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FIRST-PERSON (George H. Guthrie): Will we rise to biblical literacy?

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–In his work entitled “Eat this Book,” Eugene Peterson rightly notes concerning the Bible, “We open this Book and find that page after page it takes us off guard, surprises us, and draws us into its reality, pulls us into participation with God on his terms.”

I am confident that you agree — the Bible is both foundation and fuel of spiritual vitality for the church as we seek to live out God’s agenda in the world. As the great minister and philanthropist George Müller put it, “The vigor of our spiritual life will be in exact proportion to the place held by the Bible in our life and thoughts.” It is not surprising, therefore, that in a recent survey by LifeWay Research, the No. 1 predictor of spiritual maturity among church goers was whether or not they read the Bible on a daily basis.

Yet, only 16 out of 100 of those who regularly attend our churches read the Bible every day; another 32 percent read the Bible at least once per week. This means that more than 50 percent of people who come through our doors on a regular basis only read their Bibles occasionally, perhaps one or two times per month, if at all. Even more sobering, only 37 percent of those who attend church regularly say that reading and studying the Bible has made a significant difference in the way they live their lives. Only 37 percent.

What studies show clearly is that over the past 50 years the church has joined the broader culture in a frightening, accelerating, pervasive, downward slide into biblical illiteracy. This plunge affects both clergy and laity, making a profound impact on the way we think, the way we live and what we know or don’t know about the Bible itself.

As a professor at one of the top Christian universities in the country, I have seen the effects of this trend on my students. They are exceptionally smart and deeply committed to Christ and the church. Yet, many fail very basic biblical literacy tests, neither knowing the Bible’s stories, nor grasping how the grand story of the Bible fits together. Fewer than one in 10 of them have received any training from their churches in how to read and/or study the Bible effectively. And if these cream-of-the-crop kids are in that situation, where are the folks who sit in our pews?

This great need is why LifeWay Christian Resources and the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University have partnered together in what we believe is an exciting, timely initiative called “Read the Bible for Life.” The initiative seeks to change the processes for how we as Christ’s followers interface with the Bible.

We want to accomplish two things foundationally: 1. We want to help people learn to read the parts of Scripture well, so they know how to engage a psalm, or an Old Testament story, or a parable, applying the word in specific, life-changing ways. 2. We want to help people understand how the grand story of the Bible fits together, so they can understand their place in that grand story that God has written on the world.

Psalm 78:5-7 reads, “He established a testimony in Jacob and set up a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, so that a future generation — children yet to be born — might know. They were to rise and tell their children, so that they might put their confidence in God and not forget God’s works, but keep His commands” (HCSB). There is no confidence in God, nor a life lived in light of His works and commands, apart from the Bible.

It is time for us to “rise and tell” the children in our generation, so that they might be powerfully established in, and oriented to, God’s Word. To fail to do so will be to hand them over to the formidable winds shaping our time in history. Those winds have already blown much of our grasp of the Bible down a dark, ever-widening hole of illiteracy. The question is, will we “rise” and do something about it?
George H. Guthrie is the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and author of the book “Read the Bible for Life.” This article is adapted from the December 2010 issue of “Biblical Solutions for Transformation” published by LifeWay. More information about the “Read the Bible for Life” initiative is available at www.readthebibleforlife.com.

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  • George H. Guthrie