Jeff Foxworthy, Mr. Gradgrind, and Bible trivia

The Game Show Network has a (basic-cable) hit on its hands with The American Bible Challenge, a new quiz-show hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

GSN says the show features contestants who: “compete based on their knowledge of the Bible. Utilizing current as well as historical references, questions will be drawn from the rich, dense narrative found in the world’s best-selling book.”

It’s not quite true that the game is based on “knowledge of the Bible, but about trivia extracted from the Bible. The book’s “rich, dense narrative” isn’t really the point. Mastering Bible trivia is not the same thing as understanding the Bible. It can actually be something done instead of understanding the Bible.

As Stephen P. Hale writes, the game: “treats the Bible as a series of trivia questions. In asking simple and straightforward questions about details, The American Bible Challenge never gets around to looking at what the Bible actually says.”

Hale notes that a question in the first episode asked: “What three objects does the Scripture tell us were at the last supper?” The answer there isn’t really trivia — these things are important to Christians. But the format threatens to trivialize the bread and wine, the cup, the basin and towel, by disregarding what they mean or why they are meaningful. (And isn’t that five objects, at least?)

I’m not questioning or disparaging the intent of the show’s creators. This problem isn’t a function of intent, but of structure. It can ask about lists and place-names, but not about meaning — about what, where and who, but never about why.

This misleads in the same way it always does when someone “teaches to the test.” When the Bible becomes raw material for a trivia quiz, its readers become people who can buzz-in and correctly provide both sets of names for Daniel’s three friends, but not people who can tell you anything about what it means to live faithfully in exile.

Details disregarding context produce an out-of-context understanding of the text and a disregard for its meaning. I’m not speculating here. I grew up among young-earth creationists and premillennial dispensationalists, so I know exactly what it means to approach the Bible primarily as a source of out-of-context trivia. And thus I also know what it means to later have to re-learn to read the Bible.

The American Bible Challenge strikes me as a smiling, cheerful variation of Mr. Gradgrind’s definition of a horse. Here, again, is that wonderful scene from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times:

“Girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”

“Sissy Jupe, sir,” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”

“It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,” returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

“Then he has no business to do it,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”

“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.”

Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

“We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”

“If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.”

“You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?”

“Oh yes, sir.”

“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.”

… “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”


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  • MotJusteEyot
  • “But the format threatens to trivialize the bread and wine, the cup, the basin and towel, by disregarding what they mean or why they are meaningful.”

    Why am I reminded of Billy Collins’s Litany?

  • Thank you, Fred.  A former pastor of mine put out an iPhone app that purports to teach Bible history and I’ve been wanting to write a long, pedantic post about the whole exercise.  I couldn’t quite figure out why it annoyed me, beyond a couple of really obvious things, like literal interpretation of scripture and whatnot.  Since I’m not invested in the Bible as a thing and I’m accustomed to Evangelicals screwing up history to make it fit the Bible none of my objections really seemed to be worth writing about.

    This post pretty much snapped the whole thing into place for me.   I’d kept looping back around to the idea that it’s supposed to be educational, but couldn’t put my finger on why that particular idea made me want to blow my top.  I think I’ve got it now.

  • Carstonio

    This show’s target audience probably doesn’t care about understanding the Bible, or even memorizing its trivia. It’s more of the same tribalism that Fred has been condemning. In this case, the audience seeks the illusion of a safe haven from the godless heathen secular debauchery in the rest of the channel lineup.

  • Lori

    Back when I was still working really hard at trying to believe in God (and boy did I work at it), I would have cleaned up on this show. I knew lots and lots of Bible trivia because it was something that I could do to fit into the tribe, that didn’t require me to actually feel anything I wasn’t about to feel. You don’t have to believe anything at all to memorize trivia.

    Somehow I doubt the people producing this show or those watching it really get that.

  • I wonder who’s more inherently cynical: the Bible-thumping tribalists who needs that illusion of safety, or the network execs who greenlit the show simply to capture that class of viewers.

  • VorJack

    It occurs to me that trivia might be less controversial than the meaning of the text.  I haven’t watched the show – no cable – but I think they must be being very careful not to set Protestant, Catholic and Jewish interpretations of the Bible against each other.  A simple question about the Ten commandments could start an argument. 

  • Jurgan

    Now, I think this could serve a purpose in correcting the ignorance of people who revere the Bible.  For example, what book of the Bible uses the word “Antichrist.”  I’d bet money most people would say Revlations [sic].

  • Beau Quilter

    This program has about as much cultural value as:

    The American Koran Challenge! or
    The American Mahabharata Challenge! or
    The American Tao Te Ching Challenge!

    What I would like to see?

    The American Constitution Challenge!

  • Carstonio

     And the folks who push for posting the Commandments on government buildings don’t even appear to know them all that well. They insist that the list amounts to “don’t lie, cheat, steal or kill” and form the basis for our civil laws, but the first five are explicit sectarian doctrine. I’ve even heard the claim that biblical law trumps secular law, as if other religions didn’t exist.

  • Lori

    We could start by asking how many times the Constitution mentions the right to vote and see how many Republicans get it right. (Hint: “zero” is not the correct answer. Yes, the Founding Fathers thought voting was a right, not a privilege to be granted or withheld according to the preference of the people in power.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    And ask how many times the Constitution mentions Christianity. (In itself, none; in conjunction with all other flavors of religion, three times, one being the ‘no religious test’ bit and the other the ‘no establishment of religion’ bit.) Also, copyright. (Dear Disney: ‘limited time’ does not mean that everything’s fine as long as the law doesn’t actually say ‘forever’. If the time gets longer every time Steamboat Willie gets close to being public domain, it is not a limited time.) And anyone who can’t recite the Preamble gets an automatic fail; the Preamble is not, I know, the law of the land, but it does say what the law of the land is intended to do, and any law that goes against the Preamble ought to be side-eyed hard.

  •  Back when I was still working really hard at trying to believe in God
    (and boy did I work at it), I would have cleaned up on this show.

    Same here.  I’m still basically a Bible scholar, especially compared to most Evangelicals I know/knew.  For one thing, I still know a good deal of the trivia.  For another, I’m actually half decent at theology.

  • Thebewilderness

    My friend Joy would ace this test. Her father, a Greek Orthodox Clergyman, taught her to recite chapter and verse. He called her a hedonist.

  • Have they had a Book of Judges special yet?  I would definitely Tivo that. 

  • The most important phrase in the Preamble that conservatives tend to disregard also appears in Article 1, Section 8: “the general Welfare.”  Specifically, the Preamble gives as one of “We the People’s” purposes in “ordain[ing] and establish[ing]” the document as a whole, “to … promote the general Welfare.”  Article 1, Section 8 states: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

    If anything, that phrase “provide for” in the actual law is even more concrete than the Preamble’s “promote;” any reasonable definition of the phrase “general welfare” is sufficient to blow wingnut “constitutional” objections to things like the Affordable Care Act, TANF, SNAP, Pell Grants, etc. clean out of the water.

    As an aside, it’s almost useless to speculate on what “the founders” would have thought of any given act of government, because their views were anything but monolithic.  In particular, the odds of finding Jefferson and Hamilton on the same side of any given issue would probably be worse than the odds of finding Bernie Sanders and Tom Coburn on the same side of an issue today.  And it’s worth noting that it was Hamilton’s vision of a great industrial nation, with a strong central government actively supporting its economy, not the agrarian, decentralized society of Jefferson’s dreams, that ultimately came to pass.  Hamilton justified his proposals for a central bank, subsidies to industry, and federal government issuing debt to support state infrastructure projects by an expansive reading of the general welfare clause.

  • Vermic

    Could you even imagine a TV show called American Qu’ran Challenge?  Half the country would go completely bonkers.  There would be public protests and sponsor boycotts that would make Chik-Fil-A look like small potatoes.  Conspiracy theories would be minted.  Public figures, pundits, and political candidates would make statements so cringingly terrible, it would make the First Amendment itself whimper in pain.  It would be hilarious.  But also sad.  But also hilarious.

  • LouisDoench

    I just want to cheer for a post that features Sissy Jupe, one of my favorite characters in fiction. 

  • MMorse

    While I understand and agree with the sentiment that knowing Bible trivia isn’t the same thing as understanding the Bible’s meaning, Quiz shows generally place value on specific knowledge over understanding. I don’t see how this show really differs from, say, Who Wants to be a Millionaire in that respect.

  • CS Lewis was talking about literature, not the Bible, when he said that testing children on related trivia was a better idea than trying to test their understanding and response to the work. Ask some basic comprehension questions, he said, to be sure they’ve actually read the book. Their “response” and artistic appreciation is their own look out, and will be all the healthier for not being asked to come out and perform.

    I’m not sure I agree, but I suspect he wasn’t entirely wrong.

    Source: Of This and Other Worlds, which is a collection of essays. I can’t, right now, recall which essay.


  • flat
  • I’m still trying to figure out if the “American” is modifying the word “Challenge”, or the word “Bible”. That is, could the contest be renamed the “American Challenge of Bible Trivia” or the “Trivia Challenge for the American Bible”.

  • Robyrt

    Um, yes? Jeopardy doesn’t explain the context or meaning of its questions and answers either. Bible Trivia Challenge is not reducing the Bible to a set of facts, any more than Carmen Sandiego reduces geography to a set of facts.

  • Dan Audy

    Wonder if it will be anything like this Bible Quiz show? 

  • LL

    Yeah, I remember the trivia “contests” from Vacation Bible School. It’s probably the only way to get little kids interested in the Bible, other than coloring books featuring people from the Bible. I do have fond memories of VBS. Regular church, not so much. 

  • MaryKaye

    Has anyone else seen the Angry Video Game Nerd’s reviews of Bible games?  (Warning:   enormous amounts of foul language.)  Those make the Bible Trivia Challenge look halfway reasonable.  Noah running around carrying stacks of oxen on his head!  Adam and Eve shooting missiles at flying snakes!

  • Well, quiz shows do reduce things to a set of facts. That’s their thing. What Fred is saying is that certain varietals of Christian take a quiz show approach to the Bible in general, even when they aren’t on a quiz show, and that their understanding suffers as a result.

    Incidentally, is the The capitalized when you talk about The Bible?

  • Tricksterson

    I wonder which version of the Bible they’re using?  I’m betting KJV.

  • The_L1985

    “There would be public protests and sponsor boycotts that would make Chik-Fil-A look like small potatoes.”

    Not just small potatoes, but small potatoes cut into the shape of waffle fries.

    I haven’t been to Chick-Fil-A in years, and the one thing I miss are those waffle fries.  I know I can buy some frozen and make them, but it just isn’t the same somehow.

  • The_L1985

    I felt kind of odd about the part with Paul at the temple of the Unknown God.  Although, that may be because my VBC teacher represented the statue of the Unknown God with a Lambchop plush.  It is very hard to take people seriously when they’re accidentally implying that either pagans worshiped Lambchop, or Christians wanted them to associate Lambchop with Jesus.

  • The_L1985

    Nice try!  But you forgot Baby Moses!

  • The_L1985

     Not just the bible.  That kind of “understanding” extends to schools as well.  An old anecdote (probably true) from 1915 or thereabouts:

    A representative from the Board of Education is in a classroom.  To see how well the students are learning, he asks “If you dug a hole that reached to the center of the earth, would it be warmer at the top or the bottom?”  None of the students can answer it.

    The teacher says “I’m sure they know, you just didn’t quite ask it right.”  She asks, “In what condition is the center of the earth?” and the class obediently drones, “The center of the earth is in a state of igneous fusion.”

  • I’ll admit that this was my first thought, too.  Would many English professors be upset at a Jeopardy answer that said: “This Dickens character was unable to correctly identify a horse” on the grounds that people would no longer care about the themes and deeper meanings of literature? 

  • The_L1985

     They have more.  You forgot this:

    And the “Things You Didn’t Know Weren’t In The Bible” one.

  • Beau Quilter

    If Romney wins the election we could call it:

    The American Book of Mormon Challenge!

  • Back when I was still working really hard at trying to believe in God (and boy did I work at it), I would have cleaned up on this show. I knew lots and lots of Bible trivia because it was something that I could do to fit into the tribe, that didn’t require me to actually feel anything I wasn’t able to feel. You don’t have to believe anything at all to memorize trivia.

    Heck, I would actually love to see you on that show.  I am obviously not a fan of it, but I would watch it just to see you dominate the challenge.  

    Maybe this is just me, but the irony of someone who is a non-believer actually knowing much more about a faith than its own adherents is something I find extremely pleasurable.  

  • Amaryllis

     Because it’s an excellent poem, and apropos?

    (I bet he thinks his mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun, either.)

  • If your dream is to one day go on American Bible Challenge game show, you just might be…

    … a Christian tribalist.  

  • mud man

    Bread and wine are not objects, they are stuff. Typical liberal lack of sensitivity to the essentiality of boundaries on things

  • Otrame

    They will do almost ANYTHING to keep Christians from actually reading the Bible as a book, a narrative. Because they know that when people do read the Bible the results are like the old joke about forward passes in American football: only three things can happen and two of them are bad (from the point of view of “Bible-believing” Christians). The two “bad” possibilities are losing people to atheism or to the kind of Christian that embraces the decencies that can be gleaned while ejecting that vast majority of the book. To be sure, there are those who can read the Bible as a narrative and remain in the fold of Right-wing Christianity, but it is better not to take a chance, and present the Bible as a conglomeration of unrelated verses. Oh, and keep them the hell away from the story of Tamar, because that is down-right porn.

  • AnonymousSam

    And a donkey that… that… does… stuff. ._.

    (Shortest review of a game ever: “… It’s bad.“)

  • Tricksterson

    Thing is what the Greeks meant by “the Unknown God” and what Paul interpreted it as are two very different thing.  The Greeks built the temple as a courtesy for any  visitor whose god was unfamiliar to them.  Paul, having the ethics of a used car salesman deliberately misinterpreted to mean his concept of God.