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FIRST-PERSON: Funeral service’s 23rd Psalm recitation underscores today’s biblical illiteracy

FITZGERALD, Ga. (BP)–More often than not, I am the minister who tries to offer words of hope at a graveside funeral service, but on this particular day I was simply part of the grieving crowd. Since I had no ministerial responsibilities, I took the occasion to observe and learn. I listened carefully to the minister and watched the mourners’ reaction to his well-chosen words.

The minister’s words from the Scriptures had a soothing effect on those gathered around the graveside and I could tell his short eulogy brought comfort and hope. The minister concluded his remarks by asking those gathered to recite, by memory, the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” One by one the mourners began to mouth the familiar words.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures …” As I looked around, I noticed some of those gathered around the graveside were silent. Their mouths did not move during the recitation of the words.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters …” As I glanced across the crowd, I noticed a distinct pattern. People who were 50 years old or older were reciting the Psalm. Those who were 40 or younger were silent.

“He restoreth my soul …” Then it dawned on me. The younger members of that congregation did not know the 23rd Psalm by heart. They could not recite “the familiar words” because, for them, the words were unfamiliar.

For me, this experience was but another reminder of the pervasive biblical illiteracy characterizing our nation today. An ever-increasing number of people are unfamiliar with the words contained between the leather-bound cover of their Holy Book. Seemingly, the Bible is the book everybody has, but nobody knows.

A survey of graduating high school seniors was recently conducted to determine how much they knew about the Bible. In that survey, over 50 percent of the students thought Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. Sixty-six percent did not know who preached the Sermon on the Mount and 79 percent could not name one of the Old Testament prophets.

The problem of biblical illiteracy seems as prevalent among church folks as it does the unchurched. Because the average church attender no longer knows the Bible, I am increasingly careful about the terms I use in preaching. Twenty years ago, I could have used the name of Joshua in passing, but not so today. Regrettably, many of my hearers do not know the difference between Joshua and Jezebel.

What are the consequences of this biblical illiteracy? Only time will tell, but I don’t like what I see. The evolution of a society without the knowledge of “holy words” scares me. In times past, holy words have provided a foundation on which society’s morals were built. If the foundation crumbles, what will fall next?

Granted, you can’t tell a book by its cover, but you won’t know the book at all if its cover stays closed.
Wilder is pastor of First Baptist Church, Fitzgerald, Ga.

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  • Gene Wilder