Follow by Email

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Can You Speak Bible? Does Anyone Understand It When You Do?

A few weeks ago I heard an interesting news article about Mike Huckabee's use of biblical references in his speeches. In an NPR story, February 8, 2008,, his usage of biblical references was called "a separate dialect." NPR went to the National Mall to ask people what they understood his references to be. (Read the whole article to get a sense of how basic the biblical references were and how clueless the respondents were in their interpretation of them as Huckabee used them.)

For instance, when one person was asked about a reference Huckabee made, stating "it's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5000 people," he answered that it had something to do with Moses. In reference to using a "small smooth stone" instead of relying on armor, one confused person said, "is he talking about peace, a resolution of peace?"

The list goes on recording the general confusion about the references. Finally a woman who attends a church in Omaha, NE (all of those questioned had been "raised in Christian households and had attended Sunday School") got all the references right when asked. Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor who wrote a book Religious Literacy, commented on hearing that someone actually got the references right by saying, "It's an exceedingly small target audience, about as small as the percentage of animals climbing on Noah's ark."

I heard this NPR article while driving one day and pondered why these persons who had attended church and Sunday School didn't know these references.

As the pastor of a church, I have often been concerned about the quality of biblical teaching in Sunday Schools. Once the church I was serving needed to add educational space and because many adults never went to that part of the building to see the need in the overcrowded rooms, I had someone take pictures of the classrooms in session for a display. Looking at them, I noticed that the children (5th and 6th grade) were making snowmen. I made some comment about how the phrase, "a snowball's chance..." is not in the Bible, and therefore expressed deep concern about what was being taught; how the time was being used. What did snowmen have to do with Sunday School?

Why don't people who are raised in the church know these basic biblical references well enough to interpret Huckabee's comments?

How are we intentionally teaching and preaching the basics of the biblical faith so that people would know these stories or references?

Is it important that people know the scriptures for their faith development or is it simply a matter of cultural literacy (obviously missing some main points in Huckabee's speeches)?



Pastor Justin said...

Considering I strongly believe that the story of God contained in the scriptures "informs and transforms" our lives, I believe knowing scriptures is absolutely important to our faith.

The foundation of my faith was laid by a Read-to-Know Picture Bible. Each of the main stories (and many of the marginal stories) of scripture were broken down into 9 frames per page with a picture to help tell the story. My mother's practice of reading me those stories (and she will tell you that I wanted her to read more than one per night) helped give me the foundation for understanding the story of God throughout history that is contained in Scriptures. Now as a parent, I have gotten the same book to read to my son Micah. (Of course the book illustrations are also frought with ethnocentrism reflecting an intended caucasian audience, yet that can be overcome).

It is my belief that if we are a people of story, then as Christians we really need to know THE STORY that we are a part of. Now how we faithfully transmit that story to our children and brothers adn sisters in Christ is the challenge facing us today. I often wonder if THE STORY has been lost and what it might take to help people re-enter the story and find their identity as a character also within THE STORY.

Pastor Justin Halbersma
Chatfield UMC

Jeff Ozanne said...

I think there is a reason we tell stories instead of trying to always talk in bullet points and statements of fact. Stories carry a level of richness to them that goes beyond the mere documentation of events. I would agree with Justin that there is something important about teaching the stories to our children. I think the problem is right now we also have to teach them to our adults. Some churches are doing a great job of this, but I think a lot of churches have fallen away from doing it. As pastors we become worried about losing members, so the last thing we want to do is ask our members to do something more. (study and learn the stories of scripture) If we as Christians cannot tell the stories of how God has been at work in our history, how are we going to be able to talk meaningfully about how God is at work in our lives today? The two are interconnected in my mind. I am not worried that the Bible is not a part of mainstream culture so much as I am worried the Bible is not enough a part of the Christian culture.

Jeff Ozanne
Light of the Lakes UMC

Steven Manskar said...

The mainline church has for the past century taught that Christian faith is belief in a set of doctrines or a creed. If a person says he or she believes in God then they are counted as Christians and good church members. We have adopted what Juan Luis Segundo called the General Rule of Pastoral Prudence: “The absolute minimum in obligations in order to keep the maximum number of people.” This means that church membership comes with very low expectations, in spite of what the Baptismal Covenant says.

Few churches teach that faith is more than belief. Scripture and tradition teach that faith is a relationship with the living God; the one who became one with us in Jesus Christ. And, like any relationship, faith requires some participation on our part.

Most church members do little more than occasionally attend worship on Sunday morning. They may participate in a Sunday school class or study, if it suits their schedule. My point here is that if there is no expectation of regular prayer and Bible reading and study in the home we cannot expect most church people to correctly identify and interpret Gov. Huckabee’s Biblical references.
As long as churches are guided by the General Rule of Pastoral Prudence church membership will come with very low expectations.

My experience tells me that people will generally try to live into the expectations they are given when the choose to join a group. It is also true that people assign little value to membership in an organization or group that asks or expects very little from them. As long as we keep expectations and responsibilities of church membership low we will do a poor job of intentionally teaching and preaching Biblical faith. I say this because Biblical faith comes with very high expectations and responsibilities (Mark 1:14-15,12:29-31; Luke 9:23; John 13:34-35, 14:15).

Hearing, reading, studying, and praying Scripture is essential to Christian formation. We cannot know who God is apart from Scripture. God reveals God’s self to us most fully in the pages of the Bible. If we do not know the stories and the people contained in Scripture then it will be very difficult to see that our story is part of God’s story.

Bishop Sally Dyck said...

Justin's description of how he learned the stories is great! Obviously he enjoyed them as much as other stories and books that his mother undoubtedly read him. How can we help parents do this more with their children? Do they have adequate resources to use?

I like Steve's "General Rule of Pastoral Prudence." I mean, I think it describes what happens in many churches. I think the whole emergent church thing with young adults is because they are looking for a "robust" faith that defies that General Rule. Yet I often hear clergy talk about the emergent church who don't follow practices of what I would call a robust faith. How do we work on our own robust faith practices.

Martha Grace Reese (Unbinding the Gospel) told me recently that about 55-60% of clergy pray less than 20 minutes/day. Is that robust enough???

Sally Dyck

Pastor Justin said...

I think Steve is totally right on the "General Rule of Pastoral Prudence." Often, people aren't told that membership comes with the responsibility of discipleship. For the first time at Chatfield this fall, I had Membership Inquiry Classes that detailed expectations of membership. There were some people that were transferring that came from a Methodist Church and basically told me that they know what membership is about and didn't need to come. I met with them and shared why I had the classes going and they understood.

In terms of how we could help parents and kids alike, I had an idea (just a thought). What if at an infant baptism we gave the couple a "Read-to-Know" Bible. A book that contains the story of God in illustrative ways that would help their children begin to "know" the story, but also indirectly might get parents who aren't exactly Bible Story litterate some knowledge that might inspire them to discover more (especially if paired with a follow up discipleship of the parents via relationship with a mentor couple or something along those lines). Too often 3rd Grade is the magical year that kids get a Bible that even adults struggle to read. My wife has become very frustrated with many churches because they ignore the faith nurturing that should be happening for kids from 0-3 years old (before they are Sunday School ready), wouldn't the Baptism gift be a wonderful way to share the story with both children and parents alike? (sorry for the rambling)

Pastor Justin Halbersma
Chatfield UMC

Brent Olson said...

My wife and I are teaching confirmation (long story, don't ask) this year. It's been fun, except for the first class when I was talking about a Biblical event and, trying to get it placed in perspective, said, "You know,it happened between Moses and King David."

Got nothin' but blank looks from the whole class.

Now we have timelines pasted up all around the room, which helps a little, but when I think of other...reinforcing things to do, there isn't much out there that does't involve Charlton Heston or painfully dated 70's music.

Last year I was teaching a writing class at a Catholic college in the Twin Cities. The prof, in the theology department, took us out to dinner before and I asked her about her students. "They're lovely young women," she said, "but they don't know anything. I quizzed them about what they learned in catechism class and it seems the only thing they learned is that they are good people and God loves them AND THAT'S NOT EVEN CATHOLIC THEOLOGY!"

Cracked me up, but the truth is, trying to get our children to have faith without giving them the intellectual background to really understand is a disservice.

That's what I think, anyway.

Brent Olson

Bishop Sally Dyck said...

Justin, I love your idea about giving the picture Bible book (beats another blanket) at baptism. When's your next baptism? (They don't let me baptize too many people anymore--although I did baptize Amy Jo Bur's little one this fall. But I think I'll do that.) Take pictures and send it to us, send the story to Interpreter Magazine. We have to start a movement and I like this one.

Brent: I can't imagine kids not remembering confirmation after having it with you and your wife!!!

Pastor Justin said...


The time table for the next baptism is unknown right now. Currently there are no little ones on the way so I am guessing we are talking at the minimum 10-12 months away, but who knows amazing things can happen.

I promise to take pictures and share the story when the next one happens.

Bishop Sally Dyck said...

Actually, I'm doing a baptism at annual conference--at the beginning of the ordination service...hmmmm, a good place to begin.


Michelle said...

I was just talking yesterday with someone who had been attending a Unitarian church but wanted to raise her son in the mainline Christian church and now attends my congregation. We talked about how the power of the Story and the stories of the Christian tradition captivate children. There is such a yearning, I find, for the story of Jesus as apart from statements of belief, in people of all ages.

In our congregation the children worship with the adults all the way through the service. I find that when I preach by telling the biblical story some of the children hear it and they are able to ask me about it later. I imagine we need many ways to share the stories with them, to soak them in this story they can call their own. Picture Bibles, Sunday School, Children's Time, accessible sermons, VBS, talking about the Bible at home (we need to help people be able to do that) -- if we develop a church culture that holds the biblical story as important it might make a difference.

Michelle Hargrave
Fairmount Avenue UMC

Bishop Sally Dyck said...

"Soak them in the story they may call their own." Nice imagery; especially for a baptism! Parents are promising to "soak their children in the Story" so that it will become their own story (at confirmation).

I have found that if we're telling the stories of our Story, kids (even if they're seemingly busy coloring or playing with a small toy) learn the stories of the Bible through sermons. We discredit their ability if we think they don't "get it."

When I preach around, if a kid (of any age) comments on the sermon, I feel like that's the best I can do.


Thomas said...

In creating a project for my doctorate, we decided to ask the question "How do folks in the pews do theology?" (The question was fancier and more academically dressed up in the thesis statement but it really was that simple). Not surprisingly, when we asked people about thoughts on such topics as resurrection, our participants chose to tell stories from their life and reached for Biblical stories to try and articulate their meaning. While clergy could and did draw from their shared seminary experience and language, the 'regular folk' articulated faith through story.

One obvious conclusion was that if we expand one's Biblical knowledge, and we add to the resources one has to share their faith.

We also found that the stories shared allowed for a deeper level of trust in the group and that trust led to a deeper level of sharing. The ability to find common ground through stories and the establishment of a common foundation of Biblical stories had a profound and lasting impact on relationships and community. Our conversations around faith were an exercise in weaving a common tapestry that revealed God at work among us and between us.

Randy said...

One of the tools I've used in congregations to encourage Bible reading is from Faith Comes By Hearing

Basically they have taken the NT and broken into bites so that a person can listen/read the NT in anywhere from 40-90 days depending on how long each day they can commit to. The ministry also offers an MP3 version for free distribution.

This year we have about 40 adults who are reading the NT from Jan 1- March 31. Each Sunday I preach from the text for that day and make reference to the fact that people are reading through the NT during these months. A bookmark is available that lists the texts for each of the 90 days and I send out questions each week regarding the texts. At the end all the participants receive a certificate of completion which are first displayed in the church's lobby.

Randy Koppen
Hilltop UMC- Mankato

Pastor Ruth Ann Ramstad said...

Beginning to share scripture at Baptism is something that's been done at Buffalo UMC for a long time. (Cindy Gregorson started it, go figure!). We have a Faith Stepping Stones program which is an offshoot of a program developed by Faith Inkubators. The basic idea is that 8 times between Baptism and high school graduation, parents and children come to the altar, renew their baptism vows and receive a gift and a laying on of hands blessing. In several cases there is a Saturday parent-child workshop that leads up to the blessing.

At Baptism families have a conference/teaching session with the pastor in their home; they receive a Baptism candle with the child's name and baptism date and a CD of Biblical cradle music. At age three (starting Sunday school) they receive a storybook Bible with their blessing. At first grade they have a parent-student workshop learning three different kinds of prayer (lection divina, intercessory, ignatian examen - you'd be surprised, kids really like this stuff) and receive a book of prayers. Third grade is the basic Bible workshop (together with parents - we do basic literacy) but they also make bags in which to carry their Bibles to Sunday School. Fifth grade is Communion training - again with parents they bake bread doing a Bible study on all the ingredients in the bread (flour, oil, milk and honey, etc) plus they learn the Communion liturgy and how to serve Communion; the bread is used the following day for the sacrament, which they serve themselves. The gift is a "footprints" poster and a $100 UM camp scholarship. Seventh grade they receive a youth Bible as they start confirmtion. Ninth grade is confirmation and as seniors they receive a copy of the Message Remix with their blessing.

It's all good, but the parent-child workshops are amazing. Always always I hear parents saying "I never learned this" or "I didn't care about this when it was taught to me as a youth." It's faith formation as a family, which is how it has to happen.

At Buffalo UMC we're also experimenting with online Bible study this Lent. We're doing a series on Acts that includes Sunday sermons (great moments in Acts re: the church); Wednesday nights (character studies on the Holy Spirit, Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul) and then online a 50 day Lenten reading program to get through the book of Acts. We handed out calendars in church and I post (in theory) daily thoughts and info on the passage together with questions people can respond to. It's been good so far. More people read it than comment on it, by far. And I've learned it's really hard to keep up with - I'm currently a week behind. Still, I'll do it again.