The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy  

Posted by JC Lamont in


"Satan's use of Scripture in tempting Jesus is clear indication that a merely cognitive level of biblical literacy does not automatically result in the formation of a Christian character."
For well over twenty years now, Christian leaders have been lamenting the loss of general biblical literacy in America. No doubt you have read some of the same dire statistics that I have. Study after study demonstrates how nearly everyone in our land owns a Bible (more than one, in fact) but few ever take the time to read it, much less study it closely. Indeed, while the Exploring Religious America Survey of 2002 reports that over 84 percent of Americans consider the Bible to be "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to identify the individual who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most aren't even able to identify Genesis as the Bible's opening text.

Upon hearing these figures (and many more are readily available), some among us may be tempted to seek odd solace in the recognition that our culture is increasingly post-Christian. Perhaps these general population studies are misplaced in holding secular people to Christian standards. Much to our embarrassment, however, it has become increasingly clear that the situation is really no better among confessing Christians, even those who claim to hold the Bible in high regard. Again, numerous studies are available for those seeking further reason to be depressed. In a 2004 Gallup study of over one thousand American teens, nearly 60 percent of those who self-identified as evangelical were not able to correctly identify Cain as the one who said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and over half could not identify either "Blessed are the poor in spirit" as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount or "the road to Damascus" as the place where Saul/Paul's blinding vision occurred. In each of these questions, evangelical teens fared only slightly better than their non-evangelical counterparts.
These numbers serve to underscore the now widespread recognition that the Bible continues to hold pride of place as "America's favorite unopened text" (to borrow David Gibson's wonderful phrase), even among many Christians. As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University,

I know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students--around 95 percent of them--are Christians, and half of them typically report that they currently attend nondenominational evangelical churches. Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade. In the most recent survey, only half were able to identify which biblical book begins with the line, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Barely more than half knew where to turn in the Bible to read about the first Passover. Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23 percent were able to order four key events from Israel's history (Israelites enter the promised land; David is made king; Israel is divided in two; and the people of Judah go into exile), and only 32 percent were able to sequence four similarly important events from the New Testament (Jesus was baptized; Peter denies Jesus; the Spirit descends at Pentecost; and John has a vision on the island of Patmos). These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84 percent knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible's larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text--even though a full 86 percent of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith.

To read the article in its entirety, please click here: The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy

This article originally appeared in the "Recovering Scripture" Jan./Feb. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 1 edition of Modern Reformation, Page number(s): 10-13, 17, and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted on 18 February, 2015 at Wednesday, February 18, 2015 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

1 comments

This is seriously disheartening. Talked with a Christian Scientist (the cult, not the real thing) and she had no knowledge of what the Book of Revelation says. Nor, pretty much, anything the Bible says in regards to salvation and the faith.

February 19, 2015 at 3:52 PM

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