Superstimuli and the Terrible Ten Biblicist Claims

Today I want to turn to those terrible ten claims made by Biblicists.1

My aim is not to discuss whether, or how much, Evangelical scholarship may have been infiltrated by these ideas. Nor am I really trying to answer the question I was asked on Facebook of how many on the list I could support. Even though this post began with my surprise that DeYoung’s response to them seemed (almost) more negative than mine. He wrote:

I agree with point 1 and would affirm points 2, 7, 8, and 9 with the right nuance. But I disagree with points 5 and 6, and I am not comfortable with the wording in 3, 4, and 10.

Before going further here is the list (with some first comments):

  1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
    Right at the start DeYoung and I disagree, he accepts this, I cannot. The words of Scripture are clearly human words, I would claim that the message is divine while the words are human. I think this is what some of the biblical authors themselves claim, like Luke’s account of his process in writing (Luke 1:1-3) or the movement from vision to speech in the prophets (e.g. Amos 7:1-9; 8:1-3). The untruth of 1. is also demonstrated, it seems to me in the fact that Jeremiah does not usually sound like Isaiah, nor Luke like John.
    In this case the untruth of the proposition at best wrongly and badly states the claim that the Bible texts are inspired Scripture.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
    This again is an overstatement. Scripture is NOT the “exclusive mode of God’s true communication” but might be closer to the truth if we inserted the word “authoritative” before communication, and perhaps toned down the claim to exclusivity.
  3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
    This one is plainly bonkers. No way does the Bible address every modern concern. Yet, the claim that Scripture is sufficient – that it tells us what and even “all” we need to know about God and for our salvation – is really important.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
    The perspicuity of Scripture is vital to Baptist life and ecclesiology, but it should never be misstated like this, there is much in Scripture that is difficult, often reading in the light of serious study helps clarify, and yet (again, what we need to know about God and for our salvation) is clear and we have to (intentionally) misread, or be mislead, to miss it.
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
    This one is sneaky. Did you spot “literal sense” in there? Very little in Scripture is expressed literally. Yet the desire to read the plain sense, and not to get carried away with allegorising and spiritualising is a sound one!
  6. Solo Scripture: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
    This one is plain untrue. Take the doctrine of the Trinity as example, it fits with and makes sense of so much in Scripture, yet it can nowhere be read as the plain teaching of a Bible passage. The truth it overstates is that our doctrine and practice should be subjected to the test of the text. They should conform to Scripture and not the reverse.
  7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
    Such a univocal text does not describe at all the Bible I read. (I am currently supposed to be marking short essays on the topic “Did God want Israel to have a king” and the nuanced and diverse attitudes to theologies of kingship expressed in just 1 Samuel, let alone more widely in the OT are sufficient to give that claim the lie.)
    Yet, the consistency of Scripture is surely the reason for the claim that 1 Tim 2:11-12 cannot be read in its most obvious plain sense, that sense (that women should not teach or speak in church) is wrong – it does not “fit” with Paul’s own practice. So, I want to affirm the principle of consistency, while denying the excessive claim in Smith’s formulation.
  8. Universal applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
    This one is a case where DeYoung’s casuistic approach may have merits, for “certain values” of “taught”. The theological understanding that the writers were teaching are indeed true for all times, places, and people,2 But much that they teach (about other more time-bound matters) is not similarly eternal. Thus the laws about wearing clothes of mixed fabrics are not “revoked”  yet do not control my clothing choices. They ought to stand as a warning though against living in ways that are indistinguishable from the Pagans around us.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
    Here I am with DeYoung, “with suitable nuancing” this is one I can affirm as stated, though sometimes the inductive process is quite lengthy with several steps.
  10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
    Even without the (rather naughty?) inclusion of “romance” this is one to resist. And yet even here there is at its heart the admirable desire to take seriously to sufficiency of Scripture. That is a truth worth retaining even while we deny the “supertruth” of the claim.

That last comment will bring me back to my title. But first let me draw your attention to the way this reflection on the claims in the terrible ten have run. In most cases the claim is untrue, yet in every case the claim intends to protect an important truth. This is the insidious nature of these (rightly identified as) terrible ten. They seek to protect truth but affirm a lie. At their heart they are ways in which Evangelicals (certainly in the “wild”, but often in the captivity of the academy too) seek to protect the claim that the Bible is Holy Scripture – the self-revelation of God. But each of them does this by insidiously claiming “more”. In this the terrible ten are like the “superstimuli” that ethologists and pornographers (like the Orange Overlord?) have identified or cashed in. They present something “more” or “better” than the truth, and thus lead the animal astray.

  1. Christian Smith, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011) 3-5. []
  2. As I affirm strongly in the first episode of Deep Bible. []

Getting the PIP and the Deep Bible project

Christian Smith (American sociologist of religion, who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic Deism”)  published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture with Brazos Press back in 2011. His list of ten characteristics of “biblicism”1 was recently cited by Scott McKnight as part of a brief affirmation of the thesis of the book. This made it onto my Facebook screen just a few days after we spent Saturday recording for the first episode of Deep Bible.

Several Evangelical scholars reviewed Smith’s book largely to rebut his claim that these ten features are characteristic of Evangelical (or at least of academic Evangelical) Bible reading. Though they have also criticised his thesis.2 This thesis considers the ten marks of Biblicism in the light of the phenomenon Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (hence forth “PIP”) claiming that this fact of multiple readings makes these tenets impossible.

Getting the PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism)

This post is not a review, or even a notice, of Smith’s book (I have not read it) nor is it a review or response to his critics, rather it is my response to his list, in the light of recording the first episode of Deep Bible. You see one of the core problems with the Bible today for Evangelicals (and other Bible-centred believers, like Baptists) is PIP. You do not have to look far to get the PIP, perhaps all the current (and past) hot button topics among Christians reveal that interpretative pluralism is indeed pervasive. Take the discussion between “Egalitarian” and “Complementarian” camps, they read the same Bible passages, but come to different conclusions. Even the arguments over “gay marriage”, are fueled by different hermeneutics leading to different conclusions.3

Therein lies the rub at least for those who live and have their being in church as well as breathing the more rarefied air of the academy. For, in church (at least in the pews)4 most or all of the terrible ten are believed as gospel truth, and hermeneutics is either an unknown concept or code for “attempting to avoid the plain sense of Scripture”.

Hence the importance of PIP for Deep Bible episode one.5 My contribution offers two strands of practical everyday response to PIP.

Radios and telephones

First, I suggest we need to recognise and distinguish two ways in which God uses Scripture to communicate with us, let’s call them the radio and the telephone. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a Bible passage (or even verse or phrase) to give a particular message to a particular person (or group). When this happens it is a bit like the Spirit inspiring Jeremiah with the message that God watches over his word to fulfill it (Jer 1:12) that message came from a pun on the Hebrew word for an almond branch (Jer 1:11). The message has nothing (at all) to do with almonds or branches or trees. God just used the (bad?) pun as stimulus. When God gave Barbara and I a comforting message about our move to New Zealand (following the traumatic shock of being evacuated from Congo and losing contact with so many of our friends and colleagues) that comforting message had nothing to do with the message of the book of Jonah, but God used the familiar story to make his point – and, as with Jeremiah’s pun, it worked for us. That experience is God making a personal telephone call.

OTOH when God inspired the writers of Scripture to reveal truth about the world and especially about its Maker, Sustainer and Redeemer that message, like a radio broadcast is intended for anyone who has the equipment and listens in.

Failure to distinguish these two sorts of meaning leads to much of the most pernicious misuse of Scripture, and so is responsible for much of the PIP that we get today. For we live at a time that prefers the immediacy of “the spirit”6 to the work of rightly handling the word of life.

Let’s just agree to disagree

Another cultural tendency also impacts the PIP. Tolerance  is a virtue (it is perhaps both the most important, under practiced, and yet over-rated virtue today). In the face of multiple interpretations of Scripture this core virtue of the pomo world kicks in, and we find ourselves tempted to “agree to disagree“. Agreeing to disagree is fine and desirable when we have really discussed, understand where the other is coming from, still respect them, yet despite this disagree.

It is not so fine or desirable when it is almost our first response to differing understandings of what the Bible teaches. Because it suggests that the Bible can (rightly and properly, and not merely because of human sinfulness) teach different things to different people. If the Bible can mean anything, then it actually means nothing!

In everyday life we accept restrictions and limits on what texts can mean. Two key and common restrictions are the meaning of words and phrases (literary restraints on possible meaning) and authors’ intentions (historical restraints on meaning). Much of the rest of the Deep Bible series will consider these two sorts of limit and how we can move between these towards deeper and fuller (yet more restrained) understanding of the Bible.

  1. He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture. []
  2. Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

    []

  3. Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver.  []
  4. Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today. []
  5. I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung! []
  6. Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”. []

SBL and “being there” (reflections from a past attendee)

Facebook reminded me that seven years ago today I was at SBL, and discussing then (via Facebook) with Stephen Garner (who was in Auckland) the values and value of such face to face meetings in this time of digital communications. I still rather like this reflection:
“Ah, yes, ‘being there’ ;)

photo from Bill Heroman via Facebook of Mark Goodacre, snapping Chris Porter, snapped by Sarah Mayo Heroman at #sblaar16

photo from Bill Heroman via Facebook of Mark Goodacre, snapping Chris Porter, snapped by Sarah Mayo Heroman at #sblaar16

So far paradoxically the only reason for ‘being there’ rather than watching streaming video (with the capacity to ask questions like Dimdim et al.)1 has been meeting people I correspond with daily or weekly on the Internetz, but have not yet encountered in the flesh.

The papers that have been interesting would mainly be better read, with time to reflect and engage,2 David Clines’ Presidential Address was inspiring, but sitting on the floor at the back of the room3 YouTube would have been as inspirational… So the deep irony is that SBL is great because I meet people’s fleshly avatars, but that the format means most get met and left, as I or they rush off to the next timetabled timewaster!”

This photo from Fortress Press via Facebook shows some typical SBL attitudes

This photo from Fortress Press via Facebook shows some typical SBL behaviours

 

Meanwhile back in 2016

I think that was the last SBL I attended, the reasons have not been (so much) lack of enthusiasm, for there is an enormous energy boost to delivering a paper to experts in the field and having them listen with more than polite interest, and even engage (briefly, though often positively, with the ideas). Rather now that my airfare and hotel bill (even staying at Day’s Inns and youth hostels US hotels are expensive) are no longer paid for me I have difficulty justifying the expense. I’m sure many of my friends would not agree with this negative assessment, they are extroverts for whom fleeting but vital people contact does not seem to be a reward they receive in the same way at a distance.

But this introvert wishes that a small fraction of what is spent on SBL4 could be siphoned off as a tithe to pay for enriching academic publication platforms to actually encourage engagement.5

  1. Dimdim may still exist, I have not seen it mentioned recently, but such online meeting rooms abound today, and are still often badly used – the effort to attend seems to correlate with the effort made by the organisers far too often! []
  2. Though, of course that would require a change to academic publishing to allow come form of commenting feature, or at least authors’ emails. []
  3. As I was, the room was rightly packed for a highlight of the show. []
  4. Using the initials of the Society as the moniker of the biggest such jamboree for biblical scholars pars pro toto to refer to the whole “conference” parade. []
  5. I cannot now find, and of course I did not bookmark, the depressing post I read earlier this week concerning how few people actually read peer reviewed articles – the author and some of the reviewers excepted – but the number was shockingly small. []

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Review of Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Spokane, WA: Olive Tree Bible Software, 2016).

img_9941

Comment on 2:6 and start of “sidebar”

This review has been affected by circumstances. Firstly Zondervan did not manage to get a hard copy of the work to me, but gave me access to the Olive Tree Android app on my phone. This means I am only commenting on how the phone app works and how the content appears in that format. Second, various life circumstances got in the way and the review is rather later than planned.

The package is intended as a digital representation of a Study Bible and so includes the text of the NIV. However a phone’s small screen does not allow the notes and text to conveniently appear together on the same screen. Bible references in the body text are linked, and touching the linked reference provides the NIV text in a popup. However, the references at the head of each article are not linked in any way to the Bible text they comment. (I was focusing on Amos in preparing this review, so for example the 1:6-8 that precedes and heads the comment on that passage is not a link.) This seems a near significant flaw. However, the Notes and the Bible text are synchronised, so clicking the “library” icon and selecting the NIV opens the Bible in the right place and the reverse, opening the library and selecting the Study Bible opens the notes for that passage (but this needs four touches instead of two to make the back and forth journey).

Sidebar body

Sidebar body

As just mentioned, Bible references in the text are most usefully links to a popup window. Cross references to material elsewhere in the Study Bible Notes are also links, though in this case the main window jumps. This is probably the best way to handle this, though on one occasion it was most disconcerting when the back button on my phone seemed to have ceased operation. Which meant that my curiosity having got the better of me (causing me to follow such a cross reference) I had to use the Bible browser to re-enter the reference of the passage I was studying in order to return to it.

Pictures and diagrams appear in the text, and when clicked expand to near full screen (and if reading in portrait mode one can turn the phone to see a landscape mode image).

Material that would (I assume) appears as sidebars in the codex edition appears as a block in the body text when the reader reaches the insertion point. It would have offered a more consistent interface to make such blocks links.

So, for example, a lengthy article on “Economic Changes and Social Classes in Eighth-Century BC Israel” appears after the notes on Amos 2:6 while the notes on 2:7 appear only after scrolling through a number of screens of “sidebar” material.

End of sidebar

End of sidebar

The content of the notes is useful, explaining issues that many readers will find helpful. The focus is indeed on cultural questions, though occasionally other aspects are mentioned and “cultural” is happily interpreted broadly. This raises questions about such “specialised” Study Bibles, by not mentioning text and translation issues, questions of genre, history, geography, intertextuality… the resource gives an impression of providing a full background to the passage being read, yet in fact may miss vital information. Perhaps in my home group the other members should be armed with an array of otherly-specialised Study Bibles.

Having said this, happily the writers have understood “cultural” in the broadest way, and so when one is reading the string of rhetorical questions in Amos 3:3-8 the probable impact of the series is discussed. While studying Acts in home group I found the notes useful on several occasions – this is probably a better test of the content than my explorations in Amos or Ruth (the books I had planned to base the review on) as I am less familiar with the first-century background.

The scholar in me cried out for references to indicate the source of the information and ideas that were presented. They were probably omitted for much the same collection of reasons as I only provided a bare minimum in the Amos commentary.1

Start of comment on 2:7

Start of comment on 2:7

I now believe that decision was wrong, and while perhaps in a paper codex Study Bible copious footnotes could have been a distraction in this electronic version they could have been a popup indicated merely by a small icon in or beside the text.

In summary: The work is potentially really useful to most readers of the Bible as a quick easy source of one important sort of background whose lack often impedes full and accurate understanding of biblical texts. The app is a worthwhile addition to any Bible-reader’s phone. It is a pity though that publishers still seem to expend more effort on the design of print codex editions of such works than on the information architecture and interface design of the electronic editions.

  1. Tim Bulkeley, Amos: Hypertext Bible Commentary (Auckland: Hypertext Bible, 2005), http://hypertextbible.org. []

What is the Bible?

Michael Pahl has an excellent post (a really long one comprising several from his church website) on What is the Bible and how should we read it?

The post is simple (any intelligent Christian should have no trouble understanding what he says), profound (many readers will be able to continue to draw sustenance from the post over years of Bible reading) and explained with some powerful picture stories.

Any Christian who has not done “Bible college” should read it, and many who have may find things their teachers said make more sense after reading this post!

Have I burbled on enough to get you over there? If not I’ll need to repeat what a fine post this introduction to Bible introductions is!

Bible, Normative OR Negotiable a false dichotomy?

In an excellent post on the Aussie BS blog Mike Bird provides a neat helpful brief summary of things people need to recognise about the Bible. The post should be helpful for both believers and unbelievers alike, potentially dispelling ignorance and superstition in both camps ;).

His number six offers an interesting take on the Conservative-Liberal party divide. Mike’s approach helpfully sidesteps the shibboleths of inerrancy and infallibility with their focus on questions of facticity, and suggests in their place talk of Scripture as normative. So far so normal, and indeed to speak of Scripture as normative does more than proclaim its authority, it protects the Protestant standard of core or central authority.

What interests me though, is Mike’s other pole: negotiable. As Mike uses it, to speak of Scripture as “negotiable” means that it is merely “a human word about God to be selectively utilised insofar as it enables us to speak a transcendent word to our native context”. Indeed in a Facebook conversation the term becomes more clearly polemic:

…my idea of “negotiate” is not the complex hermeneutical reflection needed for proper application and obedience; rather, my concern is with a blaise dismissal of a text since it points away from values of the progressive tribe. For case in point, Paul was a sexist homophobic bigot, who cares what he thinks, stuff like that.

If your goal this is to distinguish “us” and “them” – at least if “us” is the Conservative wing of some denomination this understanding works really well. However, inherent (if sadly not inerrant) Middle-of-the-roadist that I am, I cannot avoid the thought that “negotiation” is precisely what Scripture, understood as both Mike and I both understand it (see his points 1-5 and 7) demands.

The Bible, or rather any part of the Bible that is currently in front of us and under discussion, requires negotiation. It needs to be brought from being merely an ancient text that is often metaphorical or emotionally non-literal that was written to and for people in very different circumstances than ours to being a word for today. Without negotiation, that is without a careful; conversation about the nature of the ancient message and the world to which it applied, and how that ancient message translates into today, without such negotiation application is merely your word against mine – all interpretations are valid and Scripture means nothing and has no authority.

For the Bible (and not merely its interpreter) to be normative Scripture requires negotiation. From where I sit, uncomfortably and dangerously, in the middle of the road, both the Conservatives and the Liberals in their such different ways reduce the Bible to an icon.1

For Scripture to be normative it must be negotiated. When it is both negotiated and normative then like John Robinson in his address to the Pilgrims:

I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

  1. By this I mean a symbol to inspire allegiance, but with no real authority, the Conservatives delivering ultimate authority to those they recognise as inspired interpreters, and the Liberals doing the same but being perhaps more likely to claim that the speaker themself is among that blessed company. []

Small talk and biblical narrative: a challenge

I was grabbed by a question Derek Tovey asked on Facebook. He’s been reading the blurb to Peeter’s edition of Elizabeth B. Tracy, See Me! Hear Me!, Contributions to biblical exegesis and theology 75 (Leuven: Peeters, 2015). The blurb begins with an (unreferenced) quote from Fokkelmann: “The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk.” Derek asked: “Is he right? Can you find an example of small talk in the Bible?” I think he is and I can’t, can you?

There is banter in the Bible, not least banter between strangers – the case of Jesus and the woman at Sychar (John 4) is a strong example. There are examples of a host’s gracious welcome – Abraham and the three men offers a classic example (Genesis 18). But no “small talk” (which I understand to mean polite by trivial or meaningless talk to oil the wheels of social interaction).

This seems to me not unexpected, I can’t think (though please let me know that I am wrong) of examples of small talk in literature before the modern period, and even then the earliest examples I think of are from Shakespeare (and I think drama works differently from prose narrative).

More than that though biblical narrative is well-known to be parsimonious with unnessary detail of all sorts. Descriptions are almost only given when some detail advances the plot, or characterisation, in significant ways. Indeed, often the silences and omissions are meaningful, “fraught with background” in Auerbach’s redolent phrase.

Fokkelmann, however approached the question differently. The quote comes from his introductory textbook and his concern is with the way characters’ speech is “existentially revealing”.

The other speeches in our pilot story show that the character’s text not only contains many forms of the present tense, but often also commands and wishes. This means that speech is often about the imminent future, and this is something the narrator himself can never manage. Characters may say that they want to have this or that, or want this or that to be done in such-and-such a way. Speeches are often excited or dramatic.The Bible does not contain one single instance of small talk; almost every word by a character is existentially revealing or rooted: the speaker is totally committed to the matter under discussion.1

This notion of speech in biblical narrative as “existentially revealing” is (I think) much more interesting than mere parsimony!

  1. Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative : An Introduction Guide (Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) 68. []

Gospel games

It’s not yet launched (coming Thursday US time, Friday here) yet from what I’ve heard and seen The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance could be an answer for people looking for a decent, fun game for kids (and the young at heart?) that inculcates Christian values and the gospel message it cannot be worse than most of the “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” type nonsense that is usually marketed as “Christian”!

Unstoppable Play from The Aetherlight on Vimeo.

Revelation and Donald Trump

Recently my Facebook feed has repeatedly presented me with cartoon pictures that echo the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation, and apply that thinking to the rise and rise of Donald Trump on the US political scene. It is interesting how in even such a determinedly “secular” culture as NZ this biblical imagery still has power beyond the church.

However, some of the best sense I have read recently about Trump and Christians comes from Paul Windsor. In trump – again?! my Kiwi-American-Indian ex-boss neatly explains much of what most needs to be said about reading Revelation in the West, and about the unrecognised and so unacknowledged syncretism that continually trips us up. His scalpel is directed in this post at US Christians, but the message is for all. We build our belief systems, and so our lives, not only on the solid rock of the gospel but also on the shifting sand of the cultures we inhabit (and that possess us).

Do read his post.

Aniconic Stories and Reading the Bible

Back since before we produced PodBible 1 I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World.

Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced).

Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture.

That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!

Now something that seems, at first brush, unrelated. I record (among other things) readings of children’s stories. Recently different people, referencing different ages of child, have mentioned that the Beatrix Potter stories are preferred over Winnie-the-Pooh. The reason given is that Potter’s are illustrated and so the child has a video to watch, while Pooh is just audio. This makes a priori sense since children get to see so much video today, and recent children’s books are usually illustrated with copious colour images, where a generation ago only a few line drawings often sufficed.

For me, this recognition was confirmed by the experience of reading Paddington Bear to my grandson. At 5 and a bit, he is a good reader, enjoys reading and also loves having stories read to him. He had watched several episodes of a video version of Paddington (not true video but like my Beatrix Potter produced zooming and panning over simple colour images). He was “getting”  the humour and chuckling away. So, later that day I got out the copy of a Paddington omnibus edition we used to read to our children. I was only a couple of pages into the first story, when he complained: “Where are the pictures?” I showed him the few line drawings, and he chose another book to have read.

The rising generations2 are simply less able to enjoy aniconic stories.

We have a second problem to compound the first: We are becoming less interested in, and even less able to ‘read’ aniconic stories.

There have been attempts to address this. As well as the ‘biblical’ blockbusters, which attempt to ‘retell’ the Bible stories as engaging cinema, people have produced visual Bibles (or at least episodes or whole books from the Bible). Some are extremely expensive and use the full range of the actor’s and videographer’s crafts (notable among these are the Jesus Film 3 and the project known as The Visual Bible).4 Distant Shores Open Bible Stories has gone the opposite route and used a crowd-sourced open and free approach.

There is however a significant issue with such visualisations, the biblical text is inherently aniconic, not only is the text itself consistently unimaged (at least for the first many centuries of its transmission) but beyond that we have very few indeed pictures of its characters from their own lifetimes. Most of those are foreigners on the periphery of the story, none of the major characters was5 imaged in from life.

If the ‘visual Bible’ approach is fraught with theological and practical difficulties, are there other approaches to cope with these issues?
Even if small children are more resistant to stories without pictures, most become capable of attending to such stories, and many learn to love them. Reading the Bible aloud in church is more, and not less, vital than it was in less visual times.

Children seem more able to concentrate in the absence of images when other stimuli are reduced (e.g. listening to stories through earphones on car journeys or to an adult reading in a darkened room). Perhaps, in church, we could dim the lights for the reading of Scripture!

This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!

  1. The idea for PodBible was stimulated by a desire to help a generation who read little, but listened to MP3s a lot, to “read” the Bible. []
  2. Remember this process did not begin with ubiquitous video on phones, but broadcast video on TV, or even earlier with film, photography and printing advances making images cheaper and very much more widespread, already a century ago before my father’s birth! []
  3. Not quite a visual Bible, but closely based on Luke’s gospel. []
  4. Which perhaps in ways not unrelated to the amounts of money involved has been mired in controversy and strife. []
  5. So far as we know. []