Biblical Literacy in a Postliterate Age

We must always be people of the Word, but we’ll have to reimagine deep engagement with Scripture.

Christians are readers. We are “people of the book.” We own personal Bibles, translated into our mother tongues, and read them daily. Picture “quiet time” and you’ll see a table, a cup of coffee, and a Bible spread open to dog-eared, highlighted, annotated pages. For Christians, daily Bible reading is the minimum standard for the life of faith. What kind of Christian, some of us may think, doesn’t meet this low bar?

This vision of our faith resonates for many. It certainly describes the way I was raised. As a snapshot of a slice of the church at a certain time in history—20th-century American evangelicals—it checks out. But as a timeless vision of what it means to follow Christ, it falls short, and it does so in a way that will seriously impinge on our ability to make disciples in an increasingly postliterate culture, a culture in which most people still understand the bare mechanics of reading but overwhelmingly consume audio and visual media instead.

We can see how this literacy-focused idea of Christianity will fail in the future by looking to the past. For most of Christian history, most believers were illiterate. Reading the Bible daily wasn’t an option because reading wasn’t an option.

This doesn’t mean Scripture was irrelevant to ordinary Christians’ lives. But the sacred page wasn’t primarily a private matter for personal devotion; it was a public matter heard in the gathering of God’s people for worship. The Bible was the church’s book—a liturgical book, a book whose natural habitat was the voice of Christ’s body lifted in praise. To hear the Word of God, you joined the people of God. Lectors …

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