Sunday, January 17, 2010

Memorization is not enough

Several of the bloggers I often read have referred to this article by David R. Nienhuis, a professor at a Christian college, who has discovered that many of his students, although coming from evangelical backgrounds, are biblically illiterate. After referring to some of the studies indicating rather shocking deficiencies, and describing some of his own experience in the classroom, he discusses some of the reasons. One of them would be familiar to teachers of any subject — knowing facts is absolutely necessary but not sufficient to provide understanding. Parts of his discussion of Bible memorization:
.... Before I go on, let me be clear that I have a deep respect for the venerable and immensely valuable tradition of memorizing Scripture. Indeed, it is a central component in learning the language of faith. The deliberate, disciplined, prayerful repetition of those texts the church has come to especially value has long been a strategy for inscribing the Word of God directly on the heart and mind of the believer (Jer. 31:31-34). My comments thus far, however, should make it plain that I do not see how a person trained to quote texts out of context can truly be called biblically literate.

I observe two common problems with students who have become "familiar with the Bible" in this way. First, many of them struggle to actually read the text as it is presented to them on the page. Just last week, several of my Bible survey students expressed their surprise and disappointment that "years of church attendance and AWANA Bible memory competitions" never trained them to engage the actual text of the Bible. They weren't trained to be readers; they were trained to be quoters. One in particular noted that all these years she had relied on someone else to tell her what snippets of the Bible were significant enough for her to know. ....

Second, this method leads students to uncritically assume that doctrinal reflection is exhausted by the capacity to quote a much-loved proof-text. In doing this they suppose not only that the passage they are quoting is entirely perspicuous as it stands (in complete isolation from its literary and historical context), but also that the cited text is capable of performing as a summary of the entire biblical witness on the matter at hand. .... Those of my students who are quick to quote Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast") are sometimes shocked to read the subsequent verse Ephesians 2:10 ("For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life"). Those who have memorized Romans 10:9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") are often horrified to read Jesus' words in Matthew 7:21 ("Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven"). In fact it requires both a far more substantive grasp of Scripture and a capacity for careful doctrinal reflection to know how to negotiate the rich plenitude of the biblical witness. Unfortunately my students' encounter with the Bible's depth and breadth often leaves those who have been raised to quote verses feeling very insecure in their faith. .... [more]
The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy: A View from the Classroom