Bible Illiteracy and the Contribution of Biblical Higher Education

      See Also: In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy

By Rafael Rodríguez
School of Bible and Theology
Johnson University
March 2014

Historians have recognized for over twenty-five years that defining the term “literacy” presents peculiar challenges. Is a person who can read and understand a sales receipt but not a work of literature “literate” or “illiterate”? What about a person who can read a familiar text but struggles with a new and unfamiliar text? What if such a person cannot write? And what role does intergroup conflict and polemics play in the assessment of il/literacy? As historians attempt to describe ancient societies, who, specifically, qualifies as “literate” and who as “illiterate”?[1]

Defining “Bible literacy” has not been any easier. Usually, discussions of Bible literacy leave the term undefined. For example, Christianity Today’s May 24, 2010 article, “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible,” appears to understand Bible literacy in terms of naming any of the four Gospels, identifying a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount, or recognizing popular biblical figures and/or stories.[2] Similarly—and wrongly—Gallup News Service’s November 19, 2004 report, “Third of Americans Say Evidence Has Supported Darwin’s Evolution Theory,” appears to equate biblical literacy with a literal interpretation of the Bible.[3]

As a professor of New Testament for undergraduate and graduate students, I can confirm anecdotally the truth of George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli’s quip, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don’t read it.”[4] And as a result of not reading the Bible, Americans don’t know the Bible.

For the last few years, however, I have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the “knowledge-of-content-details” approach to Bible literacy. My dissatisfaction was sparked by two factors. First, I was assigned to a work group that assessed the strengths and weaknesses of my university’s information literacy program. As I became aware of standard definitions and discussions of information literacy, I found that most people understand information literacy in terms of skills, competencies, and values, rather than in terms of knowledge.[5] A parallel understanding of Bible literacy would emphasize skills, competencies, and values with respect to the Bible and its potential influences in contemporary culture and society rather than picayune knowledge even of key biblical data.

Second, my colleagues and I tried to address problematic results in our students’ scores on the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) Bible content exam. The problems included (i) insufficient progress between first- and fourth-year students on the exam, (ii) an inexplicable gender gap in exam scores, (iii) problematic correlations between students’ majors and their performance on the exam, and others. As a faculty, we unanimously agreed that the standardized Bible content exam did not adequately assess our course objectives or in-class discussions and learning experiences. However, that agreement did not produce any consensus about how to assess our students’ learning as part of their Bible major, what we should assess for, or what standards we ought to expect of our students. If defining “Bible literacy” has proved difficult, assessing it is doubly problematic.

I do not have answers. Even so, I would like to see some discussion of the problem(s) and a broad-based set of solutions that transcend—but do not exclude—specific faith-traditions. Toward this end, I would like to point to a study released earlier this month by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, a program of the IU School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). “The Bible in American Life” examined “how people use the Bible in their personal daily lives and how other influences . . . shape individuals’ use of scripture.”[6] This emphasis on how Americans use the Bible—rather than what they know about the Bible—offers a glimpse into how Americans conceive what the Bible is and what it’s for. The results reported in “The Bible in American Life” might not be surprising, but they are (or ought to be) challenging for those of us who teach Bible in college, university, and Seminary settings. Here are three examples that strike me as particularly relevant:

Although the report does not have a specific section on gender, the authors repeatedly note that women outnumber men among those who read the Bible outside of a worship service. “Among most faiths and denominations in the United States, women constitute the greater portion of congregants and attendees. This gender difference can also be seen among those who read scripture individually, outside formal services: 56% of women and 39% of men said they read scripture individually in the past year.”[7]

If I understand the numbers rightly, this means that women are nearly 50% more likely to read the Bible outside of worship services than men. Surely such a tendency should give women an advantage in assessments of Bible literacy, right? If so, that advantage has not shown up in my own university’s assessment of Bible knowledge. In recent years, we have discovered a consistent—and as yet unexplained—gender gap among our students’ performance on Bible content tests.[8] According to the Director of Institutional Effectiveness at my university, “Female students on average score lower on these Bible tests than their male counterparts. It is difficult to identify a cause for this since the female students score higher on almost every other measure recorded by the university. The female students produced grade point averages about a quarter of a point higher than the males, yet the males earned higher scores on standardized Bible tests.”[9] We are not yet sure what to make of this trend. At the very least, we ought to be concerned that (i) women are more likely by half to read the Bible on their own, and yet (ii) they may also be more likely to score lower on our standard assessments of Bible literacy.

Unlike gender, the report does have a specific section on race.[10] A number of factors—including age, religious affiliation, and income—correlate positively to Bible reading outside of worship. “But the strongest correlation with Bible reading is race. Specifically, black people read the Bible at a higher rate than people of other races, and by a considerable margin. . . . 70% of all blacks said they read the Bible outside of worship at least once in the last year, compared to 44% for whites, 46% for Hispanics, and 28% for all other races.”[11]

The report discusses what African-Americans think about the Bible (“Out of all respondents, 50% of blacks view the Bible as the ‘inerrant word of God.’ This is more than twice the rate for white people.”[12]), how they read the Bible (“Of those who have read scripture in the past year, 68% of black people have memorized some passage, compared to 40% for whites and 55% for Hispanics.”[13]), and why they read the Bible (“to learn about many practical aspects of life,” including “personal relationships, wealth, and learning about the future”[14]). All three of these measures strike me as out-of-place in American institutions of biblical higher education, and yet they pertain precisely to the Americans most likely to read the Bible individually. Certainly part of the problem is racial. Historically (and even contemporarily), white males have dominated the field of biblical scholarship, and yet the Americans most likely to engage the Bible individually are neither white nor male. The solution, however, will have to transcend race; that is, those of us who teach the Bible and/or prepare women and men for ministry must learn to address the interests and concerns of those with are historically and culturally prone to actually read the Bible. Failure at this point, whatever our racial or ethnic makeup, only heightens the “ivory tower” of biblical scholarship and further marginalizes professional engagement with scripture.

The longest single section “The Bible in American Life” reports individuals’ reasons for reading the Bible.[15] “Despite the coverage popular media gives to people claiming biblical mandates on social issues, individuals are actually far more likely to read the Bible for personal edification and growth than to shape their views of culture war issues. Indeed, Bible readers consult scripture for personal prayer and devotion three times more than they do to learn about abortion, homosexuality, poverty, or war.”[16]

Over a decade and a half ago, Robert Ferris and Ralph Enlow issued a call to reassess “Bible college distinctives” in order to develop “a new Bible college mandate.”[17] The authors identify seven distinctive features of Bible colleges as a result of their (generally) reactionary formation against “theological liberalism between 1890 and 1930.” Their fifth distinctive, “Emphasis on indoctrination in orthodoxy as a safeguard to doctrinal purity,” receives further discussion in a section entitled, “Critical Thinking.” This distinctive affected every aspect of academics at Bible colleges, but it especially impacted the study of the Bible. “In many cases, a devotional and homiletical handling of Scripture was substituted for careful textual and exegetical study.”[18] Despite significant increase in the number of Bible college faculty with “earned doctorates from evangelical or from non-evangelical and secular institutions,” the authors nevertheless warn, “our fundamentalist heritage is very much with us. Devotional and homiletic uses of Scripture still are valued more highly than serious biblical study.”[19] This warning resonates with me at a personal level.[20] Even so, I find it difficult to reconcile two facts, (i) that I direct much of my effort in the classroom toward motivating students to engage the Bible beyond merely as a devotional resource (and equipping them to do so), with (ii) that the majority—even vast majority—of Americans who engage the Bible on their own do so precisely for devotional purposes. I am in no way interested in re-tooling my classes into Sunday-school-esque experiences funded by federally backed student loans. But I cannot escape the suspicion that I am doing my students a disservice by ignoring or marginalizing the very motivations that might encourage them to read the Bible in the first place: personal prayer and/or devotion.

* * *

As I mentioned earlier, I do not have answers. As a relatively young and new scholar (I have been teaching for nearly eight years), however, I am beginning to wonder whether both my fundamentalist/evangelical Bible college education and my secular university education have missed some important factors in highlighting and promoting Bible literacy in the Church, among educated citizens more broadly, and in American (and Western) culture most generally. My fundamentalist background largely marginalizes two populations most likely to turn to the Bible on their own outside of formal worship services: women and minorities (esp. African-Americans and Latinos). My secular background often implicitly marginalizes the primarily religious and/or pious concerns of those interested in the Bible.

If we are going to take Bible literacy seriously, perhaps we ought to stop focusing on what percentage of the population can name one of the four Gospels or identify any of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we ought to start identifying and equipping our students (and our churches) with skills and values and competencies that reflect broader familiarity and engagement with the Bible. And perhaps we ought also develop more intentional ways of demonstrating the connection between traditional academic interests and the actual reasons “real people” read the texts we have devoted our professional lives to studying.


[1] See the recent discussion in Chris Keith, Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), esp. 20–33.

[2] See Collin Hansen, “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible,” Christianity Today 54/5 (May 2010): 38–41. Cited 20 March 2014. Online:

[3] See Frank Newport, “Third of American Say Evidence Has Supported Darwin’s Evolution Theory,” n.p. [cited 20 March 2014]. Online:….

[4] Quoted by Hansen, “Johnny,” 38.

[5] For example, see the Association of College and Research Libraries’s (ACRL) webpage, “Information Literacy Resources” ( [cited 20 March 2014]). On their page, “Introduction to Information Literacy,” the ACRL offers the following definition: “Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information” (, n.p.).

[6] Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, “The Bible in American Life: A National Study by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture,” 2 [cited 20 March 2014]. Online:….

[7] Ibid., 8; see also pp. 7, 11, 19, 22–23.

[8] My discussion of this issue relies solely on data from my institution. Although I suspect these general trends are more broadly applicable (i.e. we are not out of the mainstream), I do not have any data to support that suspicion.

[9] Private e-mail dated 21 March 2014

[10] See Goff, et al., “Bible,” 20–21.

[11] Ibid., 20.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 21, 20.

[15] Ibid., 22–27.

[16] Ibid., 22; my emphasis.

[17] Robert W. Ferris and Ralph E. Enlow, Jr., “Reassessing Bible College Distinctives,” Christian Education Journal 1/1 (1997): 5–19. Cited 21 March 2014. Online:

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] I received my bachelors and masters degrees at a Bible college and seminary in the American Midwest, I earned my PhD from a secular research university in Great Britain, and I teach at a private university with a Bible college heritage in the American South.

Comments (5)

Bravo and good luck. I hope this fine essay spurs some good discussions - and eventually actions.

#1 - Mark Erickson - 03/29/2014 - 14:47

Thank you, Mark. I am currently thinking along two possible lines of action: (i) developing lists of skills and competencies that a biblical education provides, skills and competencies beyond personal devotion, sermon preparation, etc., and (ii) developing a college-level course on the interplay between faith and critical thinking (the ways the two can be mutually informing; the ways the two can be oppositional and in tension, etc.).

The problem is that I am not aware of existing resources for these tasks; perhaps they're out there, but I'm not aware of them.

#2 - Rafael Rodriguez - 04/01/2014 - 12:11

For number two, I would check skeptic sources such as the Center for Inquiry. Atheist sources too. The best of them will likely reference the other side. I'll post some links to this piece, maybe someone can help.

#3 - Mark Erickson - 04/03/2014 - 05:22

Raphael, what you may consider is that many colleges -- some secular and others religious -- offer "Philosophy of Religion" courses, many dealing with such issues as you write about:

"Systematic and historical analysis of philosophical problems of religion, such as the problem of evil and theodicy, the conflict between religion and science, the relationship between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, and arguments about the nature and existence of God." Often "critical thinking" is offered as a separate course. An example of both are offered by The Community College of Philadelphia:

Should you search for such courses, you may find course outlines posted, along with required reading lists, etc., that may be of assistance to your project.

#4 - John Felix - 04/03/2014 - 14:11

An interesting piece with difficult issues. Your comment about rethinking how to define Biblical Literacy is intriguing. On another note, have you seen this poll from the Pew Foundation? It is a real eye-opener about who really knows their Bible-the Atheists!

#5 - Paul Flesher - 04/09/2014 - 21:27

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.