The Magazine

Bible Illiteracy in America

From the May 23, 2005 issue: A report just issued by the Bible Literacy Project suggests that young Americans know very little about the Bible. The report is important, but first things first: A fair number of Americans don't see why teenagers should know anything at all about the Bible.

May 23, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 34 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But can you teach the Bible as mere "literature" without flattening and misrepresenting it? How will you address the differences (which go right down to the ground) between Jews and Christians respecting the Bible? (The question is not so much how to spare Jewish sensibilities--minorities have rights, but so do majorities; the question is how to tell the truth.) What kind of parents leave their children's Bible education to the public schools, anyway? How do we go beyond public schools in attacking a nationwide problem of Bible illiteracy?

Tricky questions.

AMERICAN HISTORY STARTS with the emergence of Puritanism in 16th-century Britain. The Bible was central to the founding and development of Puritanism. It was central to the emergence of modern Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries--and modern Britain was important in turn to America and to the whole world.

"Puritan" has been an insult for hundreds of years. (Where are the revisionists when you need one?) It suggests rigid, austere, censorious--exactly the kind of religion that secularists love to hate. The Puritans were rigid and censorious to a point; most caricatures are partly true. But mainly they were Christians who hoped to worship God with their whole lives, body and soul; with a dazzling fervor that still lights up their journals, letters, and poetry 300 years later. In the early 18th century the young Jonathan Edwards (eventually one of America's greatest theologians) writes of being "wrapped and swallowed up in God." "The Puritans wanted that fullness of life that made David dance before the ark" (thus J.D. Dow in 1897). America was born in a passionate spiritual explosion. The explosion was created and fueled by the Bible.

The invention of printing in the mid-15th century, and the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th--whose central idea was that Scripture and not human theological doctrine must be decisive for Christianity--created an English Bible-reading craze. The masses were hungry for literature, and religion was the hottest topic on the agenda. Already in Henry VIII's reign (1509-47), the Bible was "disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern," according to the king himself--who was not happy about it. The Bible was a radical, subversive book.

English Bible translations date back to medieval times. (In fact earlier: The first translation, into Anglo-Saxon rather than English proper, was a word-by-word crib added to the Latin of the circa-700 Lindisfarne Gospel Book--one of history's most sublimely beautiful manuscripts and greatest artworks.) But translating the Bible into English was no mere literary act. It was a controversial theological declaration. Religious reformers saw the English Bible as nothing less than a direct connection between ordinary Christian believers and the Lord. Putting the Scripture into English was sacred work; some were willing to die for it. They were opposed by such Roman Catholic stalwarts as Sir Thomas More, who expressed a widely held view when he proclaimed it "pestilential heresy" to think that "we should believe nothing but plain Scripture."

The English Bible as we know it begins with John Wycliffe's work in the late 14th century. Wycliffe preached the primacy of the Bible and founded the Lollards' movement, which in many ways harks forward to the Protestant Reformation. When he died in 1384, Wycliffe's English Bible was nearly complete. But his translation was banned in 1408, and the Lollards (who had become revolutionaries of a sort) were brutally suppressed. Many were burnt alive with Bibles hung around their necks.

In the early 16th century the next great English translator, William Tyndale, announced to a learned theologian that "ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scripture than thou dost." Tyndale was inspired by Luther and dedicated to the task of producing an up-to-date English Bible. The English church denounced him; he fled to the continent. He was declared a heretic nonetheless, arrested near Brussels, and executed in 1536.

Henry VIII banned Tyndale's translation for its alleged Protestant tendencies, but promised the nation a religiously acceptable English Bible. Meanwhile he brought Protestantism to England in his own idiosyncratic way. From Henry's time onward, the English Bible was an established fact of English life. In his exhaustive analysis (1941), Charles Butterworth ranks Tyndale's the early version that contributed most to the King James Bible. The Geneva Bible ranks a close second. It was published in 1560, two years into the reign of Queen Elizabeth.