Some Consolation in the Biblical Illiteracy of Modern American Christians



This piece I post not without some trepidation. I throw it out into the blogosphere nevertheless. For what it is worth.

I was listening to a podcast this morning by an atheist, turned Christian apologist, who commented that an “overwhelming number” of American Christians do not know what scripture says about key issues, including salvation. The comment stood out to me, so I googled it.

I found a Lifeway article that doesn’t focus on Christians, per se, but on Americans generally[1]. (We’re supposedly a Christian nation, right?) The article focused not on the content, but on how much of the Bible people have read. While the article didn’t focus on people who call themselves Christians, it began to paint the picture.

A whopping 53% of the people polled had read no more than “several passages” or “a few stories”. Twenty three percent (23%) had read no more than “only a few sentences”, and ten percent (10%) of the people polled hadn’t read a single word of the Bible.

I am not completely surprised, though I would love to see the percentage of those people who have a strong opinion about what the Bible says.

About fifteen percent (15%) of the people polled said they had read “at least half” of the Bible. Another twelve percent (12%) said they had read “almost all of it. Only twenty percent (20%) of the people polled said they had read all of the Bible, but only nine percent (9%) had read all of it more than once.

Clearly, we are not very Bible literate as a nation, though we have strong opinions on what we think the Bible says. That goes for people who have strong positive opinions and strong negative opinions.

Interestingly, I found an article written by a well-known atheist that suggests most Christians don’t understand the fundamentals of their faith.[2] He concludes, “This survey shows that a lot of people take on a particular religious label, not because they have a full understanding of what that faith believes, but for other more superficial reasons. Maybe their parents raised them in it. Maybe they were led to that religion by a friend. Maybe they attended a service and found it welcoming and inspiring.” Anecdotally, I see some truth in that statement.

It’s not just atheists making that observation. An article by the Barna Group, a Christian organization, finds that most churchgoers have “never heard of” the Great Commission.[3] Another article commenting on a similar survey concludes that most Americans are heretics and claims the results show that even “those who wear Christianity on their sleeve” … “Christmas-treed the survey, espousing all kinds of unorthodox views”.[4]

I found many articles by Christian leaders expressing concern about Bible illiteracy among people who consider themselves Christians (calling it a big problem[5], a scandal[6] a crisis[7] and an epidemic[8]), so it seems there truly are an “overwhelming number” of American Christians who do not know what scripture says about key issues – to circle back to where I started. And, where do I get off this feedback loop?

I find one consolation, at least, in all of this: perhaps many, or even most, of the people calling themselves Christian in political polls probably don’t know Scripture any better than Donald Trump does.

Can we trust that all the self-identifying Christians in those political polls represent authentic, orthodox, sincere and true belief in the actual tenets of the Gospel? I think not.

Is that really a consolation? Taking my tongue out of my cheek, I think not.

But, maybe there is some consolation. Reading through the Old Testament (as I am now), I am struck, again, by how quickly the people stray from the clear revelation of God (even with signs and wonders to attesting to it). I am struck that over the long course of the history of people and God, it’s only a remnant that truly follow and understand.

While Moses was up on the mountain receiving God’s very word to the people, the people were in the valley egging the priest, Aaron, on in the making of a golden idol. Those people grumbled for forty years in the wilderness, and the only reason they spent that much time there was because they didn’t trust God to do what He said he would do. God had to wait for that generation to die out before leading the next generation in to the promised land.

The instruction to the next generation was to drive out all the people who lived there. Every last one of them. Otherwise, they would become a snare to them and entice them away from God to worship other gods. They didn’t do it, of course. They left pockets of people in the promised land who became the snare that they were warned about.

The history of Israel and Judah (that split off from Israel) is a history of straying from God. That split left only the tribe of Judah as the remnant. (2 Kings 17:8) God eventually allowed Israel, first, to be taken captive by the Babylonians, then the remnant Judah. Isaiah predicted, “For though your people, O Israel, may be like the sand of the sea, Only a remnant within them will return….” (Isaiah 10:22)

A remnant was left in the land of Judah, (Jeremiah 40:11-12), and only a remnant returned to the land of God’s promise, as Isaiah predicted. (Ezra 2:1-2)

The theme of the remnant occurs throughout Scripture.  Noah and his family were, perhaps, the first remnant. Joseph said that his purpose was to preserve a remnant for God on the earth. (Gen. 45:7) When Jesus came to his own, we are told in John’s Gospel, his own didn’t receive him, “[b]ut as many as received him, to them He gave the right to become children of God….” (John 1:11-12)

The idea of the remnant is similar to what is left after a fire sweeps through the landscape, and that is the word picture in the prediction of the coming of the Messiah: “Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, And it will again be subject to burning, Like a terebinth or an oak Whose stump remains when it is felled The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:13) “Then a shoot will spring from the stem [stump] of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1)

The remnant are the people who come out of calamity with renewed vigor for God and focus on God’s purposes. “[T]he LORD of hosts will become a beautiful crown and a glorious diadem to the remnant of His people.” (Isaiah 28:5) Like the pruning of a bush, the remnant grows strong and bears fruit though it has experienced much loss. “The surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward.” (Isaiah 37:31)

Maybe the consolation is that God is still cultivating His remnant – the people who hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him. We are told that wide is the path that most people follow – the path that leads to destruction. In this time of calamity, with the corona virus ravaging the world, now is the time to press in to God even closer than we have pressed before.

Now is the time to reset our priorities and clear away the idols from inside our hearts. Now is the time to return to Him, to repent from our waywardness, immerse ourselves in reading the Word of God, praying and drawing near to the Author and Perfecter of our souls. That is the pattern of the history of God’s people. God uses calamity to call people back to Him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Postscript:

Interestingly, I just read a comment on a YouTube video about growing up in church, going through a time of deconstruction and atheism, and return to faith after reading the Bible without the previous preconceptions. The comment?

“The biggest problem with Christians is that most of them haven’t read the Bible.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] LifeWay Research: Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It by Bob Smietana April 25, 2017

[2] Survey Shows Most Christians Don’t Understand the Fundamentals of Their Faith by Hemant Mehta August 31, 2017.

[3] 51% of Churchgoers Don’t Know of the Great Commission posted online by the Barna Group

[4] Survey Finds Most American Christians Are Actually Heretics by G. Shane Morris for The Federalist, October 10, 2016.

[5] Biblical Illiteracy Is a Big Problem—for Christians by Jason Bradley on February 26, 2019

[6] The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem by Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. January 20, 2016

[7] The crisis of Biblical illiteracy in America by Bill Arnold, June 27, 2018; and The Crisis of Bible Illiteracy by Kenneth Berding for Biola Magazine.

[8] The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches by Ed Stetzer on July 6, 2015

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