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The Bible just left the building

How we lost confidence in our own text and what we can do about it

James Catford, Chief Executive of Bible Society

If we were to do a short survey in your church about Bible reading habits, what do think we would find? Research from Bible Society suggests that our engagement with the Scriptures is surprisingly low. And even those who report that they are reading it daily, or even weekly, are being somewhat economical with the truth.

A national church leader once said to me wryly, “when I go to an evangelical church, I do encourage them to open the Bible”.

In his masterpiece on the Bible, Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson says “I want to pull the Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and re-establish them at the centre as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well”. [Hodder & Stoughton 2007 p 17]

Both of these authorities are right of course. What I want to do is explore how we’ve ended up here, why the Bible has largely left the church, what’s behind this lost confidence in our own text, and what we can do about it.

To be clear, it’s not that we are lacking resources. Ours is undoubtedly the best and most comprehensively equipped generation for engaging with the ‘lively oracles of God’. Concordances that took scholars an entire lifetime to assemble, and in at least one instance drove them mad in the process, can now be created in an instant via the Web.

We have more commentaries available to us than in any other period in history. There are daily Bible reading aids for every shape and size of Christian and the online revolution has not only made referencing the Bible easy, but has given us access to a great deal of what we need for free.

Yet still believers, and often very devout believers, lack a good deal of confidence in the holy book, the book of our faith. Why is this?

Much depends on how we have got here today. A century ago the world was at war. As Europe emerged from the devastation, there was a great flowering of ecumenical endeavour and communitarian idealism. Organisations like the Bible Society were beneficiaries of this positive mood.

But it was not to last. ‘Higher criticism’ and ‘form criticism’ from liberal scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann began to hollow out the confidence of Christians in the Bible. Fundamental questions surfaced about whether we could trust the Bible in a scientific and evolutionary age.

In this climate, the miracles were discounted and the rest of the Bible was disputed at best, and dismissed at worst. Any ecumenical confidence that the Bible unites Christians was largely lost and society began to turn its back on the core text of the Church.

As Dallas Willard put it in his posthumous new book The Allure of Gentleness, today “many Christians, in their heart of hearts, believe that their faith is just another superstition. They really do.” [HarperOne 2015 p 12]

A second, and perhaps more controversial, reason for the collapse of confidence in the Christian Scriptures has to do with the army of writers, expositors, educators, church ministers and lay group leaders that have worked so hard to open The Book to others.

With all the scholarship now at our fingertips, the unintended consequence has been that we have professionalised the Bible. Why is it that, in spite of all the good material available to us, we have become so wary of reading it for ourselves?

The attitude of many is that the Bible is too complicated to be approached by ordinary mortals. ‘I’m not clever and I’m not holy’ is the view of people we have interviewed at Bible Society, ‘so I can’t read it’.

Those who minister can even fall into this trap ourselves. Our overly complex language and occasional deep dives into the interpretation of the text can leave our listeners feeling disempowered. If they don’t know how we got what we did from the text, then they might lose confidence in either the Bible or their own ability to access it, or both.

In some contexts I work in around the world I see an unspoken deal being struck between the minister and their flock. Happy for the congregation to admire their scholarship or preaching prowess, they present themselves as the professional Christian, somewhat removed from the life of the people.

Meanwhile, the regular Christian can also buy into this deal by willingly handing over their discipleship to the pastor. Disempowered and lacking in confidence, they contract out responsibility for their spiritual formation to the expert who seems to know it all.

As ministers we might ask ourselves, is the way that we handle the text making it harder for our congregations to hear God for themselves through the Bible? It’s a chilling thought that we might be part of the problem rather than part of the answer.

Solutions to this malaise of the Church are widely available. I like the understanding that Dallas Willard had of the Bible as “a unique source of essential knowledge about the most important things in life”. Or as he has recently put it “Jesus words are the best information on subjects of greatest importance to human beings” [The Allure of Gentleness, HarperOne 2015, p 19]. That’s about as close as you can get to the more formal statements of faith that the Church has developed about the Bible.

To see the Bible as a source of information or knowledge moves it out of the realm of mere belief. Through the Bible we actually know certain things or, at least, we can start to know certain things.

For example, we know from the Bible a good deal about the structure of the human heart and how it can be restored. We know about unity, love and how to bring peace and reconciliation between people. And we know how evil and sin work and what can be done about it. We know stuff.

After a century of hollowing out the Bible, it is little wonder that we have largely conceded that the Bible doesn’t really know very much and we certainly should be careful before trusting it in any meaningful way.

As Willard puts it “people know things over there in the shopping centre, they know things at the bank, and they know things at the school. But when you come to church there is no knowledge, just faith”. [p 12]

The simple way to ‘bring the Bible to life’ for people is to bring life – ordinary life – to the Bible. To expect more of this extraordinary book that lands as a massive fact in our world. And to be willing to wrestle with it ourselves.

James Catford is Group Chief Executive of Bible Society. 

This article was posted on 7 September 2015.