Rod Kerr: America's favorite unopened book
One in every ten people in America believes that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
(We will pause for a moment for the chuckles of incredulity come from those raised in the buckle of the Bible belt.)
But I am jumping ahead of myself; let’s start at the beginning. 83 percent of Americans say the Bible is important for their lives. In fact 79 percent of American say they believe the Bible is either the word of God or inspired by the word of God. Current figures claim that 25 million copies of the Christian scriptures are sold annually in the United States; 100 million copies are sold around the world. The United Bible Societies distribute another 400 million copies of all or parts of the Holy Writ globally. That’s 965 Bibles distributed every minute, 24 hours a day somewhere in the world. It all sounds good so far.But that doesn’t add up to the fact that fewer than 50 percent of Americans can name the first book of the Bible or only 30 percent of the “one nation under God” know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (Many named Billy Graham – OK, at least he is a preacher.) What doesn’t add up is that based on Kelton Research 80 percent of Americans could name the ingredients of a Big Mac and less than 60 percent could name the sixth commandment – ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ In fact, the same participants in that same survey recalled the name of the four Beatles, but many could not recall one single commandment.
Though the Bible has been the best seller of all times – out-selling Shakespeare, Tolkien and Harry Potter’s J. K. Rowling, even the Qur’an and Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”, still 25 percent of all Americans do not know what is celebrated on Easter. That may be believable if we are just considering those outside the faiths that were birthed in the words of the Word. Surely that is not the case with the faithful flock, those inside churches and temples. The sad truth is that things don’t look much better for believers when, according to a 1997 Barna Research poll 80 percent of the born again believers believe that the Bible says “God helps those who help themselves”(in the Book of Hezekiah, I suppose) and that 12 percent of Christians think Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Just the spelling should have given a clue!
With 92 percent of Americans owning a Bible, why is there such a lack of basic Bible knowledge? It’s clear that those who claim to be “people of the Book” should have more than a passing acquaintance of its contents, but there is also good reason why that those outside as well as those inside the faith should be at least conversant with its content.
E. D. Hirsch in The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy writes “No one in the English speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible.” That’s probably why a 1992 survey of English teachers determined the Bible to be on the top 10 required “book-length works” in high school English classes. The study reads, “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.” It is indispensable and absolutely crucial for a person who wishes to be considered well educated. From Shakespeare, who alludes to the Scripture 1,300 times to Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, from John Milton to Toni Morrison, all educated persons need to understand what is meant when someone describes a battle between “a David and Goliath” or the suggestion that a friend will “go the extra mile” with you. From the songs of Bob Dylan to Bono, one loses most of the metaphors without a working knowledge of the stories in The Story.
Not only is a study of the Bible important for literary allusions and themes, it is also important for those who would understand Western civilization. Thomas Cahill, in The Gift of Jews writes:
“Without the Bible we would never have known the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the movement of indigenous and dispossessed peoples for their human rights, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the solidarity movement in Poland and the pro-democracy movements in South Korea, the Philippines and even China. These movements in modern times have all employed the language of the Bible.”
Such may suggest why organizations that promote the academic study of the Bible are gaining in popularity in public schools. The Bible Literacy Project’s primary textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” is being used in more than 580 schools in 43 states.
So with all these Bibles bought, with all the influence that it has made on our civilization and culture, why don’t we read the Bible? Tyndale House publishing did a survey on this perplexing question. Ninety-four percent of Americans said they did not read the Bible because they were too busy, 80 percent said the Book is just too confusing to understand. Despite our efforts of Sunday Schools, Bible Studies, worship services and home groups you can ask a hundred church members if they read their Bibles today, eighty four would say no. Ask them if they read it in the past week, sixty eight would say no. George Guthrie, in his book “Read the Bible for Life,” carries the disappointing news further: “Even more disconcerting, ask those one hundred church members if reading or studying the Bible has made a significant difference in their lives, only thirty seven out of one hundred would say yes.”
Woodrow Kroll, president of Back to the Bible, had this to say about this crisis in the church: “When we speak of creeping Bible illiteracy in America, we are not talking about the inability to read, but the choice not to read. This failure to read the Bible consistently, or to hear its truth consistently, is the major factor in Bible illiteracy in America. It is an epidemic in….America.”
Perhaps the main reason why the Bible is not read is that people, even those who hold this book to be holy and “inspired” is that they do not know “the Bible’s grand story or how its parts work together,” Guthrie writes. “Understanding the overarching story of the Bible is part of what it means to be Biblically literate.” Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University echoes the sentiment in his teaching, “We’re trying to be sure that students don’t just have a superficial knowledge of the scripture but can explain the Bible as a connected story. Just knowing facts and names would be important, but that is not what is needed in the fragmented lives around us.”
Guthrie, the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University and one of the foremost writers on Biblical illiteracy, gives a ray of hope to those who say Bible reading is too difficult and complicated when he writes, “By understanding how to skillfully read Scripture, one can see how every person, every passage and every teaching fits into the Bible’s powerful and overarching story. You will begin to realize your own place in the story God is still writing in the world today.”
We are fortunate to live in a land where we all own more Bibles than the population of many of the world’s small villages. Krish Kandich, a director of the Evangelical Alliance UK laments, “More than 200 million people have no access to spiritual food, no scripture in their own language. Yet we in the West, despite owning more Bibles per household than we will ever use, are slowly starving to death because we have lost our appetite for scripture.” And whether we read the scriptures for education or edification, for information or transformation that is a great tragedy indeed.
First Baptist Salisbury’s “Life… by the Book” emphasis will feature classes on “Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word”, by Dr. George Guthrie of Union University in Jackson. Tenn. Classes are open to the public on Sunday at 9:45 a.m. and Wednesday nights at 6:30 p.m. Contact Rod Kerr at 704-633-0431 for information and registration.
Rod Kerr is Minister of Education at First Baptist Church Salisbury.