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The Bible and Culture

I was in London some time ago at a one man performance of the Gospel of Mark. Alec McGowan’s presentation was wonderful, done entirely from memory, and with only the aid a few props. The dramatic presentation was done in two parts– Mk.1-8 followed by an intermission, and then Mk. 9-16 (in the Authorized Version of course, lest the ghost of good King James be offended). What was interesting was being a fly on the wall during intermission and listening the comments of the general public in the lobby whilst they quaffed their wine and munched their croissants. One person exclaimed: “It all began rather abruptly. Where were the birth narratives then?” Another chimed– “Where’s the Sermon on the Mount? I missed that bit. Will it be in the part after the intermission?” I could only groan, but then at least the former person knew there were Gospels with birth narratives (just not Mark’s), and at least the latter person knew about the Sermon on the Mount (also not in Mark). It was all rather depressing, but I perked up when the bell rang and we got to hear more from Mssr. McGowan.

But it isn’t the rather more literate and literary British public that it ignorant of the Bible, the west’s greatest cultural icon. In a recent survey of Americans, apparently more than 10% of Americans actually believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! Yikes! Only half of those polled could even name one of the four canonical Gospels, and only one in three knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Even more amazingly, less than half could name the first book of the Bible. On the other hand, the same survey indicated that 75% of those polled believed that the saying “God helps those who help themselves” was in the Bible (nope, that would be from the pen of Ben, Franklin that is).

Even more revealing was the fact that the survey had the participants self-identify their own faith tradition. As it turns out Evangelicals only did marginally better in this survey than others and most of them would not have gotten a passing grade had it been a test. Ouch. If you want the gory details you will find them in Stephen Prothero’s recent book ‘Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t’. Need I add that those polled did even more abysmally badly when polled about their knowledge about Hinduism, Buddhism, Confusianism, and also Islam? Read it and weep.

Now why has there been such a huge drop off in religious literacy in the West? Some would correlate this with the decline in church and synagogue attendance, others with the decline of the use of the Bible in public education, and still others to the failure of parents to train their own children in their own faith tradition. All of these explanations are probably partially correct, but there is something not being mentioned here– namely evangelism and apologetics. Where exactly are the advocates of the Bible and its values in the public sphere? Why has evangelism become a very minor agenda for so many churches? Why is it that there are so few efforts in those churches to teach people how to articulate and persuasively present the Christian faith?

Let me share with you a moment from my own experiences of doing shows with the major networks both cable (e.g. Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel) and traditional (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox). I have almost always been treated with respect, and most of the interviewers had great interest in a subject they professed to care about, but knew too little about. Often these are literate and bright people, and some are even people of faith. But unfortunately they don’t know the Bible either– so when something happens involving the Bible they call up the scholars and yell for help! They have to ask you to tell them first what the real questions are, before they ask you for the answers! I have had long chats with the lead religion writers for more than one major news magazine, and they desperately would like to know more about the Bible, or this or that relating to faith, but those chats turn into crash courses to getting these folks up to speed in their own subject matter in which they are supposed to be familiar. It has been a very revealing last 15 years working with the media. And the good news is that religious programming has begun to do a bit better with major audiences, so maybe, just maybe we can squeeze some more Bible into the public discourse in this way. Now if believing Christians and Jews would just support such programs instead of turning on the sleaze and tease shows.

Well of course part of the problem is the very nature of the modern and western church. It is all too often narcissistic and self-serving to the core. It spends the vast majority of its budget on itself– its own buildings, its own clergy, its own self-help and nurture programs. The church has ceased almost altogether to be what it was at its inception– an evangelistic movement, that also did some nurture and training of converts. Instead we are nurture institutions that might have a missions committee. Talk about placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable as the culture becomes increasing less Biblical.

Reading the book of Acts together with reading the budget reports of most churches today is an exercise bound to cause depression. The “me” culture of the West, bent on radical individualism has been endorsed, even co-opted and taken over and baptized by the church. Rather than countering the narcissism of the culture, we cater to it, with all sorts of ‘needs’ based preaching and teaching that is long on ‘how to’s’ and very thin on Biblical substance. But frankly ‘how to’ doesn’t help if you don’t first know ‘what for’ or even ‘why bother’.

What’s wrong with needs based preaching? First of all in a culture immersed in constant advertisements and sales pitches, most people in the West have no idea what their real needs are. They can identify their wants, and they mistake them for actual needs. All the while that most profound of all needs, the need for God and for actual knowledge of God leading to relationship with God goes begging.

In other words, I am laying a large share of the blame for religious illiteracy in the West on the Church which has failed in the prime mandate of making disciples of all nations, failed in the mandate to train up sufficient Spirit-filled, Biblically adept proclaimers of God’s Word who will win some by being winsome, leading outsiders into a life long pilgrimage of learning in the school of Christ. We need look no further than in the mirror to find one of the sources of our religious malaise.

And furthermore, it is important that our culture be challenged not just with emotive preaching promising feel-good salvation, because that frankly does not change the culture, it simply baptizes the culture of feelings and calls it good. We need to challenge the culture at its highest and deepest levels of profundity, challenge it on the basis of its most fundamental assumption which has led us down the road to narcissism. Thank goodness we have people like my friend Lee Strobel who are beginning to figure out how best to talk with and persuade our distracted and depressed and desperate culture, hellbent, but wanting to be heaven bound.

I used to love to read the cartoon strip Pogo. It was a wonderful mirror on our culture. In one strip Pogo and his friends decide they must take on the dragons of their world that are encroaching on their privileges. But when Pogo leads his troops out into the field he discovers they are ill suited to the task, unwilling to pay the price, and don’t really know what they are fighting for or about. Pogo returns to his superior and reports “we have met the enemy, and he is us!”

It’s time for the church to take that good hard look in the mirror. We, the self-serving church, are one of the main contributors to our culture going to Hell in handbag. We are contributors to the culture’s Biblical illiteracy. We have gh
ettoized our faith, and have even assumed we had a cultural justification for doing so– “the separation of church and state”!!!

The Founding Fathers, who were various in their own faith, or lack thereof, nonetheless understood, a culture without a religious foundation does not long stand. The separation of church and state was not intended to mean the separation of religion and state, or the separation of the Bible and its influence from the public sphere. Those Founders simply were not going to practice the establishing of an official state religion, a mistake made by almost all other Western nations.

It’s time friends to take it to the streets, take it to the world, get out of your comfort zone and share the Good News that God has not abandoned us.

To that end, I was ask for your prayers as I leave on Aug. 29th to go to Hong Kong and teach and preach to Chinese folks of some faith and no faith about the mysteries of the book of Revelation. I believe China will play a major role in the 21rst century, and the Good News is that some doors are opening to the Bible and its witness there. I was asked to be the founding dean of a brand new Christian studies Masters and Doctoral program at Bejing University, but had to decline. Instead I sent a friend and colleague who is a fine Bible scholar in his own right– K.K. Yeo, with a promise that I would come and help. The exciting news is there are far more bright Chinese students who want to become experts in the Bible than we have spaces in the program. Of the some 43 that graduated from the Masters program last year, more than half want to do their doctoral work as well. Pray for the church in China, and for God to raise up a mighty witness. God is good all the time— and he has not finished with the human race just yet, and what he is most looking for is availability rather than ability.

Who will go for Him? Do not say “Here I am Lord, take my sister” or “Here I am Lord, take my brother.” Say “Your servant is here— send ME!!!

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