Despite being the most religious and religiously diverse country in the world, Americans are largely biblically illiterate.
A 2005 poll for Newsweek magazine found that despite average sales of more than $1 billion annually, only about 20 percent of Americans read their Bible daily — making the Bible the most owned, least read book in history.
“We live in a consumer society, so if we want to identify with something, we buy it to tell people who we are,” says Timothy Beal, author of the newly published “Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know.” “The same goes for faith. To show others we believe in God, we buy Bibles.”
Today nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the Bible holds the answers to life’s basic questions. Yet, the Bible is revered more than it’s read because Americans use scripture like a “talisman” for which ownership is enough, says Stephen Prothero, author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.”
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“If the Bible is the Word of God, why are so few people interested in what God has to say?” Prothero asks. “For some the act of owning a Bible is a kind of piety. It’s another kind of piety to know what it actually says, and that kind of piety has become increasingly rare.”
We are a culture driven by instant gratification and handcuffed by short attention spans, reading the Bible like the blurb on the back of a novel, says the Rev. Larry Rollins, pastor of St. Peter United Methodist Church in Columbus.
“I think it’s attributable in part to our current era of the sound bite,” he says. “On many topics, including the Bible, we know a great deal of material, but we only scratch the surface — a snippet of a miracle story here, a fragment of a quotation from Jesus there mixed with some dimly remembered sermon and something our grandmothers taught us.
“We rarely dig deeper, analyze, criticize and seek relevant application.”
According to a Gallup Poll, only half of the adults surveyed knew any of the four Gospels of the New Testament; 37 percent knew all four Gospels; 42 percent knew as many as five of the Ten Commandments; and while 70 percent knew the town where Jesus was born, just 42 percent knew him as the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
“Every pastor at some point has had someone come up and tell them that Moses was their favorite disciple,” laughs the Rev. Jimmy Elder, pastor of Columbus’ First Baptist Church. “And they aren’t joking.”
Such a lack of basic biblical knowledge can have a far-reaching, even embarrassing effect. In May 2006, Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland made headlines during an appearance on “The Colbert Report” when he could name only four of the 10 Commandments. Trouble was Westmoreland was co-sponsoring a bill requiring the 10 Commandments be displayed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean made a similar biblical blunder. When asked to name his favorite book in the New Testament. Dean answered Job, which is in the Old Testament.
Though familiar with Jesus Christ and characters like Moses, Abraham, Noah, Job, Mary and Methuselah, many Americans base their knowledge on a sort of cultural osmosis. But exposure doesn’t equal knowledge, Beal says.
“You can’t be culturally literate in our society without also being biblically literate,” he says. “Being biblically literate is valuable because it’s inspiring literature, not only in a narrow religious way, but also because it provokes us to explore faith and life from a different perspective.”
‘Dumbing down’ the Gospels
The Bible is a pervasive force in America’s public square. From health care to same-sex marriage, immigration reform to what Jesus would do about the environment, being biblically literate is crucial for decoding social and political debates, Prothero says.
“If we knew more about the Bible, we could drive out the bogus abuses,” he says. “The ideologues couldn’t withstand our scrutiny when they misrepresent what the Bible says. Instead, they get away with it.”
While some may choose to be ignorant, blind faith is not a virtue.
“Scripture is going to make us uncomfortable at times,” Elder says. “We can’t bend the Bible to make it say what we want. Sometimes, it’s got to bend us into what God wants us to be. But if we don’t read it, we’ll never know.”
From the pulpit, Elder reads the eyes and body language of his congregation to gauge their level of understanding. If some look confused, he’ll back up and give a brief biblical refresher course. That’s when the light comes on. But there’s only so much a preacher can do.
“I’m not arrogant enough to believe that for 30 minutes on Sunday morning I’m going to give them the definitive word on Scripture,” he says. “I’m trying to make a point. They need to follow up with more intensive study.”
One of the major obstacles to Bible literacy are the sermons themselves. Over the past 100 years, an evangelical style that’s based more on emotion than exegesis has diluted the Bible’s message, Prothero says.
“There’s definitely been this turn towards Christianity as an individual experience that focuses on feelings,” he says. “And that has pushed us away from a deeper understanding of the traditional stories and doctrines of the Christian life.”
Elder has witnessed this “dumbing down” of the Gospels through a brand of expository preaching in which pastors pick and choose the parts of the Bible they like best before serving it like a PowerPoint path to happiness.
“It’s treating scripture like baby food,” he says, “mixing it all up so it can be sucked through a straw, rather than having it to chew on it for a while.”
‘Cheapened by availability’
A 2002 Gallup Poll found that about 93 percent of Americans own at least one Bible, with the average household having three.
“I keep at least one Bible in my office and one in my car,” says 63-year-old Shelton Brown. “It makes me feel safe and in constant touch with the Lord. Somehow just knowing it’s there makes me feel ... better.”
Bibles can be found everywhere — from grocery magazine racks to motel drawers — and that’s part of the problem, Prothero says.
“It’s cheapened by its availability,” he says. “How special can it be when it’s available on every corner? That’s how most Americans view the Bible.”
It hasn’t always been this way.
Until the 13th century, the overwhelming majority of Christians wouldn’t have been able to read the Bible even if they had been able to find one, simply because only some priests and scholars understood Latin and very few knew Greek or Hebrew. The church claimed exclusive control over the production and interpretation of scripture, and even reading of it by laymen was forbidden. Mere possession of a Bible could lead to charges of heresy, punishable by death.
John Wycliffe, an early leader of the Reformation in England, created the first English translation of the New Testament in 1380 followed by the Old Testament in 1382. The Wycliffe Bible was condemned and burned in 1415.
The Wycliffe version was the only complete English Bible until ordained Minster William Tyndale attempted a translation. Tyndale so angered church leaders he fled to Germany where he shipped 3,000 copies to England. He was captured in Belgium, convicted of heresy and was both strangled and burned at the stake.
In 1603 King James I gathered 47 scholars to work on a new translation. It took almost half a century for the King James Version of the Bible to gain full acceptance.
Yet with millions of copies of the Bible in circulation, it’s still being ignored, says the Rev. Larry Biggers, pastor of Northside Chapel.
“We fight an enemy that would be just as satisfied if no one read the Bible,” he says. “Christians need to understand that we are not saved by sermons, but by the presence of God. God’s word prepares us to comprehend what God is saying to us, whether through a sermon, or reading God’s word or through divine revelation.”
Too many voices
Another obstacle of Bible literacy are the myriad of voices fighting to be heard. Bestselling Christian authors — such as Max Lucado, Beth Moore, T.D. Jakes and Kay Arthur — present interpretations of scripture that some use as substitutes for the real thing.
“It’s too hard to rectify the dissonance between all the other voices of interpretation,” Elder says. “They’ll find themselves listening to a second- or third-hand interpretation rather than the spirit of the word itself.”
Like looking to Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann for neatly synthesized political opinions, too many Americans allow others to tell them what the Bible says rather than reading it for themselves. This is evidence of not only laziness but a lack of faith, Prothero says.
“I fear that our faith is not as deep as we imagine,” he says. “We don’t investigate because we don’t really care. If we did, if we really believed the Bible was the word of God, would we be ignoring it?”
Like a great number of churches, First Presbyterian Church of Columbus takes Bible literacy “very seriously,” says the Rev. Charles Hasty.
Through its Center for Christian Studies, First Presbyterian Church offers courses in biblical study, theology, arts and literature, Christian living and church history.
“The scriptures were given to us to be used by us,” Hasty says. “You don’t read the Bible. It reads you. It’s a conversation. That’s the living nature of the scriptures that sets it apart from anything else in literature.”
The key to Bible literacy is effort. Prothero suggests starting slowly with Genesis and the Book of Matthew.
“That’ll get you probably nine-out-of-10 references politicians make, and you can read that in an afternoon,” he says. “The Bible is the most influential book in American history and contemporary American life. We need to start treating it that way.”
Brett Buckner is an independent correspondent and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org