When I was a kid, I remember taking a Bible to church for services. I also recall studying the Bible intensively using a variety of tools, including Bible-marking programs, personal reading and study, and classes. Much of my biblical knowledge stems from those days. Back then, we never heard about biblical illiteracy. During this time, I did discover that a clear understanding of the Bible is paramount to accurately and convincingly sharing my faith.
These days, it seems like scarcely a week goes by without a new study being released about how Christian Americans have become biblically illiterate. A recent study by the Barna Group (which conducts research and training for churches and nonprofits) uncovered “some disturbing revelations about our nation’s grasp of Bible content and Americans’ changing perception of the Bible.”
Couple this with regular releases of study results flagging biblical illiteracy and genuine concerns growing out of it. Some recent examples:
• 60 percent of Americans cannot name even five of the Ten Commandments.
• 82 percent of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
• 12 percent of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
• More than 50 percent of graduating high school seniors thought Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.
• A large number of respondents to one survey indicated the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.
• Four out of 10 people believe the same spiritual truths are simply expressed differently in the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon.”
In its 2010 study of the religious environment in the U.S., the Barna Group further noted that “while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
In a recent column, I wrote that Easter has unfortunately become America’s fifth largest holiday spending occasion, with the bulk of the money being spent on clothing, candy and food. Little wonder people are not interested in reading the Bible, when popular culture, advertisers and retailers have been allowed to define the terms and conditions of former religious holidays gone secular, such as Christmas and Easter.
According to the 2013 American Bible Society survey “The State of the Bible,” conducted by the Barna Group, 57 percent of respondents indicated they read their Bible four times a year or less. Worse yet, only 26 percent of Americans indicated they read their Bible on a regular basis (four or more times a week). Within a key target group, millennials (18- to 28-year-olds), 57 percent said they read their Bibles fewer than three times a year, if at all.
In their book “The People’s Religion,” George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli observe that “Americans revere the Bible, but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”
In my travels among the local churches, it’s rare I hear thoroughly biblical-based sermons. In some local churches I’ve waited as long as 45 minutes before I heard an allusion to a single quote of Scripture. What are pastors saying? Sometimes it’s long-winded stories, massive references to the flavor-of-the-month book, or deep dives into a pet project such as social justice ministries, guest speakers of many flavors, or short-term mission trips. Liturgical churches tend to use more Scripture than most, but often it’s read by congregation members unfamiliar with the passages of Scripture, who are unable to read them with meaningful conviction.
The cultural impact of our advancing biblical illiteracy is dramatic. The Bible is the key that unlocks our understanding of many cultural waypoints in society. Did you know that Shakespeare’s works have more than 1,300 allusions to the Bible? How can some of the greatest literature in the world be fully understood without biblical knowledge? Many authors have steeped their works in biblical references, authors such as Steinbeck, Tolkien, Lewis, Hemingway and Golding.
C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the biblical references and allusions running throughout. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” are full of biblical references and imagery.
Martin Luther’s speeches oozed scriptural allusions at every turn, as did Abraham Lincoln’s. A 2005 study, commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, surveyed high school English teachers and teens. This question was asked: “Considering the literature you are teaching, how does it advantage or disadvantage a student to know about the Bible?” Forty out of 41 high school English teachers said Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage on students and that “Western literature was steeped in biblical references.”
“The biggest gap in education,” one Chicago public high school English teacher told us, “is lack of Bible knowledge.” He said American students have an “inability to understand literature, and even the underlying meanings of literature, to figure out the philosophical bent or message of an author by the way they use biblical or non-biblical allusions.”
In a future column I’ll delve into more of the serious challenges posed by biblical illiteracy, and some potential strategies to combat it.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.