For more than two decades now, American society has been fixated on our ignorance about things, often to the point of celebration. In 1991, the very first For Dummies book (it was on DOS) rolled off the presses, and more than 1600 of the series have been published since then. We’re not afraid to say when we don’t know stuff, and actually to do so is kind of therapeutic.
Sometimes, the dummy culture rises to the level of comedy, and one thing we find hilarious is our collective cluelessness about the Bible. Years ago, Tonight Show host Jay Leno poked fun every so often at the pandemic ignorance of Holy Writ during his “Jaywalking” segment.
Biblical illiteracy is, however, no laughing matter. Recent titles such as Timothy Beal’s The Rise and Fall of the Bible and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian show that the problem for the Church is pandemic. Both books demonstrate the appalling state of how little believers know about their own sacred text. How long can any organization survive if its members don’t know its mission, axioms, and core beliefs? Well, that’s a rhetorical question.
But what if people actually did know their Bibles? Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs took up that challenge and tried to combine humor with astonishing levels of biblical literacy in his irreverent book, The Year of Living Biblically. In it, Jacobs, an admitted agnostic, seeks to live an entire year by trying to obey the commands of the Bible as literally as he possibly could in modern day Manhattan. He found it rough going for multiple reasons, chief amongst them not being able to gossip at work, lie, or covet the possessions of others. Rules such as stoning adulterers, slaughtering oxen, wearing clothing not made of mixed fibers, and not shaving one’s beard seemed even harder to apply to modern life. In the end, Jacobs concludes we can’t read the Bible literally, and that in reality people just pick and choose the commands they like, and ignore the ones that they don’t.
On a more positive note, comedian Jeff Foxworthy (of “You Might Be a Redneck” and “Are You Smarter Than Your Fifth Grader?” fame) hosts a new game show called “The American Bible Challenge,” a Family Feud style format in which groups are called upon to pit their Bible knowledge against each other in purportedly knee slapping fashion. The show bills itself this way: “Questions will be designed to acknowledge and celebrate the Bible’s continuing importance in contemporary life and culture. The contestants will share their compelling back-stories and each team will be playing for a worthy charity.”
What do all of these books, shows, and analyses have in common? They reveal that we live in a culture that can’t live with the Bible, but also can’t seem to live without it.
At the bottom line, however, here’s the truth: the Bible is a confusing and even bizarre book. But it is only that way if it is not read through the lenses of what the 16th century Reformer John Calvin called the “spectacles of faith” – where everything points to the message and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. Try to turn the Bible into a disconnected series of facts, and you might have a quiz show. Try to squeeze the law of Moses into modern society and you get a Kafka-esque nightmare or a funny Jacobs’ book. Read the Bible without the grace and love of Jesus to explain all that has gone before? How many ways can you spell disaster?