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Seattle Pacific University
Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Features
"Biblically Illiterate" continued

The Bible as Soil for the Roots of the Church

In the context of public schools, proponents of biblical literacy are concerned about education more than religion. In the context of the church, however, biblical literacy has a different meaning and purpose. For Christians, the Bible is the very Word of God — “a lamp to my feet” and “a light to my path.”  And yet, Gallup’s research shows churchgoers to be woefully ignorant of their own Scripture. They may as well be walking in the dark.  

Intimacy with Scripture is essential for the church, say those who have made Bible reading an individual and corporate discipline. Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, believesthat Christians are “formed” by a deep encounter with Scripture, and also by studying the church’s long history of scriptural interpretation. “We learn to read Scripture well by sitting at the feet of Christians, past and present, who are wise readers of the text, and by meditating on God’s word day and night,” explains Hays, who was the keynote speaker at SPU’s President’s Symposium in November 2006. “As Psalm 1 declares, those who do so will be like trees planted by streams of water, whereas those who do not immerse themselves in Scripture will be like chaff blown about by the wind.”

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, England –– also a former President’s Symposium speaker –– has been reading the Bible daily since he was 12. “Even the bits I know continually surprise me with new angles,” he says.

Each person will find their own way of reading Scripture, notes Wright: “Never forget that the four gospels are the center of it all, and that the Jesus we meet there is the human face of the living God. But remember that the Jesus we meet there was the Jesus who knew the Psalms so well that even in the agony of torture and death he couldn’t help quoting one of them.”

churchWright also notes, “Billy Graham once said that he read five Psalms a day ‘because they help me to get along with God’ and a chapter of Proverbs every day ‘because it helps me to get along with man’. There is great wisdom there, however we apply it individually.”

In the midst of daunting daily challenges, Seattle Pacific alumna Kim Hodges Gerdes ’94 says she can’t help but turn to Scripture. The program director of the Kindering Center in Bellevue, Washington, Gerdes helps provide services for more than 2,000 infants and children with special needs. It is a way in which she helps others cope with challenges much like her own. She and her husband, Jeff Gerdes ’96, are raising their son, Toby, who has a developmental disability.

“I don’t know how to deal with life’s pressures except by renewing my mind with Scripture, by filling my mind with what is holy and true,” says Gerdes. She says she finds that knowing about Christ’s love for her is not enough; she needs to be in a process of knowing him better. “If we’re really seeking him, then we will naturally do what he’s calling us to do. We’re more likely to be serving him and doing the work of his kingdom if we’re spending time in God’s word.”

The senior pastor of Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church, Earl Palmer, also knows the rewards of regular Bible reading. He says it was during his undergraduate years at the University of California-Berkeley that “the Bible first became a book I really wanted to read.

“It was my discovery of the Jesus Christ of the Bible that made the difference for me, because Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Lord integrated the parts [of my life] into a new whole,” recalls Palmer. “Once we make this discovery, we are then invited to grow with and into the great texts of the holy Bible so that they become an alive part of our own daily intellectual and moral life as well as our friendly companion.”

The Bible as Key to Engagement

Those who are planted in Scripture, says business leader Max De Pree, become effective leaders –– in every aspect of their lives. Author of the best-selling book Leadership Jazz, De Pree points to the key elements of leadership: trust, which is based on truthfulness; forgiveness, which helps others reach their potential; good community relationships, which is a more rewarding goal than selfish gain; and personal restraint, which helps people resist destructive trends.

“Biblical literacy is a great help and guide in understanding any of these elements,” concludes De Pree.

N.T. Wright would agree: “The more you read [Scripture], the more it enables you to have a many-sided engagement with the world for the gospel. If you rely on what you learned at Sunday school, don’t be surprised if your ‘engagement’ gets just a little thin.”

Hays reminds Christians that attentive Bible readers will encounter “the imperative that the people of God should care for the poor, renounce violence, and seek racial and ethnic reconciliation within the community of faith.”

Few Christian leaders have fulfilled that imperative more vividly than John Perkins, SPU’s partner in the Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. Now 76 years old, Perkins continues a lifelong commitment to minister to the needs of the poor and champion the cause of biblical reconciliation between all people.

For Perkins, knowledge of the Bible has brought with it both joy and suffering. His ministry of proclaiming Jesus to the poor began one Sunday morning, when a preacher shared Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Inspired, Perkins went out to share the “free gift of God” with the people of Mendenhall, Mississippi.

When Perkins began teaching young black men to “dig into the Bible and find out what it says,” he and his supporters became the victims of hate-fueled violence. As he recounts in Let Justice Roll Down (Regal Books, reprinted 2006), he was tortured and almost killed by white law enforcement officers. In 1971, as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from his ordeals, he thought back on the evil he had witnessed and suffered due to racism. Hate would have been an easy response.

“An image formed in my mind,” he wrote. “The image of the cross — Christ on the cross.” Perkins recalled the biblical account of Jesus’ arrest, beatings, and crucifixion. Yet, Perkins realized, the Bible says that Jesus loved and forgave his enemies even when they killed him.

Perkins rose from that hospital bed and, empowered by Scripture, blazed new trails in promoting biblical reconciliation and community development. “The word of God is the spiritual nurture that one needs in order to have a full and meaningful life in society,” says Perkins today. “It gives us spiritual strength.”

The Greatest Story Ever Lived

A view of Scripture as the big story that “guides us to human flourishing” has prompted Seattle Pacific University President Eaton to lead a new initiative addressing the epidemic of biblical illiteracy. “Seattle Pacific is a university committed to biblical and theological education, a university that places the Bible at the heart of our learning enterprise,” he says. “Can we model a way in which young people will discover the big story of the Bible and their place in that story? I believe we can.”

According to David Neff, editor and vice president of Christianity Today, it is through story that God ultimately reveals himself in Scripture.

Neff says,  “If the Bible and biblical faith were not a dramatic rescue story but instead a set of ideas, then we could do with a simple handbook of beliefs, and we wouldn’t need the Bible … But since the biblical God is someone who acts in human history, we need to know the story of salvation up to this point so we can recognize God’s saving interruptions in our own lives.”

The narrative of the Bible, and the way it characterizes all of history as a story — that might be the key to inspiring a resurgence in Biblical literacy, both in the church and in the nation. American culture is saturated with advertising, and many put up their guard to escape any kind of “message.” But the power of story appeals to everyone.

In Eat This Book, SPU alumnus Eugene Peterson ‘54 laments the way that contemporary Christians tend to “cherry-pick” verses from Scripture to support their own agendas. He sees the “evisceration” of the Bible’s narrative as proof that the church has conformed to a culture of marketing ploys. “The church thinks now it has to provide some kind of an alternative that’s just as exciting, just as novel, and to try to attract people like marketers attract [consumers with] new products. That cheapens the gospel.”

That’s why he crafted the internationally celebrated Bible translation in contemporary language called The Message. “I was trying to recover the story,” he says. “You need to read the Bible like you read a novel. You can’t understand any one part of it without reading the whole Bible. Nobody picks a paragraph out of Ulysses and says, ‘What does this mean?’”

If Americans were to re-discover the story of Scripture, they might find themselves caught up in its drama –– and its relevance. David Plotz, the atheist deputy editor of Slate, recently decided to read through the Bible for the first time, and he’s been chronicling his thoughts in Slate’s “Blogging the Bible” feature ever since. “I didn’t think biblical literacy mattered until I finally read the Bible,” he says. “Reading the Bible is like opening the blinds on your culture. You suddenly understand where our stories, language, clichés, aphorisms, and jokes come from. Biblical literacy matters for another reason, too: It narrows the divide between religious and unreligious Americans. Civil society depends on all of us attempting to understand the beliefs and ideas of our fellow citizens, even those citizens you think are wrong.”

For Christians, the rewards are even greater. Those who draw strength from Scripture daily, and who believe that its claims are true, know that biblical literacy enriches our lives, strengthens our cultural engagement, and gives us a sense of place and purpose in the greatest story ever told.

—by Jeffrey Overstreet []
— Photos by getty images and Oleg Prikhodko/

[Editor's note: This is the expanded version of the article.]

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