Monday, May 26, 2008

International Survey on Biblical Literacy

I came across this article on a survey by the Catholic Biblical Federation and carried out by GFK Eurisko, described as a "sociological survey of sociological attitudes towards the Bible in various nations." Here is summary of some of the key findings, taken from the first article linked above:

• The United States has by far the highest level of its adult population that claims to have read at least one passage from the Bible in the last year (75%) and to have a Bible at home (93%), but it doesn’t score better than anyone else on tests of basic Biblical literacy. For example, large numbers of Americans, just like people in the other eight countries surveyed, mistakenly thought that Jesus had authored a book of the Bible, and couldn’t correctly distinguish between Paul and Moses in terms of which figure belongs to the Old Testament.

• Even within highly secularized nations such as France, the U.K. and Holland, broad majorities report a positive attitude towards the Bible, describing it as “interesting” and expressing a desire to know more about it.

• Broad majorities also describe the Bible as “difficult” and express a need for help in understanding it – suggesting, according to the authors of the study, a “teaching moment” for the churches.

• Fundamentalists, or those who take a literal view of Scripture, do not know more about the Bible than anyone else. In fact, researchers said, it’s readers whose attitudes they described as “critical,” meaning that they see the Bible as the word of God but in need of interpretation, who are over-represented at the highest levels of Biblical literacy. In other words, fundamentalists actually score lower on basic Biblical awareness.

• In virtually every country surveyed, those who take a “critical” view of the Bible represent a larger share of the population than either “fundamentalists” or “reductionists,” meaning those who see the Bible simply as literature or a collection of myths and legends. In the United States, “fundamentalists” are 27 percent of the population, “critics” 51 percent, and “reductionists” 20 percent. Interestingly, both Poland and Russia have a similar share of “fundamentalists,” despite lacking the strong Evangelical Protestant tradition familiar in the U.S.

• There is no apparent correlation between reading the Bible and any particular political orientation. In other words, it’s not the case that the more someone reads the Bible, the more likely they are to be a political conservative or liberal.

• Aside from the United States, there’s broad support in most nations for teaching the Bible in public schools, suggesting that large numbers of people attach cultural importance to the Bible even if it’s not part of their personal belief system. (The different result in the United States, according to researchers, flows from America’s unique tradition of church/state separation, in which families and churches rather than public schools have been the primary carriers of religious instruction).

• There no longer appear to be major differences in Biblical reading patterns and Biblical familiarity between countries with Catholic majorities and those with Protestant majorities, suggesting that, in the words of Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Italy, the president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, the Bible has become “the ecumenical book of all believers.”

There is a lot here to digest, and apparently this is only an interim report that covers the northern hemisphere. Results for the southern hemisphere will also be compiled. But the information available leads me to the following reflections.

1. Despite having a higher percentage of people actually reading the Bible, those in the US do not have a better functional literacy. I could suggest a variety of causes, but the bottom line is that this observation alone demands that the church must do a far better job of helping people see how the Bible fits together. This trend is only getting worse; biblical literacy among those entering Bible colleges is on a fast track downward with no sign of abating.

2. The fact that a large percentage of people remain interested in the Bible is an opening for the church to focus its preaching and teaching on the Bible. But we must do so in a way that is faithful to the text. We need to help people see what God said to his people and the world then AS WELL AS what God is saying to his people and the world now. If one of these elements is lacking we are not being faithful.

3. Broad majorities expressing that the Bible is difficult to understand would suggest opportunities for the church to explain how the Bible fits together. I have seen this myself with both Christians and non-Christians. Especially here in the US, people have bits and pieces of the Bible, but have little if any understanding of how the whole Bible fits together. It is one of the most rewarding things I do in ministry to help people see how the Bible is one unified story running from creation to new creation with Christ as the centerpiece of redemptive history.

4. Without having more detail on how they define "fundamentalism" and "critical" it is hard to know how to interpret the comment that fundamentalists actually score lower on biblical literacy. The way it is described here makes me suspicious at the least.

5. As with the last point, without seeing further definition of the terms "fundamentalist," "critical" and "reductionist" I can't comment beyond noting the interesting fact that the percentages are the same in the US and Russia.

6. I am not surprised at the lack of correlation between Biblical literacy and specific political persuasions. For the Bible to effectively shape one's politics in any meaningful way, it would have to form the worldview of a person. Short of that, people will easily read their own political beliefs into the Bible.

7. The wording of the last observation about countries with Catholic and Protestant majorities having little difference sounds fishy to me. But even if we take it at face value, the most likely explanation in my mind is that Catholics have made modest gains at best while Protestants have regressed significantly. In other words, this is not a point for the Catholic church to rejoice about so much as it is a point for the Protestant church to lament.

It would have been nice to know within the huge category of "Protestant" how evangelicals fared, but the sad news I would not be confident of a significant difference. By God's grace we must resolve to understand the Bible well ourselves and communicate it to others in a way that enables them to encounter Christ and be transformed by him.

HT: Bayly Blog

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,

Great post. I'm trying to do my part, and many have been helped. Your readers might check out

Keep up the good work,

Mitch Maher