what Briggs found as he was writing the book:

Along the way, he met a homiletics professor who encouraged her students to explore the text by exchanging roles with the characters in biblical accounts, and he came across professors at evangelical colleges surprised by how little their incoming students knew about the Bible. He attended a meeting of Bible promoters in Orlando, Fla., worried nobody was reading their tomes; the academic Society of Biblical Literature convention in Chicago; and a traditional Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania. He was deeply moved by his visit to a federal prison in upstate New York, where, he said, the inmates knew the Bible better than he did.

As a preacher in a liberal Protestant denomination, I have found I cannot take for granted that congregations have a working biblical literacy.   Thanks to the three year lectionary, they will probably know the core gospel readings, but most do not seem to know the grand lines of the biblical narrative, what Richard Hooker once called the “main drifts” of scripture.   By “grand lines” I mean covenant theology (old and new), the adoption of the gentiles into the chosen people, the relationship of Jesus to the prophets, or how Revelation concludes God’s plan of redemption (as opposed to it being a book of predictions and prophecy).   It’s difficult in a fifteen minute sermon to develop any of these ideas, especially if, as I am, one is an occasional preacher.

Bear in mind that I am speaking now of a dwindling group of churchgoing Anglicans who have been doing this, most of them, for a long time.   I am interested in knowing what the bigger picture is, according to Briggs, but I am sure it is not a pretty one.

I am not clever enough to point to all the reasons why the bible is fading from our consciousness.    I can guess at a few of them.  Within the church, I suspect it may be an erosion of belief in preaching among clergy, or a sense that it is not foremost among their priorities.   Most parishioners, I find, have low expectations of the sermon.  My late father once said that the sermon was a time when he could lightly close his eyes.

Among the culture as a whole, I suspect there is a widespread distrust in the bible as an archaic book of bronze age make believe.  Watch any half hour of the political comic Bill Maher on HBO and you will get this loud ad clear.  There is also a skein of post-modernity which distrusts narratives of authority, and easily deconstructs the bible as an arbitrarily compiled compendium of texts by the men who ran the church.  There is also a widespread and (I think, often justified) suspicion of Christian fundamentalists who use the bible in a highly selective way.   Fans of The West Wing will remember President Bartlett taking apart a fundamentalist evangelist by using the contradictions in her proof texts against her.

If you have read my sermons here on this blog, you will, I hope, agree with my assertion that I am a thoughtful preacher who approaches scripture carefully.   I try to be mindful of the strangeness of the bible, of its foreign and difficult nature, and I am often leery of it.  But, I am also enough of a follower of Karl Barth to agree that without this scripture, we only have our own ideas and constructs of God (which Barth dismissively referred to as religion) to fall back on.   Simply put, I can’t know God except through the bible.  I would have nothing to say as a preacher without it.  I believe that the bible helps us to be human, and so I conclude these thoughts with some of Briggs’ words in the RNS interview.

One thing we miss in this is the potential to enlarge our minds and hearts and spirits. I think the Bible is the springboard to opening all kinds of ideas, thoughts, beliefs about what our life is about. And I think without it, it narrows our perspective and gives us a much more truncated view of what the possibilities are. I don’t think we’re getting as much of the larger picture by avoiding the source that has been that pathway to all kinds of discovery. (It’s been the pathway to) entertaining most profound thoughts about what possibly we might belong to beyond ourselves or our immediate communities.

0 Responses

  1. Whatever one's opinion on the contents, the Bible is a foundation for much of western literature and thought. A basic knowledge of it is essential to any liberal education.

  2. Thanks Pat. One of the things that we lose as the Bible fades from memory is a common fund of metaphor that is suited for important occasions. When Lincoln said before the Civil War that a house divided against itself cannot stand, he was using biblical language that almost all of his audience, I am sure, would have immediately recognized. Whether that argument helped his cause, I doubt. The churches split along north and south lines, and people found in the bible texts to support their views on slavery. But the bible was nevertheless a shared language of images, parables, and metaphors that could help understand life. Perhaps that role has been taken up today by mass media, quotes from Star Wars films, internet memes, etc, but it seems like a diminishment of our common language.

  3. A very interesting read, thank you. I agree with your thoughts on the reasons for the declining place of Scripture. Agree even more so with the Barth quote. I work in a university Christian group and the challenge is always to persuade the students that slow, steady work in the Bible is worth the investment of time and energy in the face of many distractions.