Tuesday, June 04, 2013

reading the Bible

The pollsters at the Barna group just announced the results of a survey about what Americans are reading.

Most of the questions seemed to revolve around a few popular books or books recently adapted into movies, like The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, or Life of Pi, but Barna also asked about the Bible: how many people claim to have read the entire Bible? What generations are these readers from? What faith do they claim?

Honestly, I found the results surprising all around.
20% of American adults claim to have read the Bible all the way through. That would be pretty impressive to me. I've known a lot of folks, evangelicals, who will use a One-Year Bible or a similar reading plan, and so, with a little discipline, they'll get through the book in a matter of time. And I'm sure a lot of other people, like myself, have gotten all the way through the Bible by a more... roundabout... and drawn out process. It was probably eight years of reading here and there--oh! I've never heard of this book, better read it too--and rereading this or that, before I got through the entire Bible. If it took me that long, someone who really enjoys reading and studying scripture and who thinks it's of vital importance to his life, I can't imagine how people who don't enjoy reading the Bible or who don't have a religious impetus for reading it could get through.

A lot of these people are non-Christians. 18% of Americans who claim a faith other than Christianity, and 9% of Americans who claim no faith at all, say they've read the Bible. (Now, I'm assuming Mormons would be 'non-Christian' by Barna's standards--though I could be wrong on that--and so the number of individuals of other faiths who've read the Bible might be less surprising than it looks at first blush.)
My first reaction to this was: 'Huh. And how many Christians have read the Quran?' Or any other non-Christian holy books, for that matter? (And you can't count the Hebrew Bible. That's cheating.) I had to read some things majoring in religion at a public university, but otherwise I'm not so sure I'd have ever read texts like the Bhagavad-Gita or the Yoga Sutra. I'd love to see some more numbers comparing the inter-faith reading of different groups, because this sure leaves me feeling like Christians are going to be the least interested in learning about other beliefs.

You can check out the rest of the results here.

Like I said, these results surprised me. Frankly, the '1 in 5 have read the Bible' actually sounds a little questionable. 1 in 5 Americans have read Leviticus? They've read 1 Chronicles 1-9? 1 in 5 have read every word of the Psalms, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel? I find this more than a little hard to believe. Surely, surely, there's a degree of  'oh, sure, I've read the Bible!' affecting those results. Sometimes, when a book or author is so influential and so talked-about, I think it's easy to assume you've read them, feel like you must have read them, even if you haven't. But I'm just speculating here--maybe these numbers are right on.

I hope people do read the Bible, though.
One of my aims in preaching and teaching is to get people interested in it and excited about it--because I think it's an interesting and exciting book (which is helpful when it's also very long and absolutely essential!).
I told a group once that I think the Bible is a bit like Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We assume we know the character--we've seen the Disney cartoon, or we've read an abridged, children's version of the tale. Quasimodo is the kindly, lonely, misunderstood bell-ringer of Notre Dame. And he has quite a singing voice. Yet when you read Victor Hugo's classic, you find that the hunchback is much less Disney, much less kid-friendly, than you thought. He's grittier, more real. For instance: not only does he not sing, but he barely speaks, because years of ringing the cathedral bells has left him deaf--he uses sign language.

The Bible's grittier and more real than you'd expect. It's not the collection of brightly-colored kids' stories you learned about in Sunday school. And like Hunchback, the Bible's more stirring and more beautiful than the popular conceptions floating around could ever convey. I hope people read it.

How about you? What do you think of these numbers? Have you read the Bible all the way through? How did you do it? What made it difficult? What could help?
Have you read any sacred books from other faiths?

1 comment:

Emily said...

I have read Les Miserables unabridged all the way through. ..wait.. that's not a religious text? Dang.

To answer your prompt questions:
I think that 1 in 5 have read the whole Bible is preposterous. Really. There is some boring stuff in there. I would imagine that a number along those lines (20%) could reflect people who have read a significant part of the "popular" canon.. Genesis, the fun parts of Exodus, some Psalms and Proverbs, maybe Esther, the gory bits of Judges, the naughty bits of Song of Solomon, the letters of Paul, the gospels, and Revelation. That would seem much more likely.

I think I've read the Bible all the way through. My "English Bible as Literature" class helped a smidge with that, but that was mainly stuff I'd encountered before. Sitting down and making a plan to read everything I hadn't read before got that done for the NT, and I've read all the apocryphal and deuterocanonical stuff, and am still slogging through a few of the long boring OT books (luckily Leviticus happened a year ago and that's not looming over my head). I don't think it can be done without determination. If the "Battle of Waterloo" chapter of LM stopped me for a few months... God knows some of the OT is a downer.

What made it difficult? Genealogies. Ritual purity and sacrifice. The bane of Bible readers everywhere. But, that probably has to do with our expectations as readers wanting narratives, not.. anti-narratives.

What could help? Nothing. But I wonder what The Message does with those boring parts...

Other sacred books? Oh, I've read plenty.. some of the Gita and the Sutras in college (with a more focused intent on that within the next couple years), I think I read the i Ching, and plenty of Buddhist philosophy the last couple years. Read some of the Book of Mormon. More of that one day. The Qu'ran...I read about 1/3 of it straight thru, but, honestly, that's not how to read any sacred text.

We need guidance when encountering other traditions.. even our own. Maybe if we knew how to read those boring parts of the OT, wed understand why they were there. In the same way, we can't expect to read the Qu'ran or the Lotus Sutra without some cultural knowledge... can you imagine the havoc people could wreak reading the Bible without the benefit of the Christian tradition?

Oh. Right. Plenty. We see that all the time.

...read the Bible. Get a commentary. Talk to friends.

Also. Read the Qu'ran, read the Gita, read some Sutras. Talk to non-Christian and Christian friends. And read guiding books.

And read Notre Dame de Paris (Hunchback). Because Hugo is right up there with the major world religions... in good translations only, of course.

.....I think our dinner is done now, babe. Let's get to that.