Why Johnny Can't Read the Bible
Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition. Or, as George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding, "Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don't read it."
Anecdotes abound. Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have made sport of Americans' inability to name the Ten Commandments—even among members of Congress who have pushed to have them posted publicly.
Perhaps the first step toward improved Bible literacy is admitting we have a problem. A 2005 study by the Barna Group asked American Christians to rate their spiritual maturity based on activities such as worship, service, and evangelism. Christians offered the harshest evaluation of their Bible knowledge, with 25 percent calling themselves not too mature or not at all mature.
And we know it's not "those other churches." We are not surprised by a 2004 Gallup finding that a mere 37 percent of teenagers can find the quotation from the Sermon on the Mount when given four choices. And we are not surprised that only 44 percent of born-again teenagers could do the same.
It could be worse. The same Gallup study of 1,002 teenagers found them basically familiar with Adam and Eve, Moses, the Good Samaritan, the Golden Rule, and the meaning of Easter. And the Bible Literacy Project (BLP) now provides resources for more than 360 public schools in 43 states.
"We've had no problem conveying the importance of biblical literature for understanding everything from public discourse to reading Toni Morrison," says BLP general editor Cullen Schippe.
But pastors, professors, and others committed to teaching the Bible have identified a problem far larger than fluency with basic characters and stories. It's one thing to recognize the reference to the Promised Land in a Martin Luther King Jr. speech. It's another to recognize biblical references within the Bible itself. Even weekly churchgoers who know the names and places struggle to put it all together and understand the Bible as a single story of redemption.
The problem struck a nerve for Schippe as he sat in a hotel room thumbing through a copy of the Book of Mormon. Some of the characters were familiar, but the overarching story befuddled him. That, he realized, was how a growing number of Americans now see the Bible.
Fortunately, motivated churches, small groups, and even public school teachers are finding ways to take biblical literacy beyond name recognition.
Sunday School 2.0
BibleMesh builds a tech tool for the rest of the church.
Computer technology has long been a boon to high-level biblical studies. Scholars can instantly search archives of ancient manuscripts, essentially turning their offices into world-class libraries. Pastors likewise benefit from popular software that aids original language studies and sermon preparation. But the gap is widening.
"At this rate," Emmanuel Kampouris says, "the Bible will be just a historical artifact for seminarians."
Kampouris is former chairman and chief executive officer of American Standard Companies (now called Trane), the giant manufacturer of air conditioners, bath and kitchen fixtures, and automotive supplies. Renowned for his ability to turn around failing businesses, Kampouris is also the force behind BibleMesh, a web-based tool launching in June. Tim Keller is the program's primary commentator, who walks Christians through the biblical storyline in a 90-minute video. Other contributors include the late First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, former Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, and nondenominational pastor Alistair Begg.