Why Johnny can't read . . . the Bible

Bible literacy: Can the tide be turned?

Some decades ago, Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read startled the world of public education. Flesch's book pointed to an alarming trend among America's children. Simply put, Flesch said: "Many of them cannot read. Not well, anyway." In his book, Flesch attempted to trace the roots of this educational embarrassment. Then, he suggested ways to reverse the tide of functional illiteracy.

Decades have come and gone. The "Johnny" of Flesch's book is now an adult. Hopefully, he's a better reader than he was when Flesch wrote his book. Sadly, there is one area where Johnny still can't read. Not well, anyway. Simply put: Johnny cannot (at at least doesn't) read the Bible.

A recent George Barna survey showed that, in a typical week, 22% of evangelical Christians do not read the Bible at all. Another thirty percent read it only once or twice a week. The reason? People say regular Bible reading is hard to maintain, that busy schedules and lack of a good reading plan hinder their Bible reading. Others say Bible study is boring and not life-related.

For many people, direct encounters with the Written Word have given way to books about the Bible that "guarantee" immediate application to life. It has become easy to let others tell us what the Bible says. Tragically, when Christians go to a best-selling Christian book or to a commentary rather than to the Bible itself, they miss out on direct contact with God's Word.

This lack of direct encounter with the Bible concerns me. I am a Nazarene whose heritage is within the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley once said: "Let me be homo unius libri (a man of one book)." Furthermore, being Wesleyan also means we're Protestant. Thus, we should stand on the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. One of those key Reformation principles was that Christians can and may read God's Word for themselves. This principle of direct access to the Bible was so critical to early Reformers that many of them forfeited their lives promoting it.

Today, many adult church members are "biblically illiterate" – lacking the skills, confidence, and even the incentive to read the Bible as a daily guide for life. Today, I have to wonder if we Protestants — by our lack of Bible reading and study — are making proper use of that right to read the Bible which so many people sacrificed to make possible.[ see article on Biblical illiteracy ]

Recently, I observed an animated Sunday school class session. Those present were discussing some political topics. While several people quoted the Bible in support of their particular perspective, no one actually opened God's Word and read the words written there. In this case and others like it, Sunday School sessions become simply "Christians discussing" rather than being "Christian discussions."

What can churches do to reverse the rising tide of biblical illiteracy? Here are some strategies:

1. Affirm the authority of God's Word.
We Wesleyans say we live under the authority of God's Word. We claim to believe that the Bible is the primary source of truth. While our other "teachers" include life experiences, reason, and church history, we must never accord these sources the same level of authority as God's Word.
2. Read the Bible with a sense of expectancy.
Some people have let the Bible become too commonplace. Biblical passages are heard without reverent ears so many times that they can be read without engaging the mind. The Word disintegrates into merely words. Every time we come to a passage of scripture, no matter how familiar, we should sense that a new insight or new idea may be waiting for us.
Rather than coming to well-read passages and thinking "I know what this is all about", growing Christians come to God's Word seeking fresh understandings of God's revelation.
3. Directly encounter the Word.
We can do Bible study two ways: inductively or deductively. In deductive Bible study, we start with a life situation, a problem, or a decision and work back to the Bible for examples, answers, guidance. Inductive Bible study does the opposite. We start with a biblical passage, and -- using the investigative tools at hand -- we discover life truths. Both Bible study methods are helpful. However, the deductive method often becomes overused because it appears to be "easier" and perhaps more immediately helpful. Inductive Bible study, because it allows the Word to "speak for itself," must be regularly used by adults.
4. Encourage Bible study dialogue
It is in dialogue that believers can enrich each other's understanding of God's Word.
5. Model for other believers the effectiveness of Bible principles.
The Bible is not merely an ancient document held precious by the church. The Bible is not boring or unrelated to life. It is a book about life today. Every passage speaks of life. Growing Christians can and should take every opportunity to talk about how regular Bible study does make a real difference in the way we live.
6. Promote Bible study tools.
We say that we can go directly to God's Word and understand it. We also know that Bible study aids such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries and Bible handbooks can deepen our understanding.

Acts 8 tells the story of an Ethiopian reading from Isaiah without fully understanding what he was reading. Many adults find themselves frustrated in similar ways in their Bible reading. We can help them find keys to unlocking the Word just as Philip did with that Ethiopian.

Some time ago James Smart wrote a book titled The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. In that book he proclaimed the need to keep biblical preaching prominent. Smart said, "The church that no longer hears the essential message of the Scriptures soon ceases to understand what it is for and is open to be captured by the dominant religious philosophy of the moment."

We must let the words of the prophets, of the apostles, and of Jesus sound in our ears. We call ourselves people of the Word. Let's make that statement true.

Originally written by Randy Cloud and published in The Herald of Holiness (now Holiness Today). Revised, adapted and used by permission.

"Present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who . . . correctly handles the word of truth" — 2 Timothy 2:15

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