June 18, 2008

Still "People of the Book"?

2008 1517 page8 capOU DON’T BELIEVE THAT “JOAN OF ARC” was Noah’s wife, right?
You’re not of the opinion that Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount, are you?
And, surely, you don’t think that Sodom and Gomorrah, well, “lived happily ever after”?
Seventh-day Adventists might chuckle at such misunderstandings of the Bible—until we realize such assumptions are more common among Americans than we might think. Surprisingly, a number of recent surveys suggest such beliefs are held by a percentage of people in North America who identify themselves as Christians.
In 2005 the Bible Literacy Project, a nonsectarian group in Front Royal, Virginia, released the results of a Gallup Organization survey of 1,002 American teens between the ages of 13 and 18. While the majority of those surveyed recognized “the basic meaning of widely used Judeo-Christian terms such as ‘Easter,’ ‘Adam and Eve,’ ‘Moses,’ ‘the golden rule,’ and ‘the good Samaritan,’” as the group reported, there was some more troubling news.
According to the group, “substantial minorities lack even the most basic working knowledge of the Bible. Almost one out of 10 teens believes that Moses is one of the 12 apostles. About the same proportion, when asked what Easter commemorates, or to identify Adam and Eve, respond ‘don’t know,’” the Bible Literacy Project report stated.
2008 1517 page8What’s more, “only a minority of American teens appear to be ‘Bible literate,’ reaching the level of knowledge similar to that defined by high school English teachers as necessary to a good education.”
Both high school and college teachers, according to surveys conducted by the Bible Literacy Project, affirm that having a working knowledge of the Bible is important to grasping other concepts, such as the hundreds of biblical allusions in Shakespeare, Milton, and other great writers.
Yet, in a nation where 82 percent of the population claim Christian affiliation, the numbers of those who apparently are not well versed in Christianity’s founding text seem to be rising.
“The Bible,” evangelical radio broadcaster Woodrow Kroll told a packed auditorium at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville in March, “is struggling to survive the neglect of its friends.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, revealed more details in a 2004 commentary: “Fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. ‘No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time. They don’t know what they are,’” Mohler quoted George Barna as saying.
All this could be amusing and interesting, but for the fact that within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pockets of biblical illiteracy exist. In 2003 world church leaders were told the results of a 2001 world survey conducted by Andrews University professor Roger Dudley that revealed less than half of Adventist church members around the world are involved in daily Bible study and prayer.
“It’s important to connect with the Scripture,” says Seventh-day Adventist pastor Marty Thurber from Fargo, North Dakota. “If the Word is not a part of both school and church, and then expanding out into the lives of church members during the week, you’re shortchanging them somewhere.”
Even though “this part of the country is heavily Bible-focused,” Thurber said, he doubts “Bible literacy is higher than any other part of the country.”
Philip Towner, dean of the Eugene A. Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society, a New York-based organization with which the Seventh-day Adventist Church has had a relationship for many years, is among those concerned about a Christianity in which the Bible takes a back seat.
“The Word of God is powerful, in and of itself,” Towner said in a telephone interview. “The danger would be a church in which the Bible becomes an emblem or a piece of ritual. The church is a place where you go to find Bibles, but they’re not really understood. If the Bible is an ancient text and we can’t help churches move from the text to modern life, then the relevance of the Christian message would be at stake.”
The ramifications of biblical literacy are many. Historically, Seventh-day Adventist outreach has focused on studying the Scripture—including Bible prophecy—to show where and how Adventism connects with Bible truth. But if a culture is not literate in the Scripture, and if even some church members are falling behind in their “engagement” with the text, how is the message to be communicated?
What’s more, how will Adventists be encouraged to remain faithful church members if Scripture-based appeals aren’t connecting?
To be sure, the issue of Bible engagement is perhaps not as great in Adventism as it may be in other circles. Around the world millions of Adventists file into church each Sabbath for a preservice study of the weekly lesson in the Adult Bible Study Guide or of similar material. But a once-a-week “fill-up” won’t suffice for Christians living in today’s pressurized world. As Kroll’s Center for Bible Engagement puts it, “You cannot live out the Word of God if you do not take in the Word of God.”
Ted N. C. Wilson, a general vice president of the Adventist world church, sees the problem, in part, as a matter of time invested: “The unfortunate thing is a lot of people are not consistently spending time with the Word apart from a church service.”
But not “hiding” Scripture in one’s heart, as Psalm 119:11 instructs believers to do, may yield problems for believers during the time of trouble, Wilson says.
“At the very end, when we are faced with some of the greatest personal challenges to faith, you will not be able to rely on trying to find some electronic format that will give you an answer,” he said, referring to some Christians’ reliance on television or radio substitutes for biblical study. Adventists, he said, must have “continuous communion with the Lord through the study of the Word.”
At the same time, Wilson voiced a sentiment echoed in several quarters in which the subject is being discussed: Bible-based preaching sends people back to the Scriptures.
Preachers “who lift up the Book get people who dig into the Book,” said Wilson, who advocates that Adventists engage in personal Bible study, complemented by a study of the writings of Ellen G. White, a pioneering founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He believes that a study of the Spirit of Prophecy writings will lead people to a more intense study of Scripture, something borne out by studies conducted by the Ellen G. White Estate.
Another world church leader—general vice president Mark Finley, a veteran evangelist whose preaching series take listeners through a wide range of Bible texts—is seeing a similar phenomenon.
“As I look at society, I think societal trends affect devotional life,” Finley said. “We live in a society of sound bites, instant messaging, 30-second commercials, and the rapidity of images,” he added. “You cannot develop a relationship with God in an instant.”
Thurber, the pastor who says he is at the northern reaches of America’s “Bible Belt,” believes the questions members sometimes raise about core Adventist beliefs create a teaching opportunity.
“We’ve got more members that are questioning—how do you come up with honest answers? . . . If you look at them as opportunities, these are great opportunities to teach [people] how to study the Bible,” he said.
He adds, “Sabbath school is the first place where the church itself promotes strong Scripture fidelity.”
In Fargo Thurber produces his own videos to share with the community, and is preaching a verse-by-verse study of Ruth, both efforts to integrate Scripture into people’s lives. He agreed with Wilson and others who say that Bible-based preaching is important: “You have to center it on the text. We’ve basically read most of the first three chapters of Ruth. . . . I try hard to get them into the Word,” he said.
Thurber noted that a variety of Bible versions and translations, ranging from the Authorized, or King James, Version to the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, and Eugene Peterson’s The Message are sources he uses to get congregants “into” the Bible text.
“We give them a lot of background information on those Bibles,” Thurber said. “That has helped our church feel more comfortable, opening up various Bibles and paraphrases and not make them feel unorthodox.”
Using more modern versions is one way to make the ancient message of Scripture more accessible to a world where a different kind of English is spoken than that which was used in 1611 when the Authorized Version was first created, experts say.
“Indisputably the text is ancient,” the Nida Institute’s Towner said. However, “our belief and commitment is that this ancient text is in fact relevant. The challenge for us is providing the text in an appropriate format and in providing the kinds of helps that make the message understandable. In doing these things we can ensure the relevancy of the message to this generation and the generations to come.”
2008 1517 page8The American Bible Society considers its 1967 translation of the New Testament, Good News for Modern Man, the forerunner of the many new translations that have helped people access the Bible’s message in recent years. Good News went through 17 printings in its first year, said Roy Lloyd, communication director for the society.
Even Bible publishers concede that what worked a generation or two ago might have some limitations now: “At some point, ‘Momma’s old black [leather] Bible’ seemed incredibly difficult for a lot of people to get into, so they need their Scripture delivered differently,” said Wayne Hastings, senior vice president and group publisher of the Bible Division for Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville, Tennessee. This fall, Nelson will release The Voice, a New Testament that has running commentary alongside the Bible text—with the commentary clearly distinct from the Scripture.
Hastings said the product is “not a study Bible,” but instead is designed to be “a great reading product to help people get the whole story, understand the concept, and really enjoy reading the Bible.” He suggests that each book of the New Testament was written “in a different voice by the human authors and God used their skills and talents in different ways,” and that enhancing those voices may aid understanding.
Seventh-day Adventists will soon have a study Bible of their own to consider. An international editorial team of Adventist Bible scholars has begun work on a new study Bible to be published by Andrews University Press.
Andrews University president Niels-Erik Andreasen made the announcement March 4 during a meeting of the school’s board of trustees. He said the editorial team is preparing a work designed for lay Bible students around the world: “The Andrews Study Bible will provide the tools necessary for any Bible reader—no matter the level of theological training—to navigate the Scriptures in a meaningful way,” he said.
A university news release stated those tools are expected to include “an extensive study note and reference system, general articles on important theological and interpretive principles, maps, charts, and indexes, all prepared for the general reader.”
According to the announcement, the Bible will use a “standard” translation favored by “conservative evangelicals,” although the precise version has not yet been announced.
“The ultimate purpose will be to produce a work that is academically credible, theologically sound, and practically useful for the individual reader, and for wide distribution in Adventist evangelism,” the announcement stated.
At the same time, Adventist Church leaders, beginning at the 2008 Annual Council expected to take place in Manila, Philippines, in October, will launch a “Follow the Bible” program designed to “raise the profile” of Bible reading among Adventists worldwide, Finley said. A large, multilanguage Bible will be sent from the Manila meeting to each world church division.
There, Finley said, “large convocations” will be held, along with sermons on Bible reading and reading guides prepared for members. The goal is to make the volume “the most-traveled Bible” in history, with the tour culminating at the 2010 General Conference session of the world church in Atlanta, Georgia.
However it is accomplished, Thurber said, the key purpose is to get members to connect with the Bible, and through the text with God’s message for their lives.
“The thing that is going to change people is the Word of God—that’s what’s going to change their lives,” he said.
And for pastors such as Thurber, Finley, and Wilson—among many others—keeping Adventists engaged with the Scripture is viewed as a top priority.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World.