Bible engagement is at a pivotal point. With the help of smart phones, tablets and other devices the Scriptures are more accessible than ever before. We live in exceptional times. Digital technology provides proximity and unprecedented connectivity to the Bible.
New technologies and social media make it possible to dream about doing things that would have been beyond reach some years ago. Since we crossed over from Gutenberg to Google there are tremendous opportunities to retell the Story in creative new ways. Imagine an online game enabling children or youth to develop avatars, enter a virtual world, and as part of the action, engage with the Scriptures – it’s coming. Imagine the Bible in 3D – it’s coming. Imagine interfacing with a hologram of David as he slots a stone into his sling and begins to run toward Goliath – it’s coming!
Imagine interactive technology prompting you to reflect on the Scriptures daily, tracking your progress and facilitating sharing via social media – it’s come! Scripture Union Canada has developed and published theStory™ – an online Bible reading guide emphasizing the biblical narrative. Features of theStory™ are:
theStory™ has just begun but we’re continuing to dream about what we can do to enhance it. What if we added an audio version, film, multiple languages, or provided a blog that enabled subscribers to chat about the biblical reflections with the writers and other readers? What if we could add family, youth, children’s and small group versions of theStory™? What if . . . we could help this generation become the most biblically engaged of all time?
People read the Bible differently. Some read it flippantly, fancifully, dismissively, selfishly or subjectively. Others read it academically or ardently. How do you read it? Do you mine the text for nuggets, search for solace, seek an encounter with God, look for guidance, or simply go with the flow? Do you read it as a collection of disjointed independent books or as a unified canon? Do you read it in mono, stereo or surround sound? Do you read it mainly through the lens of modernity or postmodernity? Do you read it contextually, critically, historically, or literally? Do you read it from the perspective of a Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Charismatic? Do you read it because you want to, have to or think you ought to? Or do you just read it!?
There is a right and a wrong way to read the Bible. So what’s the right way? While there are no quick or easy answers, here are three formative suggestions:
Read the Bible as a whole. The two Testaments are not separate books between one cover. View the Bible as the first and second dramatic acts of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity. Recognise that “in the Old Testament, the New is concealed; in the New, the Old is revealed” Augustine of Hippo.
Read the Bible Christologically. Christ said, “. . . the Scriptures point to me!” John 5:39. See Christ as the thread holding Scripture together, the central character of the Old and New Testament, the One unlocking meaning and understanding.
Let the Bible read you. The Bible is more than a book – it’s alive and active (cf. Hebrews 4:12). Given permission, the Bible will weigh and measure you, and then, finding you wanting, will proceed to fill your heart with faith, hope and love.
Many Canadians reject the Bible because they distrust it. The reason why many Canadians distrust the Bible is because they do not believe in metanarratives*. Distrust in metanarratives has arguably done more to alienate people from the Bible than any other aspect associated with culture.
In an online survey inviting feedback on why people think the Bible is not relevant, some of the remarks were: “The Bible is one gigantic anachronism”, “It’s a book – nothing more!”, “It cannot be accepted as a reliable document”, “It reflects a worldview out of date with scientific advances”, and “There is more than one holy book, more than one religion.” [Source: June/July 2009 online survey conducted by SGM Canada with 66 Canadian humanists, atheists and agnostics]
Coupled with the distrust that many Canadians have for the Bible is the popular notion that there are no absolutes and no objective or exclusive truth. There is also the view that reality is unknowable, language does not convey reality, and everything is therefore open to the interpretation and perspective of the individual. As a direct and indirect result of these ideas many Canadians have typically adopted pluralism and multiculturalism. The outcome of adopting pluralism and multiculturalism has been the elevation of tolerance as a prime social norm.
Distrust in metanarratives places popular culture in direct conflict with Christian faith. The clash is fiercest over the Christian belief that the Bible is truth (the belief that the Bible is truth because it agrees with God, who is absolute, and describes who He is – the Truth). Based on the conviction that the Bible is truth, Christians believe that the Bible is authoritative. This explains in part why, when Christians try to gain an audience for Bible engagement, they are labeled as intolerant, ignorant or arrogant.
How is the church responding to people who are alienated or in conflict with the Bible? Some elements of the church (Conservative Catholics, Conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists) adopt a defensive attitude (isolate/insulate themselves) or go on the offensive by working hard to make the Bible available and accessible (mostly using approaches developed more than 50 years ago). Making the Bible available has not helped stem the decline in Bible engagement. Other elements of the church (Liberal Protestants and Liberal Catholics) are generally not concerned. They have little interest in functioning as conduits for Bible engagement and do next to nothing to promote the Bible or invite interaction with it. In practice they accommodate popular culture by favouring a broad humanism and acquiescing to the deconstruction of the Bible.
So is there any hope for Bible engagement? Yes! There are elements of the church (mainly Evangelicals) attempting to creatively re-imagine and critically re-form their faith and practice around what Marcus Borg describes as a “transformation-centered paradigm”. Within this paradigm Christians are re-conceiving, articulating and embodying the Story in contextually meaningful ways. This includes efforts to restore the message of the Bible (e.g. SU Canada’s theStory™), invitations to read the Bible as a narrative of faith (e.g. SU Canada’s free e-book – Taste and See: An Invitation to Read the Bible), re-imagining language and relationships (e.g. SGM Canada encourages the development of relationships and companionship as the primary catalyst for Bible engagement), and inviting people to participate and enter into conversations/dialogue with the narrative of the Story in communal and inclusive forums. Added to this is the understanding that our invitations to engage with the Bible will be fruitless if we attempt anything without grace, vulnerability and humility.
*Metanarratives are defined as narratives about narratives that give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth and values.
According to Rick Hiemstra, Director of Research for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, young Canadian adults who have left the church by 25 years of age are unlikely to return. Hiemstra’s comment is informed by the recent findings in Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church, a ground-breaking Canadian study of 2,049 young people between the ages of 18 and 34.
Other troubling revelations in the study include:
Two in three young adults who attended church weekly as a child don’t do so today
Three out of five young adults who stop attending church reject their Christian identity
More young adults checked out of church between grades 8 and 9 than between high school and post secondary education/careers
Why are most churched Canadian young adults leaving church? One of the significant findings of the study is the direct correlation between hemorrhaging faith and the spiritual disciplines of Christian parents. When mom and dad are seen by their children to read their Bibles, pray and go to church regularly, then the children will more than likely continue in the faith as adults. But when parents inconsistently or almost never read their Bibles, pray, or attend church, their children usually stop attending church just as soon as they can.
Parents, you are the most important spiritual influence in your children’s lives. Do your children see you regularly reading your Bible, praying and going to church? More is caught than taught. When you aren’t practicing basic spiritual disciplines your children ultimately view your Christian faith as inauthentic or hypocritical.
The study is a wake-up call. The disengagement and attrition of young adults from church and faith must be stopped. Something more than another book, purpose driven programs or parenting workshops is required. Sending our children to Christian schools or improving the youth ministry in local churches won’t make a huge difference. What’s needed is parents being spiritually responsible. We must do what we’re not doing. Regular Bible engagement and prayer coupled with faithful weekly church attendance should be normative for every Christian mom and dad.
After several years investigating the connections Canadians do or do not have with the Bible, we’ve discovered the Bible is the most popular least read book! Tragically, while there are three Bibles in the average Canadian home, they’re usually found on a dust covered shelf. Despite the availability and advanced marketing of the Bible, fewer and fewer Canadians are reading the Bible, knowing what it says, and living according to its principles.
Even among churched Christians, many never read the Bible from cover to cover. A Bible literacy poll in an Evangelical Toronto church in March 2010 revealed that eighteen percent of the congregation reported reading the Bible once a day, thirty-eight percent read the Bible once a week, twenty-one percent read the Bible once a month, and twenty-three percent said they seldom or never read the Bible.
The fact that the Bible is being treated lightly, ignored, or dismissed, isn’t due to limited selection or accessibility. Among the more than eight-hundred English versions of the Bible there are hundreds of reader friendly formats and more than one-thousand different Bibles that can be purchased online from Amazon.com. There’s even a waterproof version for those who like reading in the shower!
At Scripture Union Canada we’re deeply concerned about the growing disconnection with the Bible. Yet while we’re concerned, we’re optimistic. The decline in Bible engagement means there are more opportunities than before to bring fresh invitations for people to connect with the Bible. So we’re praying for a Bible reading revival – praying that Canadians will open the Book.