Our Culture’s Biblical Illiteracy – “An Illness Which May Be Terminal”

More than two decades ago, at the age of forty-four, I became a Christian. In an effort to “catch up” with others in my church, I enrolled at the Bible College of Victoria, a well-regarded evangelical institution here in Melbourne. Eventually I completed a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies.

Some time later I was chatting with one of the college lecturers, and he remarked: “If you wanted to catch up with the people in your church you didn’t need to do a diploma. I could have taught you in an afternoon what they know.”

He was being sarcastic, but truth lay in his words. The decline in biblical literacy in our culture has been startling.

Here is what theologian Professor George Lindbeck has written:

The decline of biblical literacy has been abrupt and pervasive. Language, culture and imagination have also been debiblicized at a remarkable rate.

The decline affects intellectuals and non-intellectuals, the religious and the non-religious, those inside the churches and those outside, clergy and laity and…Bible-loving conservatives as well as purportedly less biblical liberals. ….

When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from non-religious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families.

Though I came from a non-Christian family, I found I knew lots about the Bible when – twenty-two years ago – I first set foot inside my local Baptist church.

I knew, for example, that there were an Old and a New Testament and ten commandments. I knew the names of the four gospels as well as plenty about the life of Jesus. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer. And I had a strong knowledge concerning many of the characters, stories, literary expressions and proverbs of the Bible.

I guess this was partly because I had traveled a lot – not least including six months in Israel, exploring my Jewish roots – and had accumulated many life experiences, such as, for some years, a deep involvement in Zen Buddhism.

Also, I had always been a bookish, studious person. When I was at elementary school in New Zealand, in the 1950s, we had thirty minutes of (non-compulsory) religious education each week. One day the Congregational minister who taught us announced a contest, to see who could most accurately write down the Lord’s Prayer.

The winner? – Me, one of the few kids in the class back then who never went to Sunday School.

In any case, I find that some other non-Christian people my age also know a lot about the Bible. And younger people too often know little. I think it’s a disaster.

To quote George Lindbeck again:

Every major literate cultural tradition up until now has had a central corpus of canonical texts.…Without a shared imaginative and conceptual vocabulary and syntax, societies cannot be held together by communication, but only by brute force (which is always inefficient, and likely to be a harbinger of anarchy). 

But if this is so, then the biblical cultural contribution, which is at the heart of the canonical heritage of Western countries, is indispensable to their welfare, and its evisceration bespeaks an illness which may be terminal.


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