There was a time when literacy in America included, perhaps even meant, Bible literacy. The first European settlers of what is now the United States learned to read by reading the Bible. The oldest universities were founded as schools of preaching and teaching the Bible. Even Harvard, which is now considered by some to be non-Christian at best and anti-Christian at worst, was founded as a Bible based school. There was a time when even those who opposed the teachings of the Bible, or at least the teachings of those who claimed to be teaching the Bible, were as familiar with the book as those they opposed. The churches of Christ in the twentieth century were noted for being “book, chapter, and verse” Christians. Nowadays it seems that many don’t even know what that means.
In a recent study by the Barna Group, certain aspects of biblical literacy were found to be in serious trouble in America. When asked what the three in John 3:16 meant, only 68 percent of adults (and 61 percent of adults in the 18-27 age group) could identify it as the chapter number. One third of the respondents either got it wrong or did not venture a guess. Nor were those professing Christianity much better able to answer the question than those who did not claim to be Christians. While about 57 percent of all age groups were able to identify Hebrew as the original language of the Old Testament, fewer than half of that could identify Greek as the original language of the New Testament. (There was a time when Greek and Hebrew were considered part of a well-rounded curriculum, and that was not that long ago.)
The Barna study was a result of the predominance of that scripture reference in recent American professional football coverage. The publishers of the study chose not to present any major conclusions resulting from this study. The study does seem to indicate, however, that at least one third of Americans not only don’t know the meaning of “book, chapter, and verse,” many don’t even care. And that includes many who claim to be Christians.
Along with not knowing basic facts about the Bible, other studies also show that significant numbers of Christians deny that the Bible is the accurate word of God. One fifth of Christians do not believe the Bible to be “accurate in all the principles it teaches.” Although one of the things the Bible teaches is that Jesus was “without sin” (Heb 4:15; 9:28), over one third of Christians believe that Jesus sinned while on earth.
Two questions seem to stand out as a result of these studies. What are we teaching our children about the Bible, if anything? And, why do people claim to be Christians if they don’t believe the basic, fundamental tenets of Christianity?
The second question may be answered simply. Many self-professed Christians are so little affected by their faith that they are easily swayed by cultural norms. If the only reason they are Christians is because their parents were Christians or because “America is a Christian nation” they are little invested in learning what their faith truly professes. The increase in those that do not believe the Bible to be totally accurate, even when they claim to believe that, shows that to many people Christian is merely a label.
As scary as that is to strong believers, what should be even scarier is that our children are not as knowledgeable about the basics of the Bible as their parents or grandparents. Knowing the meaning of the book, chapter, and verse designations is of small importance, unless one realizes that by not knowing even that basic information makes it impossible to find information to defend what they do believe. If a person cannot even begin to know where to find “For God so loved the world,” how can they be expected to believe it, live it, or teach it?
Biblical literacy is not a nice-to-have. In a world in which the word of God is under attack from all sides, it is a must-have. There are positive signs that those of faith are stronger in their faith than in previous years. Nevertheless, until we teach our children not only what we believe and why, but also where to find it, we are fighting a losing battle.