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High rate of Bible illiteracy among general population ‘no surprise’

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A young woman holds a Bible study guide while attending a New Testament class at St. Luke Church in Brentwood, N.Y. Last year, the American Bible Society showed 57 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 28 read their Bible less than three times per year or never. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

A young woman holds a Bible study guide while attending a New Testament class at St. Luke Church in Brentwood, N.Y. Last year, the American Bible Society showed 57 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 28 read their Bible less than three times per year or never. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a recent class at Wheaton College, English professor Leland Ryken asked his students what John Milton was referring to when he mentioned “the broad way” in one of his sonnets.

Not one student in the class of 35 at the Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater acknowledged it as a reference to the broad path of destruction in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“There’s no reason for anyone to be surprised at the extent of biblical illiteracy in the general population,” Ryken said in an email to Catholic News Service. “The Bible has been systematically excised from the curriculum in public education and from culture generally.”

As part of its “Pass it On” campaign, the British Bible Society released a study showing many British citizens could not identify certain Bible stories, going as far to say 43 percent of children had never heard the story of the Crucifixion. This trend, however, is not exclusively British.

Ryken said biblical literacy “is only marginally better” in the United States.

Last year, the American Bible Society showed 57 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 28 read their Bible less than three times per year or never.

Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said the only people one would expect to know Bible stories are those raised in Sunday school.

There used to be “an undercurrent of people having a vague familiarity of the Bible,” even if they did not attend a church, said Cackie Upchurch, director of the Catholic-based Little Rock Scripture Study in Arkansas.

“That’s not the presumption anymore at all,” she said.

Even within the church, Upchurch said, many find it “embarrassing” how much Catholics don’t know about the Bible.

In a September 2010 survey of Americans’ general religious knowledge by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, white evangelicals correctly answered an average of 5.1 out of seven Bible questions, compared with 4.4 among atheists and agnostics and 4.3 among Jews. Catholics averaged 3.8 correct; only 42 percent of U.S. Catholics who responded could correctly identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible.

“There does seem to be a lack of enthusiasm for it,” Marianne Tasy, a Bible study coordinator at Immaculate Conception Church in Annandale, N.J., said. “People tend to think it’s old history or dead history.”

After attending a conference of predominately Protestant speakers, however, Upchurch was “surprised to see Protestants were concerned about the exact same things.”

Ryken was “sorry to report” that biblical illiteracy had indeed reached the evangelical subculture.

He then addressed why one should know the Bible from solely a literature standpoint. The Bible is “the single greatest frame of reference” in English and American literature, he said.

Upchurch said biblical literacy is also important just in understanding certain idioms in everyday speech.

If a person says, “That was a Goliath effort,” someone else might not catch the reference.

The trend of people lacking knowledge of Bible stories is “obviously troubling,” Upchurch said, but “at the same time, it’s an opportunity. … It tells us there’s a possibility of ways to reach other people.”

Movements like the Bible Literacy Project Inc. are dedicated to encouraging the study of biblical literature in public schools. The Bible Literacy Project specifically promotes schools to add its textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” into their curriculums.

Berlinerblau, however, thinks enforcing biblical literature classes in all public schools is an impractical goal. Someone will always oppose the idea.

“You just can’t pull this thing off in America today,” he said. “It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It’s an impossible idea.”

So far, more than 580 schools in 43 states have adopted the textbook, according to the Bible Literacy Project homepage.

As for the Catholic Church, Upchurch stressed the idea of making Bible stories come “alive.”

Ever since the work of Catholic biblical scholar Jeff Cavins, creator of “The Great Adventure Bible Study” series, came out, parish-based Bible studies are “spreading out all over the place,” Tasy said.

Furthermore, Upchurch said Catholics need to find a balance between dogma and storytelling. Pope Francis, as an example, uses “very parabolic language,” she said, whereas previous popes spoke mainly on doctrine.

“We are at a prime place in our history to remember that stories speak to people and capture people’s imaginations,” Upchurch said.

Margi McCombs, who has a doctorate in education, said in a Feb. 18 blog for the American Bible Society that Bible stories “shaped my childhood in vivid, indelible ways.”

The British Bible Society’s “Pass it On” campaign also strives to educate children about Bible stories.

“If we don’t use the Bible,” group chief executive James Catford said, “we risk losing it.”

— Navar Watson, Catholic News Service.

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