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?



27 Responses to Never Assume Biblical Literacy

  1. Brennan S. McPherson April 16, 2018 at 3:21 am #

    I’ve run into this issue in a strange way. Readers assume they know the text better than they do, and criticize you for it inaccurately. For example, in reference to the story of Noah, readers have claimed that: 1. Noah was mocked for his belief in an impending flood. 2. It never rained before the flood. 3. No one ate meat before the flood.

    None of these ideas are biblical. You won’t find them in the Bible. Number 1 came from a Jewish myth that attempted to make God seem less judgmental. Number 2 came from a misunderstanding of a verse in Genesis, and defies the laws of physics–which didn’t change when the flood happened, mind you. Number 3 comes from the idea that God never gave license to mankind to eat meat before the flood. But if we believe that “the earth was filled with violence and the thoughts of man were only evil continually,” how in the world can we think that there’d not be people eating meat? Yet I’ve gotten 1 star reviews claiming I’m blaspheming by defying those “biblical truths.”

    I’ve seen this happen with other authors of biblical fiction that are extremely accurate in their research, like Tosca Lee. You can legitimately be in danger of angering people and receiving damaging reviews if you choose to be accurate over pandering to popular beliefs–unless you explain in great detail why you believe the popular beliefs to be wrong. So, what would I change in my current WIP? Explain in greater detail why the text deviates from popular views. Which means I need to be aware of those popular views to begin with.

    • Lynne Collier April 17, 2018 at 7:45 am #

      Thank you for addressing this. I struggled with this as I started writing a nonfiction/fantasy book (it works but I won’t get into that here). I knew what I wanted to convey but, as far as I knew, the genres hadn’t been mixed before. I wrote the book in two parts to make it clear where the line was and decided to tell my readers who it was written for in the subtitle. I hadn’t written it for the theologian but for the Christians who don’t fit into the church ‘norm’ and feel left out. I decided the best way to say who it was for and not for was to let the title say it, ‘The Fellowship Of The King – A Christian Geek’s Guide To Kingdom Purpose’.

  2. Katie Powner April 16, 2018 at 6:48 am #

    My husband and I run into this issue frequently working with teens (he is a youth pastor and a substitute teacher at the high school). Fourteen years ago when we first entered the ministry, we could assume our students at least understood the gist of words like sanctification and grace. Not anymore. Many students believe “Christ” is Jesus’s last name.

    This is definitely in the back of my mind when I’m writing. I’ve grown accustomed to not taking anyone’s understanding for granted. In my current WIP, one of the POV characters is a nonbeliever, so I can use her as a reason to “over-explain.”

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 16, 2018 at 7:03 am #

      Katie, I too thought of Joseph and Mary Christ, and their boy Jesus, until…uh, never mind, it’s too recent to want to admit.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 16, 2018 at 7:01 am #

    Steve, this hit me right between the eyes, because even as a Christian, I was probably the poster boy for Biblical Misinterpretation.

    I didn’t come to Christianity through reading the Bible; I came by way of C.S. Lewis (starting with Narnia, which I read in my 20s). From there I went to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and an attempt at Paul Tillich.

    My Biblical knowledge was mainly ‘overheard’ from church (I tended to fall asleep a lot) and TV, and I did manage to amaze Barbara, even after we were married.

    To wit, for far too long I used a phonetic interpretation of The Acts Of The Apostles to supply Jesus with a Bunyanesque (Paul, not John) woodcutting tool that I assumed He used in conjunction with a whip in the temple courtyard.

    And I managed to totally get sideways with The Lion of Judah…if you’re interested, here’s a verbatim conversation I had with Barb, far more recently than I would care to admit:

    So I write to the utter bonehead that I was, and try not to make him feel stupid. There must be – I hope – a kind of worthwhile wayward charm in someone who thought that the first iteration of Peter, Paul, and Mary brought folk music to the Holy Land in 40AD.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 16, 2018 at 7:21 am #

      If it’s of any use to anyone to learn how an unschooled hooligan becomes a Christian, the initial ‘tipping point’ is simple:

      In some situations, someone draws the short straw of waling point into an ambush, and has to stay to provide cover for the rest of the guys to disengage. Often, this dude doesn’t get to go home.

      And that made it simple for me; Jesus is the Point Man, and He embraced the suck so the rest of us could get away.

      • Rebekah Love Dorris April 16, 2018 at 12:55 pm #

        Nice analogy! Pretty cool how just about anything anybody could be interested in has a perfect analogy in Jesus. He is the Ideal, and everything worth loving is a spinoff of Him. Everything.

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 16, 2018 at 1:07 pm #

          Thank you so much, Rebekah, and you’re so right…everything worth loving is a spinoff of Him. LOVE that!

      • Peggy Booher April 17, 2018 at 2:48 pm #

        I like your analogy! It provides a visual easy to understand.

  4. Loretta Eidson April 16, 2018 at 7:09 am #

    While reading your article, my thoughts jumped to my present WIP. When I reread for editing purposes I will keep this in mind and make sure whatever reference I made to the Bible are clear and understandable. Thanks for the reminder. When I worked at my church I selected words that would be understood by the person I was encouraging, Christian or non-Chrisitan. Even then, just because they called themselves a Christian didn’t mean they knew scripture. Simplicity worked best as well as locating the scripture in the Bible and showing it to them.

  5. Carol Ashby April 16, 2018 at 7:17 am #

    An excellent post, Steve. I encounter this issue in every one of my novels. They are set in Roman times, and each includes a main character who does not believe in the God of Israel or in Jesus. One of the conflicts is that person wrestling with whether or not to believe. That means writing conversations/arguments between that character and another who does believe.

    I can make no assumptions, use no code words. There’s a question/answer, objection/explanation flow in the dialogues and in the private mental conflicts as characters learn about the faith that many chose to die for. Then they decide whether they should abandon what they once thought true to embrace the Christian faith. As in real life, that decision can go either way or can be postponed because it’s too hard to make at that moment in the story.

    I’ve been blessed with real-life opportunities to explain why I believe to friends who don’t, and those inform what I write. My prayer partners help me make it feel like genuine conversations between real people and capture the internal struggle as people face what will change their lives forever if they decide the gospel is true.

    I try to write each novel so it could be shared with a nonbelieving friend who likes an exciting read, who will love the human side of the stories and wonder about the decisions the characters make by the end. Someone who would never read a nonfiction Christian book might find the same info in a fictional presentation compelling.

  6. S. Kim Henson April 16, 2018 at 8:11 am #

    I’ve read this sort of advice once before and thought it was worth following even though I’ve wondered about taking an extra sentence to explain something like Job’s trials. This post confirms that I need to expand on Biblical references like I would any other references. Thanks, Steve.

  7. Yvon Prehn April 16, 2018 at 8:48 am #

    I remember years ago when John Elway was QB of the Broncos and a fan held up the sign, John 3:16.

    The commentator said, “Now that’s a statistic of Elway’s I’m not familiar with.”

    True story.

    I’ve often used it in teaching churches how to write for unchurched audiences–that we need to remember even our most treasured scriptures often mean NOTHING to those outside the church.

  8. Norma Brumbaugh April 16, 2018 at 9:04 am #

    Never assume anything. Never assume the secular/general reader understands what a Christian is or any references that use Christian-based terminology. This is apropos for pastors and speakers as well. I’ve witnessed the discrepancy on numerous occasions where the audience was mixed and the speaker was using theological terms not understood by those newer to the faith. Afterward I’ve been asked what the term(s) mean. Since many writers also wear a speaker hat, this is a good reminder. I like the suggestion to have an unbeliever in the story as a way to open up appropriate and explanatory dialogue.

  9. Carol Ashby April 16, 2018 at 9:31 am #

    I have a glossary at the back of my historical novels to define a few foreign words and explain some words in common use in my time period . With that, I also include a by-chapter list of Scripture references for what my character mentions in the conversations. Since the character usually paraphrases, that lets the curious reader find the reference in a regular translation or see it in its broader context.

  10. Shirlee Abbott April 16, 2018 at 9:31 am #

    Years ago, a well known leader in Christian education told me that young people who grew up on the church knew Bible stories but not doctrine. We were so busy making church fun for kids that we have sent them into world ill equipped for the challenge. If those who grew up in the church are biblically illiterate, why would we assume the unchurched would understand? And that is why I write.

  11. Jean Holland April 16, 2018 at 11:40 am #

    I received a critique from a new Christian this weekend after she read my nonfiction book about the Bride of Christ.
    She appreciated that I used terms she understood and referenced Biblical examples.

    I feel like I have tweaked my original manuscript to death. It was reassuring to get her feedback and now your affirmation that I am on the right track. Thank you.
    Shalom rav!

  12. Rebekah Love Dorris April 16, 2018 at 12:58 pm #

    Exciting to read these comments. Such ministry-minded folk around here! So encouraging. May your tribe increase! God bless 🙂

  13. Claire O'Sullivan April 16, 2018 at 5:31 pm #

    I agree with so many of these replies. I know very few Christians who read the Bible, much less the non-believers we are trying to reach. Even the word ‘non-believer’ is a foreign term to people. I try to make my main character clueless to anything Christian/Biblical.

    She walks into a church and ‘doesn’t get it.’ So a friend explains it, knowing she’s a thief. In language she can understand, and I make it short. No scripture.

    My next WIP’s main character is a pastor’s kid, thinking she has an ‘in,’ despite never going to church. Walking by a friend reading, she asks, ‘what are you reading?’ He says, ‘From the Book of Isaiah.’ She continues on, ‘oh yeah I saw that movie with Denzel Washington.’

    If we use church-speak, then we lose our non-Christian readers. Then we have a zillion readers that will only stick to a lot of Scripture in the fiction they read. So, I suspect either are close, but the fiction with a lot of Christian references skimp on the real lives of backslidden Christians and just falling back into old habits.

    When I talk to folks (like today) this gal is a few weeks away from becoming a minister. I asked which church.. it’s interfaith, a new thought. SO I didn’t say anything at this point. But, the Bible is not the Koran, and I wonder, how could a Christian be so deceived?

    The reading (the Bible, and knowing/reading the Koran and putting these two into perspective — as in, opposite) is not there. If so many Christians don’t understand the language, they’ll fall into weird traps without studying themselves, and people who have no understanding — it’s our job, fiction/non-fiction to help reach them in words they understand.

    I take notes at church. Then I go home and go all Berean to test it. Hey, I went to school for this, yet each time I read, I realize how ignorant I am when I see another interpretation (good one). I pray for our Christians, and for our non. We can give the word of God through our writing

    — my favorite thing that ever happened causing me to fall to my knees was when a beta reader said she’d never heard the Gospel like that, and how the message of the cross (and here I didn’t even put it in there, but she read it and God moved) and how it resonated with her. That’s what we want, moving someone to read, understand, ask.

  14. Claire O'Sullivan April 16, 2018 at 5:32 pm #

    OH, and she was Muslim!

  15. Heidi Kortman April 16, 2018 at 6:04 pm #

    “up to the reader to rise to the task. Not all books are meant to spoon-feed the reader.”

    I love this.

  16. Jennifer Haynie April 16, 2018 at 6:09 pm #


    Yes, I have! And that’s when beta readers and/or editors are wonderful. My beta reader crew never lets me forget where the characters stand, and I’ve been gently corrected before something goes to production. It actually makes me think and will make me think harder as I redo Exiled Heart, my next novel.

  17. Rebekah Millet April 17, 2018 at 4:37 am #

    Thank you for this interesting post and reminder. I’ve grown up being taught to know my audience and not speak “Christianese” when in the company of those who may not be believers. The same falls true with my writing. My secondary target audience are readers seeking clean/sweet reads, and they may not be familiar with Christian terminology.

  18. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 17, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    Steve, thank you so much for this reminder that we need to be very aware of our audience. We get so used to hanging around with Christians in church that we forget that there are many people, even in America, who do not own or read a Bible and who would not have a clue what we were talking about.

    • Peggy Booher April 17, 2018 at 2:42 pm #


      Your comment about people not owning Bibles reminds me of a co-worker who went to a women’s seminar with me. The men’s group of the church where the seminar was held bought Bibles for people who didn’t have one. A box of Bibles was available at the seminar. My friend took one, remarking that she didn’t have a Bible at her house. When I shared this with a group at church they were amazed. But “church culture” is far different from the outside culture, as you pointed out.

      I’ve noticed that secular books published fifty years ago had Biblical references. Back then, many people knew what was being referred to. That’s not so today.

  19. Peggy Booher April 17, 2018 at 2:31 pm #


    I keep a list of words both Christians and non-Christians use but have totally different meanings for each group–simple words such as “lost”, for example–a non-Christian may think “lost in the woods”, for a Christian the term means “lost in sin”. The list reminds me that not everyone knows what a writer or pastor means, and I have to keep that in mind.

    I didn’t grow up in a church-going family. I remember when I first started reading the Bible, I wondered why a book of the Bible was called “Romans” when the Romans were the ones who crucified Jesus!


  1. Writing Links…4/23/18 – Where Genres Collide - April 23, 2018

    […] “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.”” I read a verse or two a night in study but admittedly because of my bipolar, it’s hard for me to know it without repeatedly looking at it. There are verses from my teens memorized of course but I can’t quote verbatim from other passages. […]

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