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Seattle Pacific University
Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Features

Are We Biblically Illiterate? Does It Really Matter?

What would happen if Americans relearned the Bible’s influence on history, art, and culture? What would happen if Christians read their own foundational text closely?

Baffled by the Bible

“What was that all about?”

Broadcasting new songs by the rock band U2 in the spring of 2005, the Seattle radio DJ sounded bewildered.

The song he had just played was called “Yaweh.” With each line, the singer — Bono — pledged allegiance to the Almighty, repeatedly singing out the Hebrew name for God.

The DJ began mocking the chorus. “Yeah, wayyy! Yeah, wayyy!” Then he remarked, “Sometimes, Bono just sings whatever syllables pop into his head.”

A few months later, during a screening of the documentary Super Size Me, moviegoers had a good laugh. Schoolchildren in the film could correctly identify an image of Ronald McDonald, but they did not recognize a drawing of Jesus. “George W. Bush?” one guessed.

More recently, a celebrity youth minister expressed his zeal for Jesus to a mainstream journalist. The antagonistic interviewer asked if he was familiar with the Ten Commandments. The celeb struggled to recall six of them. When asked to name Jesus’ disciples, he was reluctant to try.

These stumbles are symptoms of an epidemic. Significant research confirms that biblically and theologically educated Americans are an endangered species … even within churches. The “technical” term? Biblical illiteracy.

Similar flare-ups of scriptural ignorance are easy to spot — that is, if you know the Bible. During The Tonight Show’s “Man on the Street” interviews, we learn that Eve was created “from an apple,” that Cain’s brother was “the Barbarian,” and that the Christ child was visited by 12 wise men.

Stephen Prothero, in his new book Religious Literacy (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), points to a November 2000 poll showing that 75 percent of American adults believe — wrongly — that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves.” Ten percent think Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.

Research by The Gallup Organization shows most Americans claim they believe in the Ten Commandments, but few can name them. Only half of the American Christians polled know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. (Hint: It’s not Billy Graham.) Close to 50 percent of American adults read the Bible “seldom” or “never.”

“Although the level of formal education of the U.S. population has climbed dramatically since the 1940s, surveys show that the level of biblical literacy has not kept pace,” says researcher George Gallup Jr. “Americans, both churched and unchurched, remain ‘biblical illiterates.’”

But really … does it matter?

Are Americans at a disadvantage if they don’t know anything about the Bible?

And what are the consequences for Christians who don’t study their own Holy Scriptures?

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Department Highlights

from the president
Embracing the Christian Story
SPU President Philip Eaton asks what would happen if the Bible were at the center of the learning enterprise.

Destination: Asia
SPU President Philip Eaton joined a historic delegation of U.S. university presidents that visited Asia.

Coffee as Change Agent?
Pura Vida employees, including several SPU alumni, engage the culture using a social-venture business model.

books, film, & music
Dark Alphabet
Jennifer Maier, poet and SPU associate professor of English, receives a literary award for her first book.

National Tournament Returns
For the first time in 10 years, SPU hosts the USA Gymnastics Women's Collegiate Championship.

my response
Undone by the Word
Response writer Kathy Henning shares her journey to know the Bible better.

Response art
Pink Emperors
Class of 1973 alumna Jill Ingram introduces Response readers to “Pink Emperors.”