Tag Archives: Bible

A Fresh Approach to Bible Study

It seems that many more people are conscious of Bible study than before our COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Fox News report indicated record Bible purchases during the pandemic (click https://tinyurl.com/tn3nhzd for story). Doing research for a recent post, I came across the beautiful essay, below, from Trinity Church – Wall Street in New York City, about delving into scripture. Although written in 2010, it is even more applicable now than then. In over 20 years of visiting and writing about churches, I’ve rarely seen the practice, described in the essay, followed. Today, for the most part, it’s talking heads who lead a one-way discussion, called a sermon, with very little interpretative participation by lay members. Electronic 2-way conversations via remote viewing capabilities might be a takeaway from the ‘new normal’.

How Do We Read Scripture?
By Robert Owens Scott and W. Mark Richardson
(reprinted by permission)
November 02, 2010

When New Testament scholar Daniel M. Patte attended a worship service in Kasane, Botswana, he was surprised to find that the priest offered no sermon. Instead, the worshippers took turns interpreting the day’s scripture aloud. After each commentary, the others would pray for the speaker. Patte’s translator told him what others were saying in the Setswana language. When Patte’s turn came, the others were able to follow his English. But much as he enjoyed the experience, Patte was disappointed that after he spoke, nobody prayed. When he queried his translator he was told, “You did not ask!” The translator had neglected to convey the final line of each person’s commentary: “Brothers and sisters pray for me, that I might better understand the Scripture.”

Do we need one another in order to understand our sacred texts? Given its central role in the Christian faith, one would expect the Bible to be a source of unity. Too often, however, Christians loudly disagree on a variety of issues, their only commonality being that they all cite scripture to justify their conflicting positions. Some observers simply conclude that the Bible can be used to prove any point and is therefore meaningless. A growing number of others, like Patte, see the challenge differently. They believe that through an overemphasis on private interpretation, scholarly theories detached from the life of believers, and Bible study conducted only among the like-minded, we have forgotten that the Bible’s creation, reception, and ongoing interpretation are inherently communal.

“Scripture’s a community book,” says Sister Teresa Okure, professor of New Testament at the Catholic Institute of West Africa. “Individuals may have written it, but it’s a community that accepted it. And the community said, ‘This is what really expresses our faith.’ So we really do need one another to be able to understand.” Okure was one of Patte’s co-editors on the Global Bible Commentary (Abingdon Press), a volume offering thought-provoking, highly readable reflections on every book of the Bible, each from a different cultural perspective.

The term used to describe this approach is “contextual Bible study.” While it grew in part from liberation theology’s commitment to hearing the voices that have traditionally been silenced, it has also taken root in mainstream biblical discourse. “We have learned in the last two generations that everybody reads in a local context,” says Walter Brueggemann, widely considered the dean of U.S. Bible scholars. “And if I only read from my local context, it causes me to dismiss many of those other readings that faithful people are doing elsewhere.”

Brueggemann believes that we have focused too much on finding the correct readings of the texts and in the process have lost valuable dimensions of meaning. “I think most often there are multiple right readings,” he told us in an interview in his home in Cincinnati, Ohio. “But there are clearly readings that are wrong. And I think the work of the Church now is not so much to find out where the wrong readings are; the work of the Church is to find out how can I tolerate other right readings that stand alongside my preferred reading. The Church has had a long practice of assuming that there’s only one right reading, and that seems to be manifestly not true.”

One reason for this lack of a single definitive meaning can be traced to the way the scriptures came into being. “The importance of context is that scriptures were born in context,” Okure said when we spoke with her at the seminary where she teaches in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She notes that, in this sense, the Bible is unlike the Koran, which is attributed to the dictation of Allah by the angel Gabriel. “But, for us, first was the life, and not the book,” says Okure.

“What we have are testimonies of life. They are writing from faith for faith, to encourage other people.” The conviction that scripture reading must be connected to life is what drew Gerald West to dedicate his career to contextual Bible study. A white South African, West became politicized in the struggle to end apartheid and was asked to leave the church in which he had been ordained. He credits the socially engaged witness of Desmond Tutu with drawing him into the Anglican archbishop’s church.

West was a founder of the Ujamaa Center in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The center’s mission is to address issues in the local context through Bible study. “We were forged in the violence that wreaked havoc across the KwaZulu-Natal Province, in the 1980s, where forces of the apartheid state and forces of the United Democratic Front came into conflict, and there was massive violence,” West explained in an interview in Berkeley, California, while completing a sabbatical at the Pacific School of Religion. “And out of that violence, the cry went up of ‘What is God saying to us?’ The Ujamaa Center was a very small attempt to bring the Bible into that question; to say, well, we don’t know what God is saying, perhaps. There’s just so much violence, it’s almost impossible to know what is happening. Where is God in all of this destruction?”

Ujamaa’s Bible studies purposefully combine Bible scholars with “ordinary readers,” who haven’t been formally trained in biblical scholarship. “I’m not privileging; I’m not saying it’s any better, but it is different, and we need to recognize that it’s different,” West says, “For me, the challenge is, is there a usefulness in this difference? I think there is.”

West, Brueggemann, and Okure all agree that overreliance on scholarship can cause problems. “We biblical scholars and theologians have to take responsibility for the atheism of the world,” says Okure. “We were  scholars talking to scholars for most of the century.” Brueggemann observes, “Church people want serious critical thought, but it’s got to be cast in a way that connects with the practice of faith.”

They also agree that scholars who are willing to speak on equal terms with ordinary readers bring valuable expertise. One way a scholar can help is by drawing attention to “the particularity of the text,” says Brueggemann, “so it’s not just a big blob.” The goal is to overcome the familiarity of scripture, which leads many to believe they already know what it says, and to allow people to experience the texts freshly.

All three recommend structuring Bible studies around questions that take participants back to the text repeatedly, in order to get beyond assumptions about what it says.

The novelist Mary Gordon found the wisdom of this approach when she was preparing to write her most recent book, the nonfiction Reading Jesus. “I think you have to look at the words and see what the words actually are before you go taking off into the wild blue yonder,” she told us. “And, of course, this is what the great scriptural scholars have given us, too, is to give us some historical context so that we would know that some interpretations are just nutty.”

Scholarly research also yields perspectives that can open up discussion. West credits Brueggemann, who was one of his teachers, with the insight that scripture includes at least two major voices or “trajectories.” One is prophetic and concerned with justice (identified with Deuteronomy). The other is consolidating and concerned with purity (identified with Leviticus). “I think scriptures divide us as long as we pick out the voice that we like and imagine that’s the whole Bible,” says Brueggemann. 

“So let’s acknowledge that there are different voices,” says West, “and let’s explain why we have privileged the voice that we have privileged, and why we have silenced the voices that we have silenced.” The Ujamaa Center is often invited to conduct Bible studies for those with HIV/AIDS, many of whom have been told by their churches that the disease is God’s punishment. “Does scripture talk about God punishing people with diseases?” West asks. “Yes. To say it doesn’t is ridiculous, and if you refuse to face the fact that scripture does say that, you will never understand why it is that churches are saying these things. What you need to bring alongside that voice is the other voice, or other voices from scripture, which say that’s not the whole story. The Book of Job, for example, is a contestation of that view. It’s saying it’s not true that God punishes for sin; there’s another way of understanding this. So we are turning to the Book of Job in the context of HIV and AIDS, trying to return large sections of the Book of Job, which never get read in the church, to the church.”

West and Brueggemann believe that this insight is crucial to making progress in the Anglican Communion’s debates about sexuality. “One advocacy is for the purity of the church, and the other one is for the practice of justice in the church,” Brueggemann observes. West agrees: “I can perhaps begin to respect you, if I begin to understand that your voice is a legitimate scriptural voice, and you recognize that my voice is a legitimate scriptural voice. Because then we’re not shouting at each other and saying, ‘But scripture says! But scripture says!’ We’re understanding the framework within which you operate and the framework within which I operate.”

Okure finds that the scholar’s knowledge can also raise important issues about the Bible’s own context. “Let’s talk about the women issue,” she told us, “because for us, in Africa, it is very, very important.” As a scholar, she is able to illuminate the cultural background behind biblical admonitions for women to be silent, which reflect the negative view of women in the time of Augustus. “The unredeemed culture is there within the scriptures,” she says, pointing out that this view was expressed in Vatican II.

She believes that in such instances we have an obligation to debate the text. “Because those texts, they were dealing with life. And it is only after a certain time that somebody says, ‘Oh, this is canon.’ But in canonizing the text, you canonize the struggles that they had, which were rooted in life, and weren’t necessarily the word of God.” This freedom to debate the text does not mean we can simply throw out what we don’t like, however. “How you deal with it in the text is, can you hear Jesus saying it?” she explains. “Can you see Jesus implementing it? Because ultimately, Ignatius of Antioch says, he is the yardstick; he’s the canon by which you interpret the scriptures.”

The importance of the ordinary reader cannot be overestimated, either. Gordon says that what prompted her to read the Gospels as an adult, after having been discouraged from during her Roman Catholic childhood prior to Vatican II, was her realization that the fundamentalists with whom she disagreed actually knew the scriptures better than she did. She also recognized that fundamentalists spoke about scripture emotionally, feeding a hunger among believers. The problem, for her, is that “the emotions they’re approaching are anger and fear. I thought it was important to talk about other emotions, like consolation, compassion, the sense of accompaniment, the sense of joy,” she told us in an interview at her home in Rhode Island. “The work of fact not as a problem for biblical scholars, but as an opportunity for others. 

Brueggemann agrees.
“I really want to insist that ordinary reading and scholarly reading are twinned operations that are not in tension with each other, but that can be mutually reinforcing,” Brueggemann says. “Because when the Church is faithful, it has a kind of an evangelical wisdom to it that does not depend on scholarship.”

He recalls leading a seminar at a seminary for Aborigines in Darwin, Australia. “I had a very difficult time making contact. But an Aboriginal woman led the Bible study, and it was about Jesus telling them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. This woman got it. She didn’t know anything about [theories of biblical authorship], but they were all fisher-people, and so they knew about which side to put their net on and so on. And in a kind of a plain, understated fashion, she understood that casting your nets on the other side of the boat meant that another whole world was possible for the people in the boat. And I keep going back to that extraordinary moment that was highly contextual to this particular group of Aboriginal fisher-people.”

In the end, this idea that scripture makes a new world possible is the hope that all three scholars hold for the impact of scripture study in the church. Brueggemann often leads Bible study with lay people and clergy. “You do have the sense that the spirit is working in our study, because people are led to new awareness,” he says. “Wendell Berry has said that the environmental crisis will be solved one acre at a time. And I believe that’s how it is with us. I don’t think most of us are going to make heroic changes, but we may be changed one narrative at a time, or one text at a time, and led to newness.”

Robert Owens Scott is director of Trinity Institute. The Very Rev. W. Mark Richardson is president and dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific and senior theological fellow of Trinity Institute.

Link to original article:


A new report reveals America’s complicated relationship with the Bible

As I grew up, I was taught this song at home and in church: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, but He is strong.” That’s the first verse; the chorus is: “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

Over the years I’ve heard this song played and sung in all musical genres, in churches, homes, movies and on television. Its six verses clearly and simply express theologically sound sentiments of the Christian faith.

These days, Bible use is decreasing despite its best-seller status year after year. The recently released report “The Bible in America” from the American Bible Society and the Barna Group gives insights gleaned from six years of the society’s annual “State of the Bible” research. (2016 also marks the 200th anniversary of the society.)

“A majority of Americans, an average of 62 percent, have expressed a desire to read the Bible more,” according to the report. “A two-thirds majority of adults believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know in order to live a meaningful life. Two-thirds of adults hold an orthodox view of the Bible, believing it is the actual or inspired Word of God. Forty-four percent of Americans read the Bible at least once a month. On average, eight of 10 Americans consider the Bible to be sacred literature or a holy book. Most Americans, 64 percent, believe the Bible has more influence on humanity than any other text according to the 2016 State of the Bible data.”

On the negative side, Bible skeptics, as a group, have increased, while Bible-engaged people have slightly decreased. Interestingly enough, non-Christian millennials seem to be behind these dropping numbers, but Christian millennials have attitudes similar to older generations.

The ABS leadership offered a pragmatic view of the data, and a vision for going forward to address the concerns raised.

“Looking at modern-day America, we see a country moving away—for decades now—from the foundational, biblical values so cherished by those who came before us,” said Roy Peterson, the society’s president and CEO. “As we work together to address the skepticism of our day, now is our time to renew hope in the promises of God’s Word, to open the healing words of Scripture as people are battling extreme violence, poverty, and oppression.”

People offer a variety of reasons as to why they don’t study the Bible. These are some common ones.

Not enough time

We all have the same 24-hour day. It’s a matter of deciding if reading the Bible is really worth it. Television, internet, social networking, movies and other forms of entertainment seem to be more attractive. If you want to get to know God, the Bible will reveal him to you.

It’s a big book

Yes it is. The Protestant Bible contains 39 Old Testament books, and 27 New Testament books. Jews, Orthodox and Catholics have different book counts. A small time investment every day — five to 10 minutes — can make a huge difference. You can read the entire Bible in a year by reading a few chapters a day! Many reading plans are available free on the internet. You can also listen using your smartphone. The website Bible Study Tools offers a variety of reading plans. (biblestudytools.com/)

Hard to understand

Many easy-to-read and easy-to-understand translations are available to help you. Online Bible commentaries are available to help decipher some of those strange terms and occasions. Theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright has a wonderful series of New Testament volumes that takes readers through the text and then explains further. I have the entire New Testament set. Each book has the same titling scheme, for example: “Luke for Everyone,” for the Gospel of Luke.

I need help

Many work better in a group setting. Support groups are available to help you learn with and from others. This very effective way of learning is practiced in virtually every field; Bible study is no exception. Churches and even online groups can be helpful. So can reading and studying with a friend. A note of caution: While many church and study groups can be useful, often they do not actually study the Bible, but a spiritual or self-help book instead. Seek out a group where the focus is on the Bible.

I’ll let my pastor read and explain

Yes, your pastor may be a good choice, but then your exposure is maybe 20 to 30 minutes a week. Don’t let your Bible study become dependent on someone else.

I may have to change

Many people fear coming into contact with new information. Practiced Bible students have learned the Bible holds words of life that can positively influence it. Just for fun, try taking a quick 10-question Bible quiz from the Washington Post to whet your appetite for learning more about the Bible.

To further challenge your brain, test your overall religious knowledge with this short Pew Forum assessment.

The world’s Bible societies distributed almost 34 million entire Bibles in 2014 (latest year for which data is available) and 428 million Scriptures (portions of the Bible). This is separate from annual U.S. Bible sales of around 40 million.

Journalist Daniel Radosh, speaking to The Washington Post, points out, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”

Although my library contains many different Bible versions, I tend to use only one or two on a regular basis. My deceased mother’s Bible is one of those, kept for sentimental value, but never used. I suspect many Americans are in a similar position. Many churches tend to support the use of a single Bible, for example, the King James version. When changing churches, one might acquire a different version that’s primarily used by the new church.

The Bible has had an enormous influence on the literature of the world, and is incorporated in many great literary works. It is literature itself, and is so ingrained in Western culture its influence will continue forever. Those of a religious inclination feel the Bible contains words of life. It has stood the test of time and is the guidebook for the world’s largest religion, Christianity.

I’m convinced it’s easy to start reading and studying the Bible. Take baby steps and it will grow on you. I suggest the Gospel of John and Psalms as great starting places. From the experience of other Bible readers, pray first, asking God to bless your study.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, churchvisits. Contact him at churchvisits.com, or churchvisits@gmail.com. The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

Top recommendations for churches — and church members — in 2016

When I write about churches I visit, I am really visiting congregations or assemblies of people. They may or may not meet in a dedicated building. For Christians, the biblical term for church is taken from the Greek word ekklesia, which is defined as “an assembly” or “called-out ones.” When people refer to their churches, often they’re referring to a specific building, but my columns tend to focus on churches as a congregation made up of its members, including leaders — and this column is no exception.

In this year’s top 10 list, I’m offering  recommendations that can strengthen and maintain strong Christian congregations. But they’re not only for church leaders: Individual church members must also take responsibility for their congregations. Leaders alone cannot achieve what their church’s members are not willing to tackle.

Resolve to attend church regularly

Attendance patterns for Alaska churches are some of the lowest in the U.S. Regular church attendance has strong physical, mental and spiritual benefits.

Study the Bible and its origins

Regular, personal Bible study has significant benefit for believers. Don’t depend on what your minister feeds you. I highly recommend studying Bible origins and translations. Several readable scholarly study books might help: Bruce Metzger’s “The Bible in Translation,” Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” and just published, Robert Hutchison’s “Searching for Jesus” will add to your confidence level in scripture.

Measure, discuss and confront loud music at your church

Many smartphone apps provide the ability to measure the loudness of music in your church. Loud music can damage your hearing and your family’s through repeated exposure. In many churches music is played at 100-105 decibels. My highest reading this past year was 117 decibels. A papercovering 43 studies of hearing loss published by McGill Journal of Medicine demonstrates how preventable it is. It’s foolish for churches to promote physical, mental and spiritual health but create hearing damage. Be proactive and communicate with your church leadership. Your church’s sound people and worship team must understand the gravity of this issue.

Be part of the greeting solution

Why support missions halfway around the world and be dismissive of the stranger who is visiting your church? Be friendly. Introduce yourself to strangers and welcome them. You’d do the same in your home, wouldn’t you? Church is your spiritual home. The number-one reason church guests vow to never return to a particular church is that they are made to feel unwelcome. Every church should adopt the 10-foot rule — meaning every member should be encouraged to welcome those within a 10-foot radius.

Learn about and observe the concept of Sabbath

Christians, for the most part, observe a day of worship limited to a few hours on Saturday or Sunday. A quick read of the Bible reveals Sabbath to be a 24-hour cessation of work. Its intent is for a physical, mental and spiritual R&R. Devoting only a few hours to the observance of Sabbath cheats you of the benefits God gave us at creation, and underlined in the 10 commandments. “Sabbath” by Dan Allender, “Mudhouse Sabbath” by Lauren Winner and “Sabbath Keeping” by Lynne Baab are excellent books about the benefits of reserving a day a week to worship, rest and restore.

Support community needs with direct action

Many Christians in our community avoid helping others. Evangelical churches here often ignore helping the poor, sick, needy and downtrodden. Appeals are often made to support world evangelism and missions, but the greatest mission field is here in Alaska. It is hypocritical to think otherwise. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and liturgical churches regularly care for and support community-wide needs. Why this divide exists puzzles me. The Bible says “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Use group study to replace dying Sunday schools

A distinct national trend has developed about Sunday schools — they’re dying. Some churches have replaced them with small groups that meet at various times during the week or sometimes on Sunday. A tendency of many groups is to read and discuss various “flavor-of-the-month” spiritual books rather than to delve into the Bible, digesting it and learning from it. Don’t neglect the Bible for these types of groups. Be courageous and form your own Bible reading and study group instead. Radical church transformations can occur.

Be comfortable inviting someone to worship or study with you

It’s a wonderful thing to sing about the “good news” of Christ, and be effusive over his presence in your life. If this is true, then share it with someone who may not have a connection with Christ or may possibly be unfulfilled in their current church experience. Offer to personally study with them or accompany you to a meaningful service at your place of worship.

Give back financially

Christians believe a key response to the value of the gift they’ve received merits a heart response in giving. Scripture tells us “God loves a cheerful giver.” If you believe your church is spending too much on overhead and not enough on the “good news” of spreading the gospel, get involved. Ask to be included in discussions of church finances.

Pray more, complain less

Prayer is one of the healthiest things you can do. A recent Psychology Today article listed five benefits of prayer. National polling data indicates that more than half of us pray every day, and more than 75 percent believe prayer is important to our daily lives. Prayer is not posture. One can pray anywhere and everywhere. Very few pastors talk about prayer in their sermons. It should be stressed.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Can the Bible be trusted?

Last week my column discussed the 2015 State of the Bible study released by the Barna organization and the American Bible Society. When topics such as this are presented, inevitably atheists and denouncers come out challenging the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. Unfortunately, these attempts are meant to cast doubt on the Bible and those who find value in it. Today’s column describes several methods scholars use to build confidence in the Bible.

Worldwide, some 2.2 billion people in the world (32 percent) are classified as Christian according to a recent Pew Forum report. (In the U.S., Christians rise to 77 percent, according to Gallup data.) According to the Pew report, other major religions worldwide rank as follows: 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent), 1 billion Hindus (15 percent), 500 million Buddhists (7 percent), and 400 million people (6 percent) practicing various other religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, American Indian religions and Australian aboriginal religions. Most of these religions depend heavily upon written documents, such as the Bible.

Manuscripts attest New Testament’s authenticity

One method of testing the authenticity of New Testament texts is to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts with ancient ones like the “Iliad” of Homer. In 1986, Norman Geisler, co-author of “A General Introduction to the Bible,” noted there were about 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts. In 2013, Geisler updated this total; it had swelled to about 5,800 manuscripts. Geisler, quoting manuscript expert Dan Wallace, wrote, “If you placed the manuscript copies of the average ancient author it would form a pile four feet high. However the NT manuscripts and translations would reach a mile high!” Other than the Bible, the ‘Iliad’ has the most manuscripts of any ancient world book, currently about 1,800.

Gaps in time from original to first copy

The gap between the original “Iliad” and its first copy is reckoned to be 350-400 years by Geisler, who noted the time gap for most ancient authors is more than a thousand years. He declares that many scholars believe the New Testament was essentially complete by 100 A.D. Earlier this year, the Washington Post published a story of a fascinating discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark which may possibly date to 60 AD, approximately 27 years after the death of Jesus. (Seehttp://tinyurl.com/kn8te62) Early translations of the New Testament in Syriac, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, and others, number about 18,000. When added to the 5,800 Greek manuscripts, they swell the number of manuscripts to 24,000.

Early church fathers quoted manuscripts extensively

Geisler notes that just a handful of early church fathers account for 36,000 citations. Quoting Frederick Kenyon, author of “Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts,” Geisler continues “The number of mss. of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it by the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or the other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book in the world.”

Variants exist, but do they matter?

Many biblical scholars agree that New Testament manuscripts represent source texts with a high degree of accuracy — between 98.33 to 99.9 percent. Typical of these is Phillip Schaff, who writes that no variant affected “an article of faith.” Kenyon, in another work, “The Bible and Archaeology” wrote, “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

Science and the Bible

Hugh Ross, internationally noted astronomer, astrophysicist, and Christian apologist was recently asked, during a large seminar, if the Bible had been corrupted. Ross replied he strongly believed in oral transmission from God up to Moses. Going forward, he noted, scripture was written by men who were inspired by God. He went on to say this can be put to the test. Does the Bible predict future events? Yes, Ross says, with precision, as opposed to some thinking they may have been added later. Ross asserts the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Daniel scroll, predicted the rise of the Roman Empire long before it happened. (See tinyurl.com/krzzdfv)

Why people don’t know more about the origin of the Bible

I’ve been an Alaska resident for over 15 years, and have not heard a sermon dealing with the various origins of the Bible, its transition from oral to written form, how it has been preserved, its interpretation and how it’s being translated. Some pastors say this is taught in small groups or Sunday school classes, but in the public square, this element is sorely lacking. The same is true of sermons about creation, prophecy, biblical hospitality and healthful living. I have, however, heard more than enough hellfire and damnation sermons.

The spade confirms the book

Rarely does a day goes by without new archeological confirmation of the historic events related in scripture. I’m thankful to be living at a time where so much information about the Bible, its background and authenticity is available.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Bible falls far short of being available worldwide

Last week a study released by the Barna Group and the American Bible Society, “Is the Bible Available to All People?,” revealed a huge misperception among Americans about the availability of the Bible in the world’s 6,900-plus languages. Almost three-fourths of Americans believe the Bible is available in all languages, but in fact, the report said, less than half of worldwide languages have complete translations of the Bible, or even a completed portion. Some other numbers worth noting: Barely 21 percent of Americans think all languages are not covered by Bible translations; 98 percent of Americans believe people should have access to the Bible in their own language; 31 percent of world languages have no Scripture translation started; and 26 percent have Scripture translations in process. In the U.S., 60 percent of Americans express wanting to study the Bible more, despite the average household having more than four Bibles.

This latest study, released as part of the American Bible Society’s 2015 State of the Bible report, shows just how much more needs doing to make the Bible more accessible worldwide. Last year I commented on the 2014 State of the Bible report. The focus of that report was biblical illiteracy among Christians. People do not have the advantage of reading the Bible if it’s not available in their native tongue.

The role of Bible translation in Christianity’s history

Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity, professor of history and professor of international and area studies at Yale University, writes in his book “Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West”: ”Being the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. … Since Jesus did not write or dictate the gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. The missionary environment of the early church made translation and the accompanying interpretation natural and necessary. … Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder.”

I heard Dr. Sanneh, in a Maryland conference I attended about eight years ago, posit that the spread of Christianity in Africa was successful so quickly because Scripture was translated into vernacular languages — in contrast with Islam, which was rooted in its original Arabic text. He further recounted the story of a church organization in the British Isles sending many English Bibles to Ethiopia to “help” them. Humorously, he noted that the Ethiopian churchmen sent the Bibles back to Britain saying, “No, thank you,” but that they’d already translated the Bible into their own language.

Scripture in Alaska Native languages

In Alaska, some portions of the Bible are available in Yupik, Haida and Inupiaq. The only complete Bible portion I’m aware of is a New Testament translation into North Slope Iñupiaq. Culturally, English is dominant in much of Alaska, though recent court rulings that voter materials be made available in Alaska Native languages reinforced those languages’ cultural importance

Could Bible translation replace costly short-term missions?

Many Alaska church members of all ages take short-term missionary trips to various areas of the world for one to three weeks to help locals with projects, support and money. These trips cost millions of dollars for uncertain returns. Often missiologists note these trips could be more productive if one or two highly skilled people in specialized areas go on these trips to do technology transfer, training the locals to acquire specialized skills to help themselves. Most often, local natives in these countries are amazed the trippers make no attempt to speak or even learn their language, are focused on giving things, and do work that natives would love to do if only they could be financially rewarded for doing so. A common example used is where short-term missionaries will paint or rehabilitate a church, providing materials or labor to make it happen. This translates into a lost opportunity for locals and a truly productive venture in helping out needy people.

As we approach summer, we find the same things happen in Alaska. Churches across the U.S. send teams of people to Alaska to repaint, repair and rehabilitate churches or church buildings. Where this happens, local members do not have the necessary buy-in to appreciate what they are receiving.

I suggest that Bible translation is a worthy goal that could pay bigger dividends in the long run than short-term missionary ventures. Paul, in his missionary journey to Athens, took advantage of language and culture to inject new meaning using their own terms; “… as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17:23).

Of course there is much more to translation than I convey here. But certainly a worthy goal could be the translation of key scriptural passages into the languages of regions where no Scripture exists. This study offers new insights and challenges for Christians believing the Bible has gone out to most of the world.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

How Do Alaskans Study the Bible? – 8/9/14

National surveys show that despite Americans’ love and great respect for the Bible, its reading and study frequency is down. The American Bible Society’s “State of the Bible” survey for 2014 showed the extent to which this is true. Even though 88 percent of American households own the Bible — to the tune of 4.7 copies per household — ownership is not enough. Only 39 percent of Americans read it once a week or more.

Some of this is being driven by a shift away from people believing that the Bible is sacred literature. In 2011, 86 percent of Americans believed the Bible to be sacred, but by 2014, that number had shifted downward to only 79 percent.

Doug Birdsall, former president of the American Bible Society, has been widely quoted regarding why Bible reading is declining:

“I see the problem as analogous to obesity in America. We have an awful lot of people who realize they’re overweight, but they don’t follow a diet. People realize the Bible has values that would help us in our spiritual health, but they just don’t read it.”

Those who are Bible engaged are now equal with those who are skeptics, at about 19 percent. The study, performed by the Barna Group, defines Bible engaged and Bible skeptics as follows. Bible engaged: those who “Believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with no factual errors, or believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with some factual errors, and read the Bible daily or at least four times per week.” Bible skeptics: those who “selected the most negative or non-sacred view from five options, saying they believe the Bible is just another book of teachings written by men, containing stories and advice.”

This shift toward skepticism is being led by millennials, i.e. 18- to 29-year-olds. In an upcoming article about millennials, I’ll include some of the reasons behind this trend.

Although the study revealed 26 percent of Americans never read the Bible, many more are reading and studying it. Here are some ways Alaskans study the Bible:

By themselves

Most people read and explore the Bible on their own. Some start at the beginning and read straight through to Revelation. Others, more New Testament-oriented, read that part only. Listening to the Bible in your car and online is also a great option if you study along. You can obtain most popular versions of the Bible from firms such as Audible for only one selection. These recordings generally run from 75 to 100 hours depending on the speed of the narration. There are also Bible apps for your smartphone. Many are free or minimal cost. My app has dozens of translations and I use it during sermons to compare how the same text is rendered in another translation. Many churches too offer electronic Bible access on their apps. TrueNorth Church and ChangePoint are two examples of this.

Bible study correspondence courses, sometimes aided by DVDs, are wonderful ways to read and study Scripture by yourself. Be aware that these courses can steer you to a particular denomination, But on the whole, they are great choices. Some of these courses offer quizzes with instant answers to test your comprehension.

Group study

Some groups read, study and comment on the Bible unassisted. Group leader Dean Southam sends out a brief reminder, often humorous, a few days before each meeting. In the July 22 email, he wrote: “This Thursday 6:30-7:30 am at Trinity, we will be tackling (reference to tackling is remembering NFL training camps open this week) 2 Thessalonians 2.” I’ve been pleased to join the Trinity Presbyterian men’s group over the years as time allows. Meeting at the church at 6:30 a.m. Thursdays, they usually read and discuss a chapter each week. A diverse group of professionals and some retirees, only about half of whom are Trinity members, they transition through each chapter with ease and grace. I enjoy their fellowship. Often, there are as many translations present as men. Similar groups for both men and women are available within and outside many local churches.

Some Bible study groups are large, facilitated groups. One such group is Bible Study Fellowship, which meets in large churches and is well attended. Separate groups are held for young adults. The format is small-group study using a workbook and coming together for a spiritual talk after. (Use search term “Bible study groups Anchorage” to bring up many options.)

Pastor Ray Nadon shared that Great Land Christian Church offers “customized” Bible studies, men or women, based on individual need and where they’re at. This is a great option. If I was a pastor, I’d say to a group, for example, “Say, I’m getting a group together for an hour of fellowship and Bible study for six weeks. We’ll be digging into the parables of Jesus to discover how they can affect your Christian walk and witness.”

Pastor John Carpenter of Baxter Road Bible Church is planning a group men’s Bible study based on Joe Gibbs’ “Game Plan for Life Volume II,” having covered Volume I last year. The studies last six to eight weeks and are a comfortable commitment.

The hardest part of Bible study is getting started. But remember, it takes two weeks to adopt a new habit, and this will be a habit you won’t want to break. Whether you study by yourself or in a group, you’ll discover it is a welcome activity. Studies are emerging about how intense study halts declines in mental acuity. I believe intense Bible study may be one of those activities.

Original ADN Article Link