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Issues & Implications
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The Bible is widely owned, but not well known, new study finds


Douglas Porter | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

John Burger - published on 05/15/17

LifeWay Research examines reasons Americans aren't picking up The Good Book.

Guinness World Records designates it the world’s “best-selling and most widely distributed book,” with estimates of the number of copies printed at more than 5 billion.

Even in this increasingly secular age, the Bible is everywhere, from the arms of church-going folks to the drawer of nightstands in hotels.

But an organization called LifeWay Research says that more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Good Book.

“Less than a quarter of those who have ever read a Bible have a systematic plan for reading the Christian scriptures each day. And a third of Americans never pick it up on their own,” according to the Nashville-based polling firm.

“Most Americans don’t know first-hand the overall story of the Bible—because they rarely pick it up,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay. “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.”

LifeWay surveyed 1,000 Americans about their views of the Bible and found that 10 percent of American haven’t read the Bible at all; 13 percent have read a few sentences, and 30 percent have read several passages or stories.

One in five Americans, the organization found, has read through the Bible at least once. That includes 11 percent who’ve read the entire Bible once, and 9 percent who’ve read it through multiple times. Another 12 percent say they have read almost all of the Bible, while 15 percent have read at least half.

But that focus is missing the point, says Stephen J. Binz, author of the Threshold Bible Study.

“An understanding of Scripture as God’s transforming word does not depend on how much Scripture we have read. It depends on the quality of that reading based upon the methods of reading given to us through the Church,” Binz said in an interview. “Whether we have read the whole Bible once or multiple times has little to do with the quality of our encounter with the God’s word.”

Binz mentioned several time-honored ways in which readers can deepen their relationship with the Word of God, including lectio divina, a prayerful, meditative reflection on short passages, and Ignatian prayer, in which the reader imaginatively places himself into a particular scene from Scripture.

“And all Bible reading is incomplete if it doesn’t lead us to prayer, so that our time with Scripture becomes a dialogue in which we listen to God in the text, then respond to God in prayer and a transformed life,” Binz said.

While the survey found that Protestants generally read the Bible more than Catholics, John Martignoni, founder of the Bible Christian Society, argued that Catholics know the Scriptures better than they think, especially if they attend Mass on a regular basis. Not only do they hear three or four Scripture passages at the liturgy, the prayers throughout the Mass are mostly biblical.

In one of the Eucharistic prayers, for example, there is the phrase “from the rising of the sun to its setting,” which has its origins in the prophet Malachi.

Binz was struck by the survey’s conclusion that “the only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.”

“For most of the Church’s history, the Bible was heard with the ears and not read with the eyes,” he said. “The biblical authors wrote to communities who would read the Scriptures in their liturgical gatherings on the Lord’s Day. Before the printing press in the 16th century, the Bible was rarely read by ordinary Christians, because hand-written texts were rare and expensive. This historical reality helps us realize what the survey does not consider, that the Bible can be known in lots of other ways than private reading, The Church’s liturgy, prayer, catechism, art, music,and other forms of tradition are saturated with Scripture, so I believe that Catholics know Scripture far better than most think they do.”

William D. Dinges, Professor of Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, said the survey findings are really nothing new but reflect a long-term trend. In the 1930s, for example, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published their Middletown studies, documenting the changing attitudes in middle America, including attitudes about religion.

“It was already evident then that Americans generally were adopting a more secular vocabulary and that the Bible was less influential and formative in terms of values,” Dinges said in an interview.

From more recent studies, it’s “evident that younger people are moving farther away from biblical discourse,” Dinges noted. “I can tell you that impressionistically from my experiences in the classroom that greater numbers of younger people are basically biblically illiterate in terms of standard metaphors or images or biblically-derived symbols that an earlier generation would have known.”

That’s a complaint one also hears from literature professors who are increasingly finding that they need to explain scriptural allusions in anything from Beowulf to Bob Dylan.

“It’s not just that they don’t get the images or symbols or are unable to recognize names; they don’t have a solid grasp of the influence the Bible has had on our national narrative or its influence on civil religion or the influence on the political rhetoric or how we’ve historically defined ourselves as a people,” Dinges said. “They don’t have a solid grasp on how Scripture has been a cultural force, not just theological.”

By the way, LifeWay found a number of reasons why some Americans don’t read the Bible. About a quarter (27 percent) say they don’t prioritize it, while 15 percent don’t have time. Thirteen percent say they’ve read it enough. Fewer say they don’t read books (9 percent), don’t see how the Bible relates to them (9 percent), or don’t have a copy (6 percent). Ten percent disagree with what the Bible says.

Other findings in the survey include:

  • 22 percent read a little bit of the Bible each day, in a systematic approach
  • 35 percent never pick it up at all
  • 30 percent look up things in the Bible when they need to
  • 19 percent re-read their favorite parts
  • 17 percent flip open the Bible and read a passage at random
  • 27 percent read sections suggested by others
  • 16 percent say they look things up to help others
  • Protestants (36 percent) are more likely to read every day than Catholics (17 percent).
  • The more often Americans attend church, the more likely they are to read the Bible daily
  • Men are more likely to skip Bible reading than women
  • 35 percent consider the Bible life-changing
  • 36 percent consider it true
  • 52 percent say the Bible is a good source for morals
  • 14 percent say the Bible is outdated

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