Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk writes of something interesting I have seen as well — an utter lack of real biblical literacy even among conservative Christians in America who claim to know and love the Bible. Quoting Richard Hughes’ book Christian America and the Kingdom of God, the good chaplain writes:
Most surprising— and appalling— is the fact that religious illiteracy abounds where one would most expect to find a solid knowledge of the biblical text: among evangelical Christians. Prothero argued that “despite their conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, evangelicals show scant interest in learning what scripture has to say or wrestling with what it might mean.” Indeed, in the 1990s evangelical theologian David Wells lamented, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”
The truth is that, in general terms, American Christians across the board know precious little about the religion they claim to profess. Their factual understanding of the Christian religion is meager, and their grasp of the great theological teachings of the Christian faith is more meager still. That fact alone should call into serious question the notion of Christian America (p. 17).
American Christians have, according to Chaplain Mike, come to believe a biblical narrative that has America at the center as some version of God’s chosen people andthe kingdom of God on earth.
I’m always shocked at poorly many Christian conservatives grasp the story of scripture. Many are able to quote great swaths of the Bible, especially from the letters of Paul, but they have little understanding what God is actually doing with Israel over time in scripture. In short, many American Christians believe in a Gospel of Glory — of favor, success, privilege, and power. God has favored us for victory! This is what it means to be a chosen people, and this is what it means to be a New Israel. Missing in this is the understanding that Israel’s story is one of defeat and failure, and not conquest and success, even though it is also the story of God’s favor for a very particular people.
In fact, I suspect the whole understanding of what being favored, what being chosen, means can only be understood — in the Christian sense — in terms of absolute, visible, material failure. Israel conquered, enslaved, and exiled. Christ arrested, tortured, executed. There is no power and no value in any of this, no real meaning to the cross except a place of “personal salvation.” And that doesn’t rest well with how Americans understand ourselves. Who want glory without resurrection, a regathering without exile, and eternal life without first dying.