Several weeks ago, Rodney Reeves—dean of Southwest Baptist University’s Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry and author of the forthcoming Story of God Bible Commentary on Matthew—published a blog in which he lamented the status afforded to Christian Scripture by the contemporary church. It is no wonder that this master of pulpit and lectern has become so discouraged. Everything in the body language of his students, everything in the behavior of those who hear him preach, seems to scream “I don’t care!”
Unfortunately, Dr. Reeves’ experiences are not unique. They reflect a general lack of interest in the Bible on the part of those who claim to follow Jesus. And this lack of interest in the Bible has deprived twenty-first century Christians (at least in North America) of their most important spiritual resource.
So, why is this happening? It seems to me that simplistic, moralistic answers (like “people are lazy” or “people don’t care”) just won’t cut the mustard. We are all keenly aware of our own laziness and our own propensity to evil. What we need are explanations that illuminate our ministry context and that give us something to think about when we write books, sermons, blogs, etc.
As I reflected upon the question at hand, I came up with three explanations that I think might meet these criteria. You may come up with others, which I invite you to share in the “Comments” section below.
The first reason that Christians do not pay as much attention to the Bible as they should is mentioned by Dr. Reeves himself. Each day, we are bombarded with a “cacophony” of voices competing for our attention. Many of these voices claim to present us with information that is both more practical and more authoritative than anything we might dig up from the Bible. After all, even the most trivial of “facts” (celebrity gossip, fantasy football recommendations, etc.) is offered to us in the context of and with the implied authority of a scientific frame of reference.
Of course, there is a real issue here, and it is often obscured by all the frivolity of our culture. With new knowledge comes new issues. The Bible does not discuss whether humans cause climate change, under what conditions mental illness should absolve someone of criminal responsibility, or whether the benefits of fetal stem-cell research outweigh the ethical risks. It does not even explicitly mention abortion. So, how can the Bible be taken seriously when it demonstrates no awareness of the knowledge that undergirds modern life? Why should people read the Bible if they will not find the answers to their questions in its pages?
The second reason that people do not care as much about studying the Bible is closely related to the first. There is a cultural disconnect between the world of the Scriptures and the world of modern life. Research conducted by members of The Context Group (and many others) has shown that the basic orientation and values of the cultures in which the Bible was written are vastly different than the basic orientation and values of Western culture today. As such, many of the customs and practices described in the Bible seem barbaric—or have no meaning at all—to modern, Western readers.
Furthermore, the culture in which North American Christians are embedded continues to change, and many of these changes create new obstacles to substantive engagement with Scripture. For example, Vanderbloomen Search Group recently published a podcast in which Amy-Jo Girardier (Girls Minister and Student Missions Coordinator at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee) discusses “Generation Z” (sometimes referred to as the “Digital” generation). According to Girardier, one of the distinguishing features of this generation is that its members prefer not use words to communicate. Rather, they prefer to use carefully crafted images to get their point across.
What does this shift in how communication is achieved mean for Christianity in general and for the Bible in particular? Images certainly have communicative power, but they also have limitations. Christians have always been people of the Word, and our engagement with Scripture has drawn us into engagement with other substantive pieces of literature. If Girardier is right about Generation Z, will Christian leaders be able to draw its members into substantive dialogue with the writings that, in the past, have given the Christian faith its identity and shaped its values?
The third reason that followers of Jesus shy away from the Scriptures is that they make some rather specific demands of their readers—and many of these demands are simply unacceptable to some folks. Twenty-first century Americans treasure their independence, and they are (rightly, at times) suspicious of any person, text, or institution that seeks to limit that independence.
Of course, that is exactly what Scripture does (cf. Galatians 5:13-15), at least when it is taken seriously. The texts of the Old and New Testaments do not simply convey information about past events. They demand that people live in a certain way. And no area of human life escapes Scripture’s searching gaze. Politics, business, criminal justice, sex—these and many more arenas of human endeavor are subject to the prophet’s rebuke and the apostle’s exhortation.
Nevertheless . . .
It is going to take a lot of work if we are to overcome these obstacles to serious engagement with the Bible. We and the people we lead will have to accept the discomfort that inevitably comes when we allow the Scriptures to speak into our lives. Nevertheless, I think it is worth all the effort we exert and all the pain we endure. Next week, I will explain why.