A new report reveals America’s complicated relationship with the Bible

As I grew up, I was taught this song at home and in church: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, they are weak, but He is strong.” That’s the first verse; the chorus is: “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

Over the years I’ve heard this song played and sung in all musical genres, in churches, homes, movies and on television. Its six verses clearly and simply express theologically sound sentiments of the Christian faith.

These days, Bible use is decreasing despite its best-seller status year after year. The recently released report “The Bible in America” from the American Bible Society and the Barna Group gives insights gleaned from six years of the society’s annual “State of the Bible” research. (2016 also marks the 200th anniversary of the society.)

“A majority of Americans, an average of 62 percent, have expressed a desire to read the Bible more,” according to the report. “A two-thirds majority of adults believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know in order to live a meaningful life. Two-thirds of adults hold an orthodox view of the Bible, believing it is the actual or inspired Word of God. Forty-four percent of Americans read the Bible at least once a month. On average, eight of 10 Americans consider the Bible to be sacred literature or a holy book. Most Americans, 64 percent, believe the Bible has more influence on humanity than any other text according to the 2016 State of the Bible data.”

On the negative side, Bible skeptics, as a group, have increased, while Bible-engaged people have slightly decreased. Interestingly enough, non-Christian millennials seem to be behind these dropping numbers, but Christian millennials have attitudes similar to older generations.

The ABS leadership offered a pragmatic view of the data, and a vision for going forward to address the concerns raised.

“Looking at modern-day America, we see a country moving away—for decades now—from the foundational, biblical values so cherished by those who came before us,” said Roy Peterson, the society’s president and CEO. “As we work together to address the skepticism of our day, now is our time to renew hope in the promises of God’s Word, to open the healing words of Scripture as people are battling extreme violence, poverty, and oppression.”

People offer a variety of reasons as to why they don’t study the Bible. These are some common ones.

Not enough time

We all have the same 24-hour day. It’s a matter of deciding if reading the Bible is really worth it. Television, internet, social networking, movies and other forms of entertainment seem to be more attractive. If you want to get to know God, the Bible will reveal him to you.

It’s a big book

Yes it is. The Protestant Bible contains 39 Old Testament books, and 27 New Testament books. Jews, Orthodox and Catholics have different book counts. A small time investment every day — five to 10 minutes — can make a huge difference. You can read the entire Bible in a year by reading a few chapters a day! Many reading plans are available free on the internet. You can also listen using your smartphone. The website Bible Study Tools offers a variety of reading plans. (biblestudytools.com/)

Hard to understand

Many easy-to-read and easy-to-understand translations are available to help you. Online Bible commentaries are available to help decipher some of those strange terms and occasions. Theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright has a wonderful series of New Testament volumes that takes readers through the text and then explains further. I have the entire New Testament set. Each book has the same titling scheme, for example: “Luke for Everyone,” for the Gospel of Luke.

I need help

Many work better in a group setting. Support groups are available to help you learn with and from others. This very effective way of learning is practiced in virtually every field; Bible study is no exception. Churches and even online groups can be helpful. So can reading and studying with a friend. A note of caution: While many church and study groups can be useful, often they do not actually study the Bible, but a spiritual or self-help book instead. Seek out a group where the focus is on the Bible.

I’ll let my pastor read and explain

Yes, your pastor may be a good choice, but then your exposure is maybe 20 to 30 minutes a week. Don’t let your Bible study become dependent on someone else.

I may have to change

Many people fear coming into contact with new information. Practiced Bible students have learned the Bible holds words of life that can positively influence it. Just for fun, try taking a quick 10-question Bible quiz from the Washington Post to whet your appetite for learning more about the Bible.

To further challenge your brain, test your overall religious knowledge with this short Pew Forum assessment.

The world’s Bible societies distributed almost 34 million entire Bibles in 2014 (latest year for which data is available) and 428 million Scriptures (portions of the Bible). This is separate from annual U.S. Bible sales of around 40 million.

Journalist Daniel Radosh, speaking to The Washington Post, points out, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”

Although my library contains many different Bible versions, I tend to use only one or two on a regular basis. My deceased mother’s Bible is one of those, kept for sentimental value, but never used. I suspect many Americans are in a similar position. Many churches tend to support the use of a single Bible, for example, the King James version. When changing churches, one might acquire a different version that’s primarily used by the new church.

The Bible has had an enormous influence on the literature of the world, and is incorporated in many great literary works. It is literature itself, and is so ingrained in Western culture its influence will continue forever. Those of a religious inclination feel the Bible contains words of life. It has stood the test of time and is the guidebook for the world’s largest religion, Christianity.

I’m convinced it’s easy to start reading and studying the Bible. Take baby steps and it will grow on you. I suggest the Gospel of John and Psalms as great starting places. From the experience of other Bible readers, pray first, asking God to bless your study.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith for Alaska Dispatch News and on his blog, churchvisits. Contact him at churchvisits.com, or churchvisits@gmail.com. The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

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