The Fourth R

For years now educators have reminded us of the need to address the “three R’s”: Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic.

At the same time, Religion scholars and especially those of us engaged critical biblical studies have been warning people not to neglect the ‘fourth R’—religious literacy.

Religious literacy might be defined as that set of knowledge, attitudes and skills which enable people to navigate successfully the contested religious landscape.

Doubtless, there are several components of religious literacy:

  • an appreciation of the role religion plays in the lives of individuals and communities
  • appreciation of diversity among religious communities
  • recognition of commonalities that cross religious and cultural boundaries
  • knowledge about and skills in engaging with key religious practices relevant to particular faith communities
  • role of sacred texts within religious communities
  • impact of religion on public health
  • the interface of religion and violence
  • the capacity for religion to be toxic and ‘best practice’ to avoid that outcome
  • fundamentalism as a dynamic that crosses religious boundaries


For many people of Christian faith, including people whose most significant cultural context has been some form of Christianity even they do not practice any faith, biblical literacy seems to be a pivotal element of wider religious literacy.


Biblical Literacy

The following comments on biblical literacy are extracted from my lecture Reading the Bible as a Charter for the Human Spirit at the Festival of Wild Ideas sponsored by the Mosman Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council on 5 May 2019.

Biblical literacy has numerous elements, including at least the following:

  • It requires attention to how written texts function as acts of communication between and among authors and readers. This is an unremarkable literacy skill in other areas of modern life, including media studies and genre analysis at school. Yet it seems oddly and sadly lacking in many Christian churches. Meaning is always negotiated between the author and reader, with all the power being in the hands of the reader who is the one constructing meaning out of the process. The author can seek to shape the form of those negotiations, but the reader is the one ultimately creating meaning from the communication process. As text the Bible is subject to those same dynamics. We determine what it means. It does not determine our meaning.


  • Typical literacy also requires us to pay attention to the nature and function of language as we create, share, adopt, implement and adapt human knowledge between individuals and across generations. This is essential as we seek to use the Bible authentically.


  • Biblical literacy further requires that we pay some attention to what may reasonably be known about the composition of those texts that we now value as sacred Scripture. They did not drop out of heaven and they were not dictated by the Holy Spirit. Despite years of teaching biblical studies in seminaries around Australia and elsewhere, I was still shocked the other day to see a Christian leader quote from Psalm 51 as part of his argument against abortion, with the claim that the Psalm represents the direct words of God. This is, of course, nonsense.


  • In addition to paying attention to how the text may have originally been composed, we also need to pay attention to the process of reception for certain texts which were accepted as sacred while other texts from the same period were excluded from those documents authorised to be read in church or consulted to settle theological disputes. In other words, both the formation of the canon and the history of the interpretation of the canonical texts have a part to play in genuine biblical literacy.


  • What we have learned about using these texts from the accumulated experience more than 2,500 years of continuous interpretation within communities of spiritual practice must also be brought into the discussion. We are not the first people to read these texts and people of goodwill have been wrestling with them for centuries, constructing life-giving ways of reading the text as a charter for human flourishing in different cultural and social contexts. We ignore that wisdom at our peril.


  • An essential element of biblical literacy — or perhaps simply religious literacy — is that we consider what impact our new insights into the physical and social realities of being human in our kind of universe have on our contemporary reception and interpretation of these ancient texts. Since we no longer think we live on a flat earth or in an earth-centric universe, we will necessarily construct a different vision of life as we read these texts.


  • Finally, there is our own lived experience. This informs us as we reflect on past and contemporary interpretations of these venerated ancient texts. When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit is surely as much in the life of the reader and the listening community as it is in the texts themselves. Such a view of inspiration would certainly be consistent with our understanding of how meaning is constructed when a text is being read.


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