King James at 400: Are Americans Losing Their Appetite for the Word?
By Robert T. Frank
CEO, Bible League International
The publication of the King James Bible 400 years ago put an English version of the Holy Scriptures in the hands of the common man.
People who could read English no longer had to rely on the clergy to tell them what the Latin version of God’s Word meant. In this anniversary year, with a translation available for virtually every taste and temperament, the Bible is more accessible than ever in the English-speaking world.
But at a time when millions of people in the developing world hunger for their own copies of the Bible, the average American seems to have lost his appetite.
In another era, the family Bible was often the most-prized – or the only – book in the home. Children learned to read from it.
Today, Bible literacy has become a late-night joke, with Jay Leno walking through his studio audience, trying in vain to find someone who could cite one of the Ten Commandments.
"God helps those who help themselves?" someone guessed.
Research shows that more than 90 percent of U.S. homes, Christian or not, have a Bible, and many of them have more than one. Yet as George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli once observed, "Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don't read it."
In 2007, USA Today reported that 50 percent of high school seniors thought Sodom and Gomorrah were married. That same year, Time said that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels and fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book.
A widely quoted study by the Gallup organization in 2000 found that 59 percent of Americans said they read the Bible at least occasionally – down from 73 percent in the 1980s. That figure would likely be even lower today, because studies have found that younger people are less likely to read the Bible than older people.
“Among those Christians who do read the Bible, the majority of them only read it during the one hour they attend church each Sunday morning,” Dr. Ron Rhodes, a Bible scholar and the author of many books, told Assist News Service. “That is not enough to become biblically literate.”
The Center for Bible Engagement, a division of Back to the Bible, says, “Our evidence also suggests it is no longer enough to just hand out Bibles in this country because there is a high statistical probability that they won’t be read.”
As someone who oversees distributing Bibles, holding Bible studies, starting churches and training Christian leaders in more than 50 other countries, I’m struck by the irony of this situation. In many parts of the world today, people struggle for survival against famine, warfare, poverty and disease. To these people, a Bible is a rare treasure, more expensive than they can afford.
In other places, where Christians are persecuted, people can afford to buy Bibles, but they’re not carried by their local bookstores. And if someone is caught with a Bible, it may cost them their lives.
Obviously, we take the Bible for granted in this country. A Christian who doesn’t know his Bible is ill-equipped to defend it or live by its precepts.
Even if you’re not a Christian and care about Judeo-Christian values, great literature or world history, you might want to spend more time in the book once described by Christianity Today as “The Greatest Story Never Read.”
Robert T. Frank is the CEO of Bible League International, a non-profit evangelical Christian ministry dedicated to making disciples and training Bible study leaders and church planters using the Word of God.
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