Culture's Fallow Ground: The Shame of Biblical Illiteracy

We may possess enough basic knowledge to best a common agnostic at Bible Trivia; we may even be able to hold our own in a proof-texting duel with the village atheist. But we are rarely as saturated in the Bible as we are in pop cultures.

May 7th, 2010

"When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my pistol," said the Nazi playwright Hans Johst. I suspect that if our paths had ever crossed, Johst would have shot me on sight. For I am what he would have despised most: a culturist.

I love culture. I love high culture, low culture, and middlebrow culture. I love pop culture, folk culture, and church culture. I love Texas culture, American culture, and the culture of Western civilization. I worry about culture wars and wars on culture. I despise cultural relativism and fret about the decline of culture. I read about the theology of culture and how to transform, redeem, and restore culture. I think about culture. A lot.

And through all this thinking about culture, I've concluded that the single most important activity we could undertake to change and improve culture is to read the Bible.

One of the most significant cultural disasters in the West is the loss of Biblical literacy. From the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, the Bible was the bedrock for our culture's shared heritage. The term culture comes from the Latin cultura, meaning "to plow" or "to till," and for centuries, the Bible was the rich loam our civilization would plow. The Old and New Testament provided the fertile soil in which the Western literary imagination took root, and from the scriptural terra firma grew the metaphors, allusions, narratives, and archetypes that fed the soul of our civilization.

But like the story of the Tower of Babel (remember that one?) we have lost our shared language. As Adam Nicolson argues in an article in the Wall Street Journal:

Up until, say, 100 years ago, biblical literacy would have been practically mandatory. If you didn't know what "the powers that be" originally referred to, or where "the writing on the wall" was first seen, or what was meant by "the patience of Job," "Jacob's ladder" or "the salt of the earth"—if you didn't know what an exodus was or a genesis, a fatted or a golden calf—you would have been excluded from the culture. It might be said that a civilization consists, at its core, of these easily transmitted packages of implication. They are one of the mechanisms by which cultures can be both efficient and rich. You don't have to return to first principles every time you wish to communicate. You can play your present tune on a received instrument, knowing that your listener hears not only your own music but the subtle melodies of those who played it before you. There is a common wisdom in common knowledge. But does this Bible-informed world still exist? I would guess that on the whole, and outside committed Christian groups, biblical literacy is a thing of the past. That long moment of Christian civilization is over. The idiom of modern, English-speaking people is not dense with scriptural allusion, just as the conversation of educated people no longer makes reference to classical civilizations. If you dropped the names nowadays of Nestor, Agamemnon or Pericles—every one of which would have come trailing clouds of glory up to a century ago—you would, I think, draw a near total blank from even educated listeners.

The most lamentable aspect of this loss is that the "committed Christian groups" Nicolson refers to are often as illiterate as the unchurched. I have been a Christian for over thirty years, and yet my knowledge of the Bible is shamefully lacking. This point was illuminated for me several years ago when I was invited to join an Internet discussion group on Biblical inerrancy. The moderator of the list was Farrell Till, an elderly retired English teacher and editor of Skeptical Review. Till was indisputably one of the most surly, churlish, and impolite men I've ever had the misfortune to meet. But he also possessed more knowledge about the Bible than a pew full of Baptists.

In our debates I was able to siphon from my memory some of the basic stories that I had learned in Sunday School, while Till was able to draw from a deep well of familiarity with Scripture. His disdain for the Bible was palpable—but he thoroughly knew the text he despised. Till's scholarship was as shallow as his reasoning, so he was never able to prove Scripture to be "errant." But he was a masterful spelunker who showed me the cavernous depths of my own Biblical illiteracy.

I wish I could say that I was an unrepresentative example of an evangelical. But I suspect that most of my fellow classically orthodox Christians—from the KJV-only crowd to the emerging church conversationists, and not forgetting those who dwell across the Tiber—are equally illiterate. We may possess enough basic knowledge to best a common or garden agnostic at Bible Trivia; we may even be able to hold our own in a proof-texting duel with the village atheist. But we are rarely as saturated in the Bible as we are in pop cultures. We can recite more lyrics from Beatles than we can from the Psalms, and quote more lines from Monty Python movies than from the letters of the Apostle Paul.

Imagine what might happen, though, if we took a different approach. Imagine if we treated the Bible as if it were an actual book that we read from beginning to end. Imagine that instead of reading a chapter a day (as proscribed in our devotionals) that we hunkered down and read large chunks, the way we would read Melville, Dostoevsky, or Stephen King. Imagine if we stopped treating it solely as a reference work, to be pulled off the shelf when we need some advice, but as a coherent narrative, a work of literary art co-produced by the very Creator Himself. Imagine if the names Onesimus, Naaman, and Mordecai were as familiar—and as meaningful—to us as the names Ross, Rachel, and Chandler. Imagine how we might be able to speak with those from the distant past and pass on this cultural vernacular to future generations.

Ironically, Camille Paglia, an art critic and self-avowed atheist, seems to have a sounder grasp of the importance of the Bible for culture than most believers:

[T]he Bible is a masterpiece. The Bible is one of the greatest works produced in the world. The people who all they have is the Bible actually are set up for life. Not only do they have a spiritual vision given to them but artistic fulfillment. They don't even recognize just the pleasure of dealing with this epic poetry and drama. Everything is in the Bible.

Can you imagine what could happen if Christians thought like that? Can you imagine the thinkers, artists, and saints that we could produce if we had that attitude about Scripture?

If you can imagine any of these things, then ask yourself this: Why you don't you spend more time with the Bible?

 

Joe Carter is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for The East Texas Tribune and the online magazine Culture11. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator.

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