Reading the stories or reading the story?
There has been quite a lot of press coverage of a new report from the Bible Society entitled Pass it On which reported the results of a YouGOv poll that indicated widespread and growing ignorance of the contents of the Bible. The poll results showed that 23% of the children surveyed had never read, seen, or heard the story of Noah’s Ark and that over 60% were ignorant of the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They also showed that biblical literacy is little better among adults with 46% of the parents surveyed failing to recognise that the story of Noah’s Ark is from the Bible and 30% being unsure or unaware that the story of Adam and Eve is from the Bible.
The overall argument of the report is that the awareness of the contents of the Bible is falling across the generations, that this is a problem, and that it needs to be addressed by parents being proactive in passing on Bible stories to their children.
I have no doubt that the YouGov poll gives an accurate snapshot of the current level of knowledge of biblical stories. I also agree with the Bible Society that the levels of ignorance about the contents of the Bible revealed by the poll are worrying and need to be addressed. However, I am not convinced that it is helpful to see ignorance of the Bible simply in terms of ignorance of particular Bible stories or that the way to counter biblical illiteracy lies solely in telling these stories more often. There are two reasons I have a problem with these ideas.
First, even a cursory glance at a Bible shows that large parts of the Bible do not consist of stories. In the Old Testament, for example, much of Leviticus consists of laws rather than stories and there are no stories at all in Psalms, Ecclesiastes or Habakkuk. In the New Testament only parts of the Gospels consist of stories and there are no stories at all in the Epistles. If you concentrate on telling the biblical stories you will therefore necessarily omit large parts of the biblical material.
Secondly, the biblical stories themselves are not freestanding. In order to be understood properly they have to be understood in a wider biblical context. Thus the story of Joseph as told in Genesis 37-50 is often interpreted as being a story about how a young man achieves his destiny in spite of the obstacles that he encounters in his path to greatness. However, that is not the point of the story in its biblical setting. In the Bible the story of Joseph is part of a bigger story about how God fulfils the promises made to Abraham of numerous descendants and a land for them to live in (see Genesis 12:1-3 and 15:1-16) .
The key verse in the Joseph story is Genesis 50:20 where Joseph tells his brothers, who are worried that he will exact revenge on them for selling him into slavery in Egypt, ‘As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.’ This verse reminds us that the subject of the Joseph stories is not Joseph but God and the point of the stories is not about how Joseph achieved career success as Pharaoh’s right hand man, but about how God kept alive Joseph and his family, the descendants of Abraham, in spite of a famine in the land of Canaan which would otherwise have wiped them out.
Furthermore, because the story of Joseph only exists as part of the wider story of the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, the fact that the story end with Abraham’s descendants, those who will become known as the people of Israel, living in Egypt rather than the promised land means that the story is necessarily incomplete and points forward to the next stage in Israel’s history. That is why at the end of the story we are told that ‘Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will visit you, and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph took an oath of the sons of Israel, saying, “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”’ (Genesis 50:24-25). Joseph’s story leads into the bigger story of the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt and their entry into the land of promise which is told in the books of the Bible from Exodus to Joshua.
What all this means is that telling the story of Joseph properly necessarily means telling people about the bigger story of God’s promises to Abraham and their fulfilment in the exodus and the subsequent conquest of the land of Canaan.
In addition, that bigger story is in itself only part of an even larger story. The call of Abraham is part of the fulfilment of the promise made by God that the seed of Eve would one day crush the head of Satan (Genesis 3:15), thus undoing the effects of the fall. This promise points back to the creation stories in that it tells us how the vocation given to human beings by God to rule over creation on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:26-28) will achieve fulfilment in spite of human sin. It also points forward to Jesus, the seed of Eve, God incarnate, by whom the power of Satan was overthrown (Colossians 2:15) and to the final fulfilment of the work of Jesus in the renewed creation described in Revelation 22.
It is this larger story that provides the framework within which to understand those parts of the Bible which are not in story form. Thus the Book of Habbakkuk is a prophecy about how God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 and his subsequent promise to Abraham will move towards their fulfilment as God uses the Chaldeans to discipline the descendants of Abraham for their unfaithfulness to God and how this act of discipline will eventually lead to the final fulfilment of God’s purposes when ‘the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14).
All this being the case, if we want to tackle the growing problem of biblical illiteracy (as we should) it cannot just be a matter of simply telling our children, or our grandchildren, a selection of biblical stories. In order for them to understand these stories as God intended them to be understood when he caused the books of the Bible to be written and then brought together in a single volume, they need to see these individual stories as part of one big overarching story about how God the creator fulfils his good purposes through the history of Israel, the sending of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Church.
It is because you need to know the whole in order to understand the parts that the Early Church developed a ‘rule of faith’ for new Christians, which in the Western Church eventually developed into the Apostles Creed, and why the Church of England retained the practice of using the Apostles Creed both for the instruction of young Christians and as a liturgical affirmation of faith.
The Apostles Creed does not replace the Scriptures. What it does is to provide a handy and memorisable summary of the overall biblical story which gives a framework for reading the Bible with proper understanding. In the words of the Prayer Book Catechism, what the Creed tells us about is ‘God the Father, who hath made me and all the world,’ ‘God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind’ and ‘God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me and all the elect people of God.’ When introducing people to the Bible we need to help them to read it in terms of how the good purposes of this God, and his faithfulness to these purposes in the face of the activity of Satan and the sinfulness of human beings, find expression in range of different ways in the all the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
In summary therefore, if we want people to not only read the Bible, but read it with proper understanding we need to follow the age old tradition of the Church and introduce them to the Creed and the Bible together. By this means we can help them to read the stories in the light of the story.