Recently, on Children's Sunday, we went through the ritual of presenting the third graders with their own Bibles. Some of the children receiving Bibles were brand new to church life. We may have been giving them the first Bibles they would see in their homes.
To liven things up, I gave the children a pop quiz. I said, "I'm going to call out three names of books in the Bible. You tell me which ones are false. First, the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Paul, and the Gospel of Stewart." The adults laughed and the children knew that there was no Gospel of Stewart in the Canon. As for the Gospel of Paul, they claimed a deep familiarity with it.
I realized I had to make my public quiz easier. I told them there would only be one true book in the next list, and I asked them to choose among the books of Malachi, Shalakai, and Jai-Alai.
"The book of Jai-Alai is the right one," called out a child. Jai-Alai is a popular betting sport in Connecticut. Sadly, it would be more familiar to the average child than a book of the Old Testament.
"Okay, now try this list: Habbakuk, Chewbacca, and Pistachio." The children laughed. They thought that all three were made up.
"That's why we are giving you these Bibles," I said, undiscouraged.
My quiz confirmed yet again that I can never assume biblical literacy in my New England congregation. Here in my mainline Protestant Congregational church that lies in the shadow of Yale University, the preacher can never be too basic.
Increasingly, people wander into our church with a similar story. They were raised by parents who believed children ought to "choose their religion for themselves." They had parents of different faiths or no faith who preached a generic morality across the dinner table in the hope that something would sink in. Then, after these children were old enough to have busy social schedules, they were offered the option of attending religious institutions their parents had thus far ignored. Few chose to.
I compare this method to sitting your child down and saying, "Now, Johnny, I want you to choose your own career path in life, and so I'm not going to teach you to read."
Today, as adults, with vaguely spiritual yearnings for community in an atomized New England city, these people shop for churches. These adults bravely try to follow the worship service, but I know that ultimately it will be the stories of the Bible that will open their hearts to Christ and this Christian community.
Few praise their parents for raising them without any religious training. They have been left without a framework in which to consider life's mysteries, and when they do enter a church, they feel illiterate.
Yet those who were unchurched are not the only ones who feel this way. Often I am pulled aside by parents who confess that even though they were raised in the church, they do not feel able to share the basics of their faith. Some were raised on sermons that skirted the Scripture or apologized for it. One new member told our denominational executive that while he was church shopping, he had visited 12 churches in which he could not tell whether the minister believed in Christ.
Adults raised in Christian churches will volunteer for the nursery but seldom to teach Sunday school. They worry that they cannot answer their children's basic questions about how churches operate and support themselves, let alone explain ancient rituals and traditions. I understand, because I am a product of the same religious education as many of my members.
In one church I was raised in, Sunday school was small and unimaginative. "Draw a picture of the baby Jesus," we were told each week. "Okay, now you can trace him. Want to make him into a puppet?" The Jesus of my grade-school years was more cute than compelling.
In another church, Sunday-school teachers were encouraged to be "relevant." Instead of Bible stories, we did situational ethics. "Imagine yourself in a sinking ship. The lifeboat only has room for 12 and there are 13 who need saving. What would you do?" Lifeboat dilemmas and debates on the Cold War took the place of Scripture memorization. When Jesus made an appearance in these debates, we tended to imagine him carrying a guitar. We learned a lot about how we felt but little about the God who created us. Raised in the church in an age of cultural relativism, some end up like a football player who graduated from high school without learning to read, sent out into the world biblically illiterate.
Illiteracy is a useful model to describe many adults who are brave enough to wander into churches today. With illiteracy comes shame and embarrassment, common emotions among the adults who privately confess that they know less than their children about the Bible.
These parents are indeed courageous. They try to provide for their children what they did not receive, and risk not having all the answers. I, in turn, adjust my preaching to help these parents.
Thus, in sermons today I know that before that Scripture is read, it is helpful for me to provide an introduction. In the past, I would have included extensive historical detail. Today I am careful to mention whether the book is in the Old or New Testament, with a further explanation of what that means. I go so far as to say, "Since this reading is from the Old Testament, the story took place long before Jesus lived."
I do not jump from passage to passage as a preacher with a biblically literate congregation can. Instead, I go in depth with one passage, always retelling the story. My goal with every sermon is that those who heard it will remember which passage was preached on, and that when they hear it again, they will remember having heard it before. I attempt to nurture the familiarity I cannot take for granted.
This leaves little time for showing off my graduate education, or my multisyllabic words, but the rewards are great. After church I might be told, "That story was fascinating. I never heard it before." I am careful to remind them I did not make it up.
As a preacher, I have worried about how my basic explanations fall upon ears that already know and love the Bible. These saints assure me they do not mind, and I trust the Scripture to do its work. Our Savior preached a new word using familiar metaphors—of a mustard seed or a mother hen—so that anyone could under stand. Yet the manner in which he described God's love was so profound that the top scholars of his day and the high priest were fascinated as well. As the old hymn goes, "I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest."
Within Protestant history, the Reformation stands out as a revolution based on the belief that all people can read and interpret the divine revelation of Scripture. As today's preachers bemoan biblical illiteracy, we would do well to remember the time when believers were not allowed to read God's Word for themselves at all.
So when a lay reader introduces the reading on Sunday morning by saying, "Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the Book of Romans," I do not lament an innocent mistake. Instead, I celebrate the opportunity we have to learn together, and the way in which Christ's power breaks through as we hear a text. The Scripture stories upon which we build our faith will reveal their own layers of meaning and relevance to our lives. We may start off listening with a skeptical ear or reading with a critical eye, but soon enough these stories are reading us.
As we spend more time with the Bible, and those in our community grow more familiar with the Word, it would be tempting to assume a growing literacy. Yet in God's irony, the church grows, and continues to attract brave souls who dare to enter a world with unfamiliar customs and a strange text. By God's grace, those well-versed in Scripture will never dominate the church, and we will always have room for the obvious questions. For instance, at last year's Christmas pageant rehearsal, one of the children saw the familiar shepherd's costume and exclaimed, "You mean we're doing the same story we did last year?"
Six months after the Christmas pageant, at the church picnic following the Bible presentations, I noticed one of the children climbing a rock above the choppy Long Island Sound, as athletic as any third grader could be. As he scrambled from rock to muddy rock, he carried his new Bible with him above the waves.
The child had refused to put his Bible down since he had received it that morning. Did he get any of the Bible pop quiz questions right in church? Of course not. That's why we gave him the Bible.
Lillian Daniel is the senior minister of the Church of the Redeemer, United Church of Christ, New Haven, Connecticut.
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