It’s no secret that America is a very religious nation. A comprehensive study in 2007 by the Pew Forum revealed that a whopping 92 percent of all Americans say they believe in God, and 82 percent say that their religion is very or somewhat important to their lives. Of these, 78.5 percent claimed affiliation with some branch of Christianity.
However, as the English author G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “I believe in preaching to the converted, for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.”
Although the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, it doesn’t follow that they all understand the Christian faith as well as they should.
That point was driven home with research reported by Stephen Prothero in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t (HarperOne, 2008). According to one survey, 10 percent of Americans — which translates to over 30 million people, to give you some perspective — believe that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.
Think about that for a minute. It would sound like the punch line to some corny joke, if it were not so sad. Out of every ten people you pass on the street, one of them probably believes it’s true. And that’s only the most glaring example of biblical illiteracy. According to the same research, only half of the people surveyed could name even one of the four Gospels. Only one in three knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Over 50 percent of high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were the names of a biblical romantic couple. And three out of four Americans believe that the adage “God helps those who help themselves” can be found in the pages of Scripture, rather than its actual source, Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.
In Prothero’s opinion, these findings show that we need to reintroduce the Bible and other religious texts into our school system as the subjects of academic study. That is, we wouldn’t tell students to believe what the Bible says, which would be unconstitutional for state-run schools, but only to be familiar with its contents. It’s not such a bad idea; certainly, whatever we believe, we ought to take the effort to understand the values that make up such an integral part of our nation’s cultural, intellectual, and even political discourse.
Even more significant than the deficiencies of academia, however, is what these facts reveal about the deficiencies of the church. Evangelical Christians, who pride themselves on their Bible-based faith, fared only slightly better than the norm on the biblical literacy questions. And, combining these sets of statistics, it’s certain that among the folks who fail so dismally to grasp the basics of Bible knowledge are many, many people who will hear it preached in church — likely even your own church — this Sunday.
We sometimes talk about our failure to connect with unchurched people. But it seems an even greater problem is that we’ve failed to connect with churched people. Why should unchurched people want to learn about something churched people don’t understand themselves?
All this reminds me of a less familiar Bible verse; I don’t even want to know what percentage of Americans have heard of it. But it describes this situation with remarkable force:
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD,
“when I will send a famine through the land–
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.
Men will stagger from sea to sea
and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the LORD,
but they will not find it.”
—Amos 8:11-12, NIV
Without the Word of God, people are left spiritually starving. What makes matters so disconcerting in our case, though, is not just that people are “starving” for lack of hearing the Word of God. It’s that they’re starving in the middle of a supermarket. The Wall Street Journal recently estimated the number of Bibles sold in the U.S. at over 25 million each year, to the tune of as much as $609 million in profit annually, and are you feeling depressed yet? No doubt the sales figures are impressive, but I’m left wondering how many of those millions of Bibles are actually being read.
It’s not as though we can offer the excuse that we can’t get a copy of the Bible. On the other side of the spectrum, my dad once met a man from China who had never even seen a physical Bible. “It’s probably because I come from a small town,” the man explained without a trace of irony, “only 6 million people.” But that’s a different story.
What’s the cure for this epidemic of religious people who can’t be bothered to find out what they believe? Certainly Christian education, Sunday School, Bible studies, small groups, and solid biblical preaching are all important and necessary ministries that ought to be continued, expanded, and strengthened. But I can’t help wondering if God doesn’t have something more unlikely up His sleeve. The prophet Isaiah described a situation similar to the “famine” in Amos:
And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
How sad, and how true: In far too many places, Christians are divided between uneducated people who need help understanding the Bible and theological scholars who say the Bible is too hard to understand. As we might expect, this leads to spiritual dryness, empty formality, legalism, and hypocrisy. The prophet continues:
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
Stop for a minute and guess what comes after the “therefore.” How do you suppose the Almighty will finish His sentence? “Therefore, I am going to judge you and punish you for being such hypocrites”? “Therefore, you need to repent and study more diligently”? Not even close; God has something totally unexpected in mind:
“…therefore behold, I will again
do wonderful things with this people,
with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
—Isaiah 29:11-14, ESV
The solution to the neglect of God’s Word is not what might seem obvious, a re-acquaintance with God’s Word. It’s a re-acquaintance with God. Maybe the reason people are so ignorant of the Bible is that they’ve never really gotten to know its Author. If you don’t know how wonderful God is, you don’t have much motivation to read a book about Him. In that case, what we need is not reeducation but revival.
God wants to give a fresh vision of His wonderful love and power. He wants you to really experience His love and grace, His dynamic power to change lives, His marvelous and faithful habit of answering prayers in unexpected ways. Such a personal knowledge exposes the emptiness of a religion that’s based on mere philosophy or theology, however wise it may seem. God’s primary goal is not so much to make us literate, but to draw us to the wonder that is Himself.
And if you think that’s great, wait till you read His book.