The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Is the word returning empty?

Biblical fluency puts life into the word for daily use

In his song "Neon Cathedral," hip-hop artist Macklemore, lamenting his struggles, his sin and suffering, and his need, sings:

There's a heavy current, got a long way to swim.

Closed the Bible a while ago, I need some shots for this sin ....

I read the Bible, but I forgot the verses.

The liquor store is open later than the church is.

Macklemore's music is powerful in many ways. It's heartfelt, timely and poetically deft. In "Neon Cathedral" he uses biblical imagery to characterize his personal situation quite beautifully (e.g., describing his "best thinking" as a "crown of thorns perched atop my spine"), but there is more to this song than adroit use of biblical imagery. He also offers a critique of the use (and perhaps usefulness) of the Bible in answering his struggles.

Macklemore has, it seems, turned to the Bible — and to those who are responsible for its use — for answers. But he found the book closed to him, the verses forgettable and the stewards of those verses wanting.

It was at the crossroads of Macklemore and the prophet Isaiah that this article took its first steps toward shape, along with my own thinking about the state of the Bible in the church. These words and attitude, this critique, had me turning Isaiah's words into a question: Is the word returning empty?

First, a caveat. Of course the word is not returning empty. This is God's word, God's promise, we are talking about.

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God's promises are sure and, as Isaiah says elsewhere, "stand forever" (40:8). So why ask the question?

I ask it because in teaching about the Bible (both in the congregation and in the wider church) I've observed what seems to be a sharp and growing disconnect between the biblical word and the Bible-believing person. The question is: How is the word that God sends forth received?

The reality is that we are an increasingly biblically challenged people. The "we" here are churchgoers (both the regular and the occasional or the casual), and nonchurchgoers (both "seekers" and "nones") alike.

Few people (the so-called experts included) know the Bible back-to-front perfectly. As much as any other trait, we all share this challenge. The reality is that biblical fluency is something of a spectrum, and we are all on it somewhere.

This state of affairs need not be cause for lamenting or bemoaning, but we do need to pay attention to this reality. We simply don't know the Bible (its stories, laws, characters, etc.) all that well. But this present reality is probably not so different from the way things were even in the "golden age" of American Christendom.

Take a moment to answer this three-question biblical literacy quiz:

  •  What are the two symbols of peace that appear at the end of the Noah story?


  •  In what book of the Bible does the golden rule ("love your neighbor as yourself") appear?


  •  When Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," from which biblical book was he quoting?

Answers: Olive branch and dove; Leviticus 19:18 (and Matthew 22:39); Amos 5:24.

Without worrying about how you did, ask yourself: "Does knowing (or not knowing) these specific details make me a 'better' Christian, a better person?"

"Knowing enough" isn't the issue. The challenge we face is less one of biblical literacy (knowing enough of the stories and content of the text) and more one of biblical fluency (being able to navigate, understand and apply the biblical story to our lives, our stories).

If this is the goal as we understand both the issue of biblical illiteracy and the primary purpose of the worship and educational lives of our congregations, perhaps we can begin to realize the promise of Isaiah 55:11 differently and anew. The word will return, accomplishing the purpose for which God sends it forth.

Do people care?
First things first. Does it really matter to our people whether or not they know the biblical story?

In general, it would seem, most folks aren't concerned about their biblical fluency. Rather, they care about being connected to faith and spirituality in-and-through the church. While this may be an overstatement and certainly doesn't apply to everyone, there is a reliance on the Bible as an object of faith rather than as the source of it, and a culture of expertise that has arisen around the Bible-as-object.

A simplistic common response to the issue of biblical fluency might be something like: "You tell me, pastor, what I need to know about the Bible and that is good enough for me."

In other words, someone else can manage the text and its content.

Four years ago, research firm Barna Group declared that biblical literacy is neither a current reality nor a goal in the U.S. Its findings, related to Bible knowledge and application, indicate that little progress, if any, is being made toward assisting people to become more biblically literate.

"Bible reading has become the religious equivalent of sound-bite journalism," Barna concluded. "When people read from the Bible they typically open it, read a brief passage without much regard for the context, and consider the primary thought or feeling that the passage provided. If they are comfortable with it, they accept it; otherwise, they deem it interesting but irrelevant to their life and move on.

"There is shockingly little growth evident in people's understanding of the fundamental themes of the Scriptures and amazingly little interest in deepening their knowledge and application of biblical principles ...."

There are several reasons for this, no doubt: the "empty-vessel" approach to teaching and learning that dominated education in congregations and schools for generations; the complexity (both real and felt) of the biblical language; perceptions of the Bible as "holy" or "other" or "above and beyond" us; etc.

But the single greatest challenge (and opportunity) around biblical fluency lies in worship, a point to which we will return shortly.

It started in Sunday school
Barna Group's review said: "The problem facing the Christian church is not that people lack a complete set of beliefs; the problem is that they have a full slate of beliefs in mind, which they think are consistent with biblical teachings, and they are neither open to being proven wrong nor to learning new insights.

"Our research suggests that this challenge initially emerges in the late adolescent or early teenage years. By the time most Americans reach the age of 13 or 14, they think they pretty much know everything of value the Bible has to teach and they are no longer interested in learning more scriptural content."

If knowing enough were the answer, then the model of Sunday school in which most of us were brought up would (probably) be sufficient. Get the basics, know the key characters, be able to flannel-graph the location of the 12 tribes of Israel and their tribal allotments (something I actually had one of my early confirmation classes do, although for the life of me I couldn't tell you why), and the heritage of the Christian faith would be assured.

But in many cases this model hasn't met the needs of an inquisitive and hopefully growing Christian faith, which in turn empowers the vocation of the Christian life, all in the face of the changing and challenging world in which we live and move and have our being.

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