WE ARE WHAT WE EAT: CONTENDING WITH BIBLICAL ILLITERACY

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Fr Frank Marangos

Source: Oinos Educational Consulting

By Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., FCEP

“A man can’t be always defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.”  C.S. Lewis

We are what we eat. If the analogy is true, then Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest provides a stark backdrop to the national chlorosis of reading and its deleterious effects on Biblical literacy.

On July 4, 2020, defending champion and competitive eater Joey Chestnut won the men’s division of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest by consuming 75 hot dogs. Defending women’s champion Miki Sudo captured the woman’s division by eating 48 1/2 hot dogs in the same time frame. While both contestants used different methods to help swallow the food, the objective of the contest was the same: devour as many hot dogs as you can in 10-minutes!

Held each year on Independence Day, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest provides a valuable scrim for examining the condition of the nation’s Biblical literacy. More specifically, when coupled with a fascinating Biblical account concerning the nutritional fare of an Old Testament prophetical school, the annual Coney Island event tutors against the casual and hasty methodologies adopted by some seminaries and theological schools for serving God’s Word to the nation’s future faith-based leaders.

America has a literacy problem. Almost fourteen percent (14%) of the adult population cannot read.  Data from the Pew Research Center reveals that over a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) have not read a book (print, electronic or audio) in the past year. A 2016 study sponsored by Reading Plus, an adaptive literacy intervention platform, concludes that by the time they finish high school, today’s students will read nineteen percent (19%) slower than their counterparts of fifty years ago.  Another survey conducted by a Book Industry Study Group (BISG) similarly concludes that thirty three percent (33%) of high school students and forty four percent (44%) of college graduates will never read another book after leaving school. According to the report, seventy percent (70%) of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

While these statistics are troubling, what is more worrisome is the percentage of individuals who neglect the reading of Holy Scripture. Illiteracy isn’t merely a problem for secular society. A far worse kind of incapacity affects the church. While only twenty percent (20%) of Americans claim to have read the entire Bible at least once, merely twenty two percent (22%) say they systematically read through a section of the Bible each day. A third of Americans admit they never read the Bible on their own.

According to a 2018 Barna Research Group Study conducted in partnership with the American Bible Society, while half of Americans consider themselves “Bible readers,” only eight percent (8%) claim “refer to the Bible” three to four times a year. According to study data, sixty percent (60%) of Americans are unable to name even five of the Ten Commandments. “No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time,” concludes Barna. They don’t know what they are,”

More troubling, Gallup Analytics reports that fewer than one in four Americans (24%) believe the Bible is “a holy document.” Twenty-six percent (26%) view the Bible as “a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.” Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli put the problem squarely: “Americans revere the Bible, but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”

Curiously, in the face of such a troubling assessment, Pew Research reports that half of Americans (49%) say the Bible should have at least “some” influence on U.S. laws, including nearly a quarter (23%) who say it should have “a great deal” of influence.  Unfortunately, while many may consider the Bible to be a “source of wisdom,” the 2018 LifeWay Research Report shows that most Americans do not read it on their own.  LifeWay concludes that, while the number one predictor of spiritual maturity is reading the Bible on a daily basis, like the Barna Study, only one in five Americans claim to have read the entire Bible at least once in their entire lives.

“Behold, the days are coming,” insists the Old Testament prophet Amos, “when there will be a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). The aforementioned data indicates that apart from a general neglect of reading, our nation is experiencing the famine of biblical knowledge that Amos predicted. This is a cultural deficiency that must be seriously confronted by (1) individuals, (2) local communities, and (3) institutions of higher theological education. But how should the institutional Church, its members, and leaders remedy the cultural anemia that results from such Biblical privation?

The Old Testament account of the prophet Elisha’s visit to a prophetical school provides a powerful framework for dealing with the nation’s current biblical dearth. Described in the fourth Chapter of the 2nd Book of Kings, the catechetical coterie at Gilgal may be compared to a seminary or theological school of today. While visiting this enclave of young prophets, Elisha discovered that the “students” (sons of the prophets) were hungry (2 Kings 4: 38-44). Since they could not embark on their calling without proper sustenance they looked to Elisha for direction. “Put on a large pot,” he said to his servant, “and prepare a stew for the sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 4:38). Unfortunately, together with healthy ingredients, poisonous gourds (cucumber-like plant) were unwittingly selected and included in the mixture. As a result, when the hungry students began to eat, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” (2 Kings 4:40). To counteract the poison, Elisha instructed the cooks to add flour to the mixture (2 Kings 4:41). The account concludes with the statement: “and there was no harm in the pot.”

Flour (meal) in the Bible is a metaphor for the Word of God. Alternatively, the world after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, is characterized as increasingly poisonous. Humanity hungers for the pure Word of God to counteract the world’s toxicity.  Consequently, similar to the time of Elisha, contemporary society is experiencing “a dearth in the land” . . .  a scriptural famine, that requires faith-based leaders to be fed and, to subsequently, feed others the life-giving nutrients provided by God’s Holy Word. Like the young prophets that were “strengthened” by Elisha’s “potage,” today’s religious leaders must strive to appropriately “serve” the pure Word of God to those who are hungry!

In his article, What are You Eating? Four Kinds of Spiritual Food (2018), Andrew Hunt refers to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel to illustrate the analogy of eating as the intake of God’s Truth. The prophet was commanded to eat and “fill his belly” with the scroll of God’s Word, which he would then go and declare to Israel.  Hunt continues his thesis by quoting the Apostle Peter who urged believers to be like newborn infants that “long for spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Drawing on the image of eating,  the author outlines four kinds of spiritual food (1) garbage can, (2) junk food, (3) healthy, and (4) nutritious. While emphasizing the need to feed on the healthy and nutritious varieties, he underscores the dangers associated with potage made from the garbage and junk food gourds employed by “false teachers, apostles and prophets” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Biblical hunger (illiteracy) is not something new. Early 4th Century Ecclesial leaders were also faced with emphasizing the importance of a well-balance (private and liturgical) scriptural diet. The Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, for example, regularly stressed the necessity for the laity to nurture the daily practice of scripture reading in his homilies. “I always entreat you,” he told his flock, “and will not cease entreating you, not only to pay attention here (Church) to what I say, but also when you are at home, to persevere continually in reading the Divine Scriptures.”

Chrysostom contended that “attending to the Holy Scriptures” was more critical for the laity, “for those surrounded by a multitude of cares,” than for those “who have fixed their huts in the wilderness and enjoyed a calm quiet life and great security.” A regular diet of God’s Word, he argued, is for “those tossing in the midst of the sea, driven by a multitude of sins, always in need of the continuous and ceaseless aid of the Scriptures.” In the end, Chrysostom’s counsel is best illustrated in his statement that “it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved, without continually taking advantage of spiritual reading.”

Like Chrysostom who described the Scriptures as “medicines for the soul,” Basil the Great (330-379AD) underscored the daily requirement of reading and meditating on the Holy Scriptures. “Any effort to encounter God,” the now famous hierarch of Caesarea explained, “must be preceded by the reading of Scripture . . . without exception! Scripture,” he insisted, “should fill us with awe and wonder.”

Finally, Athanasius, the 4th Century Bishop of Alexandria, emphasized the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures, “given by inspiration of God, towards the discovery of truth.” Christians should “neither speak nor endure to hear anything in religion that is a stranger to Scripture,” he warned.  “It is an evil heart of immodesty to speak those things which are not written.” For Athanasius, the Bible contains “the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone,” he insisted, “is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.”

The early Christian Patristic consensus concerning the study of Holy Scripture is clear. Without exception, great care should be used when reading, meditating, and applying the message of Scripture in one’s life. The Bible, they cautioned, should not be consumed hastily nor in an overly privatized fashion. On the contrary, feeding on God’s Word is not akin to a hot dog eating contest wherein speed and quantity assure success. Whether in liturgical celebration or in the privacy of one’s home, the message of the Scriptures should be humbly received, with reverence for the consensus of patristic interpretations, and respect for the exegetical truths conveyed.

In the midst of the nation’s ever-increasing levels of biblical illiteracy, therefore, faithful Church leaders would do well to adhere to the early Christian patristic witness and develop appropriate systemic remedies on the personal, communal, and institutional levels. Local communities, as well as theological schools and seminaries should, therefore, address the unhealthy situation by providing comprehensive scriptural diets to their parishioners and students.

“Biblical illiteracy,” insists Mark Steiner, former president of Through the Bible Publishers, “is the single most significant threat to the viability of the Church in America.” In his article, Squaring Off with Biblical Illiteracy (2011), Steiner outlines seven steps that may help religious leaders counteract biblical illiteracy by providing their local church communities with a more solid foundational diet of God’s Word.

  1. Exhibit a love for the Bible in personal life and ministry.
  2. Establish high expectations for solid biblical training in the church.
  3. Embrace children’s discipleship with confidence and conviction.
  4. Equip parents to build their children in the faith.
  5. Experience the joy of preaching through the entire Bible within the next 10 years.
  6. Exhort and encourage everyone to apply God’s Word personally.
  7. Engage the congregation in a Bible Celebration.

In his article, On Theological Education and the Church’s Health (2019), Joshua Heavin takes Steiner’s assessment one step further by contending that the “local church’s health is inextricably bound up with how it trains theologians and educators.” While Steiner focuses his remedies on the local church community, Heavin underscores the need for theological schools to do their part. He outlines a few recent trends in theological education which carry ramifications that, over time, can prove harmful to the church’s health.

According to Heavin, “shorter degree programs, less traditional courses (systematic theology, church history, biblical exegesis, etc.) that advance more “hands-on and practical” skill training, leadership formation, and administrative curricula have functionally diluted theological education.” In spite of these good intentions, he insists that these trends “will not be without extremely serious implications for generations to come.” He warns, “coupled with biblical illiteracy in our churches, and compounded over decades, the viability of seminaries and divinity schools will become more and more difficult to sustain.”

In her Christian Post Reporter article entitled, “What are the Biggest Threats Facing Christian Seminaries” (2018)Stoyan Zaimov discusses two of the biggest threats facing Christians seminaries in America. Like Heavin, she identifies student debt and a lack of Biblical understanding among graduates as a major hazard. To support her opinion, Zaimov quotes Ligon Duncan, chancellor of the Reformed Theological Seminary in Mississippi, who insists that today “more seminary students come to do graduate theological education with less knowledge of the Bible and theology than ever before. Today,” Duncan argues, “churches are not equipping people in the same way with a knowledge of the Bible and a theology. So if people who know less Bible and less theology think that knowing more Bible, more theology is irrelevant to ministry, we’re in trouble.”

Like Zaimov and Duncan, Jay Sklar and Bob Yarbrough recommend the need for theological schools to interpret Scripture accurately and incorporate its truths into every aspect of seminary learning and life. In their article The Need for Strong Seminaries (2018), the authors outline three descriptors of a “strong” seminary: (1) It must be true to the Bible, (2)  It must be true to its Christian heritage, and (3) it must be true to the needs of the hour. According to Sklar and Yarbrough, seminaries  serve the body of Christ in four critical ways.

  1. They safeguard the truth, train leaders to handle and proclaim this truth, and, in so doing, feed the body of Christ with God’s truth.
  2. They address the deficit of basic Bible knowledge. Seminary classes teach students Christian doctrine, Biblical teaching and the church’s mission.
  3. They offer a training ground for one’s whole life: heart, mind, soul, body.Seminary training is transformational not just transactional, resulting in a changed heart in addition to growth in biblical knowledge.
  4. They sustain a learning community in the form of a faculty that provides valuable written or spoken preaching/teaching resources for the church both global and national.

In support of Zaimov, Duncan, Sklar and Yarbrough,  R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, contends that “Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge.” In his commentary The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem (2016), Mohler insists that Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing fraction of the local congregation’s time and attention. He argues that, while youth ministries are asked to fix problems, provide entertainment, and keep kids busy, local-church youth programs do not actually produce substantial Bible knowledge in young people. “Even the pulpit has been sidelined in many congregations,” he contends. “The centrality of biblical preaching to the formation of disciples is lost, and Christian ignorance leads to Christian indolence and worse. This really is our problem and it is up to this generation of Christians to reverse course.”

The lament of biblical illiteracy extends beyond Baptist and Evangelical congregations. Thomas Hopko (1939–2015), the late Orthodox Theologian, priest and Dean Emeritus of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary once said that “the word of God, Jesus Christ, is in Scripture, we eat and drink the word of God.” In a 2010 Ancient Faith Radio interview entitled How to Read the Bible, Hopko advised Orthodox Christians to cultivate the habit of daily bible study. “We need to commune with the Word of God,” he advised. “Yes, yes. Bible reading, Bible hearing, Bible contemplating, Bible chewing, reading those words, being acquainted with them deeply—that’s certainly the Orthodox tradition.”

Emphasizing the role of the Scriptures in Orthodox ecclesial administration, Hopko additionally referred to Canon 2 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which insists that “no man should be consecrated a bishop in the Orthodox Church who cannot recite the entire book of Psalms, the entire Psalter, by heart. By heart! By memory!” As for the laity, his advice was clear: “you have to read them. You can’t have an opinion about the Scriptures unless you read them. And it’s not enough to read them. You’ve got to study them. You’ve got to read them over and over and over again your whole life long. Reading Scriptures daily, reading Scriptures regularly is simply part of [living]a Christian life.”

Like Hopko, Kenneth Berding, professor of New Testament at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, opines how Christians were once known as “people of one book.” According to Berding, Christians use “to memorize, meditate, talk and teach others about the Bible. We don’t do that anymore,” he asserts, “and in a very real sense we’re starving ourselves to death.” In his most recent book, Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book (2014), Berding suggests four reasons why the Church now finds itself in the middle of a scriptural famine: (1) distractions, (2) misplaced priorities, (3) unwarranted overconfidence, and (4) the pretext of being too busy. He briefly describes each as follows:

  1. Distractions: According to Berding, social networking, texting, television, video games and places dedicated to amusement pull our attention away from God’s Word. These fun and interesting activities occupy time that we could spend reading, studying and memorizing the Bible and they distract our thoughts during time we could spend meditating on God’s Word throughout the day.
  2. Misplaced Priorities: “Priorities,” writes Berding, “are not as simple as God first, family second and church third. Priorities,” he suggests, “are not based upon a simple hierarchy. They require the proper balance of activities in relationship to one another.”
  3. Unwarranted Overconfidence: Should we stop studying the Bible until we have perfectly put into practice what we already know? According to Berding, “the assumptions behind this statement are not only misplaced; they are patently false. We actually don’t know enough about the Bible, we aren’t putting enough effort into learning it, and everyone doesn’t agree about this. In short,” he asserts, “the sense that we know a lot about the Bible because we grew up going to church is misguided.”
  4. The Pretext of Being Too Busy: I want to be careful about this one. Some people are dreadfully busy and have no easy way of getting out of their plight. I think of single moms who have to work full time just to make ends meet, who spend every evening — all evening long — attending to the needs of their children (food, laundry, schoolwork), falling exhausted into bed at night. Some people are simply busier than others, and some of those who are excessively busy cannot easily change their lot in life.

While Berding’s diagnosis is useful, what can be done to reduce and/or reverse the nation’s current situation of Biblical illiteracy? Surely, a well-tested model exists that can easily be deployed?

In an effort to provide a useful framework for the study of the Bible, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, recommends the ancient tradition of prayerful reflection, called Lectio Divina. A favorite theme of the Catholic Pontiff, “scriptural attentiveness,” nurtured through the humble reading of the Bible, can “bring the Church a new springtime.” In the words of Pope Benedict, “evil draws its power from indecision and concern for what other people think.” His recommendation serves to avoid the perils associated with contemporary turpitudes of philanthropic omission – the negligence of which only enhances the dysfunctions of societal privatization.

Lectio Divina can be traced back to Saint Ambrose (3rd Cent.) and later formalized by the Carthusian monk, Guigo II (12th Cent.). Lectio Divina fundamentally involves five (5) separate yet interrelated steps: (1) read (lectio) (2) meditate (meditatio), (3) pray (oratio), (4) contemplate (contemplatio), and (5) act (actio). When linked to the grace of discernment, this ageless instructional method has the potential to increase the level of biblical literacy among the faithful.  More specifically, by  mastering the five-step Lectio sequence during their theological training, the nation’s future religious leaders my increase the capacity to inspire their respective congregations to be likewise predisposed:

  1. Read: Read, listen and attend to Holy Scripture, liturgical texts, patristic wisdom, and official Church documents with focused expectancy, trusting that God will communicate His Word of direction.
  2. Meditate: Seek the relevance of sacred texts by assessing societal contextual situations against the standards of holiness and service.
  3. Pray: After listening and reflecting on the Wisdom of the Church, honestly seek the strength to overcome respective difficulties with Divine direction.
  4. Contemplate: True contemplation pursues the creativity of new insights. Leaders should use the wisdom of Biblical and liturgical texts to refine their respective entrepreneurial perspectives.
  5. Act: Finally, empowered by what has been experienced through attention, meditation, and prayerful contemplation, appropriate actions may now be selected that will more faithfully align personal and professional desires to the Will of God.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken in 1994 during the Sudan famine depicts a whimpering, famine-stricken child, crawling towards a United Nations food camp located a kilometer away. The dreadful scene includes a plump vulture waiting for the child to die. The photograph was taken by Kevin Carter, a South African journalist who had been advised not to touch the victims because of disease. Consequently, instead of helping, he spent twenty minutes waiting in the hope that the stalking bird would fly away. It did not. Carter scared the creature away and watched as the child continued toward the center.

Once the New York Times ran the photograph, readers were eager to criticize Carter for not coming to the child’s aid. Subsequent research seemed to reveal, however, that the child did survive yet died 14 years later from Malaria. Although Carter won a prestigious award for his keen eyesight, the image of the famine-stricken child never left him. In July 1994 he took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by the vivid memory.”

For those with discerning eyes, the nation appears similarly famine-stricken. While our storehouses are such that food consumption has become a competitive sport, the mind and soul of the 21st Century seems to be crawling towards a spiritual food camp, whimpering for something that prosperity alone cannot automatically proffer. Yes, we are what we eat. So how should we describe a nation that celebrates hot dog competitions while simultaneously suffering from the famine of God’s Daily Bread?

What then will be the historical testimony of the institutional Church and Temple to the chlorosis of Biblical illiteracy? Will the memoire be marked by robust initiatives advanced for the sole purpose of providing the life-sustaining potage of Holy Scripture to a spiritually famished society? Or will our current Judeo-Christian legacy be characterized by the utilization of scarce resources for the construction of grand sanctuaries, temples and shrines . . . but void of younger worshipers?  Will we have chased away the stalking vultures of postmodernism or will the icon of the current generation portray us standing lazily, frightened to touch?

I am hopeful that in the years to come we will not be haunted by the memory!

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