Biblical Illiteracy Confronted In Spring Hobbs Lecture

April 2, 2001

In a world where postmodern themes infiltrate thought processes, Americans are losing knowledge of biblical texts and how to interpret them.

That was the assertion of Dr. Rick Byargeon as he discussed biblical illiteracy in a chapel address at Oklahoma Baptist University in late March.

The term 'illiteracy' immediately brings to mind the inability to read or write, but in the case of Americans, it is becoming "a lack or familiarity with language or literature," said the former OBU faculty member, who is now pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Ruston, La.

Outside indicators of biblical illiteracy are hard to recognize, claimed Byargeon, since consumers are purchasing more Bibles than ever.

Eight new major translations of scripture have been written since 1982, the year the majority of current college freshmen were born, Byargeon said.

He cited a report from Christian Booksellers Association and Zondervan Publishing which found the average Bible consumer owns nine Bibles and is "looking for more."

Byargeon said a recent Gallup poll indicated that 65 percent of Americans agree that the Bible answers "all or most of the basic questions of life." However, the poll also showed that 28 percent of Americans rarely or never read the Bible.

"A profound lack of knowledge concerning God's word is growing in our country," he said.

Byargeon referred to George Barna's book, Boiling Point, which listed results of a survey of 1,000 adults nationwide about spiritual questions. Three-quarters of those adults believe the Bible teaches God "helps those who help themselves."

"The teaching of scripture is the exact opposite," Byargeon said. "Jesus died on a cross because we cannot help ourselves. God provided the Holy Spirit because we cannot live the Christian life in our own strength."

Byargeon, who served on the faculty at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary before moving to the pastorate 15 months ago, said the phenomenon cannot be attributed just to the culture at large.

He cited a study by Wheaton College professor Gary Burge, who quizzed youth groups at several "strong evangelical churches" on their biblical literacy. The tests showed only 20 percent knew the accounts of Paul's missionary journeys are found in Acts. Eighty percent did not know where to find the Lord's Prayer in the New Testament.

While Byargeon said the reasons behind the culture's lack of knowledge about the word of God are "complex and numerous," he identified postmodernism and uncertain preaching as key in the decline.

"We walk along the shoreline of our lives and feel the pounding of postmodernism and it's gentle pull on our lives," he said. "Before long, it has pulled the sand on which we stand out from under our feet. We have lost our confidence in the Word of God as absolute truth."

Byargeon said shifting from a modern to postmodern world view means individual have the "responsibility to create meaning" for themselves.

He explained his assertion with a story of three types of baseball umpires.

"The premodern umpire says, 'I call 'em as they are!' The modern umpire shakes his head and replies. 'I call 'em as I see'em.' With a smile of supreme confidence, the postmodern umpire retorts, 'They ain't nothin' till I call 'em!'"

Byargeon claimed another factor that has lead Americans into a downward spiral of biblical ignorance is the state of the pulpit in many local churches and the lack of biblical preaching.

"Churches and pastors have focused more on felt needs and less on the Word of God; more on marketing their church and less on the message of God's word," he said. "And now we have succumbed to dumbing down the message."

In looking for a cure for biblical illiteracy, Byargeon said the same postmodernism that plagues society also allows Christians to share the Bible with the unchurched. As postmodern culture celebrates religious pluralism, Christians can join the conversation, much as Paul did in his sermon in Athens, recorded in Acts 17.

"It's this extreme openness that allows Christianity a place at the table," Byargeon said. "We must learn how to embrace our culture. We need to be willing to sit at the table with the unchurched, ask probing questions concerning their worldview, and listen more than speak. We must tap into the spiritual cravings of the average postmodern.

"In a postmodern view, few dare question the authenticity of experience. We must be honest about the struggles we face," he said. Christians can bring about change when they, as friends of postmodern individuals, invite them to read the Bible, he continued.

"Hopefully what you are hearing is that a program sponsored by the church will not reach the millions who do not read the Bible," Byargeon said. "Instead, it is each one of us encouraging our friends to understand the message of God's Word.

"It is ironic that after two decades of fighting about the nature of the Bible that I stand here urging a return to biblical literacy," he said. "Perhaps, the time is at hand when we turn our swords not into pruning hooks, but bookmarks."

Byargeon's address was part of OBU's Herschel H. Hobbs lectureship series. The series, OBU's first endowed lectureship, was established in 1980 by friends of Dr. and Mrs. Hobbs in honor of the couple's outstanding Christian service.