I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. George Guthrie this year. I called George in January to ask him about Read the Bible for Life. I was stunned when George answered his own phone! He has become a great colleague and I was honored when I had the opportunity to interview George about the new Read the Bible for Life Initiative that he has authored through Broadman & Holman. George is the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN.
So now, for the interview…
George, what prompted you to write and develop the Read the Bible for Life initiative?
There were a number of factors, but I can point especially to the patterns I saw in my students at Union University. We attract students who are quite gifted academically, many coming out of the church and deeply committed to Christ. Yet, in my New Testament Survey classes and Introduction to Bible Study classes I kept noticing major gaps in their basic Bible knowledge. For a number of years we gave a very basic Bible Literacy Quiz in various Freshman survey classes; 18 questions like, “How many temptations did Jesus have in the wilderness?” Over a three-year period the average score on that quiz was 57%! That shocked me. I found out that the scores are similar on such quizzes at other top evangelical universities, like Wheaton and Seattle Pacific University. I thought, “If these wonderful students are there, what does that say about the state of Bible education in our churches?” That question kept me up at night.
In your teaching ministry with college students, what has been the biggest eye opener about your students and their Bible knowledge?
As I have already mentioned, the lack of Bible knowledge was a shocker. But I also, as I have worked with my students, I have found that they are willing to work at learning how to read and study the Bible! During the last 5 weeks of my Introduction to Bible Study class, we study one key passage per week, taking that passage all the way through the process of study, from preparing our hearts in prayer through how we might teach or preach the passage. When the lights start going on, watch out! The students get excited about the learning process. When they discover a fresh reading of God’s Word, they become excited about it.
First, I think we have focused our attention on what might be called “Bible Trivia,” rather than helping people to a “Bible Orientation” and “Biblically-driven Transformation” in their lives. The main problem is not that people don’t know the facts of the Bible (although that is important) but that they don’t walk with God in the Word daily, as a primary orientation in life. If they learn to walk with God in the Word on a daily basis, they will grow to know the facts, and they will be changed by the experience of meeting God in the pages of the Bible.
Second, we have not taught people the “Big Picture” of the Bible’s grand narrative or story. We have approached Bible education by stacking one passage on another, week after week, year after year. We have assumed that if we did that long enough people would get it. They haven’t. And if they don’t know the framework of the Story, they have no reference points for all the people, places, events, etc. That is a key reason we are in trouble. On the other hand, when people begin to get the Story, they start being pulled into the Story. That is when the Christian faith gets exciting.
I don’t want to get you in trouble, but on a scale of 1-10, where would you rate the biblical literacy of the average Sunday School or small group?
That’s OK. I like living on the edge! If you include teenagers on up, I would guess that the average would be between 4 1/2 to 5 in terms of having a good grasp of basic people, events, institutions, and introductory information on the purpose of the various books of the Bible. If you add a basic knowledge of how to read and interpret the various parts of Scripture well and how to apply the Scriptures responsibly, I would guess we are at about a 1. About 95% of churches have no basic training in how to read the Bible well. Read the Bible for Life focuses on the latter in the beginning and then gives a church tools for helping their folks build long-term Bible knowledge.
What are some suggestions that a small group or Sunday School leader could do to get the people in their group reading and studying the Bible?
I know this sounds basic, but begin by reading through the Bible chronologically as a group and then discuss what you are reading. It is easier to get people going if “we are all in this together!” No one should have to walk the wilderness in Leviticus alone! Also, give them training. The Read the Bible for Life video curriculum has been designed as “basic training.” That can provide a good starting point.
What are 2-3 suggestions that would help a pastor lead his church members to have greater love and understanding of the scriptures?
First, make it a “whole-community” event. Involve the whole church in a holistic way. Right now our church has everyone reading daily, both individually and in their families. We then discuss what we are reading in small group settings. Then the pastor preaches on a key passage read the previous week. So individual time is combined with small-group experience and a main worship experience every week. That is powerful.
Second, take the long look in addressing this critical problem! Short-term programs are not the answer. You will not solve the biblical literacy program with a nine-week curriculum. We need to have a vision for changing patterns in our churches over the next 5-10 years. I hope we can work together on that, because I want to continue to address this problem in years to come.
There is a lot of talk about being “missional”. How can leading a church through the RTB4L initiative make it a more missional community?
Our people will never be missional if they don’t have a Biblical foundation and motivation. What we are seeing in our church is that once people begin to “get” the Story of Scripture, the Story of redemptive history, and how all the parts add up to a very exciting vision God has for the world, they begin to get drawn into that Story. And guess what: that Story is a story about mission. When people live in the Story they begin to live out the mission.
George, thank you so much for your time! George will be checking by the next two days to answer any comments or questions you may have about biblical literacy or Read the Bible for Life.