by Pastor Doug Kings
Television game shows are a surprisingly durable part of American culture. I swear I remember watching The Price Is Right (in black and white) with my mother as a preschooler. They can reflect popular culture and sometimes important shifts in culture. Recently, one leading show, Jeopardy (which I also remember watching with my mother), has been embroiled in soap-opera-like drama in its attempt to replace its previous host, the late Alex Trebek. Cronyism, sexism, and now conflict over the Hollywood writers’ strike have all been involved.
A few weeks ago, Jeopardy got social media buzzing with an incident involving the show’s bread-and butter: the game and its contestants. As you probably know, Jeopardy’s gimmick is that answers are given to which players have to come up with the right question. Of course, as TV entertainment, watchers play along at home, cheering right answers and groaning at wrong ones. And they groan loudest when a contestant misses what they think is an obvious answer.
During a recent episode, the groaning crisscrossed the country. Show host Mayim Bialik read the answer for the three contestants: “Matthew 6:9 says, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, [THIS] be thy name.’” No one pushed their button and the brief silence of waiting was for some people deafening. “What is HALLOWED?” people yelled at their TVs across the country. Later, thousands on social media asked in amazement, “How can they not know the Lord’s Prayer???” The incident even rated a story on Fox News.
It also generated a guest column in the newspaper of Hudson, Wisconsin by Bethel Lutheran Church Pastor Kristin Kurzejeski, cleverly titled “We are in Jeopardy!” Kurzejeski draws no profound conclusions about the incident. As a pastor, she says she wasn’t surprised by it (nor am I) and tells of various times parishoners have revealed their biblical ignorance to her.
An important point Kurzejeski makes is that Bible references are found throughout our culture, religious and secular. Novels, movies, pop music, art, and political speeches often contain quotes or allusions to biblical words and stories (her list included some I wasn’t aware of). Once in college a friend asked me about an article he was reading, which talked about “the tower of Babel of computer languages.” What was this tower it was talking about, he wanted to know.
As Kurzejeski says, losing the Bible means that we lose touch with a large segment of our cultural history. I was surprised by the Biblical illiteracy I encountered when I began my ministry, and I have struggled with it ever since. I know now that if I am going to use a Bible reference in my sermon, I am going to have to spend time explaining it. In the pastor, preachers could assume most of their hearers would understand the reference. Not anymore.
Over the years I have led countless Bible studies and classes. I have usually enjoyed them and gotten good feedback on them. But I gradually came to the realization that I was fighting a losing battle. Most people, including most church goers, just don’t care. Not really. The Bible has become too esoteric, too old, too foreign, and thus too much work to really understand.
The Bible isn’t the book people want it to be (though fundamentalists still try to pretend it is). People want a book with simple yet engaging stories and clear answers to their questions and problems. The Bible isn’t that book. It has some of that but more often its stories and answers are complex and ambiguous. And to even find those, you have to wade through a lot of seemingly extraneous and even weird stuff.
Historically, literacy efforts were often undertaken so that people could read the Bible. That’s why early Methodists began the Sunday School movement in England. For many families the only book they owned and read was the Bible. One of Luther’s earliest projects was to translate the Bible into German, which shaped that language for centuries afterward. The “authorized” King James Bible of 1611 did much the same for English.
Bible literacy has a noble history but this is a different time. We forget how quickly reading has exploded in the modern era. Schools at all levels struggle to know what should be “essential” reading for their students. How many ancient books (like the Bible) have you read? When was the last book you read that was even a hundred years old, let alone two or three thousand?
I love the Bible. It still speaks to me. But it can also be very frustrating and much of it I pay little attention to. It still fascinates me and I continue to discover new insights thanks to modern scholarship. But that scholarship has also made the Bible more complicated and more mysterious.
Take the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t called that in the Bible, of course. The quote on Jeopardy is from the familiar version in Matthew. But many don’t know there is another, very different version in Luke. Mark and John, however, know nothing of it, nor does Paul. While a staple of church liturgy, there is nothing particularly Christian about it. Any Jew or Muslim could pray it. It’s actually similar to other Jewish prayers from Jesus’ time. And given Jesus’ teaching about religion and spirituality, some scholars doubt the prayer originated with him or that he taught it to the disciples.
And that’s probably more than you want to know. Which is a typical and understandable reaction to modern biblical scholarship by the average person in the pew, or on the street. The problem is that many traditional Christians want the Bible to continue to function as the devotional book and personal guide it was for generations past. But it can’t. Not easily anyway, and not if we are going to be honest about what we are reading. As the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg said, the Bible was neither written to us or for us. Christians need to let that sink in.
When we read the Bible, we are listening in on ancient conversations. There is much about these ancient people and their languages that we don’t understand. Much of what they say is confusing or simply irrelevant to us. Yet scattered throughout its pages are profound reflections on God and life, many of which challenge our own attitudes and beliefs. Genuinely hearing those is difficult, not because they are ancient, but because too often we listen only for things that confirm what we already believe.
There will be no Bible content exam at the pearly gates. Those lost Jeopardy contestants don’t need to worry. But the Bible, like many ancient texts, is still of value in its ability to move and confront us. Within its sometimes-cacophonous voices there is often another Voice that can still speak a word of truth for us today. With discipline and honesty, we can learn to hear that Voice and discover the Bible’s continuing value.
Blessings in your life and ministry.