The Bible: Mass Distribution and Massive Ignorance?

The Bible: Mass Distribution and Massive Ignorance? March 22, 2016

Over at the Weekly Standard I reviewed John Fea’s excellent new history of the American Bible Society (ABS). At the end of the review, I reflected on the dilemma of mass Bible ownership versus declining Bible “engagement.”

As the ABS observes its 200th birthday, it has become more clearly aligned with a broadly defined evangelicalism than it has been for a century. That adjustment has been both self-conscious and controversial among the ABS leadership. ABS leaders have also become concerned that the agency has, for too long, focused simply on shipping as many Bibles as it can. Touting the ABS’s own “billions and billions served,” as it were, is no longer sufficient: Especially in America, the Bible remains pervasively owned, but little read, except among a devout minority. With the advent of the Internet and smartphones, access to the Scriptures in physical or electronic form is no longer an issue for much of the world’s population. The problem is focusing a prospective reader’s attention (or what the ABS calls “engagement”) on the Word of God.

Christians have no doubt that the Bible is “living and active,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it. But millions of dust-covered Bibles on American bookshelves don’t do much to enliven souls or even to preserve an American national culture. Addressing that neglect of the Bible may be the greatest challenge the American Bible Society has ever faced.

For two hundred years, many conservative Protestants have assumed that mass distribution of the Bible was one of the keys to evangelizing the nation, and the world. And why not? Access to the Bible in the vernacular was, aside from salvation by grace alone, the defining issue of the Reformation.

Novo Testamento azul, bolso, Gideões Internacionais no Brasil. By JaymeJeronymo, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Of course, not all people have ready access to the Bible in their own language yet, a problem that inspires the heroic work of Wycliffe Bible Translators and similar organizations.

But with the saturation of free nations with the Bible, and the advent of online versions and popular Bible apps, I wonder if we have reached a turning point where, for much of the world, individual access to the Scripture is no longer a problem?

The appealing thing about giving out Bibles and Bible apps is that you can quantify distribution. But has Bible knowledge, or “engagement” with the Scripture, kept up with the scale of distribution? Few would answer ‘yes.’

I would never question the value of Bible distribution, per se: even if just one businessperson might find a Bible in their hotel room during a “dark night of the soul,” Bible distribution is a good thing.

But the church, and parachurch organizations like the Gideons and the ABS, need to reflect more on what fostering ‘engagement’ with the Bible is going to require. One indispensable ingredient in such engagement is a rigorously biblical teaching diet in our churches. It is difficult to justify three-point “life application” sermons that skim lightly over the text, when so many in our churches lack basic familiarity with Scripture. Outside of sermons, churches and believers will have to renew their efforts to invite friends, students, and co-workers to Bible studies, Sunday Schools, and small groups. This is tough, time-intensive work, though, and Bible “engagement” is normally less susceptible to quantification than giving out copies with no follow up.

The mass availability of hard and e-copies of Bibles, paired with pervasive ignorance of Scripture even among professing Christians, has made it more conspicuous that distribution is only part of the work with regard to proclaiming and teaching the Word.

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  • stefanstackhouse

    I’m not sure how helpful the distribution of old, archaic translations actually is. With every passing year, the English of the KJV becomes farther removed from the language that our contemporaries actually read and speak and understand. Those groups that have insisted on the KJV have succeeded in convincing many people that the Bible is too hard to read and understand, and thus isn’t worth the effort.

  • Kangaroo52

    Our pastor has a standard answer when someone asks him, “Which is the best Bible version?”
    “The one you read and apply.”

    The biblical illiteracy of the population at large is not surprising. Regrettably, the biblical illiteracy among regular churchgoers is very disturbing. The preachers need to be saying something more than “God loves you, be nice.”

  • Kangaroo52

    When you encounter a KJO person, ask him if he’s reading the original KJV, the one published in 1611. He’ll answer yes. Ask him if his KJV Bible contains the Apocrypha. He’ll answer no. But the KJV did contain the Apocrypha, even into the 1800s.

  • cken

    Almost nobody reads the bible any more it has become a religious icon. For the religious right it has become an idol, worshiped but rarely read outside of church.

  • cken

    OK and your point is???

  • Frank

    One in five of all American adults have read the Bible from start to finish. While it might not be shocking to discover well over half (61%) of evangelical Christians have read the Bible from start to finish, it may be surprising that nearly one in six (18%) of people with a faith other than Christianity and about one in eleven (9%) people with no faith claimed to have done the same.
    Approximately one-third of politically conservative adults say they have read the Bible, compared with one-tenth of political liberals. Nearly one-third (29%) of black adults say they’ve read the Bible from start to finish, more than Hispanic adults (22%) and white adults (19%). Boomers are the group with the highest likelihood to have read the Bible from start to finish, with nearly one-quarter (23%) reporting they had done so.

  • cken

    I don’t know where you got your numbers. I would like to believe they are correct, but a recent Pew poll indicated only 10% of all Christians read the Bible more than once a week other than at church.

  • Hilda Barnes

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  • Frank
  • cken

    The percentage of those who pray has little or nothing to do with the percentage who read the bible.

  • Nimblewill

    As a person who has spent the last 30 or so years studying the bible, I’ve found that the bible I am reading is not the bible I was taught from the pews. Maybe there’s a disconnect because most preachers only use proof-texts to get their point across instead of teaching the bible.