America Suffers From Biblical Illiteracy

That title may come as a surprise to you. It’s true, though, and the nation’s evangelical leaders want to try to reverse it. Not only does it startle Christians in this nation, but believers in other parts of the world are taken aback when the facts are presented to them. Is biblical illiteracy really that bad? What can we do to correct it?

How Bad Is It?

A warning was signaled to Dr. Woodrow Kroll who was a dean at a major religious college in 1980. he gave an incoming class of 1,100 freshmen a standardized test on biblical knowledge. A passing grade was 50 correct answers out of 150 questions. These students were from Christian homes, schools and Bible-believing and preaching churches.

Only 45 passed.

America Suffers From Biblical Illiteracy
America Suffers From Biblical Illiteracy
Jerry Vines, a former pastor well-recognized for expository preaching, puts much of the blame on the existing culture in our country. “There is very little biblical world view… today, and that explains why some positions are taken that are very contrary to the teachings of the Bible.” Our post-modern surroundings are dark and broken, and lack the positive guiding force of Scripture.

“There is no biblical worldview,” Dr. Vines continues, “because most people don’t know what the biblical worldview is. All they’re left is a secular perspective, morality being not based on biblical authority but on what the current ‛flavor of the day’ may be in the culture.”

Here are some shocking statistics. Life Way conducted a survey of Americans who attend church regularly and found the following:

  • 19 percent said they read the Bible every day
  • 26 percent read it a “few times a week”
  • 14 percent once a week
  • 22 at least once a month, and
  • 18 percent rarely or never

Interviews also reveal fewer regular family devotional times; parents are not reading Scripture and teaching material to their children, and likely not with each other.

Alistair Begg, senior pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, comments: “If you combine the decline of personal Bible reading and the notion of family devotions, it doesn’t take very long before the impact of biblical malnutrition begins to show itself.”

Jerry Vines states, “We are bringing up a generation of young people who are sitting ducks for the secular culture. When they head off to college, they don’t receive a solid biblical worldview, and many fall off one by one and reject outright the teachings of the Bible.”

R. Albert Mohler is President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He concurs the evangelical community in this nation should be concerned about this problem. “This scandalous problem is our own, and it’s up to us to fix it. How bad is it? Researchers tell us that it’s worse than most could imagine…

  • Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels
  • Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples
  • According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments
  • According to 82 percent of Americans, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a Bible verse; those identified as born-again Christians did better – by one percent!
  • A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family
  • A poll indicated… at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife
  • Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed…over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife
  • A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham”

Added Mohler, “We are in big trouble.” Amen.

How Did It Start?

There’s possibly no definite date when this crisis began in our country, though some think it began around the time of the Supreme Court decisions [Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)] in the early 1960s. But the roots of it go back further.

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, all public schools opened with an oral prayer or Bible reading. The legal climate for school prayer in the US changed suddenly in 1955 when the New York Board of Regents developed a prayer recommended (but not required) for the school districts under its purview. The prayer was relatively short: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”

Seven years later, Steven I. Engel, a Jew, was upset to see his son’s hands clasped and his head bent in prayer. He told his son that this was “not the way we say prayers.” Engel, a founding member of the NYCLU, would bring action against Union Free School District No. 9 for its adoption and subsequent prescription of the so-called “Regent’s prayer,” arguing that it constituted the state-sponsored establishment of religion in violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Use of the Regent’s prayer would be initially upheld in both New York State Court and in the New York Court of Appeals, prompting Engels’s to petition the US Supreme Court. It was taken before the Supreme Court in the “Engel v. Vitale” case in 1962. With a 8-1 vote to make public recitation of the Regents` Prayer in public schools unlawful, the U.S. Supreme Court had made its first ever decision on coercive prayer in public schools.

The media and popular culture erroneously credits atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair with removing school prayer from public schools. She fought recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Baltimore. Her suit was the second case brought to SCOTUS, and in 1963 the Abington School District v. Schempp ruling made the corporate reading of the Bible and recitation of the Lord`s Prayer unlawful in public schools.

Suddenly society was frowning on things religious. Without the daily exposure to biblical passages in school, students drifted away from the memorization of verses. There was growing pressure to avoid being thought of a “religious fanatics” and the discussion of issues from a biblical perspective began to die away. The entertainment industry no longer shied from controversial religious topics and kindly priests like Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley disappeared, replaced by Richard Burton’s bus driving defrocked priest in The Night of the Iguana.

Television executives sought to make church-life more jocular and as springboards to absurd plot premises. Sally Fields as sister Bertrille sailed into the trade winds over Puerto Rico in The Flying Nun. Sherman Hemsley was the central figure in Amen, The series revolves around Ernest Frye, a deacon of the First Community Church of Philadelphia, who also works as a lawyer. He is often dishonest and frequently gets into trouble with his many harebrained schemes.

Flip Wilson dressed in drag as “Geraldine” and excused her brashness with, “The Devil made me do it”, as well as his role of Reverend Leroy, who was the minister of the Church of What’s Happening Now! New parishioners were wary of coming to the church as it was hinted that Reverend Leroy was a con artist.

So, What Is To Be Done?

This article is not an appeal for the return of Bible study in public schools. Parochial schools operated by the Roman Catholic Church continue to do a fine job of that, as do many “Christian private” schools. It is not the government’s responsibility to teach children the history or meaning of the Bible; that is the duty of parents – a duty entrusted to them by God Himself. The government’s responsibility it to allow citizens to study the Bible and worship as they wish without having to adhere to its standards or someone else’s standards of what is appropriate. When eternal judgment comes, mothers and dads will not be able to hide behind a defense of “Well, the schools (or the churches) should have done that.”

And Dr. Mohler states, “Churches must recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching, and refuse to sideline the teaching ministry of the preacher. Pastors and churches too busy–or too distracted–to make biblical knowledge a central aim of ministry will produce believers who simply do not know enough to be faithful disciples…This generation must get deadly serious about the problem of biblical illiteracy, or a frighteningly large number of Americans – Christians included – will go on thinking that Sodom and Gomorrah lived happily ever after.”

Mark Yarborough, vice-president of academic affairs at Dallas Theological Seminary believes churches and para-church organizations have failed to equip people in the development of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Over the last 30 to 40 years,” he says, “ we have not done well in teaching believers how to study the Bible for themselves and allow it to saturate their day-to-day living and transform their lives.”
Alistair Begg states, “The challenge is in making sure we are speaking to today’s biblically illiterate audience intelligently, authoritatively, kindly, and sensitively – and allowing the Word of God to do the work of God by the Spirit of God in the lives of His people. Only God can open blind eyes and soften hard hearts. We must be confident in the absolute power of God.”

The burden, it seems, is on us individually to seek out those congregations where intense biblical study is encouraged. If this means a shift away from “social gospels” and toward a careful (but not literary critical) examination of the Word of God, then it must be done. There must be a return to the pride of knowing and following God’s word. It must be done in regular assemblies of believes and it must be done in the homes.

Do you read your Bible regularly? Does the worship service you attend offer satisfying exposition of scripture? Do you think there is hope for America’s reversing this trend?

( Photo by rachel_titiriga )

13 Responses to America Suffers From Biblical Illiteracy

  1. Amen! (Felt like the best response to a piece like this, which I totally agree with.)

    When I was in college, our Sunday school teacher gave us a Biblical basics quiz. It was hard and I don’t think I did the best on it. I knew quite a few of the questions, but the others… I knew of the story or the passage, but not enough to fill in the basic information. Totally eye-opening. And shameful.

    Our sermons are completely based in Scripture – sometimes to the extreme (hey, preacher, help me figure out why this matters). I’d rather it be that way than having a feel-good message that might not be Biblical at all.

  2. Hi Kristen – I worry that much of the illiteracy may stem from human nature. Most of what we’re force fed – even when well intentioned – is forgotten shortly after it’s learned. Think about most of what we all learned in school – it was long since forgotten before we graduated from high school. I think the same is true of college. In order for us to embrace a teaching, any teaching, it has to have a profoundly personal impact on us. The scripture verse, passages and stories that I remember most all fall into that category. In regard, maybe it’s not so much how much we know, but how much we can embrace what we know.

  3. This one is easy! Disney Corp. needs to put out a reality show, video game and movie based on the Bible. The drama!, the deception!, the battles!, the lust!

    It could be a blockbuster and everyone would know the words and the songs. Facebook pages, Tweets. Just takes marketing to the lowest common denominator.

  4. Hi Rick – As amusing as that sounds, it’s probably true. It’s often easier to retain entertainment than real stuff. Maybe it has to do with the application of colorful images, humor, and catchy jingles. It would enhance biblical literacy, though probably no more than superficially.

    We shouldn’t expect Disney, or any other major entertainment company to take on such a project though. Religion these days, and Christianity in particular, are seen as offensive, so it’ll be a no go. Especially when they get to the four gospels. It’s amazing how Jesus Christ continues to arouse emotions even after 2,000 years. That means something in itself, but I’m afraid it’s a point most people ignore.

  5. Seems like there are a lot more wars and killing back in the goold ole days when people knew the Bible.

  6. I agree with all you said, even though I’m not what one would consider hugely religious. I pray multiple times a day but don’t go to church. I think that it is awful that religion has been driven out of the school but at the same time wonder “do I want some teacher or school administrator deciding what is taught” as I think about recent reports of Islam being promoted in some schools while Christianity and Judaism banned. I do feel our country is sliding toward a Sodom and Gomorrah ending and part of my prayers is that God have mercy on this country for becoming so decadent.

  7. Hi Kathy – I always consider the dividing line between faith (heartfelt belief in God) vs. religion, which is mostly a man-made ceremonial practice that can include faith, but doesn’t always. I agree that I don’t want religion being taught in schools because there’s too much potential for manipulation of what is taught. And I also agree with you that we’re heading toward Sodom and Gomorrah. I had a history professor in college who said that “people get what they deserve, which isn’t always what they want.” I think that’s where we’re headed, but no one – least of all the mainstream media – will venture to connect the dots. There’s entirely too much unfounded optimism about our future course, which is based on questionable assumptions.

  8. Hi, Rick —
    Roma Downey has done it at least twice before. Honestly do not know what the ratings outcomes were, but NBC broadcast one mini-series, A&E (and NBC/Universal property) did the first, and TLC has her newest one.

  9. I watched AD, the Roma Downey series. I think they were good shows and Biblically based. That is if you can buy the disconnect of some of the timing and St. Paul having a distinct Irish accent!
    Otherwise, I enjoyed the shows and found them inspiring. A.D. has been renewed for a second season, so we will get to see what happens to Peter, John,m Mary, et al.

  10. Hi Mary – I give Roma Downey and her husband a lot of credit for what they’re doing. I’m sure she could make more money doing secular programming, but this is a calling for her. I always enjoyed Touched by an Angel and still like to watch them the reruns. There are messages in that show that are very comforting from a spiritual standpoint, and I never get tired of them, even if I’ve seen the episode before.

  11. Hi, Mary and Kevin,
    Ms Downey has had a remarkable career, and it is amazing the mainstream media and liberals haven’t tried to take her down for something. At least the programs she produces are not full of sex, violence and profanity. I have pause at some of her use of “extra-biblical” material, fearful those not educated will take it as the truth, but at least she gets the main points correct.

    And it is those main points we need to hone and emphasize to our children and family. We need to study and teach; we can’t leave it to the churches or evangelists or TBN . We must seek the Lord’s wisdom in all we do and then convey that to our offspring.

    That will return biblical ilteracy to this nation.

  12. Hi Bill – I don’t know if we need to return biblical literacy to the nation, but we sure need to return it to the Christian population. The real issue is that self-professed Christians are often biblically illiterate. If we can’t “preach to the choir”, how and why should we expect non-believers to ever “get it”. We’re not even equipped to teach the Bible if we’re not well versed in it. Not that we’re under any obligation to make sure the whole country is biblically literate – they have a choice not to be.

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