I received my first Bible — a New Testament (with Pictures!) — for Christmas, 1979 from The Gospel Den Christian Bookstore.
I still have that Bible close to forty years later. Indeed, I keep it in my seminary office on a shelf with a range of Bibles I’ve used throughout the last four decades. And while each of those Bibles is special for its own reasons, there is something unique about the first.
I still remember the excitement of receiving that modest children’s version of the New Testament. At long last, I had my own Bible, a timeless chronicle of the very words of God; or as my youth pastor would later say, the owner’s manual for the human person.
That little Bible is not much to look at. It is diminutive in size, bordering on tiny. As I write now in 2017 that book is 38 years old, worn with the ravages of time: its binding has grown brittle, its spine is cracked, and its pages are yellowed. It has definitely seen better days.
While I greatly cherished that Bible, the truth is that I didn’t read it very often. But don’t blame me: the trade-off for having a pocket New Testament is a font so tiny it is barely legible to all but those with the best vision. To make matters worse, the book was written in the lofty and elegant but inaccessible prose of King James.
And so, while I would open my little New Testament to read a verse here or there, the truth is that I never read much; nor did I typically understand what I was reading. In retrospect, it would seem that I loved that Bible more for its symbolic value and its talismanic status rather than for its readability and ability to inform and inspire.
And then came The Student Bible
Over the years I acquired other Bibles, but none had the impact of my beloved NIV Student Bible which I purchased in 1987, a year after it was first released. The Bible pictured here isn’t my Student Bible: mine fell into tatters a long time ago (see below). The funky 1980s cover was a definite plus, but the real gold was found inside the covers, including the relative accessibility of the NIV translation (especially when compared to the KJV) as well as the eminently helpful readers notes composed by editors Tim Stafford and Philip Yancey.
Those readers notes were gold. Yancey writes that he and Stafford discovered that while many Christians have “a high view of the Bible and want to read it,” many of them “never get around to it”. The main reason? Because they can’t understand it. (source)
Enter the NIV Student Bible. At last, a Bible that I could understand! (At least, I could understand it better than my KJV.) Clearly I’m not the only one who was enthusiastic: The Student Bible went on to sell in excess of six million copies (source). No doubt about it, the Student Bible was a quantum leap forward and I am forever grateful to Philip Yancey, Tim Stafford, and the editors at Zondervan for creating it.
The Explosion of the Specialty Bible Market
Since the success of the NIV Student Bible the marketplace has been flooded with specialty Bibles tailored to various market segments. There are now special Bibles for teen boys and girls, soccer moms and wild at heart dads, people who are concerned about the environment or apologetics, people who are in the military, people who are struggling with depression, the list goes on and on.
Some years ago I bought my daughter a copy of the Bethany Hamilton Soul Surfer Bible just like this one. She loved it: the handy size, the sparkly cover, and the reader’s notes about the famous Christian surfer Bethany Hamilton. Just the right stuff for a ten year old.
A few weeks later I saw my daughter reading her Soul Surfer Bible intently. I was filled with excitement to see the Word of God coming alive for her as I recalled my time reading the NIV Student Bible.
“What are you reading about?” I asked proudly.
She looked up and replied, “Oh, I’m just reading about Bethany. She’s amazing!”
Ahh, I see.
The truth is that I have nothing against Bethany, but frankly I’d prefer if my daughter had been reading about Jesus. From that point I couldn’t shake the nagging thought that the specialty Bible market is less successful at spurring biblical literacy than it is at making money for publishers.
The survey evidence supports this. For example, see Ed Stetzer’s article “The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches.” Despite the abundance of specialty Bibles crowding the marketplace, Christians don’t read the Bible often and they don’t read it well.
What is Bible literacy anyway?
How do sociologists purport to gauge Bible literacy anyway? Do they just ask questions like “How often do you read the Bible?” I hope not, because frequent reading doesn’t ensure successful reading. I first read through the entire Bible in high school. During that intensive Bible reading year I read the Bible more frequently than I do today as a seminary professor. In one sitting I plowed through thirty psalms. That’s a lot of reading! But did I understand what I read? Did I remember it five minutes later?
One might also survey Bible literacy by asking questions like “What are the Synoptic Gospels?” and “Can you name the five books of the Pentateuch?” and “What was the name of King David’s first wife?” But again, knowledge of various specialist terms and trivia does not ensure understanding of the primary themes and message of the texts.
Here’s my Student Bible again, opened to the book of Romans. In high school I spent more time in this book than anywhere else in the Bible. I thought I understood it. And judging by the highlighting, underlining, and marginalia, I must have, right?
Not surprisingly today as a seminary professor I understand Romans far better than I ever did as a pimply faced teenager. I can expostulate on the New Perspective on Paul; I can share my thoughts about Paul’s use of diatribe; I can opine on the interpretation of hilasterion in Romans 3; I can wax eloquently on the Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of Romans 9.
At the same time, I am also that much more aware of all that I don’t understand when it comes to Romans. It now is clearer than ever to me that I’m only scratching the surface in grappling with Paul’s argument. And I have hardly begun to match that argument up to the various doctrinal affirmations of Christian confession (theology; ethics; soteriology; ecclesiology; eschatology, etc).
And if that’s where I am when it comes to Romans — a book that I know as well as any in the Bible — it should be no surprise that I haven’t even begun to wrestle with large tracts of the Bible (Leviticus, Isaiah, Nahum…). If the Bible is an ocean, I fear I’ve only barely dipped my toes in the water.
Is God partly to blame?
So this is where we are: biblical literacy has never been great among the laity. And ironically, despite the market saturation of various specialty Bibles and teaching aids, that literacy — modest though it may be — is on the decline. And even where there is marked improvement over time, as in my own journey to becoming a seminary professor, the growth of knowledge is overshadowed by how much I do not yet understand.
We could spend time beating ourselves up over this sorry state of affairs. But the truth is that God should take on some of the blame, shouldn’t he?
Let’s think about the issue in terms of publishing.
When you plan to write a book the first thing a good editor will ask you is who is the audience? So you answer, “I am writing for a general audience. I want to reach everybody!” You know what an editor will say next? They will point out that if you want to reach a general audience, you better keep the book simple and engaging. In short, you should stay at a grade 8 vocabulary and you should ensure that it is a page-turner.
Christians believe God wrote the Bible for everybody. And yet, he completely dissed the editor’s good advice.
Simple? Far from it! Instead, God gave us a library of bewildering complexity: cosmogonic creation narratives, ancient near eastern law codes, cryptic apocalyptic revelations, perplexing prophetic exhortations, pithy wisdom sayings, highly contextualized letters, lofty poetry, Greco-Roman biography, and much more besides.
Engaging? Some parts definitely are: many Psalms are glorious; some biblical narratives like Esther and portions of the Gospels qualify as page-turners. But let’s be honest: large tracts of the Bible are ponderous. At least they are for the average reader who is looking for the equivalent of an engaging Tom Clancy novel, not arcane levitical law, abstruse prophetic utterances, and impenetrable symbolic revelations.
Needless to say, no editor would have green-lighted God’s approach to a mass market publication. And that means that while we must shoulder some blame for widespread biblical illiteracy, God should probably take on some blame as well.
And this brings us to the real puzzle. If God were just another fallible human author, we might chalk up his decision to a uniquely poor assessment of the capacities and interests of his target audience. But God isn’t just another fallible human author. He’s God. So why did God forgo the conventional wisdom by giving us this difficult and woefully complex library of ancient texts?
In short, what is God up to?
For further discussion see my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?