The State of the Bible 2012

So, how is the Bible doing these days? Are people still believing it? reading it? Still holding it in high esteem?

Or, in our increasingly secular culture, is the Bible going the way of the Sears Catalog and VHS tapes?

The American Bible Society recently commissioned an in-depth survey the seeks to answer these questions and many more. (You can download a PDF of the study results here.) Here are some of their findings:

• 47% of American adults believe the Bible has too little influence in society today (but among Mosaics, ages 18-27, only 37% said the Bible has too little influence while 25% said the Bible has too much influence)
• 55% read the Bible to be closer to God, down 9% (from 64%) in 2011
• 79% believe they are knowledgeable about the Bible but 54% were unable to correctly identify the first five books of the Bible (12% of Mosaics answered “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Revelation”)
• 46% believe the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are different expressions of the same spiritual truths, 46% disagree
• On average, 85% of U.S. households own a Bible; the average amount of Bibles per household is 4.3 (I guess the .3 is for those who own Bible that contain only Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Revelation.)
• 36% of Americans read the Bible less than once a year or never while 33% read the Bible once a week or more
Americans’ beliefs about the Bible are highly varied by age. Only 34% of those age 18-27 vs. 62% age 66 and older believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know about living a meaningful life.

    In tomorrow’s post, I’ll dig a little deeper into The State of the Bible survey. Today, I want to make just a couple of comments.

    First, not surprisingly, esteem for the Bible and use of the Bible is slipping in our society. There are lots of reasons for this, ranging from assaults on Scripture from popular cynics, to the misuse of the Bible by confused Christians, to the overall secularization of our culture. Yet, at least in principle, the Bible continues to matter a great deal to a great many people.

    Second, I often get cranky when examining survey’s like The State of the Bible survey because of the way questions are phrased. I’m not saying I could do any better, mind you. But surveys, almost by necessity, tend to simplify that which is not necessarily so simple. Take, for example, the last bullet point in the list above:

    • Americans’ beliefs about the Bible are highly varied by age. Only 34% of those age 18-27 vs. 62% age 66 and older believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know about living a meaningful life.

      This is the sort of thing that gives me heartburn. Why? Because, if I had been asked to respond to this statement about the Bible, I don’t know what I would have said. One the one hand, I hold the Bible in high esteem as God’s Word. I have devoted much of my life to the study and teaching of the Bible. I believe it reveals truth that is essential to living a fully meaningful life. But, I’m not sure I would say that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know about living a meaningful life. After all, in order to live a meaningful life, it helps to know how to speak a language, how to find and prepare food, how to make babies, how to read, and so on. These things aren’t taught in Scripture. So, I would be inclined to respond negatively to the “everything a person needs to know” statement. Yet, such a response would tend to be understood as devaluing Scripture. Thus, I’d need to decide whether to be accurate or to answer in a way that seems to give the survey what it wants. Like I said, this gives me heartburn.

      I’ll say more about The State of the Bible 2012 tomorrow. In the meanwhile, your comments are always welcome.

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      • Evan


        You touch upon a common problem with such polling: what are the definitions? Strictly speaking, you are correct, since if you never learned to comprehend a language, the odds of having a “meaningful” life when everything is gibberish decline drastically.

        Another problem with the question is that while the Living God has spoken TRULY via the Bible, He has not spoken EXHAUSTIVELY. Every possible topic is not covered, and those topics may well impact how “meaningful” one considers their lives to be.

        Yet I fully believe that one can have a truly “meaningful” life using just what is revealed in the Bible. What if the question were phrased that way?  Jesus Christ became a man to substitute Himself personally for each one of us and take our individual penalty for our sins. As He reveals in the parable of the Good Shepherd, He does this for the individual alone, regardless of the rest of the flock (humanity.) It is a cornerstone of our system of Justice that the individual has worth because Christ died for that individual. If we understand, receive and act on just that knowledge, I would think that is quite “meaningful.”

        But I am a bit sensitive to that word, “meaningful.” The Supreme Court of the United States has hinged the entire question of whether or not one is a human being, and thus protected by the Constitution, on “the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.” The definition of “meaningful” becomes more than just an interesting tidbit in a poll at that juncture. It even rears its head in “bioethics” discussions about “the sunset of life” in academia and elsewhere. When we look in the Bible, however, we see God say that blood is life and that blood is “His,” so taking life is to be reserved to Him and His directives. How does that impact the definition of “meaningful”?

        I think most folks would respond, “it’s just a stupid poll, no big deal.” The issues that it raises, alas, are indeed a very big deal.

      • Bill Goff

        Fascinating!  I share your crankiness about the survey questions.  I looked at the survey results and was surprised that more than half of respondents buy the KJV or New KJV.  Although I’ve not read it, I’m intrigued by a new translation called The Voice which minimizes transliterations and tries to be more comprehensible.  Any comment on this translation?

      • Thanks for posting this. I had not come across it yet. There is something about a survey that carries weight in our culture, though generally this simply states what most Bible teachers know already about the value given to the Bible by most of our people. I remember a great phrase I heard from a pollster (I think it was on Mars Hill Audio) about surveys, he said, “nothing lies like a number.”

        Looking forward to the next post.

      • markdroberts

        Yes. Good points. I know I over-think this sort of thing, anyway.

      • markdroberts

        I was also surprised by the dominance of the KJV. I am familiar with The Voice. A few friends have participated in the project. Mostly, I think it’s a fine effort. Rather like an updating of The Message by Peterson. My only concern is that people should use a more literal translation for serious study.

      • markdroberts

        Thanks, Robert. Yes, those of us who teach the Bible will not be surprised.

      • ephemera74

        Another problem with “the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life” is the statement’s suggestion that one need only read the Bible in order to understand.  Disregarding the ambiguity of what one needs to know to live a “meaningful life,” even if it is all in there–all the wisdom required for this meaningful life–can every reader just understand it without outside reference?  I’m reminded of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  We benefit from the wisdom of outside sources, the lessons and traditions of men and institutions capable of explaining to us the numerous passages that are not likely to be altogether clear to every reader in his quest to lead this so-called meaningful life.  As far as that goes, then, I would be inclined to answer that question negatively too and regard it as a simplistic idea.

      • markdroberts

        Yep. That’s what we get by thinking too much.

      • dr. Erniepaul Izereckt