In the 2010 movie, The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington plays Eli; a man on a mission to take the last copy of the Bible across post-apocalyptic America to a place of safety. In his journey, Eli arrives at a town run by the ruthless Carnegie who will stop at nothing to acquire a copy of the Scriptures. In his quest for power in the midst of a devastated world, Carnegie believes the words of the Bible will help him manipulate and control the masses. He says this about the Bible:
“It’s a weapon. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them… People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ‘em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it will happen again.”
Carnegie believes he can use the Bible to control people for two reasons: first, they believe it to be the word of God and second, they don’t know what it says. Sadly many of us fit this description.
More than three quarters of Americans claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God, according to several Gallup surveys conducted in 2007, and two thirds believe it contains the answers to “all or most of life’s basic questions.” The Bible continues to be the best-selling book ever with Americans buying 25 million copies a year. Yet Americans seem to not know what is actually in it. Only half of U.S. adults can name one of the four gospels and less than that can name the first book of the Bible. George Gallup summed up the surveys by saying, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, don’t read it.”
The same could be said of those who sit in churches every Sunday. It would be an enlightening pulpit experiment for a pastor to ask those who have read the entire Bible to stand. How many who have been Christians for decades, if they were honest, would still be seated? How many teachers? How many choir members? How many deacons? If the Bible is the Word of God can we continue to justify our lack of engagement with it?
Bible illiteracy can take different forms. The first is “vague illiteracy.” A person experiencing this Bible dysfunction claims to have read the Bible, or most of it. The problem is, while they can talk vaguely or generally about things in the Bible, they cannot name any specifics. Their knowledge of the Scriptures most resembles a high school student’s knowledge of The Grapes of Wrath – they have some idea of the plot but seem to have been chatting on Facebook while scanning the pages.
The second form is “once upon a time” illiteracy. A person fitting this description read the Bible once upon a time. It may have been five years ago, but they claim to still grasp the Scriptures without recently studying them. In college, I studied financial accounting and knew the subject well enough to graduate with a 3.5 GPA. A mere five years later I couldn’t have told you what belonged on a balance sheet. What happened? I stopped studying it. The danger of “once upon a time” and “vague” illiteracy is the person is confident in their beliefs because they “read the Bible” but cannot support them and their vagueness allows them to be easily changed. Worse, they live their lives, make decisions, teach others, and wield influence in the church based on their flimsy thoughts and experiences and not on the Bible.
The third form is “devotional” illiteracy. This dysfunction can appear in those with regular church and small group attendance, who read Christian books and devotionals and who have the ability to quote well-known verses with ease. While this person smells of Bible knowledge, it is mostly second-hand through devotionals, sermons, Bible studies, and inspirational calendars – they have never actually read the Scriptures themselves from Genesis to Revelation. They tend to know the stories and verses most often taught but fail to grasp the grand narrative and themes of the Bible. Tragically, their faith remains shallow and ineffective since they’ve never had to wrestle and come to terms with the God of the Bible.
The fourth form is “just plain” illiteracy. This person simply hasn’t read much or any of the Bible while claiming to be a follower of Christ. They may be armed with excuses to justify themselves, be frustrated at their own failure, or just shrug their shoulders in defeat. Whatever the attitude, the result is the same: their actions fail to line up with their beliefs. How can one claim to believe God has spoken, claim to have surrendered their life to this God, and then care less about what He has said then Jack Sparrow does about personal hygiene? The result can only be hypocrisy and a severe lack of spiritual growth.
How do we, as Peter said in 2 Peter 1:19, “Pay attention [to the Word] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”? We have to stop our lame excuses.
If we have time to go fishing, play Xbox, watch “America’s Got Talent”, or browse YouTube videos we are not too busy for the Scriptures. To be too busy for the Bible is to be too busy.
If we can’t understand what we are reading, we keep at it. Leviticus might as well still be written in Hebrew the first time you read it; the fifth time it starts to reveal treasures previously unimagined.
If we don’t like to read, pick up an audio Bible. Then work to enjoy reading – not only will it prevent you from being an intellectual weakling, it will allow you to rejoice in the beauty of God’s Word.
If we are haunted by past failures in studying the Scriptures there is grace. We read and study not to earn God’s love, but because He first loved us in Christ. Our past failures to dive into the Scriptures may stem from a failure to truly understand God’s love for us.
In The Book of Eli, Eli treasures God’s Word and commits it to memory while Carnegie wants to use it for his own selfish ends. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. What can we do today to know more of the Bible? God has given His Word and it will ignite our worship and transform our lives if we’ll drop our excuses and let it.