Deep Impact: The Cultural Challenge of Biblical Illiteracy
By James Riley Estep Jr.
You’ll find it in almost every hotel room, usually in the top drawer next to the bed. While most studies indicate a majority of Americans hold the Bible in high regard, those same studies indicate Americans are increasingly ignorant of what’s in the Bible. A lack of biblical literacy is a challenge for the American culture and also the American church. It poses a crucial test for the Christian community’s identity, distinctives, and ministry in the 21st century.
George Gallup and Jim Castelli have concluded, “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.”1
• 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.
George Barna observes that older non-Christians today are more biblically literate than most younger non-Christians, and even believers.3 In generations past, even non-Christians had a more significant knowledge of the Bible than their younger counterparts do today. And, the problem of biblical illiteracy is even more pronounced within minority groups,4 which exacerbates the church’s efforts to reach them.
As Gallup and Castelli concluded, Americans are interested in the Bible, but they just don’t know what’s in it. This helps explain the popularity of such books as The Bible for Dummies (Wiley, 2002), and the frequent use of the word idiot that occurs in titles about the Bible.
Biblical illiteracy takes many forms. Biblical illiteracy can mean ignorance of content or misattributing the content of Scripture, but both lead to an error in perception of the Bible itself.
When familiarity with the Bible is minimal, our culture fails to properly assess the impact Christianity has had, fails to recognize the significant intellectual contribution Christianity has made, and relegates Christian faith as ancillary to our culture.
Impact on Our Culture
The Bible is a cultural key that unlocks vocabulary, images, metaphors, symbols, and similes that are replete throughout Western culture. Without this key, our appreciation for the richness and depth of culture’s seminal works may become superficial.
In a 2005 study, 40 of 41 high school English teachers agreed that “Western literature was steeped in biblical references,” noting the scriptural underpinnings of such titles as East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.5 The works of Shakespeare have an estimated 1,300 allusions to the Bible. Likewise, how can the image of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea be fully understood and appreciated without recognizing the biblical allusions to Christ’s passion? (By the way, if you are unfamiliar with these literary works, the parallel problem of biblical illiteracy in the population is the church’s cultural illiteracy.)
“The biggest gap in education,” one Chicago public high school English teacher told us, “is a lack of Bible knowledge.” American students have an “inability to understand literature, and even the underlying meaning of literature to figure out the philosophical bent or message of an author by the way they use biblical or nonbiblical allusions.”6 All this has a profound impact on college-bound students, since those familiar with the Bible’s content possess an advantage over others in the general education classroom.7
Likewise, the Bible influences the works of contemporary pop culture, even for the millennial generation. Consider The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia movie series, biblical references and images in Man of Steel and Pulp Fiction, shows like Monty Python’s Spamalot (a stage rendition of the comedy troop’s classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail), not to mention Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and its sequel Angels and Demons.8 Without some familiarity with the Bible’s content, these movies can be misunderstood, their message garbled, and one’s perceptions of the Christian faith skewed. After all, if Americans are not getting their information about Christianity from the Bible, where are they getting it?
Beyond the realm of literature and cinema, politics is heavily influenced and laced with biblical imagery that oftentimes goes unnoticed or unacknowledged. For example, Abraham Lincoln quotes Psalms 19:9 in his second inaugural address (1865), but without offering specific reference; Lincoln was relying on the public’s biblical knowledge to properly attribute it.
Martin Luther King’s pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech borrowed the words of the prophet Amos when he said, “Justice rolling down like waters” (Amos 5:24), not to mention King’s frequent use of “the promised land” imagery borrowed from the Old Testament.
More recently, George W. Bush’s first inaugural address in 2001 made reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), saying, “And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”
Here is the problem: most Americans are so unfamiliar with the Bible they fail to recognize or acknowledge these references in cultural vernacular, even misattributing them, and hence fail to grasp the message and meaning of the Bible even when read, visualized, dramatized, or spoken.
How Did We Get Here?
What factors have contributed to the rise in biblical illiteracy? Before affixing blame to others, the church itself must accept part of the responsibility, since it is the church’s responsibility to teach Scripture.
Our culture’s trend toward biblical illiteracy has followed the church’s biblical illiteracy. Among Evangelicals, 16 percent say they read the Bible daily, 20 percent a few times per week, and 12 percent weekly.9 But are they studying it? Many people become confused when trying to study the Bible alone. This confusion and the resulting frustration make the reader deem the Bible irrelevant to life, and hence lower the priority of acquiring biblical knowledge. As a result, biblical illiteracy significantly increases because even Evangelicals do not value the Bible as a practical, understandable guide to life.
Cultural shifts in the United States have also contributed to the decline in biblical literacy. Postmodernism, an approach to life and thought prevalent in our culture, emphasizes a radically personalized truth, denies an external truth, and opposes any meta-narrative that all must accept as true. Additionally, relativism has led many Americans to regard other books as equal to the Bible, or the Bible as equal to the others. Either way, the Bible’s uniqueness is lost in the modern ear.
Even in the Church
Biblical illiteracy is not only a crisis in American culture, but in the church as well. John Stackhouse perhaps expresses this concern best in his book Evangelical Landscapes.
Evangelicals used to be accused of being “biblicistic” and even “bibliolatrous” as they reflexively referred any problem of life to a Bible text. That accusation can rarely be leveled anymore, and it is not necessarily because evangelicals have become more theologically sophisticated. Many instead have become just as ignorant of the Bible as anyone else. . . . The ignorance of the general public about the fundamentals of the Christian faith is regrettable. The ignorance of churchgoing Christians about the fundamentals of the Christian faith, however, is scandalous. Christians are somehow expected to think and feel and live in a distinctive way, as followers of Jesus, without being provided the basic vocabulary, grammar, and concepts of the Christian religion.10
Jason E. Norris traces the decline of biblical literacy in the U.S. church.11 For example, many professing Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples.12 The collapse of biblical illiteracy within the church is so drastic, it is actually catching up with that of the general United States population. “Perhaps surprisingly, born-again and Evangelical teens were often only slightly more likely than other teens to display Bible literacy.” For example, when asked to identify a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, 44 percent could accomplish this compared to 37 percent of all teens in the U.S.13
The church faces a devastating twofold problem in this simultaneously expanding and shrinking gap between the church and the culture. First, the gap is expanding because of society’s ever increasing ignorance of biblical content, which poses a significant challenge to the church. Second, unfortunately, the gap is likewise shrinking because the church is also becoming more illiterate about the Bible and significant matters of faith.
Challenges to the Church
This twofold dilemma poses a significant challenge for the American church. It can no longer assume Christianity is the norm within the culture, as was true in previous generations; nor can it assume that professing Christians are significantly more biblically literate than the culture in which we live. What can the church do?
First, embrace the importance of Bible study for itself. We do not regard the Bible as just a book or ancient tradition or cultural key, but as God-inspired Scripture. We do not simply want biblical literacy, but the spiritual outcomes of biblical study (Matthew 21:42; 22:29; Mark 12:10, 24; John 20:9; Acts 17:11). It is not about just knowing the Bible, it’s about knowing God through the Scriptures.
Second, we can no longer assume people know the story. We can no longer assume that a family owns a Bible, that Mom and Dad know where it is, or the kids could find a passage within it. When we preach or teach, we cannot assume that a passing reference to a Bible story is sufficient. Is it any wonder that one of the most popular sermon and lesson series in recent years has been Max Lucado and Randy Frazee’s The Story (Zondervan 2012)?
Third, we need an educational agenda that emphasizes biblical literacy—and not only for the church; the inclusion of biblical or religious literacy in public schools is a new concern today in many states. Our curriculum should include not only Bible content, but insights on how to use Bible study aids and study the Bible for personal growth. This would lower the anxiety and confusion that many experience when trying to study the Scriptures.
Resources and instruction could be provided digitally, online, in the form of downloads or videos. Providing resources to enable individuals and groups to engage the biblical text constructively and with understanding, given at their own pace, is crucial for raising biblical awareness and facilitating a rise in biblical literacy.
Fourth, we need to introduce the world to biblically based spiritual formation. We are not the only spiritual voice in American culture. Basic tenants of Christian spirituality are often confused or mismatched with elements of non-Christian faiths; for instance, the definition of meditation in Christianity vs. Eastern religions. Colin Hansen notes that it is a much greater matter than just not knowing the Bible’s content; it’s endeavoring to live a spiritual life that is more and more biblically ill-informed.14
“To biblically shape the faith to come, spiritual leaders will do whatever it takes to equip believers in the disciplines of reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating upon God’s Word.”15
1George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli (1990), “Americans and the Bible,” Bible Review (June); http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBR&Volume=6&Issue=3&ArticleID=18.
4Marie Wachlin, et al., Bible Literacy Report (Front Royal: Biblical Literacy Project, 2005), 6.
8Cf., “The Bible in Pop Culture,” Time, April 2, 2007, 44, 45.
9Brad J. Waggoner, The Shape of Faith to Come (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2008), 69.
10John Stackhouse, Evangelical Landscapes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002), 71, 193.
14Collin Hansen, “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible,” Christianity Today, May 2010, 38.
James Riley Estep Jr. serves as dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.