In the wake of one of the most fatal religiously motivated crimes in a string of other recent religiously-fueled terrorist attacks, I’d like to run a series of posts about one of the root problems behind such fatalities. Indeed, there may be many root causes, but as a biblical scholar I am interested in one in particular—biblical illiteracy, and even quranic illiteracy.
A survey done not too long ago revealed that while most American Christians professed belief in the Bible, only 10% were actually found to be literate about the Bible. This survey defined biblical literacy as possessing knowledge about these texts’ content—characters, plots, etc. So in this paradigm biblical illiteracy was seen as being unable to identify a text’s characters, plot, etc. But as a biblical scholar I define biblical illiteracy in radically different terms. In short, biblical illiteracy or even biblical ignorance is the lack of knowledge about the compositonal history and nature of a collection of ancient texts that later became codified as scripture: lack of knowledge about how, why, and by whom these texts were later codified as scripture; a lack of knowledge about what the texts themselves reveal about their own compositional nature, history, and the literary techniques scribes used in composing them; a lack of knowledge about what the texts themselves reveal about what they are and more importantly are not; a lack of knowledge about who wrote them, to whom, and why; a lack of knowledge about the historical contexts and concerns that prompted ancient scribes to write what they did and in essence even believe what they did, etc. When this lack of knowledge—when ignorance itself—creates fatal situations that cause the senseless deaths of others, then we as a culture have a responsibility not only to provide education and deter ignorance, or biblical illiteracy in this case, but even to publicly pronounce such ignorance and the acts it spurs as nothing short of criminal! The crime here is ignorance—misunderstanding or holding erroneous beliefs about an ancient text due to the lack of possessing knowledge about the text itself.
I will attempt to write about this in more detail, and specifically about the number 1 fatal illiterate problem—lack of knowledge about who wrote these ancient documents and what they actually represent—in forthcoming posts. Here, for today, let me simply reproduce the section entitled “The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country” in the conclusion of my recent book, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate: Being Honest to the Text, Its Author, and His Beliefs—Not Ours!
Indeed, the book itself attempts to combat biblical illiteracy by putting forth a textual, objective, demonstration that shows that despite their claims of belief, modern day Creationists and Fundamentalists do not actually believe in the text of Genesis 1. Their professed belief is feigned; it is built on ignorance about the text of Genesis 1, its author, and his message, worldview, and beliefs. From the book:
In the introduction to this book, I claimed that the real debate with regards to Creationism was not between science and religion. Rather, it is between what the texts of Genesis 1 and 2 profess on their own terms about the beliefs and worldviews of their authors, and what modern day Creationists pontificate about the texts. Despite their fervent claims, the texts themselves have revealed that they do not in fact believe in the beliefs, worldviews, and messages represented in these ancient texts. The biblical text, in other words, adjudicates against the belief claims made by modern day Creationists! Thus it’s not science that posses a threat to the ideas and beliefs represented in these ancient texts, but Creationists themselves! They have become the enemies of these texts and of the beliefs and messages of their individual authors (126).
Again, let me start from what I’ve already written, and then build upon one specific point expressed below. So again from the conclusion.
The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country
The very fact that Creationists can claim that they believe in the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis 1 and use this text to substantiate their own modern agendas and beliefs, when the text itself adjudicates against their claims and makes contrary claims of its own, is just one small example of the growing problem of biblical illiteracy in this country. Part of that problem, as outlined above, is that most readers have mistaken the messages and beliefs of these once independent texts for the message and beliefs that are now supplied and imposed by these texts’ later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible.”
But Creationists take their hypocrisy to new levels. Not only do they wish to pawn off their own subjective beliefs about the text of Genesis 1 and about the nature and origin of our world as the beliefs of the author of Genesis 1—and ultimately of God as well—but they also seek to present their unsubstantiated beliefs as biblical creationism and advocate that this gets taught in our classrooms! This is not only grossly negligent of the text itself, as has been sufficiently demonstrated, but it also displays our negligence as a culture for allowing such practices to even be entertained. For in what other discipline would we allow an individual unschooled in a particular field of study to teach their own subjective beliefs and pawn them off as the viewpoint and beliefs of the primary texts of that discipline? We wouldn’t accept this in any other field of study or profession. If we wanted to teach biblical creationism in our schools, which of course as a biblical scholar I have nothing against, then I’ve just written that book! The educational task was to reproduce an unbiased, objective, and culturally contextualized reading of the worldview and beliefs represented in the texts of Genesis 1 and 2, and to understand them on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts. But to allow individuals outside a particular field of study to teach their own subjective—and religious—beliefs in place of the knowledge that that field of study has accumulated over the past few centuries and to pawn their subjective unschooled beliefs off as the beliefs of that field of study’s texts is nothing short of malpractice and should be prosecuted as such. The fact that we as a culture are allowing this speaks to the impoverished nature of education in general in our country and of biblical education in particular.
Another reason for the growing rate of biblical illiteracy in this country is that we have mistaken religious freedom—the freedom to choose, believe, and practice whatever religion we so desire—for the freedom to believe whatever we want about whatever we want. No one would deny the importance of the freedom of religious beliefs. But religious freedom is not the freedom to believe whatever one wants, whether that be about these ancient texts or for that matter about the world. Most beliefs that ancient peoples and cultures held about the nature of the world, including those represented in Genesis 1:1—2:3, have been eradicated or reformulated through an objective study of the world and the knowledge acquired through that study. Likewise, over the past few centuries the objective study of the biblical texts has led us to realize that longstanding traditional claims about these texts are not actually validated by the texts themselves. When our knowledge about any object of study advances, whether that object be agriculture, meteorology, human anatomy, medicine and diseases, Shakespeare’s texts, or the texts of the Bible, we cannot just hold on to traditional pre-scientific beliefs when the object of study itself has revealed certain truths about its own nature that clash with longstanding traditional beliefs, no matter how authoritative they’ve become. Believing that the Bible is the word of God, is an inerrant homogeneous narrative with a single-voiced message, etc. are beliefs that are no longer tenable. Not because I say so. This has nothing to do with subjective claims. Rather it is because our object of study—the biblical texts themselves—have revealed that these beliefs are not supported by the texts themselves! I realize that these conclusions may be discomfiting to many Christians and pose insurmountable difficulties. But we must start acknowledging these texts and their messages on their terms, and stop carelessly and hypocritically using them to legitimate our own cultural beliefs, whether about the texts or about the nature of our world. If as a culture our most cherished beliefs about these texts—beliefs handed down and forged by powerful, longstanding and authoritative interpretive traditions—are called into question by what the texts themselves reveal when objectively studied, then we have an obligation to these texts and their authors to acknowledge that, and move forward (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 124-125).
So in the end the challenge that Creationists, Fundamentalists, and literal Evangelicals face is deciding whether they wish to be honest to these ancient texts and the beliefs and messages of their authors by simply acknowledging them, and acknowledging also that we in this century no longer believe in the same beliefs and worldview, or be honest to centuries-later interpretive claims and beliefs about these texts which represent the concerns and beliefs of later readers rather than those of the individual authors of these texts. And if being honest to these texts, their authors, and their beliefs and messages leads us to conclude that our most cherished beliefs about these texts, indeed what have become cultural “truths” for many, are not supported by the texts themselves when read on their terms, then that is the conversation that we as a culture must embark upon, openly, honestly, and courageously.