Join our mailing list

Dru Johnson on Bible Literacy, Fluency, and Engagement

Biblical scholar Dru Johnson explains how churches and even the U.S. criminal justice system might be different if more people who identify as Christian were more familiar with the whole of Scripture.

Dru Johnson loves engaging people in conversations about the Bible and theology. He taught at The King’s College in Manhattan, New York. His many roles include directing the Center for Hebraic Thought, co-hosting OnScript Podcast, and writing books. In this edited conversation, Johnson addresses the consequences of Christians and churches not really knowing the Bible. 

What’s behind your contention that most U.S. Christians under age 40 have low Bible literacy? 

I define Bible literacy as knowing what’s in Scripture and how its various genres work together. It’s thorough familiarity with the key narratives, people, order of events, and basic, clear themes throughout the whole Bible—even the Minor Prophets. Low Bible literacy is hard to prove, but the American Bible Society recently documented an “unprecedented drop in Bible engagement.” Between January 2021 and January 2022, the number of Bible users dropped by 10 percent. The ABS defines Bible users as those who use the Bible three or four times a year outside a church setting. They reported, “Nearly 26 million American adults reduced or stopped their interaction with Scripture in the past year.”  

That same State of the Bible USA 2022 research showed that scripture engagement dropped 22 percent during that same time. So, even among the Bible user category, the Bible is less likely to influence their relationships with God and others or their daily choices and decisions.  

Does this lack of Bible literacy affect people preparing for church ministry? 

Yes. A lagging indicator of declining Bible literacy is that many Bible colleges and seminaries that used to have Bible knowledge entrance tests now instead require Bible survey courses for incoming divinity students. In my years at The King’s College, I noticed that more and more students were shocked at what’s in the Bible—such as Lot’s daughters assaulting their drunk father so they could bear children, Abraham prostituting out his wife twice, and Sampson and David committing atrocities. They were also surprised to discover how much the Bible talks about justice. 

Did you notice any exceptions? 

In my experience, the Black church in general has a higher level of Bible literacy and Bible fluency. I was a pastor for ten years, am a professor, and sometimes teach in all-Black settings, such as in the Church of God in Christ denomination. I’ve noticed that even 20-year-old Black Christians can hang with me when I refer to Old Testament stories or passages, because they’ve already read or heard about them in sermons. Studies by Pew Research, ABS, and Barna Group show that African Americans are more likely to identify as Christian, own a Bible, and engage with the Bible 

A major Christian publisher asked me and Celina Durgin, my co-author, to pitch a book about racial differences in Bible literacy, Bible fluency, and Scripture engagement. We’ve noticed that besides the Black church in general, Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists also score high in those categories. Part of the reason is that Black churches have historically read and studied the Bible in community rather than as a means of expressing individualism. 

What do you mean by Bible fluency? 

Bible fluency is your ability to enter into the thought-world of the Bible so you can faithfully extend biblical principles from their original context into our modern context. Bible fluency depends on Bible literacy and being able to read Scripture as literature. Only then can you confidently identify and apply what the biblical authors say or would say about an important issue—without proof-texting, overlooking the text’s basic literary elements, or otherwise misinterpreting the pertinent passages. 

I often use the image of volume controls on a radio to explain Bible fluency. The loud volume of theological interpretation often overrides what the text actually says. We need to turn down our voices—including pastors’ voices and caricatures of biblical characters—from eleven to two. We need to dial up biblical authors’ voices from two to eleven to let the Bible’s systems and concepts of good, evil, God, and justice challenge our theology. The biblical authors are entirely comfortable with a world in which God does evil and needs to learn things. This raises questions, so we have to keep on reading. 

What’s an example of turning down our voices so we can hear the biblical authors’ voices? 

In the biblical system of justice, there is no police, jailing, or incarceration. So how do we apply biblical principles to a modern issue like police reform? We start by noting how the Bible describes what it means to be human, how God relates to humans, and how God envisions human flourishing. We see that when Cain egregiously kills his brother Abel, God drives Cain from the land but puts a mark on him to protect others from killing him. In other words, Cain receives God’s grace rather than capital punishment (though there are some behaviors in the biblical world that would result in execution). 

The Bible shows us a humane legal imagination that asks those enforcing laws to consider each accused person as if they were our mother or brother. Finland’s approach to incarceration offers an alternative to criminal justice in the U.S. Finland’s incarceration focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution has led to much lower rates of murder and rape compared to the U.S. 

How do low Bible literacy and low Bible fluency influence public worship? 

Some public worship services hardly engage Scripture at all. Due to North American cultural emphasis on high individual happiness quotients, worship leaders may choose songs that are askew from biblical values. People don’t know any of the songs that Jesus sang; his songbook was the Psalms. Consequently, these worshipers have no preparation for knowing how to lament personal tragedy or global realities. 

I’ve attended worship services in so-called “Bible-believing” white evangelical churches where the sermon is basically quoting a bit of Scripture, sharing cute stories or insights from poems or books, and then the preacher tells the congregation what it all means. Rather than looking at what the Hebrew Scriptures or all of Paul or all of Jesus and the gospels say, the preacher bases conclusions on a single proof text. But since the congregation lacks Bible literacy and fluency, they have no way to reason together on current issues. They don’t know other biblical passages, Old Testament laws, the difference between the gospels of Mark and John, or significant stories. 

Why isn’t it enough to simply depend on preachers to interpret the Bible for us? 

The Bible promotes the priesthood of all believers. When only the pastor knows Scripture, the congregation’s only encounter with it is the pastor’s interpretation. Sometimes pastors wield their Scripture interpretation and seminary degrees as tools of power. When elders lack the biblical knowledge to recognize and confront abuse of power, you get situations such as what happened with Mark Driscoll and the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. Even when pastors use Scripture as God intends, they can burn out in churches that fail to engage the Bible, reread it in the light of current events, and share the load of ministry.  

It is definitely possible for a congregation to function as a priesthood of all believers. One example is the nondenominational charismatic church where I became a Christian and was a pastor for eight years. Sure, the church had its problems, as all churches do. But the church was a blessing because it had so many people who cared for what the Bible says and how that should shape everything in their individual lives and life together. 

What first steps might someone take to become more engaged with Scripture? 

Gulp, don’t sip. You’ll learn so much more if you read Matthew four times over a weekend than if you read little devotionals on Matthew for an entire year. Be faithful to the Torah principle of reading deeply, and then if you don’t understand, ask for answers in a community of others who are also engaged with the Bible. Once you have spent a couple of years getting to know the Bible in its entirety, it is also fine to do “quiet time” and daily devotionals. They are most useful when you understand the context of the devotional verse snippet and as long as you don’t demand that God will show up with answers for you today and in this text. 


Test your Bible literacy online. Follow Dru Johnson on Twitter, listen to OnScript Podcast, browse Center for Hebraic Thought, and check out their recommended Bible literacy tools. Johnson recommends Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits and Sacraments and The Universal Story: Genesis 1-11 as the easiest to read of his many published books. Johnson helped found the new Bible Literacy Coalition “to retrieve and restore deep Bible engagement that aims at literacy and fluency.”