Book Notes: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t

Essential reading for those interested in the role of religion in American life is Religious Literacy: What Every American Need to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero.  Through the pages of his evocative study, Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, laments over the paradoxical fact that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.”

The volume is divided into three main sections.  Part I lays out the problem that America is a nation of religious illiterates.  Some 75% of the nation’s adults believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”  More than 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.  Just one half of all Americans can name even one of the four Gospels of the New Testament.

And fewer than half can identify Genesis as the first book of the Old Testament.  Even more alarming, professed evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.

Part II, addressing the historical origins of this deficiency, is divided into two subsections.  The first, “Eden (What We Once Knew)” provides an historical overview of Anglo-American education back to the seventeenth century Puritans, whose New England Primer set the pattern for teaching children the basic contents of the Bible.  Subsequent generations were similarly informed through Noah Webster’s Speller, McGuffey’s Readers, and pious schoolbooks published throughout the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth.

The second subsection, “The Fall (How We Forgot),” as the title suggests, describes the emergence of Religious illiteracy, set into motion during the early nineteenth century by a number of developments.  Among these was the demise of Puritanism and subsequent emergence of the Second Great Awakening.  This latter movement deemphasized doctrinal differences between different denominations while affirming emotional manifestations of faith over religious knowledge as essential for individual salvation.    

Part III “The Proposal” offers suggestions for reclaiming religious literacy.  Both one’s family and church can contribute to this process. But the author frames the problem as a civic issue, provocatively proposing that religion be taught as an “objective academic discipline…in public schools.”

Sensitive to the controversial nature of this suggestion he asserts that “teaching about religion—as distinct from preaching religion—is not prohibited by the First Amendment’s ban on the ‘establishment of religion.’”

Also contained in Prothero’s spritely-written volume is an “A Dictionary of Religious Literacy”—an extensive alphabetical list of terms and concepts dealing with religion in all its forms.  The author concludes his work with a “Religious Literacy Quiz” along with answers, inviting readers to test their own knowledge.

In essence, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, is worth possessing, both as an informative history and valuable reference work.

Newell G. Bringhurst, a retired COS Professor of History and Political Science welcomes responses and comments at [email protected]m

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  1. The literary genius of The Bible is that the multiplicity of voices (those who wrote of their experience of YHWH) is so varied that it engages so many different readers in different ways. In essence it is a vast Rorschach test which allows people to believe what they want to believe.

  2. I fully agree with this article, that Christians need to be more familiar with the Bible and to read it more often. But that’s only half the battle. To do this reading effectively it’s also necessary to pick out the right texts.

    Let me suggest that the best text for this sort of familiarization read is not a standard Bible, but rather a consolidated version of the gospels – something that takes the four accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and edits them together into a single narrative in chronological order. Such a book would present the core story of Christianity, the most important part of the Bible for Christians, but would do so in a format that is easier for most parishioners to follow.

    That’s exactly what’s needed in a reach for improved familiarity.
    The underlying goal of bible literacy is desirable for all the reasons given. It would be good for Christians to be more familiar with the moral teachings and the theology of their faith. It would also be good for the general public – believers and secular people alike – to reconnect with a shared cultural work of literature and philosophy. This would allow people to enjoy hundreds of years of great art done on religious themes (say, the penitent Magdalene) that modern viewers may not recognize. It would also give us all a set of shared references, analogies, and examples, which is bound to elevate the tone of public discourse.

    Given this goal, most people’s first reaction is to reach for some standard edition of the Bible, and to read from that. That may not be the best approach however.

    The Bible actually has qualities that most readers find daunting. In some translations the text is archaic and hard to follow; in others it is so contemporary that it does not hold the imagination as scripture. Most fundamentally, the most important part of the Bible for most Americans – the gospel – is divided into four accounts that must be simultaneously held in mind and mentally assembled.

    This complexity may be meat and drink to professional theologians, but it is a problem for ordinary churchgoers.

    What’s needed is a new arrangement of the gospels that is specifically designed for the purposes of reading and familiarization.

    This would be a fully consolidated text. Such a text would use all the words and only the words of the four accounts, but would present this material in a fully integrated form. It should weave together the texts at the level of individual phrases or even individual words when the accounts overlap sufficiently. This genre is sometimes referred to as a “radical harmony” of the gospels.

    Some traditional shortcuts should be avoided. We don’t want to select just one gospel’s description of each particular event, because that would leave out too much. Nor do we want to present the four gospels in separate parallel columns, because that would still impose too much of the burden of integration on the reader.

    A properly consolidated linear text should be easy reading. The annunciation to the shepherds and the visit of the magi will then follow one another in a natural order. Other events become more understandable by having all their details brought together in one place. This is especially useful with complex stories such as Jesus’ climactic interview with Pilate, or the crucifixion, both of which are covered in all four accounts.

    A good teaching version of the gospels will also come in a new translation. This will be someplace in the King James family, because one of the purposes is to place the Bible in its context in Western civilization. However, the wording should be inconspicuously updated, not so much to maximize the accuracy of the translation, as to maximize its self-explanatory qualities. The reader should know immediately what is being said and should not be distracted by mechanics.

    This process leaves some room for editorial choice. I have prepared my own consolidated gospel, called The Single Gospel (Wipf and Stock), and in it I made a further choice to trace the cultural influence of the Bible. Such a translation will make a special effort to identify familiar turns of phrase — from the original King James, or from common idioms — and to be sure that those are present in the traditional wording.

    So, for example, a culturally-sensitive translation will retain the traditional Christmas greeting of “peace on earth, good will to men,” rather than the current literal translation of “peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Similarly, some current idioms are slightly misremembered phrases from standard editions, but can still be legitimately used as the basis for alternative translations. In this category are the classic “turn the other cheek” or “cast the first stone.”

    A consolidated gospel has its limitations, of course. For one thing, a consolidated gospel is not scripture. The authoritative texts are still the four individual gospels, and the consolidated text is a companion or study guide to them.
    Nonetheless, a consolidated text provides a sort of ideal platonic form of the gospels – the Bible story as everyone thinks they have remembered it all along, and as it lives in our contemporary culture.

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