Thursday, October 30, 2014


A recent Christianity Today article (Biblical Illiteracy by the numbers Part 1:  The Challenge) gave some stats on Bible reading habits among church-going people.  The percentages given of those who read are:
          19% - every day
          26% - a few times a week
          14% - once a week
          22% - at least once a month
          18% - rarely or never

Of course these percentages don't tell the whole story.  While I'll accept them as reasonably accurate, they don't tell how much these people actually read when they do read - a verse? - two verses? - a chapter? - a book?

One of my first classes in seminary was Old Testament Introduction, taught by Dr. Bruce Waltke.  The class covered historical backgrounds and various theories of biblical composition.  Dr. Waltke impressed us all with his vast knowledge, not only of the Bible, but (it seemed) with every book and study written about it.  He was on a first-name basis with every character in the Bible and used their stories as illustrations in all his lectures.  Complete focus was required to keep up with him and pity the student who did not come with some previously acquired amount of biblical knowledge.

In one of the early classes, I recall one of my fellow students meekly raising his hand and saying, "Dr. Waltke, many of us aren't as familiar with the Bible as you are and we'd appreciate it if you wouldn't use so many biblical illustrations.  They're hard to follow."

Now Dr. Waltke was not at all threatening in appearance; he looked like the meek quiet scholarly type, with his thick glasses and balding forehead.   But he was feared!  I believe we all were trembling in fear for our fellow student as Dr. Waltke lowered his glasses on his nose and glared at him with the look one would give to a misbehaving child - a sort of mix of pity and disgust.

"Young man," he said slowly and softly but firmly, "I'd suggest that you go to your room this evening, sit down, take your Bible and READ IT!!"

On my previous post HISTORY LESSONS, I complained about our ignorance of history.  While I still hold those same complaints, I need to soften them a bit.  When speaking of history teachers I was speaking in generalities.  There are many solid teachers who have a passion for the study of history and are eager to share that passion with their students.  One of these was Dr. John Hannah, my Church History prof at Dallas Seminary.  Dr. Hannah portrayed the historical actors with understanding and compassion, as Dr. Waltke did with biblical characters.

But many of those passionate teachers are confronted with apathetic students, who have already been conditioned to regard history as a bore.  The ignorance is not always the fault of their current teacher.

Perhaps ignorance of history might be to a certain extent explainable if not excusable.  The same could be said of ignorance of science (IGNORANCE IS NOT BLISS).  But ignorance of the Bible is definitely not excusable for the follower of Christ.

I realize that ignorance of the Bible is mainly due to the fact that people don't bother to read it.  However, if I lay much of the blame for ignorance of history on history teachers, I suppose I should do the same for ignorance of the Scriptures.  For the greater share of my life I have taught the Bible - as a pastor, as a college professor, as a Sunday school teacher, as a counselor.  Have I been a contributor to the ignorance of many?  If so, in what way?  What have I and others done to discourage people from reading the Bible?

Some observations and questions we teachers need to ask ourselves:
  • Do we come across as authorities and discourage people from thinking through biblical concepts on their own?
  • Do we use the Bible as a loose collection of stories and sermon topics that are often ripped out of context?
  • Do we bring out the great themes of the Bible and demonstrate its unity?
  • Do we demonstrate the relevance of biblical principles to every area of life?
  • Do we make an effort to teach our people how to study on their own, to observe, interpret and apply?
  • Do we moralize?  While much of the Scripture is concerned with ethics and ethical behavior, not all of it is.
  • Do we ourselves have a passion for the Word that is contagious?

According to Haddon Robinson, my prof of Homiletics (preaching) at seminary, "It's a sin to bore people with the Word of God!"

Do we?  Do I?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


As a schoolboy, I both loved and hated history.  I loved to read the lengthy historical novels that were popular in the 40's and 50's.  I read and loved westerns, especially those that were informative about the great Indian chiefs, the soldiers and the gunfighters.  I read historical articles in my parents' Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia.  My head was full of stories about the men and women who made history.

But history as taught in school was usually a bore, both to me and (it seemed) to those who taught it.  My elementary school teachers seemed to be teaching the subject simply because they were required to.  Their main concerns were dates and names and it seems, with stifling any interest we might have.

High school was no better.  Mrs. E., my World History teacher managed to completely shut us off while she rambled through moralistic lessons.  Mr. Mc____, affectionately known as Chrome-dome, taught American History to supplement his job as assistant coach.  We were never allowed to open our books in his class, or to dispute - even question - his "facts".  I got my first C grade from him.  (I, Uni, on the other hand, never opened my book and took notes on all Mr. Chrome-dome said and got A's in the class.)

All of these teachers painted rosy pictures of America.  They required us to accept all they said as true and simply regurgitate their "facts" on our exams.  To one who read and studied history out of love for it, this was disgusting.

I strongly suspect that the disinterest and even distain that many have for history goes back to experiences similar to mine.  I agree with Walter Cronkite's words in his biography, A Reporter's Life:

          "Most depressing was the way history was taught.  I was not lucky enough in either high school or college to have a teacher who seemed willing, or perhaps able, to portray the conflict of fascinating personalities that underlies nearly all the critical moments of human experience.  Reducing this great drama to the rote of names, dates and places ought to be treated as a punishable crime.  Let the tens of thousands of students who get their diplomas thinking that history was the dullest subject of their high school years be called as witnesses as we put the offending teachers in the dock."  (page 28)

My bookshelves are lined with volumes and volumes of history and biography.  I would rather curl up with one of these than a novel or any of those self-help, "spiritual life" books.  I believe that a knowledge of history is a necessity for navigating and thinking through issues that confront us in our present world.

And yet there are tendencies - even political movements - all over America to maintain the present status quo.  The purpose for teaching American (and other) history is felt by many to be the inculcation of patriotism by stressing the good accomplishments of America and ignoring or de-emphasizing those areas of our history that could bring us into disrepute.

According to a recent Reuters report, October 2, 2014, "The question of how U.S. teens learn history in public schools is the latest flash point in a liberal - conservative fight over national curricula ..."  The article (along with many others) points out that critics of "the revised guidelines for the Advanced Placement history course" claim that these guidelines "cast the United States in a harsh light."

It seems that critical thinking is anathema to these conservative critics!  They apparently never understood the sarcasm in Bob Dylan's words, "Oh the history books tell it; they tell it so well ... "

Our nation is a long standing democracy and we have enjoyed freedoms here that are rare in this fallen world.  Yet we are a nation of fallen people and our history shows it when faced honestly.  The slavery and degradation of African peoples, the near genocide of the Native American peoples, our land-grabbing from Mexico, to name a few.  And our mistreatment of these same peoples right up to the present day.

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has claimed that, "Once we were here we were all the same" (We never were!) "... We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began ... We also know that the ... founders ... worked tirelessly until slavery was no more."  Uni and I discussed this statement.  Uni was of the opinion that Bachmann was just an out and out liar, while I could not be that judgmental.  No one who really wanted to deceive the American people would make statements that any 6th grader should be able to refute.  I felt Bachmann was just incredibly ignorant of history as are many Americans.  The problem however is that her audience is quite probably just as ignorant!

Our knowledge or ignorance of history affects how we think and act in other areas.  I know that not everyone has the love for history that I do.  But I do believe that as Christians and as Americans we are obligated to have a working knowledge of the past so that we can avoid its sins and mistakes and so that we can evaluate our present situation in its historical context.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
- attributed to George Santayana (and others)