There was a time (c. AD 1408) when censorship was so oppressive that to possess a copy of the Bible in England was a crime punishable by death. The Bible was a lost book to the people then, much as it is today; but in their day it was a question of access, not of apathy. For the first time in its 26-year reportorial existence The Holy Bible has made the top-ten list (#6) of American’s most frequently challenged books, joining the ranks of other titles such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Two Boys Kissing.” With the Bible’s apparent fall from grace are we transforming into a censor-centric American dystopia? The Bible is hotly contested … or is it? Hardly.
In 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy stated in the Saturday Review, “If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor.” The American Library Association (ALA) agrees and in an effort to curb censorship their Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) releases an annual report of the most challenged books in public libraries and schools. According to ALA’s President, Sari Feldman, a “book challenge” is a formal request to remove a title from a library collection, curriculum or bookstore. The OIF received 275 total challenges in 2015 and their list, albeit extremely helpful in gauging the targets of public censorship, is not a representative metric of the attitudes and opinions of 325 million Americans, and certainly not toward the Holy Bible.
Far from being most contested, the Bible is a book which continues to be celebrated in society as an overall force for good. In the same calendar year of ALA’s most challenged book list, the Bible immersed significant parts of Hollywood, the small screen, music, politics, archeology, and scholarship. YouVersion, the Bible App created by Life.Church, has been downloaded nearly 225-million times, making over 1,200 Bible translations available in nearly 1,000 languages. Showcasing the rich history, influence and impact of the Bible, in 2017 the six-floor 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible will open only two blocks from the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Americans spend nearly 2.5 billion dollars a year on Bibles and related Christian materials (it has been estimated Americans spend a half-billion dollars per year buying new Bibles—and that number is increasing). Notwithstanding, this reality brings to mind the thoughts of Samuel Clemens (aka, Mark Twain), who once remarked, “‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.” Americans are biblically illiterate, but this doesn’t mean they don’t care about the Bible’s prominent place and influence in society.
Government-sponsored destruction of the Bible has occurred for two thousand years. Even in the English-speaking world, significant attempts have been made to usher the Bible into extinction. After John Wycliffe (1320–1384) and his followers created an uproar by translating the Latin Bible (Latin died as a language with the Roman Empire in ad 476) into English, it became a capital offense to translate, read, or possess an English Bible. In the fall of 1526, the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, led a massive book burning behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, in an area known as St. Paul’s Cross. Thousands of Bibles were lost.
What happened? History tells us the Bible grew in prominence and respect because the Bible is also the Holy Survivor.
Jeremiah J. Johnston, Ph.D., is president of Christian Thinkers Society, a Resident Institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves at Associate Professor of Early Christianity.