Illiterate American Christianity

There is a religious ditty that, once you hear it, sticks in your mind forever:

Read your Bible pray every day, pray every day, pray every day

Read your Bible pray every day

And you’ll grow, grow, grow.

Grazing in the Salmon Rivers Mountains inspirational original oil painting of Idaho countryside by Steve Henderson

America, we are told by the movies, the hymns, the presidents, and the history textbooks, is the land of big vistas and big opportunities. What no one mentions is that, for people who won’t read, we are slaves to the words of the myth-makers. Grazing in the Salmon River Mountains, art print from Steve Henderson Collections.

And, because people who compose, and sing, mentally paralyzing bromide like this are captivated by symmetry, there is a second verse:

Don’t read your Bible, FORget to pray, FORget . . . etc.

And you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink.

While the level of banality is justified because this twaddle is designed for children — who really deserve better — more than one adult in Sunday School has sung this, in the spirit of “being like little children.” Not to get overly theological here, but Jesus meant more, and better, than that in Matthew 18:3. Really.

But let’s talk about theology for a minute — it’s a term that we as laymen, whether we’re in the Catholic or Protestant camps, are coached to fear, because theology is something that is taught (supposedly) in seminary, along with Successful Sermon Thematics 101, Coalescing Your Leadership Team, and Essentials of the Successful Building Program, so the study of the nature of God and of beliefs in Him (which is the definition of theology) is professedly beyond the ordinary mind.

We Don’t Read

For this reason, even though the Bible is no longer in Latin and thereby inaccessible to the average reader (which kept its message, words, truth, and interpretations locked up for centuries), many intelligent, literate people avoid reading it in any depth, cracking that book open once a week for Adult Learning Focus and maybe a second time for Small Groups Intensive Study. There, they are given a small, comfortable number of verses to plow through, with helpful commentary and funny teaching stories that gently lead them to the proper interpretation of whatever it is that they are “studying.”

The Traveler inspirational charcoal drawing of vintage nostalgia woman in paris france by the Eiffel Tower by Steve Henderson

Reading broadens our world and our way of thinking in a way that poking around on our phones will never do. The Traveler, art print from Steve Henderson Collections.

Songs like the ditty above make such itinerant readers feel bad about themselves and their spirituality, and to avoid shrink, shrink, shrinking, they may pick up a book of devotions, which offers a little verse at the top in italics, a teaching story in the non-italicized paragraph below, and a pithy prayer at the end to neatly tie things up. It’s just a little longer than a Facebook meme.

Calling this “study” is a generous use of the term, and while it is true that we are becoming a society that is less and less literate, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Bible, while it is dense, complicated, and not easily summarized into easy-to-digest platitudes (although authors, pastors, celebrity Christians, and denominational corporations do their best to provide pre-chewed fare), is not unreadable, and if the myths of history that we’re taught in school or church have any basis in truth, apparently people in the past brought themselves from illiterate to literate by reading this consistently best-selling book.

We can do the same.

Yep, We Can

But let’s say we are already sufficiently literate to read novels beyond Young Adult vampire, zombie, dystopian, and paranormal fare, which isn’t unreasonable to expect in a society where so many people get their high school, and even college, diplomas: we can tackle the Bible with the confidence of rational, educated, astute adults, capable of asking questions, seeking answers, and recognizing that, just because we don’t have a complete answer, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. We’ll just keep reading, researching, and digging, or, as Jesus puts it:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

Now the pastors of prosperity teach, to people who don’t bother to read and learn for themselves, that this verse and others like it are a magic path to get whatever we want: just ask (confidently) and seek (with a positive attitude) and knock (insistently) and God, who doesn’t really want us to know the “secret” behind manipulating Him, will have to capitulate. It’s a system, and if you’re clever enough to figure it out, you’ll win.

Well, it’s a system all right, but it’s not Christianity, and those who truly want to know God, and find truth, and free themselves from the illusory visions that are packaged and sold to us as reality, will eventually understand that these words promise more than shallow, temporal, fleeting, materialistic goods: they promise wisdom, teaching, and truth:

You do not have to be a seminary graduate to read the Bible and learn from it. You do not have to be a slave of teachings by celebrity Christian psychologists, radio hosts, “news” commentators, doctors of divinity, economic gurus, CEOs of humanitarian organizations, speakers in football stadiums, and major, well-endowed denominations that interpret the words of all sorts of church fathers for us so we don’t have to. You don’t even have to be a slave to the words of the church fathers — they don’t all agree, you know, but were doing what many of us have given up doing: tackling difficult concepts and passages, and developing theories about what they mean. Theories.

In the process of reading the Bible for yourself, you will probably find that the answers and truths you have been given — different ones, depending upon the denomination — aren’t so firm and pat as you have been led to believe. More disturbingly for those who prefer that you remain asleep, you will ask Why? and, How could a loving God be this way? and, Is this truly the good news Christ preached? If so, why did it mean so much to poor people? What does it look like to be a Christian in a society — including religious society — that worships wealth, fame, and power? By these standards, does being a Christian mean that we’re no longer poor?





Thank You

Thank you for joining me at This Woman Writes, where I encourage individual Christians to follow Christ, not celebrities, and stop being drawn into the culture of myth and illusion that pretends to be reality. If we would wake up and see the lies, then those lies wouldn’t have the power to direct our behavior.

Posts complementing this one are

Why Your Life on this Planet Means Something

It’s Time to Change Our Minds about Repenting

How to Recognize a False Prophet


About This Woman Writes

Carolyn Henderson is the marketing manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She writes about life, art, and the art of life.
This entry was posted in Christian, church, Daily Life, Education, Faith, Family, home, Life, Lifestyle, reading, religion, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Illiterate American Christianity

  1. Carolyn, thank you for encouraging us to read the words of God for ourselves. It’s pretty miraculous to consider all that had to occur in order to us to have the book that we take for granted. It didn’t fall out of the sky, bound and ready for reading.

    At the same time, there are many who do not understand the Bible. That’s ok. I invite all to start where you are. Read devotionals that help you understand. Read commentaries. And as you become more familiar with scripture, begin to wean yourself from the “helps”. The Holy Spirit is the Master Teacher! And be OK with not understanding every nuance. Many of us don’t like being in a place of not knowing or understanding. It feels so unsettling. I encourage you to step into discomfort. Engage with the very words of God, and trust the Holy Spirit to teach you what you need to know. Even if it’s only a word or a phrase. Remember, these are the words of a Living, Loving and All-Powerful God speaking directly to your heart.

    • Good words, Alecia, and your recognition that many people feel uncomfortable with not understanding everything, is apt. This is yet another illusion into which we are trained to believe: science gives us “definite” answers; scientists tell us that “this” is the “right” way to eat; 90 percent of all scientists (really?) AGREE on this one point or that (that latter is so odd — 90 percent of people rarely agree on anything, much less a controversial, political issue that deserves a lot of lively discussion back and forth).

      So, following this illusion of science knowing and giving all the answers, Christians are encouraged to approach the Bible in a pseudo-scientific way — pseudo because they’re really not encouraged to look seriously for answers to sensible questions, so much as they are to achieve the attitude of, “This is true. Period. No questions asked.”

      I also like your recognition that the devotionals and books and such are props and helps — a good intro for those who feel little confidence, and have little practice, in their ability to process information. One hopes that the devotionals chosen will be decent ones, but there sure are a lot of Happy Little Books out there that are remarkably light on an intelligent, thoughtful look at what is written.

      The beauty of getting to be more familiar with the Bible, and confident with one’s ability to read it, is that one can move past the pop fare and read some really excellent theological and philosophical fare from all sorts of people. As one becomes a more mature reader, we quickly pick up on the author’s bias, and can move forward in the book, gleaning its wisdom, without being sidetracked or confused by the author’s pet notions. Years ago, when I was weak in my involvement with the Bible, I was put off and frightened by such books, because I was concerned that they would derail my faith (because their arguments would be so compelling, and I wouldn’t have anything to meet them with). Now I can look beyond the author’s views and truly appreciate the thought and research that goes into his observations.

      One of the best lessons I’ve learned through reading a number of really well-written, thoughtful books by numerous authors is the realization that there is not this list of hard and fast truths that is so inflexible it permits no questioning. This is the misconception that many Christians — those whose primary form of learning is passive, sitting in a pew or chair while a “leader” feeds them information — labor under, and their inability and fear to question limits them from looking into the simplest things. In effect, they believe a corporate, false Christianity that is no more than a veneer, a thin patina of Jesus glossed over a plywood structure. But because they know so little, and are so easily cowed by peer pressure, they don’t scratch a fingernail across that finish and see that it’s not particularly deep.

  2. Jay Matthew Barnes says:

    Great stuff!

    My only pushback would be that we must read the Bible within Christian community. None of the books of the Bible was written for individual consumption (except maybe Philemon, though it was expected to be shared as well).

    This is not to say that individual Bible study isn’t important; it is! But it can’t be our only form of studying the Bible. Why? Because we need accountability, we need other sets of eyes, we need to be spurred on actually to obey what we read in the Bible, and we need to rely on the gifts of the Spirit that others have as well.

    • I agree with you, Jay, but will finesse the definition of “community.” As you will find if you read me further, I’m not a particular fan of church attendance, just for the sake of church attendance. Our own family, after a lifetime of being in one weekly body or another (my husband from infancy, as a pastor’s kid), finally (not lightly, believe me) left the establishment model, and find our fellowship with other believers in more relaxed, random ways.

      That being said, our sword sharpening comes a lot within interaction with one another, which in many people’s eyes, doesn’t “count.” Discussing theology with family members is “lesser,” somehow, as if we all believed the same thing and reinforced what one another says. I find it totally the opposite, and in discussions with family members, friends, and acquaintances on Scripture, find that we approach things from different viewpoints, and keep each other from lapsing into mediocrity.

      Ironically, this lapsing into mediocrity is a major reason we did not participate in group studies in a church settings. When we did so, we found ourselves being gently shepherded through a sheep chute, with one acceptable answer, and no questions need to be asked. So, yes, it is important to interact with other believers, but if the choice is between going it alone, and finding answers through reading the wise words of others from the past, or sitting in a circle with a workbook and obedient attitude, I will take the former — with the caveat, of course, that it would be good to find something better than that workbook scenario!

      • Jay Matthew Barnes says:

        I totally agree. What I have in mind with Christian Community is a group of trusted friends and family that you love, you serve with, and you can be transparent with.

        • That is so good to hear! We operate, you, and I, and other ordinary believers who make it a daily walk to follow our Father, in a system where the same words mean different things. Within an increasingly corporatized Christianity, the Christian community is nothing more than a group of people who feel obligated to meet in a particular building at a particular time each week. “These,” we are told, “are your brothers and sisters, and you must trust them wholeheartedly, without reservation.”

          Isn’t it odd that those who strike out for something more, who look for a fellowship in which there is trust, thought, communication, and support, (I will not use the word “authenticity,” as it is loaded with pseudo-intellectualism) are denigrated when we shake things up to look for it? I was struck by your article on Bibliolatry — — for its thoughtfulness and willingness to question, its sense of being disturbed by the status quo, and how we are prodded into following it. We need more writers like you, and me, who are dissatisfied with pat, shallow answers, and who ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to stop being so easily quelled and told what is truth, and what is not.

          These writers will not come from the celebrity Christian culture because celebrities — whether they are externally Christian or secular — are not funded to encourage people to reach for truth, wisdom, and the words that give life. What we see today is the fruit of this celebrity culture: shallowness, pettiness, an easy satisfaction with entertainment. One wonders, if so many souls are saved through celebrity crusades, why is their so little impact of value upon our culture?

          • Jay Matthew Barnes says:

            Here’s my answer to the question at the end of your very thoughtful and kind comment:

            Because we’ve told people for so long that all that mattered was “getting saved” or being converted. We’ve set the bar very low, namely just say you love Jesus and you’re set. And since we’ve set the bar so low, that’s what people have done.

            Then behind closed doors Christian leaders complain that people aren’t making an impact, aren’t really following Jesus, aren’t serving, etc., etc., when all along it has been because we haven’t asked anything of anyone!

            Think of what Jesus did. He accepted people where they were. He said “follow me” not “clean up, think properly, and stop sinning, then follow me.” But once someone followed him, he didn’t handle them with kid gloves. No! He took them out on mission with him, even sending them out on their own!

            Jesus set a high bar and his earliest followers lived up to it (well, there’s always Judas Iscariot).

            Thus, maybe it’s time that we communicate clearly what people are doing when they agree to follow Jesus. It’s total surrender. Obedience is expected. And just sitting back and getting fed isn’t an option.

            Instead we are fully loved and fully empowered ambassadors of the good news of Jesus, who are called into our families, our neighborhoods, our places of work, and where ever else, to share and be that good news in whatever ways that we can.

            That’s a higher bar than “say this prayer and you’ve got your hell-fire insurance”!

  3. angie says:

    Thanks for sharing such a great post. I believe in private quiet time, group time where we share study with those that we are close to as well as organized bible study within a larger community I believe that they each have their own potential and reason.

    • Thank you, Angie. I do not think it can be overemphasized the importance of individual reading and study of the Bible, and a joyfully intense time of prayer and mediation with our Father. We need to counteract the overemphasis, promulgated through the group, of “community” study which, as you say, can have its place, but not at the expense of individual study. It’s interesting that Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6 emphasizes the relationship of the believer to God, without the intermediary of “community” that we propound so strongly today: we are to give, without announcing it with trumpets; we are to pray, without doing so on the street corners where all can see and approve; we are to fast in such a manner that those on the outside, the “community,” can’t tell that we are doing so.

      And yet, within the churches, it is all about “community,” which is essentially the same word as “group.” This emphasis on the sheep herd, as opposed to the individual sheep with the shepherd, has serious connotations, causing people to look to the group, or the human pastor head, for approval and validation of their actions and thoughts. We as a church are a body, with Christ as its head, and one of our most important way of fellowshipping with one another is the second scenario you mention, that of sharing time and study with those we are close to (and have reason to trust). A “small group study” of disparate members of a congregation does not fall into this category, but we are taught that it does.

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