Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, has been lamenting the state of British student’s knowledge of both the Bible and classical mythology. (Listen here)
The Poet Laureate said: “I’m not trying to give them a dusty and bitter pill to swallow here, I’m just saying that these stories achieve archetypal status because they tell us recurring truths about human nature that is a pleasure and an important thing in and of itself.”
Every preacher will recognize the picture Motion paints of a decline in knowledge of the Biblical stories. A decline in church attendance is obviously partly to blame, but that isn’t the whole story. Changes in the curriculum for religious education in schools will also have played a part, but these changes were probably necessary given the diversity to be found in British society. In any case, the decline in knowledge of the Bible isn’t just to be found in secular Britain. I’m certain that the grasp the average British church-attender has of the Bible is much lower now than would have been the case until even fairly recently.
And the fault for this lies squarely with the church.
At the risk of sounding like a boring old fart, we have been neglecting the systematic teaching of the Bible in our churches. Hardly surprising that congregations know less about it than they once did. Whereas ‘Bible quizzes’ and the like were once common feature of Sunday School lessons, now they hardly feature at all. The stories of the Old Testament are routinely skimmed over or ignored — it’s almost as if the church has forgotten that the Christian faith has a content which must be taught if it is to be learnt.
That’s one reason I’m excited to be a part of the “Wales Training Network” of the Methodist Church. A commitment to learning was once a significant part of membership of the church, and I’m convinced it could be so again.
I grew up in a very working class community, with no tradition of formal education. (I’m the first in my family to have been to university) But learning was respected and, even though money was often short, books were a significant part of the Christian experience. I remember as a teenager how at the Bible study group I went to with my father there was regular sharing of what members had been reading since the last meeting.
Getting the church reading again would be a first major step in deepening the discipleship of church members. And if we get the church paying attention to the “recurring truths about human nature” that are found in the Bible, then we have some chance of sharing the joy of that more widely.
But if we’re content for there to be Biblical illiteracy in the church, we can hardly be surprised to find it outside.