A few nights ago a total stranger parked in our driveway. It was 2:00 in the morning.
We might never have noticed him except that we’d just come home from a long day out. We saw headlights, then someone parking at the end of our row of diagonally parked family cars. Our house has been broken into more than once, so we were spooked. We called the police, who tracked down the license plate, and a few minutes later the guilty driver was called back.
Mom and my sisters stationed themselves by the upstairs window so they could listen to his conversation with a buddy on his cell phone — which was at once funny and revealing. He wasn’t happy about being made to move. In fact, he thought it was unfair. Look at all the other cars in the driveway! How did we even read his license plate in the dark? That other car was blocking half the driveway — why didn’t they make it move?
He had obviously missed the most important fact in the whole discussion: He had parked in the driveway of a private residence. Because he didn’t know that, nothing he was made to do made any sense. He got upset about the details because he so completely missed the context.
In John Bunyan’s classic allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, a major subplot features the character of Ignorance. Throughout the story, he follows Christian, doing things his own way, refusing counsel, deliberately turning a deaf ear to any truth that makes him uncomfortable. When he reaches the Celestial City, he fully expects to be allowed in — but he is turned away. Ignorance is pathetic, but we can’t excuse him on the grounds that he didn’t know. He chooses his own doom.
Bunyan’s Ignorance, like the man in our driveway, turned my thoughts to the subject of biblical literacy. On my bedside table rests a Bible, the very Word of God. How often do I choose to read it? To study it? To understand the context of the life I live and seek out a truly blessed way?
If the Bible tells us what life is and how to live it, then biblical literacy isn’t an option. I need it. We all do.
Matt Kaufman’s recent article, “Losing Their Grip,” traces the tragic history of higher criticism in the Lutheran church, a journey which has recently led to the acceptance of homosexual clergy.
ELCA officials … simply let each church go its own way, each teaching more or less what it chose. In the recurring phrase of the book of Judges, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” … How have things gotten to this point in a church body? Because the church let go of God’s Word. And without that anchor, all the church can do is drift along with the culture.
It’s a somber warning, reminding me that biblical literacy is important not just for myself but for the church as a whole. The old saying “What you don’t know won’t kill you” is a tragic falsehood.
The more we take our responsibility to be biblically literate people seriously, the fewer opportunities Satan will have to get a foothold in our churches and culture. The tighter we, as individuals, hold to the truth, the fewer chinks will exist in the Body’s armor. Truth, after all, is power; it’s the difference between living a real life, an authentic life that conforms to what is and puts us in touch with the God of things as they are, and living a lie that can never satisfy because it’s built on illusion.
These days, the word “literate” is often used to mean that someone can read, but in the past “literate” meant “versed in literature”; to be literate was to be familiar with the writings and ideas that have shaped our culture. Biblical literacy doesn’t require a seminary education — anyone who can read can become biblically literate — or even huge amounts of time per day. It does require a commitment to diligent reading and study, the kind you can do at your kitchen table for 20 minutes a day. It’s work. But its rewards are tight armor, a worldview that’s true, the ability to discern good from evil and truth from falsehood.
In my own journey toward biblical literacy, these are a few of the practical habits that have helped me.
Read the Whole Bible
The first step in becoming biblically literate is to get an overview of the whole book (or books — the word “Bible” literally means “books”). By the time you’ve read Revelation, you will have forgotten much of what you read in Genesis — but you’ll have a general idea of what the Bible contains and in what order, and that general knowledge will really help when it comes to examining the details. Set a goal to read through the Bible in a year or two. You can find reading plans at One Year Bible OnLine, among other places.
Study Topics, Passages, and Words
To really do us good, reading should transition into study — of topics, passages and words. For a topical study, pick a topic, whether it’s a doctrine like the resurrection, a trait like faith or patience, or something practical like marriage. If you’re not sure where to begin (and this is where that sweeping overview comes in handy), try making a list of keywords and looking them up in a concordance. This should lead you to most relevant passages.
In a study of a particular passage or book, you can simply start at the beginning and go to the end. These studies can be long or short, simple or complex: I’ve studied through entire Gospels or epistles over the course of several months, taking notes on everything and looking for patterns, keywords, themes, etc., or I’ve spent a week studying a single chapter.
Word studies can be enlightening in many ways. For these, a concordance is invaluable. I use Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which includes a detailed Greek and Hebrew dictionary, and I recommend it highly. It both lists all the verses you want to read and gives definitions and nuances.
I’m currently doing a word study on “spirit” because I want to know more about the human spirit, the Holy Spirit, and how they intersect. So far, it’s fascinating, and it’s provided insight on topics I wouldn’t have expected it to — like individual callings and the nature of art.
While you can undoubtedly find books on anything you want to study, and many of them will be helpful, I encourage you to spend time first with the Bible alone. Let God speak before anyone else; doing so will give you more discernment when you’re reading men’s thoughts and help you get more out of them.
Go into Bible study assuming that you don’t know what you think you know. Not only will this help keep you humble, it will also help you identify your presuppositions — some of which are right, and some of which are wrong. That’s why I’m studying the word “spirit” — I went into the study intending to question all of my beliefs, most of them vague and gathered from years in church, not from Scripture itself. Some will turn out to have been true, others to have been false, and along the way I’ll discover a lot more questions I didn’t know enough to ask.
Questions provide fertile ground for study, and they keep us eager. They put us in touch with a God who wants us to seek so that we may find. Everything I think I know becomes an invitation to step into the Scriptures and learn more; to prove the Trojan horses empty and find the secret places where the riches of God await.
Ask for God’s Help
When I open my Bible every morning before work, I ask God to open the Scriptures to me and reveal the truth. Most importantly, I ask Him to reveal Himself. I ask for an attitude of humility and openness and for the courage to live out what I find to be true. He does help — and the act of daily asking reminds me of His graciousness to communicate with us at all, of His eagerness to fill our lives with good things, of His infinite wisdom and tender willingness to teach.
That is, after all, the ultimate aim of biblical literacy — that we may come to know the God who gave us His Word, that we may live in His truth and not in ignorance, and that we may bask in the light of who He is. A biblically literate life is braced by truth and full of possibilities.
All we have to do is seek.
Copyright 2009 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.