Biblical Illiteracy?

by Simon Werrett, Minister at Eastwood Evangelical Church


In 1987 The Church of England’s envoy Terry Waite was taken as a hostage in Lebanon and imprisoned for 1763 days. He says that ‘as soon as I was captured, he began to tread the long corridor of memory’.[1] Those corridors included making a list of all the childhood books he had read and reciting prayers from The Book of Common Prayer which had been ‘imprinted on his subconscious from childhood.’ [2]


Terry Waite’s childhood books would have been printed ones, how would he have coped in the digital age? Socrates (5th century BC) actually resisted the development of the written word, concerned ‘we would no longer truly know the words we treasured but only were to find the words we treasured in a text’. [3] Johannes Gutenberg had a different view believing it was through the printing press God would spread his word.[4] Dr Pete Phillips (Premier's Head of Digital Theology) suggests we can become better Christians by engaging more in the Bible.[5]


How can we encourage Christians to engage with scripture? According to statistics only 65% of pastors use scripture when preparing sermons.[6] Does it matter whether we read from a printed or digital version? Dr Maryanne Wolf’s[7] research indicates that we read electronic devices differently and do not recall the material as clearly as when reading a physical text. She states that our ‘brains were never designed to read,’[8] but human beings developed it over time. We see that in children they speak from birth but have to learn to read. However, in today's world do we really need to learn The Bible verbatim? Panzer suggests ‘in today’s search engine driven world it is seldom necessary to memorise facts.’[9] If we want to know a Bible verse we just ‘Google’ it!(other search engines are available)


I am a student at Spurgeon’s college studying a postgraduate qualification in Digital Theology which is highly relevant in our current situation.[10] As part of the Biblical Literacy unit I had to design a project to encourage biblical engagement. The Easter story is one we all know, we read it every year, or do we? Often, we read our favourite or selected texts, but do we read it from all angles. If we were asked what did Jesus do on Tuesday or what occurred on Wednesday would we know?


My project called Bethany to Gethsemane (riding a colt to residing in a tomb (or not)) encouraged a group of volunteers to work through a reading plan each day. They followed the Salvation Army (Australia) "Passion Week Timeline" [11] reading the set scripture using the 5R’s transformative reading method.[12] There was also a daily memory verse. Around twenty Christians took part, spreading across not only denominations or age groups, but also continents. I set up a Facebook Group and scheduled posts for each day, which included questions to see how much was remembered. Participants were able to add their comments on the group page. Half of the group used printed Bible and the other digital, with a few swapping mediums halfway through the week.


Having attended a ‘how to run a virtual prayer room’ session with Abi, I was introduced to an app called Padlet. What a great resource that is! I set up an Easter timeline board. Each day is separate and consists of a photo, the readings and questions.

There is an option for anyone to add their comments or thoughts. Disappointingly most people preferred to use the Facebook Group than Padlet, but this may have been because people are more used to social media than separate apps.


As part of the Digital Media strategy, I tweeted and posted a picture with a verse representing the theme of the day to our Church social media accounts and there was some good interaction. Not all my flock have access to the internet so I did offer an offline version, where I provided a printed versions (including a copy of the Padlet board) and they submitted their answers and thoughts on a regular basis.


On Good Friday I scheduled tweets and posts at times when events would have happened like 12am Jesus praying in the Garden, 6am the trial started, Padlet was really helpful for this so created another board.

This was shared on social media but unfortunately Padlet doesn’t record engagement with boards.


How did the project go? The feedback was that people really enjoyed looking at the whole passion week story rather than just selected parts. Difference in the various witness accounts were noticed like Matthew having both a donkey and a colt[13] Two friends who took part said that they phoned each other and had a ‘great time talking about God’s stuff rather than the price of fish’. Most preferred using the printed version and remembered the verse of the day better if they wrote it down, as opposed to highlighting it in an electronic version.


People wrote


‘Reading plan was excellent in reading the passages and comparing them across the different gospels and discussing answers online with folk in the group. Really helpful’
I found reading the specified Bible verses daily led me into a deeper engagement with my Bible. I was often reading previous verses and further verses for a greater understanding and context.
It was good to engage more with the Easter story from the different gospels, compare and look at the details. This I enjoyed, was able to relate and get deeper in my thinking also my relationship with God.

This project focused on Passion Week but the method could be applied to a biblical character, a specific book or another similar ‘Holy week’. Personably, I found the use of Padlet really helpful as I was working out the week and I could see each day in full and will certainly use it again.


We certainly need to engage with God’s work as Iona Hine said ‘sleeping with the Bible under your pillow will not improve your biblical literacy; reading it might.[14]


Simon Werrett BA (Hons), MTh, MSc is a Minister at Eastwood Evangelical Church, Essex and a student on the MADT at Spurgeons.

[1] Terry Waite, Footfalls in Memory: Reflections from Solitude (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), p. 5. [2] Waite, p. 25. [3] Jeffrey S. Siker, Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), p. 14. [4] Siker, p. ix. [5] Peter M Phillips, Engaging the Word (London BRF, 2017), p. 7. [6] Phillips, p. 8. [7] ‘Maryanne Wolf’, Maryanne Wolf <https://www.maryannewolf.com> [accessed 12 April 2021]. [8] Maryanne Wolf Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, (New York: HarperCollins 2018, p. 7. [9] R.M. Panzer, ‘Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture’ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020), Ch 2>. [10] https://www.spurgeons.ac.uk/ma-in-digital-theology/ [11] https://tinyurl.com/2nn283at [12] Read, Reflect, Respond, Remember, Record [13] Matthew 21:2 [14] Rethinking Biblical Literacy ed. by Katie Edwards (Bloomsbury, London 2015), ch 3.