Fortune Cookie Theology

Al Mohler posted this article recently on a call for Biblical literacy. He claims that the reason for illiteracy in the church is that people just don’t read the bible.

Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli put the problem squarely: “Americans revere the Bible — but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” Researchers tell us that it is worse than most could imagine.

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 one research group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. Americans may demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in the courthouse, but they seem unable to remember what exactly they are.

According to 82 percent of Americans, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better — by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.

One poll indicates that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors reveals that more than 50 percent thought Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham. We are in big trouble.

On hand I think he is right in saying, “We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation can be directly traced to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches.” In sum, folks need to read their bibles. That makes sense.

But I think there is something else at work here, something more foundational. Church goers are not being instructed on WHAT the bible is, other than the glib oft cited description – the word of God. Well it i!. But what does that mean to the person trying to make sense of how these 66 books hang together and how that applies to their life?  Are Christians being instructed why this is the word of God? How do we decipher between narrative, poetry/wisdom, history, law? What’s going on with the prophets and how does that relate to the New Testament?

fortune cookieWithout this framework, we end up with a bunch of disconnected pieces that may as well be put on a slip of paper and pushed into a folded, crisp cookie – a fortune cookie. When we want something to get us over the hump, get us through we break open the cookie and apply the verse.

Evangelicalism has grown increasingly pragmatic. We gravitate towards whatever works and what makes sense. But I fear that we have treated our bible reading the same way, reducing it down to bit-size pieces and using them as fortune cookies for whatever format, structure, theme or group wants to focus on.  Heck, whole platforms have been formulated around one disconnected verse. Prayer of Jabez anyone?

Now, I’m not dismissing the idea that one verse pops up, sticks with us and impacts our heart. This happens to me quite often. The Lord has a way of doing that, placing that verse on our heart to encourage us or make us mindful of needed areas of repentance. But at the same time, placing that verse against the backdrop of the book and how that relates to God’s grand narrative, makes that one verse that much richer. And it fuels a desire to run to the Word.

I’m afraid that is what is missing in Mohler’s treatment of biblical illiteracy – the passion for Bible reading. This is what people need. If we insist that their problem is that they just don’t read the bible, then we’re probably being just as pragmatic as the pragmatism we’re trying to address.  Rather, we need to show people the beauty in God’s redemptive story, how he weaved this symphony of his promises, various authors and literary styles to testify of his greatness, sovereignty and love. We need to create passion for the Word not another pragmatic step to accomplish Christianity.

Otherwise, we might as well just stick with the fortune cookie.


5 thoughts on “Fortune Cookie Theology

  1. xulonjam July 19, 2013 / 8:44 am

    Good article, Lisa. The Bible is Revelation from God.
    On a more xulon-esque note, when someone starts “Researchers [two pollsters, doesn’t matter who] say …” I usually expect banality to follow.

  2. Garland July 19, 2013 / 11:32 am

    From an educational standpoint, I would observe that this is the natural result of focusing on the cognitive domain.

    We have pushed and pushed people to emphasize the content of the Bible and attempted to persuade them that if they just knew the knowledge, they would end up changed creatures. In the process, we have ignored talking to people about WHY reading the Bible is important, and making it part of their value system (affective domain). We have also ignored issues of their driving motive and purpose, thereby neglecting to show them HOW to read the Bible or demonstrating HOW it their faith, their work and home, and their spirituality work together (conative domain). We keep operating under the assumption that if congregants just knew, then they would obey.

    I usually laugh and ask, “So how’d that work out for Adam and Eve?”

    • ljrobinson July 19, 2013 / 5:31 pm

      Excellent! I agree. I was thinking this morning about the exegesis of Scripture in the early church and how inextricably linked that was to practice within the community. No life verses or seven principles to go apply to your life, but nurture of love for God and neighbor.

  3. Brian Roden July 19, 2013 / 2:59 pm

    One of the reasons we started this year’s Wednesday night classes in our Spanish-language ministry with a series on how to read and study the Bible, and right now we’re two weeks into a 10-week series on foundational doctrines and where they’re found in the Bible. I don’t just want them to know what they believe, but why.

  4. Jeri December 8, 2013 / 10:53 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    I found your blog through Mark Lamprecht on Facebook. I share your strong interest in helping people think about why it is that God can be said to speak to us only in Scripture, and just wanted to comment and commend your approach to this difficult (in our day) topic. I like this: “Rather, we need to show people the beauty in God’s redemptive story, how he weaved this symphony of his promises, various authors and literary styles to testify of his greatness, sovereignty and love. We need to create passion for the Word not another pragmatic step to accomplish Christianity.” I just got through reading James Hamilton’s new book “What is Biblical Theology” (I highly recommend!) and have just started another one by Christopher Ash titled “Hearing the Spirit,” which looks promising. You’re right; more is needed than simply the bare-boned encouragement to Christians to read the Bible. The reasons why they need to do so must be explained, and winsomely and compellingly so! I’m very interested to hear more from you on this topic.

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