Shortly before Israel’s demise, the Prophet Hosea voiced a dire judgment: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). The prophecy did not imply that Israel had been deprived of the opportunity to learn the will of the Lord. Rather, it described a condition caused by sheer human obstinance and sinfulness, an ignorance resulting from ignoring. Does the indictment apply today?
Last fall I gave my ninety-eight freshmen a fourteen-question quiz on the Bible. As a class, they flunked miserably. Students who checked “Off and on” and “Inactive” as their degree of involvement in church activities had a median score of 4. The forty-five students who checked “Active” did twice as well, attaining a median score of 8—hardly praiseworthy, however, when the elementary nature of the questions is considered.
The following chart tells the story. The first three columns of figures show the number of correct answers given by students in the three categories of church involvement. Since nearly 100 students were tested, the figures in the last column can be thought of as percentages.
Appalling ignorance was seen not only in the students’ inability to answer correctly but also in the wide margin by which some of the answers missed the mark. Two New Testament books and “New Testament” were given as the second book in the Bible. No fewer than six Old Testament books and “Old Testament” were guessed to be the last book in the Bible. The author of many of the Psalms was identified as John, Paul, Saul, Luke, Peter, Jesus, and “shepards.” One student attributed thirteen New Testament letters to David. The thirteen wrong guesses for the book that relates the history of the early Church included Eli, “Genisus,” “Isiah,” and Moses! Added to the list of Jacob’s twelve sons were Simon, Isaac, David, Abraham, Esau, “Jobe,” “Able,” “Cane,” and “Izia.” Joseph, Jeremiah, Samuel, Herod, and “Seul” were crowned kings of Israel or Judah. And the ranks of the Old Testament prophets were swelled by the addition of John, Matthew, John the Baptist, Paul, and Mohammed!
Asked to state the first commandment, one student wrote, “Be faithful to your wife.” Another offered, “Thou shalt not believe in false kings.” Samuel, John, Bartholomew, and “Steven” were named as missionary companions of the Apostle Paul. Nominated for the brother of Mary and Martha were James, Mark, Zacharias, Levi, and “Magdeline.” And credited with authorship of the Fourth Gospel were Luke, St. Paul, and Peter.
At this point the reader might wonder whether perhaps this particular student body is composed of grade-school drop-outs. Hardly. A substantial majority of the students are recruited from the top two-fifths of their high-school graduating classes and boast College Board scores totaling 1,100. And since the college is church-related, in all probability students’ background in the Bible is, on the average, above average. Fifty-six of these ninety-eight freshmen come from Presbyterian homes, eleven are United Methodists, and six are Roman Catholic; the remaining twenty-five are distributed among ten other denominations, with only two not claiming church affiliation of any kind.
What may be said about the poor showing of these entering students? First, my observation based on twenty-three years of college teaching is that biblical knowledge is on a definitely downward trend. Although we were shocked when we examined incoming freshmen twenty-three years ago, the results of the 1968 test are even more shocking. Second, ignorance of the Bible and immaturity of faith usually (but not always) go hand in hand. This may be explained in large part by the high correlation between the Christian commitment of the parents and the quality of religious training they provide for their children.
Third, reduction of interest in serious—or even superficial—study of the Scriptures parallels the decline in Sunday-school enrollment and church attendance. The dropout problem is serious enough back in the old home church; it is even more alarming on the college campus. When I attended Westminster College three decades ago, the beloved president of the school taught a Sunday-morning Bible class that regularly attracted more than 100 students. Over the years attendance dwindled, and two years ago the class was dissolved. Student attendance at the Sunday vesper service is about half that of thirty years ago, even though the enrollment of the college has doubled since then.
Many experiments have been made with church-school curricula and pedagogy. Biblical exposition and memorization are out, situationism and pupil-centeredness in. But are the new approaches succeeding? Not to any marked degree, if head counts and studies such as the one reported here can be relied upon.
Has the Supreme Court’s outlawing of public-school prayer and Bible reading contributed to the present state of religious illiteracy and confusion? Young people probably retained little specific biblical information from school devotional exercises. But there is also the matter of the shaping of public attitudes toward religion; the least that can be said is that the growing secularism of our country has by no means been retarded by the Supreme Court decision.
To what degree is liberal theology culpable? Certainly a downgraded view of Scripture leads to diminished respect for the authority for the Bible and consequently to deemphasis of biblical study. Those who are persuaded that the Bible is more a product of human culture than of divine revelation are unlikely to be dedicated to reverent study of it. And those who insist that the only law that really matters is the law of love, tend to be less concerned about learning and teaching specific scriptural precepts than those who hold that the moral directives and guidelines found in Scripture are valid for our day.
But the real culprit is the noncommitted parent whose faith is at best peripheral, and who therefore fails to recognize the importance of providing careful religious instruction for his children. That his tribe is increasing is hardly surprising in a society in which secularism and materialism have steadily displaced moral and spiritual values. The parent who is deeply committed to Jesus Christ, for whom Bible reading and prayer are as much a part of daily life as eating and drinking, and for whom “practicing the presence of God” is not just a pious phrase but a precious reality—that parent will give priority to religious worship and biblical instruction in his child-rearing program. Admittedly, some children who are exposed to Christian training react against it—especially if it is harshly and legalistically administered. But more often than not, the youngster who is given such tutelage lovingly and sympathetically will grow to have both head and heart knowledge of the Christian faith.
It would seem then, that the most effective remedy for ill-informed children is better-informed parents. Only as real Christian commitment increases throughout the land will devout appreciation and study of the Bible become important in the life of the American people. Will this recovery of spiritual values come at all? And if so, will it come soon enough to save us from the destruction Hosea foretold for that nation which eschews the knowledge and fear of God?
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