Never Assume Biblical Literacy

It wasn’t long ago that a reference to a Biblical character or a Bible verse would be widely understood without explanation. That is no longer true. Researcher George Gallup said “We revere the Bible, but we don’t read it.”

This was recently illustrated in our local newspaper in an article about a football player named Shadrach. “It is a name his mom found in the Old Testament, the Babylonian god of the moon who was cast into a fiery furnace but saved by God, according to its origin.” The Biblical story found in Daniel chapter 3 was evidently unfamiliar to the writer of the article.

A few years ago, an article in Christian Century told this story:

When Peter Hawkins, a professor at Boston University, asked the students in his entry-level course on the Bible if they had ever heard of the 23rd Psalm, about five hands went up. After he recited the text, almost everyone recognized parts of it, even if they did know the source. For one student it was a line in rock group Pink Floyd’s “Sheep,” for another a reference in rapper Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” A third student claimed to recognize a refrain in the psalm from Pulp Fiction – but there the text is actually Ezekiel 25:17. “My students knew their movies and their lyrics but not the biblical source of ‘the valley of the shadow of death,’” says Hawkins. “They were shocked when I revealed it.”

Know Your Audience

It is one thing to make Biblical allusions and references when writing to those who know the scripture. It is another if your audience is not as well versed (pun intended).

Last month while reviewing a book I was startled that the author, a pastor, was over explaining the most basic Biblical texts and concepts to his reader. At first I was critical of the simplistic approach, then it dawned on me that he knew his audience. His book was intended for a reader who had no Bible experience; either a new believer or someone who was asking eternal questions. The simplicity of language and explanation did not assume anything of his reader.

Contrast that with another book I read on the theological doctrine of Justification by Faith. Only a reader  with a foundation of Biblical understanding could follow that author’s presentation.

This issue is mostly a non-fiction one, but there can be trouble in your contemporary novel if you assume your characters know what each other is referring to (and assuming your reader does as well).

When it’s Not Obvious

When teaching this subject I often joke by saying “You can’t just refer to Noah and expect your reader to know you aren’t talking about the professional basketball player Joakim Noah. Or they might think you are talking about the boat-guy, Russell Crowe.”

What if you want to make reference to the Parable of the Talents? Do you just mention it or do you stop to explain? The flow of your writing may be interrupted if you have to stop at every turn. Sometimes it is hard to find that balance between over simplicity and broad assumptions. There is no right or wrong answer here. Merely the principle of being aware of who your reader might be.

Try Not to Overthink it

I suspect some may begin to doubt their work after reading advice like this. First hand experience as a conference teacher confirms this.

It is healthy to step back and consider your assumptions.

It is healthy to step back and look hard at what you’ve written and imagine that your reader is your neighbor or co-worker. Would you write it differently? Or have you been clear, concise, and sharp with your words?

At the same time an author has the opportunity to inspire and grow a reader. If a work uses a challenging vocabulary and makes literary or Biblical references it is up to the reader to rise to the task. Not all books are meant to spoon-feed the reader. Wrestling with a difficult book is a good thing. I remember trying (emphasis on trying) to read volume one of Helmut Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith. I had to have a dictionary open at the same time in order to understand his vocabulary.

Your Turn

Have you run into this issue with your writing?

What would you change in your current work-in-progress?



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