When theologian Kenneth Berding taught at a college in New York, he assigned his students to write a profile of a person from the Old Testament. As he read a paper about Joshua, he was surprised to see, “Joshua was the son of a nun.”
Actually, Joshua was the son of Nun, an Israelite from the tribe of Ephraim. And even if Catholic nuns had existed in Old Testament times, they wouldn’t have been permitted to marry or have children.
Berding told this funny story in an article in Biola Magazine about a serious problem: biblical illiteracy. Americans, by and large, don’t read the Bible regularly and lack basic knowledge of the people, stories, and themes that point to the coming of Christ to save the world.
Research has shown that Americans struggle to name:
- The four gospels (PDF).
- More than two or three of Jesus’ disciples.
- Even half of the Ten Commandments.
“No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time,” pollster George Barna said. “They don’t know what they are.”
Bible reading in the US plummets after the pandemic
Bible reading has been on the wane for a long time, but the trend has worsened in recent years. The American Bible Society’s annual report, “State of the Bible USA,” found a precipitous drop in Bible reading after the pandemic ended.
ABS defines Bible users as people “who use the Bible at least 3–4 times each year on their own, outside of a church setting”—a low standard. The 2022 report showed the number of Bible users had dropped nearly 26 million (PDF) in the previous year. The percentage of Bible users in the population dropped ten points—to an unprecedented low of 39 percent—and remained the same in 2023.
Experts like Southern Seminary professor Don Whitney think the drop may be related to isolation from other Christians during the pandemic. Of course, many people find reading the Bible challenging in the best of times.
Why people aren’t reading the Bible
“They’ve never read one book in their life approaching the length of the Bible, and so since they’ve never done it before, they think they can’t now,” Whitney told Christianity Today. “You might as well say, ‘Flap your arms and fly to the moon.’ I think we have to show them the doability of it.”
Lifeway Research found better Bible reading habits in a 2019 survey of Protestant churchgoers: 32 percent read the Bible every day and 27 percent read it a few times a week.
However, a 2016 survey by Lifeway showed that more than half of Americans had read little or none of the Bible. Most often, they said they didn’t place a priority on Bible reading or just didn’t feel they had the time for it.
The Bible’s importance—even for non-Christians
Knowledge of the Bible was once considered one of the hallmarks of a well-educated person.
Without that knowledge, you miss the biblical allusions in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and plays of William Shakespeare, and fail to understand the inspiration for Michelangelo’s David and Handel’s Messiah.
“A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian,” atheist Richard Dawkins wrote.
New Testament scholar Gary M. Burge noticed a disturbing trend in the 1990s when he taught at Wheaton College: even many incoming students with strong church backgrounds didn’t really understand the stories in the Bible.
“These students very likely know that David killed Goliath, but they don’t know why he did it or that Goliath was a Philistine or who the Philistines were,” he wrote.
The concurrent declines of biblical literacy and biblical morality
He reflected on this trend in an article headlined “The Greatest Story Never Read” in Christianity Today.
“To disregard this resource—to neglect the Bible—is to remove the chief authority on which our faith is built,” Burge wrote. “We are left vulnerable, unable to check the teachings of those who invite us to follow, incapable of charting a true course past siren voices calling from treacherous islands such as TV programs, popular books, and enchanting prophecies displayed on colorful Web sites.”
Surely, it’s no coincidence that biblical literacy and biblical morality appear to have plummeted simultaneously.
“We have shifted from being a nation in which people believed that right and wrong—i.e., morality—was defined by the Bible,” Barna, the pollster, told Denison Forum. “We now live in a nation where only 42 percent believe that the Bible is true, accurate, and relevant, and where the largest share of adults believes there is no absolute moral truth, that all truth is determined by the individual.
“On what basis do they determine ‘their’ truth? Primarily emotions: if it feels like the right or appropriate thing to do, say, or believe, then that becomes the course of action, no questions asked.”
“Christian” has become a generic term
Barna serves as the director of research at the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. The center releases an annual study, the American Worldview Inventory, measuring responses to dozens of questions designed to determine whether people have a biblical worldview.
This year’s study showed that more than two-thirds of Americans identify themselves as Christians (PDF), yet only 6 percent of that group embrace the great majority of principles and commands from the Bible.
“‘Christian’ has become somewhat of a generic term rather than a name that reflects a deep commitment to passionately pursuing and being like Jesus Christ,” Barna said.
He said “syncretism” has become the dominant worldview in America.
“Syncretism is a cut-and-paste approach to making sense of life,” Barna said. “Rather than developing an internally consistent and philosophically coherent perspective, Americans embrace points of view or actions that feel comfortable or most convenient. Those beliefs and behaviors are often inconsistent, or even contradictory, but few Americans seem troubled by that.”
But there is hope.
God’s word will still accomplish God’s plans
And at a time when Americans read fewer books, the Digital Age has brought many new tools for Bible study. Although reading can be a solitary exercise, studying the Bible in community, now that the pandemic has ended, can provide a great source of encouragement.
Those who do read the Bible will discover inside its pages the answers to life’s most profound questions and a guidebook for the Christian life. Most importantly, they will find a treasure beyond compare: an invitation to a personal relationship with Jesus.