No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible . . .our knowledge of Judaism and Christianity needs to be more detailed than that of other great religions, if only because of the historical accident that has embedded the Bible in our thought and language.
–E.D. Hirsch, Jr,, Joseph Kett, James Trefil,
The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
The authors’ claim is true. The Bible is firmly embedded not only in our thought and language but also in our literature. Our everyday conversation is rich with common phrases that we may not realize have a Biblical origin. How often do we say or hear others recite phrases like “the writing on the wall”, “my brother’s keeper”, “beating swords into plowshares”, “cast the first stone”, “like a lamb to the slaughter”, living off “the fat of the land”, “Baptism by fire”, a real “Garden of Eden” or “forbidden fruit”. And certainly we have all heard of someone being referred to as a “Jezebel”, a “Judas”, a “good Samaritan”, a “doubting Thomas”, having the “patience of Job”, “as old as Methuselah”, a “scapegoat”, the “salt of the earth”, “antedeluvian”, a “prodigal son” or a “philistine” – all Biblical references. And we have heard battles or wars described as between “David and Goliath”, an”Armageddon”, “fight the good fight” or an “Apocalypse” – again, all from the Bible.
Biblical references and themes in literature abound – Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel, Jonah and the whale, the wisdom of Solomon, the suffering of Job, David and Bathsheba, Alpha and Omega, the eye of the needle, killing the fatted calf, the strength of Samson (and the disappearance of that strength when his hair was shorn). All of these are referred to in countless works of literature, including many of the plays of Shakespeare.
According to Guinness World Records, the Bible is the best selling book of all time with over 5 billion copies sold and distributed. And expanding on the fact that 91 percent of American households already own a Bible, with the average household owning four, a New Yorker article several years ago noted that the Bible continues to the the best selling book of the year – yes, every year, selling on the average about 25 million copies annually.
Since there are millions of Bibles in American homes and the Bible continues to be the number one best seller, it certainly must be the favorite book of Americans. Indeed it is. In a 2014 Harris poll, it still ranks as America’s favorite book, ahead of “Gone with the Wind” and the Harry Potter series (it’s Donald Trump’s favorite as well, right ahead of “The Art of the Deal”!). The Bible also ranks high on many lists of “books to take if stranded on a desert island”.
But I think that in spite of its sales and ownership figures, the Bible’s “favorite” status in statistics and lists is somewhat gratuitous and misleading because people are not reading it much anymore. Reading and learning about the Bible are not the same as owning one. Survey after survey show readership down even among Christian church-goers. Presently only 37 percent of Americans report reading the Bible once a week or more. Recent surveys indicated that 60 percent can’t name more than five of the ten commandments. Twelve percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife and almost 50 percent of high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. According to 82 percent of Americans, “God helps those who helps themselves” is a Bible verse. Many think that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham. And fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels.
In addition, children are increasingly unfamiliar with the Bible and the personalities and stories that used to be standard fare for children’s reading. Many of us developed of our “Biblical literacy” reading and hearing Bible stories as children at home, in Sunday school classes.or other religious instruction. But children are not reading Bible stories like they have in the past because they are simply not popular anymore. With the explosion of a huge variety of children’s literature in recent decades, there is certainly vastly more quality literature to choose from for children than there was when I was young. And Bible stories themselves are often deemed too graphic and violent to be chosen for children’s reading by many of today’s more discerning parents.
And because for centuries the Bible has permeated our lives as a historical document and as a work of literature and as noted above, Biblical references and allusions abound in world literature, I fear that as knowledge of the Bible declines, many readers do not recognize the references and illustrations from the “good book” and thus limit and restrict their literary experience.
Two of my favorite anecdotes, while getting a chuckle from many listeners, will elicit only blank stares from some. One story features Mark Twain (or General Sherman or Oscar Wilde, depending on the story’s real origin) being stranded at a big city hotel at which a Methodist ministers’ convention was being held and describing himself feeling like “a lion in a den of Daniels”. Another concerns a teacher assigning the children to sketch their rendition of Joseph, Mary and the Christ child’s “flight into Egypt”. Instead of the typical picture of Joseph leading a donkey carrying Mary and the child, one little boy had drawn an airplane with four people in the cockpit and the little student , when asked by the teacher about the fourth person, pointed out that it was “Pontius, the pilot”. Obviously one needs sufficient Bible background to “get” these stories.
I still remember all of the stories in my “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible” bought for me by my mother in 1954. This special book, now reproduced conveniently for reading on the internet by the Baldwin Project, related the major stories in the Bible in a realistic and entertaining manner. Although there are many efforts today to increase knowledge of the Bible, it seems that the rapidly increasing popularity of social media and other electronic diversions guarantee that the very opposite will occur and that people will come to know even less about the Bible than they do today, further eroding their full understanding and enjoyment of so much discourse and literature containing Biblical allusions and references.