Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 385
October 16, 2000


Known but Not Known

He was thirty-seven years old, and the church had been home to him for every one of those thirty-seven years--baptized, Sunday school, youth groups and worship attendance, even active participation while in college. Yet, he was now unhappily confessing to me his general ignorance of the Bible. His mind was not a total blank, for he readily pulled up some stories of Moses and David and a number of Jesus' parables. But, how all of that fit together eluded him. Even more, "what it all means" was a puzzle. Bringing him to my office was his frustration following his latest encounter with a believer who had memorized verses strung together with a cheerful certainty "like  a pearl necklace," as he put it.

Pollsters find many in this man's shoes. Although the Bible resides in more than 90 percent of U.S. homes and some 47 percent of Americans claim to read it at least once a week, yet only 49 percent can name its first book, and only 34 percent know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

My off-hand response to my self-confessing friend was to point him to a Bible class. But, having been in numerous classes, he gave no credence to my suggestion. So, I offered some individual lessons, which he readily accepted.

Why is it, I wondered, that so many long-time church attendees could be so ignorant about the Bible, and how could they miss its basic themes?

On reflection, I came to see that the use of the Bible in worship mitigates against Bible knowledge. The Bible--read piecemeal, Sunday-by-Sunday, a story here and a partial chapter there, and often linked, somewhat puzzlingly, to other disjointed readings scattered throughout the Bible by an assigned lectionary--provides little sense of connectedness. Seldom is a passage's meaning seen in the context of the book in which it is found, and rarely is a passage's meaning explored in light of the overall messages of the Bible. Thus, even for a person who attends worship 'religiously,' the Bible too frequently remains a puzzle.

Unfortunately, Bible study courses too often perpetuate this bewildering state.

On further reflection, I have come to believe that this use of the Bible in worship, no matter how conservative or how liberal the minister or church, is a pervasive  'functional fundamentalism.' That is, each Bible passage is seen as having 'truth' in and of itself, irrespective from the context in which it is found.

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, there is the wonderful image of the valley of dry bones (chapter 37) and the author can hear the rattling of the bones coming together. (Extracting the story from the meaning it has in the book of Ezekiel, but holding to the image, such a rattling would be a welcome sound in our churches.) Until that happens, the use of the Bible in traditional weekly worship will perpetuate believers' on-goin g ignorance about the Bible.

(P.S. To confirm what you already know, the answers to the pollster's questions are Genesis and Jesus.)

--Robert H. Tucker
16 October 2000
© Robert H. Tucker, 2000.

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