The Decline of Biblical Literacy

Last Friday, I was blessed to be the speaker in the first youth devotional service at my church. I considered it a blessing because in preparing for the message, I had to spend considerable time reflecting on the tone that is to be set for the year. This helped me immensely, because it is the tone that I had to set for myself before preaching it. My reflections were based on 2 Peter 3 and the connection it made between eschatology[1] and daily living. Peter argues that the eschaton[2] is a motivator for daily living.

However, in order for the eschaton to be a motivation, one has to believe that “the day of the Lord will come” (2 Pet. 3:10 NIV).  This belief is contrary to what is stated by scoffers who, as antagonists of truth, seek to prevent the ecclesiastical masses from recalling “the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through [the] apostles” (3:3, emphasis mine), by denying that the second coming will take place.

This leads to the point that I wanted to address in this article. For years, I’ve lamented over the decline of biblical literacy amongst the members of the church, both young and old. However, I’ve felt that for the most part it has fallen on deaf ears. Quickly glancing over a few passages of scripture in the morning and/or at night, has become the norm amongst Adventists (if they read at all). Life has become too busy and thus Bible study takes a time-cut.

As argued elsewhere, I believe that the main reasons for this is: reading is not as popular as it use to be; influence by a culture that does not view the Bible as truthful; and the inability, or outright refusal, to differentiate between Bible reading and study. There are other factors to consider, but I gather that these are the main ones plaguing the members of the church.

The Decline of Reading

The first time I stated my awareness of a decline in reading, most people gave me a blank stare. I was use to getting blank stares in response to other statements that I made so I didn’t know what to make of it. Over the years, I’ve adjusted that analysis somewhat. The decline in reading affects areas where, if what is to be read is not read, a foreseeable penalty is not expected. That is to say that we need reasons that we believe is worth reading for.

For example, students, for the most part, read their textbooks because they know that the material will contribute positively to their grades and/or their understanding of concepts that will be needed for their careers. Other reading materials that fall in line with a foreseeable benefit are work and personal finance related. There are still those that read simply because they are interested in a topic, but I believe that this is on the decline, more so in the church than anywhere else.

The media  and independent research groups have been reporting on this issue for quite some time now. A 2004 report released by the National Endowment for the Arts says that “the number of non-reading adults increased by more than 17 million between 1992 and 2002.”[3] Eric Wiener, in an article entitled “Why Women Read More Than Man,” highlights a poll released by the Associated Press and Ipsos[4] stating that in 2006 “the typical American read only four books, and one in four adults read no books at all.”[5] Writing in the New York Times, Karen W. Arenson’s article, “SAT Reading and Math Scores Show Decline,” points to 2006 as being the year that “showed the largest decline in 31 years” of SAT taking.[6]

Seems like there is truth to my analysis. However, a counter argument can be made that though book reading is in decline, reading on the internet is not.[7] I agree with this assessment. But I don’t believe for a moment that it is a sustained type of reading. That is to say that I believe that most of the reading that is done on the net is in the form of going rapidly through vast amount of information in short sessions.

The big question would be: “how much of this information do we really retain?” If we can’t speak intelligently about what we read, then what is the point? There are other factors to consider when it comes to reading on the internet—something that I do often, and I’m in no way demonizing it. Sitting in front of a screen for a long period of time is not healthy for the eyes. Not to mention, unless we are disciplined, it will prompt us to look for sites that are more entertainment focus. Thus, we become the harbingers of Hollywood gossip.

The Culture’s Disregard for Biblical Truth

When the movie Legion came out, I was prompted to write an article concerning how it is a representation of the post-modern culture’s use of the Bible. It is true that “it is just a movie,” but the arts are influenced by the worldviews of their times.  There is an interest in religion, especially Christianity, but not in the way that it is stated in the Bible. People are looking for God outside of the religious systems. In their rejections of these systems, they reject the Bible. Rejecting the Bible doesn’t only mean that they don’t accept it as authoritative, but that they distort its’ message to fit their perspectives.

Richard Rice, professor of theology and religion at Loma Linda University, argues that the significant interest in religion “does not translate into enthusiasm for conventional Christianity. Instead, many traditional communities are in decline.”[8] Rice claims that what many are looking for is a type of religion without-borders that allows them to maintain their individuality. In a study, the Barna Research Group found that “faith in the American Context is now individualized and customized.” Americans are interested in some kind of spirituality that allows them to shape it. In the study, 71% “say they will develop their own slate of religious beliefs rather than accept a package of beliefs promoted by a church or denomination.”[9]

Hybrid faiths in which there is no right and wrong are on the rise. Therefore, it is not shocking when we turn on the T.V. and catch glimpses of elements of Christianity everywhere, but nothing close to what is written in the Bible. The world will always be the world until Christ comes back, but I believe that some Christians have aided them in their distortion of truth by presenting them with a Christianity (which is not one at all) that is very distant from the Bible.

As a result, some Christians are now reveling in the culture’s presentation of Christianity. They see it as more appealing than the one that they are familiar with. They reckon that the interpretations been heard outside are better than the ones within. The philosophers of modern culture have become their biblical interpreters, their theologians. But the reality is that it is not the Bible that is being presented. Thus, the cultural influence draws them away from reading the actual text.

Bible Reading Vs. Bible Study

This idea came to mind not too long ago. If I was asked a few years ago if there is a difference between reading and studying, I would have answered yes. However, I never thought of the difference in association with the Bible. Reading a text doesn’t necessarily mean that you are studying the text. There is no need to make a big deal concerning this in terms of terminology. However, I’m using it to say that many people gloss over the words of the Bible (reading), but never take a pen and paper and try to mark down things that they note in the passage (studying).

Bible reading, or study, has become a despised past time that many hurry through. The only reason that some bother with it at all is because of the guilt that they feel when they don’t perform a sort of spiritual exercise—the same thing is done with prayer. Perhaps seeking for a works’ righteousness, many read the Bible with the mindset that if they do it, then they fulfilled a spiritual duty and can go on to more “pressing” matters.

There is a need to remind the church that biblical analysis is not only for aspiring theologians. It is impossible to cement anything in our minds without spending time prayerfully wrestling with the narratives. It is not only the duty of the preacher to study the Bible, but of every Christian. It is in this spirit that I quote the words of Peter once more: “I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). Those who desire not to join the ranks of the scoffers will do well to heed.


[1]Eschatology, also known as the doctrine of consummation, “addresses the end of the present era of history, initiated by the reappearance of God in the person of Jesus the Messiah and the ultimate future of humanity.” Guy, Fritz. Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1999. P. 206.

[2] From Gk. meaning, “end.”

[3] Shetty, Raksha. “Huge Decline in Book Reading.” CBS News, July 8, 2004. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/07/08/national/main628194.shtml

[4] Ipsos is a market-research firm.

[6] Arenson, Karen W. “SAT Reading and Math Scores Show Decline.” New York Times, August 30, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/30/education/30sat.html. This was a new form of SAT.

[8] Rice, Richard. “The Challenge of Spiritual Individualism (And How to Meet It).” Andrews University Seminary Studies (2005), Vol. 43, No. 1, 113-131. http://www.auss.info/auss_publication_file.php?pub_id=1097&journal=1&type=pdf

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Author: Jerry Jacques

Jerry Jacques, is a native of Queens, New York. He was born in Cap-Haitien, Haiti on June 12, 1980. His purpose in setting up this blog is to think through biblically with others on theology, culture, and anything else that may catch his attention. His hope is that this blog will be a wonderful stopping point for all who visit. He enjoys reading, writing, movies, bowling, board games, and weight lifting. The views expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of his church. If you are interested in getting in touch, write him at jacquesjerry@yahoo.com. Special Interests: Apocalyptic Prophecy, New Testament, Book of Revelation, Book of Daniel, Book of Habakkuk, Biblical Interpretation, Comparative Religion, and Christianity in Contemporary Culture.

2 thoughts on “The Decline of Biblical Literacy”

  1. We must really spend time in God’s Word for ourselves. Deception is on the rise and we need to be able to discern right from wrong, truth from error. Thanks for the reminder.

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