Bible Literacy Report: What Do Americans Need to Know and What Do They Know?

Justin Torres

Bible Literacy Project
May 2005

What do Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, William Blake, John Winthrop, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King have in common? The works of all these writers are deeply imbued with the phrases and rhythms of the Bible. Not to know the Bible is to be unable to grapple successfully with a sizable chunk of Western literature and philosophy. But schools are understandably confused about legal issues surrounding the Bible's presence in the classroom and teachers worry about giving offense or being sued. That's a tremendous loss to students who are being denied access to an important cultural artifact - a loss for cultural literacy that the Bible Literacy Project is attempting to rectify. This month, the Templeton-funded project (which has the support of both major Christian churches and the ACLU) released this survey of students and teachers to test their knowledge of important stories, phrases, and concepts from the Bible. Results are decidedly mixed. Almost three-quarters of students know that Moses "led the Israelites out of bondage," while more than 90 percent know who Adam and Eve are. (Unfortunately, 8 percent "believe that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles.") But get beyond a few key concepts, as David Gelernter notes in the Weekly Standard, and knowledge falls off dramatically - two-thirds of teens couldn't identify the phrase "Blessed are the poor in spirit" from the Sermon on the Mount, while similar numbers were ignorant of phrases such as "the road to Damascus" or such stories as David and Saul. This fall, BLP will be releasing a textbook, The Bible and American Civilization, which we're eager to review. You can get this survey here.

"Bible illiteracy in America," by David Gelernter, Weekly Standard, May 23, 2005

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