Just to give a concrete example of this low biblical literacy, just look at Mike Huckabee (who is also a Southern Baptist minister) and his speeches loaded with Biblical references, for instance the one delivered on February 5, 2008.
Tonight, we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor. And we’ve also seen that the widow’s mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world.
(Yeah, the link misspelled “widow’s mite” as “widow’s might.” Huh…)
(In case you didn’t get what he was talking about, two hints: 1 Samuel 17 and Mark 12:41-44.) Timothy Beal poses the question: “Just how broad was Huckabee’s base? How many actually had ears to hear? Probably not as many as he hoped.”
National Public Radio’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty did a little Jay Leno-style research on the National Mall to see how many passersby recognized the candidate’s smooth stone and widow’s mite as biblical. One conjectured that the smooth stone might have something to do with war. Or maybe peace? None seemed to recognize it as biblical. What about the widow’s mite? A mite’s a bug, right? Maybe a spider?
The above shows the Biblical illiteracy that plagues modern society (something that is no surprise to people like religious historian Stephen Prothero - who told Hagerty that Huckabee’s “[had] an exceedingly small target audience, about as small as the percentage of animals climbing on Noah’s ark” - and groups like the Bible Literacy Project). In addition Beal provides a few revelations based on recent polls and surveys and personal experience, and I quote:
[INDENT]Less than half of all adult Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis, in Hebrew Bereshit) or the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse. I suspect that many would also say that “The Serenity Prayer” and the “Footprints in the Sand” parable are in there somewhere.
More than half of graduating high school seniors guess that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, and one in ten adults believes that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. (Those two must’ve been multiple-choice questions.)
Almost two-thirds of Americans can’t name at least five of the Ten Commandments. Some of these people, moreover, are outspoken promoters of them. Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland, cosponsor of a bill to display the Ten Commandments in the chambers of the Houst of Representatives and Senate, could remember only three when Stephen Colbert asked him to recite them on The Colbert Report (Colbert, who I hear teaches Sunday school at his church, would have done considerably better).
Let me add another daturm, albeit more or less anecdotal. Among the few hundred students I’ve taught in college-level introductions to biblical literature over the past couple of years, I estimate that more than half came to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code than from actual biblical texts. In the old days, biblical studies professors talked about demythologizing the Bible in order to, for example, sort out the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” Nowadays we might want to add demythologizing Da Vinci to the learning objectives.[/INDENT]
There are of course exceptions to this rule - there are indeed people out there who actually crack open the covers of their Bibles, know it inside and out like the back of their hand, and conduct or attend Bible studies. But as the author notes:
[W]e’re talking about a truly exceptional population – a remnant, to use a biblical metaphor that they might appreciate. Even among the majority of Christians who identify themselves strongly with the Bible, Bible reading is a rare activity. In a 2005 nationwide survey of religious values, practices and behaviors like Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, more than half of those identifying themselves as “Bible-believing” said they had not participated in any kind of Bible study or Sunday school program at all in the past month.