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Religious Knowledge and the Church

2010 September 29

My laptop crashed last week, so as it was being repaired, I immersed myself in my schoolwork since we’ve reached the point in the semester where it all seems to be piling on. Yet even as I was surrounded with discussions on proper Christology and post-exilic apocalyptic literature, I was not surprised to read the results of the recent Pew Religious Knowledge Survey. It is just part of who I am to seek religious knowledge, but according to this survey the general public can only answer 16 out of 32 questions correctly on a very basic religious knowledge survey. These weren’t questions about Augustinian views of atonement or the historical roots of the Hindu pantheon, these were ultra-basic questions necessary for a working knowledge of the other in a pluralistic globalized world (multiple choice questions like “Which Bible figure is associated with leading the Exodus from Egypt?” (Job, Elijah, Moses, Abraham) or “Ramadan is…?” (A Hindu festival, a Jewish day, The Islamic Holy Month) (you can take the quiz here)). There has been much said regarding the fact that atheists and agnostics scored the highest on the quiz, scoring an average 20.9 questions correctly while Protestants scored an average of 16 and Catholics 14.7. But, like I said, even as it astounds me, it doesn’t surprise me. The numbers are interesting, but they merely reflect the ongoing lack of desire for religious knowledge that pervades our culture.

One can obviously point fingers at the recent trends fearing learning about non-Christian religion here in America. The Texas School Board pushing to eliminate a seemingly pro-Muslim (and hence “anti-Christian”) bias in textbooks since those texts actually teach about Muslin history. Or the protestors of the Park51 community center who proclaim “all I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.” Or even the families at the church I used to work at that got upset that we were exposing the youth to (as they called them) “non-Christian religions” when we took them to visit Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. That sort of prejudice and ignorance is sad, but willful. What troubles me is the ignorance of Christians of our own faith. Mike and I both discovered in attending mainline seminaries that most of our classmates readily admit to having never studied or really read the Bible. As my theology prof quipped recently after having to ask a Baptist student in the class about a scripture reference, “if you want to know which fork to use for dessert, ask an Episcopalian, if you want to know something about the Bible ask a Baptist.” It’s funny, but with the evangelical obsession with Bible memory, sword drills, and Bible knowledge, it’s a fairly true stereotype.

And yet even with our of our Bible knowledge, evangelicals often willfully avoid knowledge with the best of them. For all the Bible trivia we amass, there is generally very little depth in that knowledge. We do countless “Bible studies” where fill-in-the-blank answers and “what does it mean for my life” reflection questions masquerade as knowledge. And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard pastors (or youth pastors) warn people about the liberal influence of education – as if just the idea of thinking for oneself is a threat to the faith. Or the number of testimonies I’ve heard that focus on how the person realized they trusted too much in their intellect and so had to let that go and follow God. It’s like the Kurt Cameron clip I saw recently where he actually said that to have faith we have to “bypass the intellect.” I was reminded of this stance this past week, when on a whim I pulled out the Old Testament Survey textbook I used at Wheaton College to compare it with the text I’m using in my survey class in seminary. I fully admit that both texts are biased, but it was sad to read how my Wheaton text willfully rejected most biblical scholarship. Instead of engaging with historical facts and textual criticism, the Wheaton text presented those arguments only to reject them. Almost every chapter is framed as – here is the evidence of scholars, but since we believe in the supernatural/unity of scripture/predictive prophecy we have to reject those arguments and just believe in the text as it is (as if that somehow actually exists). If knowledge falls outside of the tiny little box they were preconditioned to believe in, it is that knowledge and not the box that gets rejected and suppressed in the church. (although, I have to say, it made for a far easier Old Testament survey class…).

I think the church, in all its forms, is failing its members in this realm. Fearing learning about other religions or even about one’s own has crippled the body of Christ. The church doesn’t know how to navigate knowledge well. I understand why so many people do lose their faith when confronted with knowledge about history, or cultural influences on our faith tradition, or how the Bible came to be. When our faith is based on ignoring such knowledge, or even willfully hiding from it, its revelation can be devastating – especially when the church is utterly ill-equipped to provide a lens to help people understand that knowledge. We all always have more to learn and discover. What we think we know about God, the Bible, our faith, or other faiths is only just the very beginnings of what we can know. Fearing truth because it might force us to understand and love others or because it might challenge our presuppositions doesn’t seem like a healthy way for anyone to be living. To me what matters the most here is not whether people in our culture can answer certain questions correctly or not (although some of those Pew questions were rather basic), but whether or not we care enough to be continually learning and growing. And sadly, that is what I generally see lacking.


16 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2010

    Woo-hoo, I got a 100!

  2. Katherine permalink
    September 29, 2010

    This is a wonderful post, Julie! Being a brainy sort who grew up Southern Baptist and is now Episcopalian, a lot of it rings true for me.

    Also, as a fellow Wheatie, I’m curious: which OT survey book did you use? I’m wondering if it’s the same as or different than the one I had. On the other hand, even if it was a different book, it probably didn’t have a different approach…

  3. September 29, 2010

    I found the last question really surprising (about the Great Awakening) and not surprised at all that people didn’t get that one correct.

    I wonder to what degree does the conviction that the Bible is perfectly clear, easy to access and understand, as well as directly applicable to my life contribute to the fill-in-blank “Bible studies” you reference here? I have nothing against private, devotional reading of the Bible but if we reduce the Bible to God’s Instruction Book for Life, then there really isn’t anything to learn from an expert that we couldn’t get ourselves.

    On top of that, where are these “experts”? Why are the Church’s biblical interpreters and theologians huddled in institutions of higher learning instead of serving the Church? I think that’s a complicated question but it seems relevant.

    As for other religions, I think the process of learning about other faiths is threatening to some people and that’s frightening. I’ve taught that material and I remember learning it for the first time and it really did scare me. If people were open to it, it’s the sort of thing that could be usefully taught in churches but it would need to be done carefully by people with some experience and training. And then we’re back to the learned and experienced teachers. Perhaps we need to revive the role of catechist?

  4. September 29, 2010

    I couldn’t agree more. Two observations I’ve made over the past few years have been 1) how poorly incoming seminary students do on the PC(USA) Bible Competency Exam and 2) how shallow so much teaching is in so many churches today. It seems USAmerican churches have settled for a “fill-in-the-blank” form of education. How sad.

    Regarding knowledge of religious information outside of Christianity, how can one expect Christians to aquire that kind of information when they don’t feel the need to aquire a worthwhile foundation on their own form of faith?

  5. Mo Johnson permalink
    September 29, 2010

    Fabulous Julie. I come from a fundamentalist background and had a crisis of faith in my early 40’s when I actually spent some time studying the bible — even the parts not talked about in church. Luckily, with the help of emerging/emergent christian types, I was able to find my way through it and now have a stronger faith then ever. A faith that welcomes challenge and discussion of anything in the bible or any other religious text. And, a faith that is supported by reason and truth.

    Interesting that atheists and agnostics knew more about the christian faith than christians. Not surprising to me unfortunately.

    Anyway, fabulous article you wrote. Very true and important. Cowardice and fear has contributed to failure by “the Church” in it’s mission to seek truth, wherever it leads, and then share that truth with the world.

  6. September 30, 2010

    I enjoyed your post… and took the quiz…. 1 wrong isn’t too bad.

    The section about “Bible studies” where fill-in-the-blank answers and “what does it mean for my life” reflection questions masquerade as knowledge” particularly resonated with me. This is something I come across all the time and work hard to avoid in those that I lead.

    I find that people these days simply don’t ask meaningful questions until such time in life where there faith is brought unstuck by some issue or tragedy…. they don’t have the answers to the questions they should have been asking in the good times.

    Answering difficult questions isn’t easy and it seems often these days people find it less arduous ignoring things!


    Rich (@ichrch)

  7. September 30, 2010

    Great post, Julie. I agree – if the failures on this quiz were couched in ways that suggested we are not loving our neighbor very well through our willful ignorance, that would sit better with me.

    I wrote something yesterday from a different angle – one that wonders if knowledge has become another idol for us:

  8. Kathy Smith permalink
    September 30, 2010

    Amen, Sister!
    Fear of other religions and the fear of questioning our own serve to stultify faith. I highly recommend Dorothee Soelle’s book, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Social Resistance, for an incredibly beautiful image of God in relationship to human religions.

  9. R. Ralph permalink
    September 30, 2010

    “Fearing truth because it might force us to understand and love others or because it might challenge our presuppositions doesn’t seem like a healthy way for anyone to be living.”

    Well said. But your comments about the Texas school board’s decision on textbooks and Muslim history do not seem to be accurate. My understanding is that the decision was based on analysis that said that the books treated Islam – and other religions – favorably and uncritically, while also being biased against Christianity. Your statement that the books were pro-Muslim and therefore anti-Christian does not seem to be supported, and shows a bias on your part. I believe that it is very important that the contributions of all religions be fairly included in texts, and that means the good AND the bad for all religions; Protestantism, Catholicism, Bhuddism, Hunduism, Islam, and all others. The Texas board is not opposed to teaching Muslim history as you have posited; rather they seek a fair and truthful presentation. Is that not appropriate?

    The Texas decision may not be perfect, but it appears to be an attempt to be sure that ALL religions are treated fairly and truthfully. Surely you cannot be opposed to this, can you? Do you have presuppositions that might be challenged by this?

    However, I fear that you are correct when you state that too many students in seminary – and by extension, probably many more who are not in seminary – are not reading and studying the Bible. And that many are afraid to debate scholarship. More’s the pity. We are charged to, “always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, …” in 1 Peter 3; this clearly demands study. We clearly need to be learning and growing daily.

  10. September 30, 2010

    Annie – I agree that how stuff is taught in churches needs to be done carefully. The system as it is right now isn’t working. Evangelicals don’t get taught historical stuff until they get to bible college or seminary where they are simply told why they must reject it all. Mainliners are exposed to this stuff in church, then they get to seminary and have their faith torn apart as they amass knowledge. In the place where they should be prepared to be pastors, all they experience is often a loss of faith with no help in how to pull it together again. Those that then go on to be pastors (with their cobbled faith) then remain silent of the hard issues for their congregation. The church and it’s leaders are not being equipped.

    Chad – I think it is a very holistic thing. My whole life growing up in conservative evangelical churches I never once heard the bible passages about seeking justice for the oppressed mentioned. We were told to serve the poor, but that meant getting them to say a prayer to Jesus (which by implication would lead them to stop sinning and therefore stop being poor). I knew a lot of trivia – but trivia is not true transformative knowledge. When other approaches to theology came up the general response was not to engage them but to dismiss or mock them (such responses are not only evangelical, I see it all the time in the mainline world). The goal of our faith is not to amass knowledge, but it is hard to be faithful and loving in all ways without knowledge.

    Ralph – As for the textbook issue – I was quoting how the issue was presented by the school board. It was their words that the texts were pro-muslim and so therefore anti-christian. Yes, all religions should be taught – but as education is often shaped by what culture needs. I have no problem teaching basic introductory stuff about Islam for a culture that sees most Muslims as evil, and presenting some of the negative history of Christianity to a culture that believes christians are all good. It is bias, but that is what education is. Supplementing the cultural ethos to help get a balanced perspective is helpful. But to appease others in this case I woyuld argue that both the good and the bad of religious history needs to be presented – as I understood it, the push was to eliminate the negative aspects of christian history and either eliminate the muslim histories or add in their negative history as well. The solution did not appear very balanced at all.

  11. credis permalink
    September 30, 2010

    i highly recommend reading infidel and nomad by ayaan hirsi ali.

    broaden yourself a bit.

    and see if it fits!

  12. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    September 30, 2010

    “. . . these were ultra-basic questions necessary for a working knowledge of the other in a pluralistic globalized world. . .”

    I’m not sure I see why these are basic questions that everyone needs to know the answers to.

    These questions strike me as trivia. Relatively easy trivia to anyone interested in religion to be sure, but trivia nonetheless. Why is it important that everyone know when the Jewish Sabbath starts? If they don’t know any Jews, I can’t see what difference it makes, and if they interact with Jews enough for it to make a difference, it’s easy enough for them to find out. Similarly, I don’t see why anyone needs to know who lead the Exodus out of Egypt. If you’re interested in the Bible, that’s something you’ll learn; if you’re not, then I don’t see how your life, or the lives of those around you, would be enriched by this tidbit of knowledge.

    Surveys similar to this one come up regularly, on an array of topics, and the conclusion always seems to be shock and dismay that so many people lack basic knowledge that they “should” have – e.g. why don’t people know what was decided in Marbury vs. Madison, or the capital of Italy? I’m never really sure why these things are supposed to be dismaying. People have busy lives. If they don’t enjoy learning about world religions, or U.S. history, or European capitals, then I don’t see why they should. They probably have better things to do.

    (I’m not disagreeing with anything you’re saying about what sorts of knowledge people should have, if they’re interested in religions.)

  13. October 1, 2010

    AH – the thing is that we do live in a globalized world. Sure, someone might live in a bubble where they never interact with Jews, or Muslims, Or Hindus, or gay people, or atheists, or…, but that sort of existence is getting harder and harder to maintain. We cross paths with all sorts of people everyday. Understanding the most basic aspects of their belief system is vital to understanding them and having a respectful relationship with them. If you are in the business world it would be a pretty rude move to plan a Friday night business meeting with a Jew or a lunch meeting with a Muslim during Ramadan. Knowing that for many Jews their entire identity (including the lens through which they view the Holocaust) is wrapped up in what occurred in Exodus. Most of that stuff isn’t trivia, it’s the foundation for respectful relationships. (granted the great awakening question was pretty trivial). Knowing what is or is not allowed in public spaces like schools can save the quick to anger a lot of wasted time and grief as well. Sending the message that other people aren’t valuable enough to know even the most basic aspects of their cultural identity (or worse to make false assumptions about them – i.e. all Muslims are terrorists, all atheists are immoral), isn’t the way to make this world a more humane and functioning place. I guess it is our right to be ignorant and cloistered, but it’s not very helpful in the big picture of things. Religion is still very important in our world – it might not seem so to one who has abandoned it, but it is at the core of many of our identities. To understand and respectfully engage with us you have to understand at least the very very basics of our religion. I know I cross paths with people of multiple faith (or non-faith) traditions everyday – I know I need to seek understanding in order to treat them rightly.

  14. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    October 3, 2010

    I don’t think your cases show why everyone needs to know when the Jewish Sabbath starts. As I said before, if you end up interacting with Jews in a way where it becomes important, it’s easy enough to find out then. Until that happens, it is just trivia (for that person). Most of the time in the business world, you don’t even know what religion someone is, let alone how they practice their religion. So I think it would be a pretty thin-skinned Jew who became offended if you asked them if they were free to meet on a Friday evening (or a thin-skinned Christian who became offended if you asked if they were free to meet on a Sunday morning). A perfectly reasonable, non-offensive coversation at this point would go something like “I’m busy then, that’s my Sabbath,” followed by “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know that, can we meet Monday evening?”

    I don’t see that not knowing about the Jewish Sabbath communicates that you think that Jews aren’t “valuable enough to know even the most basic aspects of their cultural identity,” or that you don’t think that religion is “at the core” of many people’s identities. I know a lot about Judaism, and nothing about the cultural or religious practices of the Yourba people. Would you say that I must think that Jews are more “valuable” than Yoruba, or that I for some reason don’t think Yoruba religion is important to the Yoruba? I’d say, instead, that this is just a consequence of the fact that I’ve interacted with a lot of Jews, and not so many Yoruba. If I interact with Yoruba more in the future, in a way in which their culture becomes relevant, it would be respectful to know what Orun-Rere is – until then, knowing that is just trivia. Or, to pick an example from the survey, I’ve had very little interactions with Mormons, so I don’t see any reason that I “should” know who Joseph Smith is.

    I think respect towards other religious beliefs entails recognizing that different people may have different beliefs than your own, and that their beliefs are just as important to them as yours are to you. But there’s no reason to learn about those specific religious beliefs until you start having interactions with them where it would be polite to know them.

  15. October 6, 2010

    I am a graduate and small group leader of non-dualistic Bible studies which eschew fill-in-the-blank (ugh!) exercises. We journey into the world of life application only AFTER a thorough study of the text — its meaning and relevance to the original hearers by the original author in the original cultural context. Good solid stuff.

    Having gone through all these courses I can never go back. There is so much richness and an interwoven connectedness to the beautiful tapestry of the Bible as it is illuminated by the Holy Spirit that was never revealed to me in conventional Bible studies. Now that I see it, the other studies seem like photocopies of small torn-out snips of the fabric by comparison.

    The problem we are finding after offering these classes for over a decade to whatever church or organization wants to host us is that we have run out of people who really want to get THAT close to the Word of God. As Nadia Bolz-Weber implied in her recent sermon, we have become one-sided: we attend churches with a Praise Band but no Lament Band. We want the comfort oracles, but not the judgment ones. Heaven forbid that we actually might be confronted with bad stuff in the Bible — like being convicted that we should actually be responding to the Word of God and not just studying it — that we are here to actually share a meal of Love together, not just incessantly study the menu and argue about it.

    The Pew Survey brings that out. We are not close to His Word, neither the written ones nor the spoken ones–nor even the one who became flesh. And as hard as we try to change that, the resistance to that intimacy with God and His-Word-Become-Flesh is disheartening. We would rather sit and watch Jesus than actually enter into a relationship with Him. We are much more comfortable watching the parade of apostles than actually working to become one.

    And we are much more comfortable thinking “I’ve got mine. Too bad about you.” than actually giving some of that up supporting social justice, engaging with and loving the marginalized, and working arm in arm with our Creator for the redemption of the Creation to which we have been appointed its stewards.

    I wish I could say I knew where to go from here.

    (Oh, tears again) Thanks, Julie.

  16. jeff permalink
    May 15, 2011

    ISIAIh 41 BRING forth your IDOLS did they PREACH to you see they can’t speak they can’t DO ANYTHING all they do is cause confusion. spalms 115 and spalms 135 thier IDOLS are FALSE cant speak can’t hear cant smell and those that make them shall become like them. Jeremiah 10 they nail their IDOL down like a scarecrow it can’t move can’…t speak can’t move must be carried these are nothing but the WORK of CON men.john 10 jesus christ sais his sheep hear his voice and another voice thy will not follow and if another person tries to preach to them they WILL FLEE from him. jeremiah 5 the priests bear rule on their own authority what will you do when your judged my word is not inside them. Now here is the kicker john 5 son of man voice goes back in time mathew 16 jesus christ claims to be the son of man.‎1 cor2 mind of CHRIST preached internally and john 16 sais the spirit of truth comes in the future. Ezekiel 13 lying prophets of ISRAEL my word is not inside them saying god sais god sais god sais wrote hoping mankind would CONFIRM their WORDS. all of this is EASILY verifiable.

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