David R. Nienhuis writes in Modern Reformation of the problem of biblical illiteracy in America.
Among the general population, although 84% of Americans regard the Bible as important in helping them make decisions in everyday life, only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to name the individual who gave the Sermon on the Mount, and only a minority can identify the first book of the Bible.
But the situation is also worrying among self-confessing evangelicals. Of those teens who identified themselves as evangelicals, over half could not identify Cain as the one who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Over half did not know that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” is a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, or that Saint Paul’s blinding vision took place on the road to Damascus.
Nienhuis teaches New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific University. He regularly sets his students – the vast majority of whom are professing Christians, with many of these attending evangelical churches – a short biblical literacy test. In his most recent survey, only half were able to name the biblical book that begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And just over a half knew where to find in the Bible the account of the first Passover.
But of particular interest is the generally inability of students to sequence major events within the Bible’s overall plot line.
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 might know isolated facts from the Bible (84% knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for example) they demonstrated a woeful ignorance of the ‘big picture’, or metanarrative, of Scripture. And this despite the fact that 86% of them said that the Bible was their primary source for knowledge about God and faith.
If anything, the situation here in the UK would appear to be worse than that in the UK. Nienhuis says that the dominant approach to improving biblical literacy in the US is to have people memorize certain doctrinally-relevant and emotionally-empowering verses. At best, he says, this produces ‘informed quoters’ rather than ‘transformed readers’. Trouble is, I’m not sure we even have ‘Bible quoters’ in this country, let alone ‘Bible readers’.