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Biblical Literacy in America, Past & Present

September 1, 2019

"Atheists, Agnostics, Mormons and Jews Score Best on Religious Knowledge Survey." These are the results of a nationwide poll conducted by The Pew Forum this past summer. According to previous surveys, 60% of American adults say that religion is "very important" to them. But the latest survey reveals "that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions - including their own."

   Here are just two examples that demonstrate Americans' ignorance of the Bible. Only 63% of Americans know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Only 71% know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem - in spite of the popular Christmas song "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

   The poll of 3,412 adults consisted of 32 questions. The following shows how many of the 32 questions each group of respondents, on average, answered correctly:

 

Atheist/Agnostic...........................20.9

Jewish.........................................20.5

White evangelical Protestant..........17.6

White Catholic..............................16.0

White mainline Protestant............. 15.8

Nothing in particular......................15.2

Black Protestant...........................13.4

Hispanic Catholic...........................11.6

 

One person posted this comment on a Christian Web site: "No big surprise. Believers think with their hearts; non-believers think with their heads." To which another person responded: "Actually, everyone thinks with their heads. Believers just think less."

   Lamar Vest, president of the American Bible Society, expressed "deep dismay at Christians' lukewarm Bible knowledge." Vest's dismay was expressed in this statement:  "Today's research report from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life exposes a deficit in religious knowledge among a majority of Americans. Particularly disturbing was the lack of knowledge among self-professed Christians about the Christian faith. Jewish adherents actually had a better awareness of the Bible and Christianity than did Christians. The Bible—the most translated and best-selling book of all time—has informed centuries of literature, government, philosophy and social behavior. Beyond the hope and encouragement it offers, basic knowledge of the Bible is essential for understanding and appreciating much of Western culture." (Sources: pewforum.org and everydaychristian.com)

   Lamar Vest's comment about needing a basic knowledge of the Bible to understand and appreciate Western culture is painstakingly demonstrated in a recently published book that I read. The title of the book is, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press, 2010). In Pen of Iron Robert Alter, a Bible translator, literary critic, and teacher of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1967, writes about the profound influence the KJV Bible had on American literature in the 19th and 20th centuries.

   In the 19th and 20th centuries, most Americans were Biblically literate. Educated people were expected to be familiar with the general content of the Bible, whether they believed it or not. Alter states that the KJV was regarded as "the national book of the American people," and that "novelists drew on the resources of the King James Version to fashion different versions of a distinctive American style for prose fiction."

   In his book Alter shows the influence of the KJV Bible on the writings of various American authors: Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, Hemingway, even Abraham Lincoln. Alter points out that American writers of the 19th and 20th centuries did more than just write about Biblical themes; they also wrote in Biblical writing styles. Though each author developed his own distinctive style, every author made use of various Hebraic literary devices that are retained in the KJV: antithetical parallelism, synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, alliteration, repetition, cadence, parataxis.

   Alter mentions the KJV translators' "peculiar and productive decision to follow the contours of the Hebrew in idiom and often in syntax." This too influenced the writing styles of 19th and 20th century authors and created what Alter calls "Biblical echoes" in American prose.

   Alter, himself a Bible translator, says, "The King James Version is also faithful to the Hebrew in creating an English equivalent for the homespun simplicity and phonetic compactness of the original." Alter considers all modern translations "to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects" compared to the KJV.

   Alter obviously prefers the original Hebrew Bible over any translation, but he says this of the KJV: "Though I can attest that reading Genesis or Job in the 1611 (KJV) translation is by no means the same as reading it in the Hebrew, much from the themes and imagery and characterization of the Hebrew is nevertheless preserved, and has deeply affected untold numbers of English readers, among them major writers."

   Some of these major writers were driven by an "ambition to turn the language of the novel into prose-poetry," similar to the prose-poetry that appears in much of the Bible. Alter says this ambition is "a distinctively American project."

   "English-speaking culture has been marked with a certain difference from other Western cultures," Alter writes, "because it has inherited a strongly eloquent canonical translation of the Bible that has to a palpable degree reshaped the language."

   Alter seems to be disappointed that "current ignorance of the fundamental biblical texts is notoriously widespread." He writes: "The plain fact is that we no longer have a culture pervaded by Scripture, where Bible reading is a daily practice in parlor and in pulpit, where the active memories of ordinary people are stocked with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of phrases and verses from the canonical texts."

   Like Robert Alter, I am disappointed by the loss of Biblical literacy in America. Alter seems to be disappointed primarily (perhaps solely) for literary and academic reasons. While I certainly value the literary and academic aspects, I am disappointed primarily out of concern for the spiritual well-being of God's people. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge," God said (Hos. 4:6). Ignorance of the Scriptures will eventually destroy a nation. Alter's book reaffirms my belief that our nation's only hope is to return to the God of the Scriptures and to the Scriptures of God.

 

| DB

 

 

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Image (top): Psalm 17, an original painting by Daniel Botkin. This painting is number 17 out of 40 pieces Daniel has painted so far in his Psurrealistic Psalms project, which will culminate in all 150 psalms on canvas. Learn more about this incredible project. See all of Daniel's paintings on his art website: DanielBotkin.com

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