The Case for Bible Literacy by Jennifer Wilkin

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Rom. 15:4

A little heads-up: this is the chapter you don’t want to read. This is the chapter where you get uncomfortable and want to tell me to mind my own business. This is the chapter where we talk about Bible literacy: what it is, whether we are acquiring it, and why it matters that we do so.

Let me put you at ease: most of us don’t have it, myself included. Bible literacy is something most of us will never feel comfortable claiming we have achieved during our lifetime. So this is a chapter that makes me uncomfortable, too.

We all carry around the dim discomfort of our not-knowing, feeling it surge to the surface when we enter into conversations with the unbeliever, the friend in our small group, the wise older woman. Sometimes when a category on Jeopardy covers a Bible topic, we experience a moment of sheer panic that Alex Trebek knows his way around our sacred text better than we do. We would be hard-pressed to name the twelve apostles or to give the order of the creation story. We have heard of Tamar, but was she a positive example or a negative one? When two preachers we love take differing positions on the same passage, we are thrown into confusion.

We treasure what we know, but we are troubled by what we do not know. We do our best to cobble together a patchwork knowledge of Scripture, pieced from sermons, studies, and quiet times, but we are often confronted with the gaps and loose seams in the garment of our understanding, particularly when life gets hard. We don’t know our Bibles like we need to—some of us who are new to the faith don’t know them at all, and many of us who have been in the church for decades are scarcely better off.

But what can we do to know the Bible better? We have already begun to answer the question of what makes for sound Bible study: sound Bible study transforms the heart by training the mind and it places God at the center of the story. But sound Bible study does more than that—it leaves the student with a better understanding of the Bible than she had when she started. Stated another way, sound Bible study increases Bible literacy.

What Is Bible Literacy?

Bible literacy occurs when a person has access to a Bible in a language she understands and is steadily moving toward knowledge and understanding of the text. If it is true that the character and will of God are proclaimed in Scripture, then any serious attempt to become equipped for the work of discipleship must include a desire to build Bible literacy. Bible literacy stitches patchwork knowledge into a seamless garment of understanding.

If you are reading this book, then you probably have access to a Bible in a language you understand. This is no small gift. What you need is steady movement toward knowledge and understanding. This steady movement does not occur by accident, nor does it always occur intuitively. We may have an earnest desire to build Bible literacy, but left untrained, we may develop habits of engaging the text that at best

do nothing to increase literacy and at worst actually work against it. Before we can develop good habits, we must take an honest inventory of the unhelpful ones we may already practice.

Have you ever had an unhelpful habit that you wanted to break? In my early twenties I realized I had an unhelpful habit of completing other peoples’ sentences. I remember how surprised I was when someone lovingly pointed out to me that I shouldn’t do that. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I completed other people’s sentences—it was that I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I actually believed I was helping the conversation along by jumping in. But once I became aware that I was doing it, I realized how often it was happening and how disrespectful it was to others. I was embarrassed and ashamed, and I was filled with an immediate desire to stop. But by the time I realized the problem, I had formed a well-established pattern of communication that was difficult to break. Learning to stop my unhelpful habit required recognizing the extent of my problem and then working hard to change the pattern.

This is true of any unhelpful habit we might develop, especially if the habit has developed over the course of years. In order to break it, we must first recognize the extent of its influence and then take steps to change.

When it comes to studying the Bible, unhelpful habits abound. Within our Christian subculture we have adopted a catch-all phrase for our regular habit of interacting with Scripture: “spending time in the Word.” Church leaders urge us to do so. Authors and bloggers exhort us to value it. But what should take place during our “time in the Word” can remain a vague notion, the specific habits it represents varying widely from person to person.

The potential danger of this vagueness is that we may assume that our version of “spending time in the Word” is moving us toward Bible literacy simply because we have been obedient to practice it. Not all contact with Scripture builds Bible literacy. Learning what the Bible says and subsequently working to interpret and apply it requires quite a different practice than many of those we commonly associate with “spending time in the Word.” We cannot afford to assume that our good intentions are enough.

Are We Growing in Bible Literacy?

If Bible literacy is to be our goal, we need an honest evaluation of what we are currently doing to achieve it. Some of our existing habits may not be “bad” in the sense that they accomplish nothing to help us learn God’s Word—they may simply be limiting, in the sense that they can only take us so far in our understanding. Other habits probably need to be put aside completely. At first we may not be able to perceive that our current approaches are limiting or unhelpful, but on closer examination we begin to notice the gaps in understanding that they can leave.

In my years of teaching women the Bible, I have come across several common unhelpful habits of “spending time in the Word.” I wonder if any of them will sound familiar to you.

The Xanax Approach

Feel anxious? Philippians 4:6 says be anxious for nothing. Feel ugly? Psalm 139 says you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Feel tired? Matthew 11:28 says Jesus will give rest to the weary. The Xanax Approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Whether aided by a devotional book or just the topical index in my Bible, I pronounce my time in the Word successful if I can say, “Wow. That was really comforting.”

The Problem: The Xanax Approach makes the Bible a book about me. I ask how the Bible can serve me, rather than how I can serve the God it proclaims. In reality, the Bible doesn’t always make us feel better. In fact, quite often it does just the opposite. (Feeling awesome? Jeremiah 17:9 says we’re wicked rascals.) Yes, there is comfort to be found in the pages of Scripture, but context is what makes that comfortlasting and real. Note also that the Xanax Approach guarantees that huge sections of our Bibles will remain unread because they fail to

deliver an immediate dose of emotional satisfaction. We are not very likely to read Leviticus or Lamentations if we subscribe to this approach. A well-rounded approach to Bible study challenges us to navigate all areas of the Bible, even those that make us uncomfortable or that are difficult to understand.

The Pinball Approach

Lacking a preference or any guidance about what to read, I read whatever Scripture I happen to turn to. Hey, it’s all good, right? I’ll just ask the Holy Spirit to speak to me through whatever verse I flip to. Releasing the plunger of my good intentions, I send the pinball of my ignorance hurtling toward whatever passage it may hit, ricocheting around to various passages “as the Spirit leads.”

The Problem: The Bible was not written to be read this way. The Pinball Approach gives no thought to cultural, historical, or textual context, authorship, or original intent of the passage in question. It does nothing to help us gain understanding of the text beyond our immediate context. When we read this way, we treat the Bible with less respect than we would give to a simple textbook. Imagine trying to master algebra by randomly reading for ten minutes each day from whatever paragraph in the textbook your eyes happened to fall on. Like that metal pinball, you’d lose momentum fast (and be very bad at algebra). A well-rounded approach to Bible study takes into account how any given passage fits into the bigger picture of what the Bible has to say, honoring context, authorship, style, and more.

The Magic 8 Ball Approach

Remember the Magic 8 Ball? It could answer even our most difficult questions as a child. But I’m an adult now, and I’m wondering if I should marry Bob, get a new job, or change my hair color. I give my Bible a vigorous shake and open it. Placing my finger blindly on a verse, I then read it to see if “signs point to yes.”

The Problem: The Bible is not magical and it does not serve our whims, nor is its primary function to answer our questions. The Magic 8 Ball Approach misconstrues the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Word, demanding that the Bible tell us what to do rather than who to be. And it’s dangerously close to soothsaying, which people used to get stoned for. So, please. No Magic 8 Ball. A well-rounded approach to Bible study recognizes that the Bible is always more concerned with the decision-maker than with the decision itself. Its aim is to change our hearts so that we desire what God desires, rather than to spoon-feed us answers to every decision in life.

The Personal Shopper Approach
(a.k.a. the Topical Bible Study)

I want to know about being a godly woman or how to deal with self-esteem issues, but I don’t know where to find verses about that, so I let [insert famous Bible teacher here] do the legwork for me. She winsomely hand-selects relevant verses from all over the Bible and delivers them to my doorstep to be tried on for size.

The Problem: The Personal Shopper Approach doesn’t help us build “ownership” of Scripture. Much like the Pinball Approach, we ricochet from passage to passage, gaining fragmentary knowledge of many books of the Bible but mastery of none. Topical studies do hold potential to help us grow, but we risk something by calling them “Bible studies.” Calling a book on body image a Bible study implies that it is teaching us a working knowledge of Scripture. Many topical studies, even good ones, cannot fairly make this claim. They offer value as a supplement to—but not a substitute for—studying the Bible in its most basic sense. Topical studies serve a purpose: they help us integrate broad concepts into our understanding of Scripture. But they are not foundational. If they are all we ever do, we will miss out on the richness of learning a book of the Bible from start to finish. A well-rounded approach to Bible study addresses a topic as it arises in Scripture, rather

than attaching Scripture to a topic. It asks the student to labor at the process of discovery.

The Telephone Game Approach

Remember playing the telephone game? Where you sat in a circle and whispered a sentence into the ear of the person next to you? The fun lay in seeing how garbled the message was by the time it made it around the circle. A similar process can happen when we read books aboutthe Bible instead of reading the Bible itself. Why? Because authors build on the writings of others. This isn’t wrong—it’s actually logical. But it’s something a student should be aware of. If I prefer reading what others have written about the Bible to reading the Bible itself, I am probably reading what someone says about what someone says about what the Bible says. As with topical studies, books about the Bible can be helpful, but they are not foundational. If I can quote John Piper more than I can quote the apostle Paul, I’ve probably been practicing the Telephone Game Approach. Sometimes without even noticing it, I can slip into this pattern. This is because books about the Bible don’t require as much work to understand as the Bible itself, and they are usually written by people who seem to know way more about the Bible than I ever will.

The Problem: We’re called to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, not John Piper’s mind. While what he and others have to say about the Bible can be extremely helpful, it is no substitute for Bible study on our own. Why would we spend more time reading a text several times removed from Scripture than we spend reading Scripture itself? We’ll get way more out of Piper if we invest our time in the book he loves above all others. A well-rounded approach to Bible study recognizes that books about the Bible, like topical studies, are a supplement to personal study, not a substitute for it. Unless we are growing in Bible literacy, their ability to help us will be limited. The more we grow in Bible literacy, the more helpful supplements and commentaries become.

The Jack Sprat Approach

I take this approach when I engage in “picky eating” with the Word of God. I read the New Testament, but other than Psalms and Proverbs, I avoid the Old Testament, or I read books with characters, plots, or topics I can easily identify with. Women, in particular, seem drawn to this approach (anyone else a little worn out with Esther, Ruth, and Proverbs 31?), but everyone fights this temptation to a certain extent.

The Problem: All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. All of it. We need a balanced diet to grow to maturity—it’s time to move on to the rest of the meal. Women need both male and female examples to point us to godliness. We can’t fully appreciate the sweetness of the New Testament without the savory of the Old Testament. We need historical narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, law, prophecy, and parables all showing us the character of God from different angles. And we need to see the gospel story from Genesis to Revelation. A well-rounded approach to Bible study challenges us to learn the full counsel of God’s Word. It helps us to build a collective understanding of how the Bible as a whole speaks of God.

* * *

Did you see anything familiar in these seven approaches? Recognizing an unhelpful habit is never fun, but it marks the beginning of making a change for the better. I can vouch for having practiced all of these at one time or another on the road to discovering a better approach. I admit that hearing so many other women report having used the same approaches was a little bit of a relief, but it was also frustrating to learn that so many of us appear to be in the same boat. If we have never been trained how to be a good student of the Bible, it is no surprise that we have looked for ways to improvise. If anything, the prevalence of these practices probably reveals a blind spot in the church’s vision for discipling, rather than a lack of willingness to learn on the part of the disciple.

Breaking existing habits is hard work, and only those who believe the end result will be worth the effort will put in the work to break them. We must recognize that a better way beckons to us. We must combine our willingness to learn with an approach that will build Bible literacy. We must learn to study in such a way that we are not just absorbing the insights of another, but are actually being equipped to interpret and apply Scripture on our own. Every study we undertake should do more than just teach us a book of the Bible; it should teach us how to study any book of the Bible with greater effectiveness.

Why Bible Literacy Matters

Do you believe in the importance of reclaiming Bible literacy? Let me suggest a reason why you should: Bible literacy matters because it protects us from falling into error. Both the false teacher and the secular humanist rely on biblical ignorance for their messages to take root, and the modern church has proven fertile ground for those messages. Because we do not know our Bibles, we crumble at the most basic challenges to our worldview. Disillusionment and apathy eat away at our ranks. Women, in particular, are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers.1

When women grow increasingly lax in their pursuit of Bible literacy, everyone in their circle of influence is affected. Rather than acting as salt and light, we become bland contributions to the environments we inhabit and shape, indistinguishable from those who have never been changed by the gospel. Home, church, community, and country desperately need the influence of women who know why they believe what they believe, grounded in the Word of God. They desperately need the influence of women who love deeply and actively the God proclaimed in the Bible.

Maybe you have felt your own interest in the Bible waning and have wondered why. You may have even questioned your love of God in light of your lack of desire to know his Word. I believe that a woman who loses interest in her Bible has not been equipped to love it as she should. The God of the Bible is too lovely to abandon for lesser pursuits. I want women everywhere to develop a deep and abiding love for him through the study of the text that makes him known.

In the following chapters, I want to show you how. Like many teachers, I have a soft spot for alliteration, so grant me your tolerance as we explore how to value what I call the Five P’s of Sound Study:

Study with Purpose

Study with Perspective

Study with Patience

Study with Process

Study with Prayer

As we move through our Five P’s of Sound Study, you will no doubt begin to notice that their relationship to one another is not strictly linear. We will build on each idea as we address it, but the order in which we will discuss them does not communicate that one is more important than another. We will consider the importance of prayer last, though it is certainly not of last importance in our approach to Scripture, nor is it the last element we should practice. Each of the Five P’s supports the others: we pray for patience to study well.Perspective and process are intertwined and rely on keeping purpose in view. Bearing in mind that all five P’s are equally necessary and interrelated, we will organize our discussion of them by moving in an order from general to specific.

Each of these vantage points will help us begin to grow in Bible literacy, training us in the exercise of mind-before-heart, God-before-self. So let’s get started.


From Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds, Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Wilkin, Published by Crossway

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