After all the very visible fighting about public displays of religious symbols— from 10 Commandments plaques to graveyard crosses to faith-themed war memorials to holiday manger displays—you might have developed the impression that most Americans don’t think the Bible matters today and they like it that way.
You’d be wrong.
There is a lot of speculation about both the current role and the appropriate role of the Bible in America. But each year, American Bible Society puts the guessing aside and asks a sampling of Americans to tell us how they view and use the Bible and what they believe its role should be in America. Recently, American Bible Society released this year’s results from that research in the 2012 State of the Bible report.
The State of the Bible in America in 2012 can be summed up in a two words: encouraging and unsettling.
The research, commissioned by American Bible Society and conducted by Barna Research, found that the majority of Americans (69%) believe the Bible provides answers on how to live a meaningful life. But while 79% believe they are knowledgeable about the Bible, 54% were unable to correctly identify the first five books of the Bible. And approximately half of Americans surveyed didn’t know the fundamental differences between the teachings of the Bible, Koran and Book of Mormon, with 46% percent saying they believe all three books teach the same spiritual truths.
While nearly half of Americans (47%) believe the Bible has too little influence in society—a far cry from the anti-faith picture often painted in culture—approximately half (46%) say they read the Bible no more than once or twice a year.
What The State of the Bible report also confirmed is that the lack of engagement with the Bible among Americans isn’t caused by a lack of access to it. Here in the United States, 85% of households own a Bible. Actually, most families own more than one, with a household average of 4.3 Bibles.
Looking more closely at the data, something really interesting emerges. When we examine responses to the question “Do you believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to live a meaningful life?”, we find that older respondents agreed at a much higher rate than did younger respondents. While 61% of those surveyed between ages 18-27 agreed, those 47 years and older agreed at a rate of 75%.
Before you assert that older people are just naturally more traditional, remember that the older group is made up of the Woodstock generation, free-love ‘70s kids and the MTV generation. The data seems to say that the older you are, the more likely you are to value the Bible. Maybe it’s that our own life experiences prove the value of the Bible’s wisdom?
There is no doubt that the findings in The State of the Bible lead to some obvious questions. For instance…
If Americans believe in the value of reading and applying the Bible, why don’t more of us do so?
If we believe that the Bible has the right amount of—or too little—influence in society, why is so much negative attention given to expressions of the faith in the God of the Bible?
When survey participants were asked what frustrated them most about reading the Bible, the most oft-cited response was that they “never had enough time to read it.” The busy-ness of our lives often make it difficult for us to follow through on what we say we value. Another reason I often hear from non-Bible readers is that they find the sheer size of the Bible to be overwhelming.
So where does someone start who wants to be a Bible reader but doesn’t have a lot of time? A good place to begin is with the “Essential 100.” This list of 100 key verses and related stories do not contain everything the Bible has to say. What it does provide is a concise way to understand the bigger arc of the Bible without getting bogged down. For all of those who wonder what the Bible is really all about, The Essential 100 (available at e100.americanbible.org) is a great starting point.
So is the Bible really relevant in 2012? You won’t know until you read it.
Lamar Vest is the president and CEO of the American Bible Society. Founded in 1816, the American Bible Society exists to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so all people may experience its life-changing message.
A note on survey methodology: The State of the Bible 2012 report contains the findings from a nationwide study commissioned by American Bible Society and conducted by Barna Research (a division of the Barna Group).