Home Commentary A Societal Decline in Bible Reading: What Are the Implications?

A Societal Decline in Bible Reading: What Are the Implications?

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Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.

By Stephen Presley

(OPINION) No one is reading the Bible. Well maybe not no one, but fewer, much fewer people. And that is a problem.

Late last year, the American Bible Society published its annual “State of the Bible” report, and the results signal a dramatic decline in Bible reading. It seems clear that we are cultivating a society that does not care to make Bible reading a regular habit.

This means people are lacking a desire to reflect upon the story of David and Goliath or the parable of the lost son. The result of this is obvious. The Bible will cease to be a culture-shaping text, which also means people will lose understanding of Michelangelo’s David or Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” as well.

I knew things were going amiss ever since I read Steven Plethero’s 2007 book on the state of religious literacy in the United States, “Religious Literacy: what every American needs to know—and doesn’t.” We are “a nation of biblical illiterates,” Plethero observes. He points to polls — polls available in 2007 — that show most Americans cannot even name the four Gospels. If the situation was dire then, what we are facing is something even more discouraging.

Turning to the recent report, the findings show “an unprecedented drop in the percentage of Bible users in the United States.” What is noteworthy about this is that the drop was found among those who were previously reading the Bible. These were the people seemingly sitting in our pews or visiting our Tuesday evening church small groups. One may assume that the dramatic cultural events of the recent past would drive people back to the Scriptures, but the opposite appears to be the case.

The report continues noting that “in every study since 2018, Bible Users have accounted for between 47 and 49 percent of American adults.” But in 2022, there was a 10% decrease in Bible reading. That means, as the study shows, “nearly 26 million Americans reduced or stopped their interaction with Scripture in the past year.” If you look closer at the numbers, in nearly every question and category, Bible reading decreased. What is more surprising is that coming out of the pandemic, when everyone had time to read, they chose not to do so.

Looking at the trend over the past three years, we see an even bleaker picture. The study does not mince words:

“Beginning in 2020 and accelerating since then, Bible Users have indicated a decreased level of Spiritual Impact from the Bible.”

Fewer people are reading their Bibles, which means that the Bible’s influence is evaporating. There is no question that in the history of the West, the Bible shaped Christian mores that trickled down into forming social and political practices, as well as guiding the church’s doctrine and morality. Simply glance through Alister McGrath’s book on the history and influence of the King James Bible:“In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture.”

Or consider David Kling’s book, “The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times,” that examines how specific pericopes have shaped pivotal moments in history. Though it is not always pretty, there is a long history of the Bible as a culture-forming text.

But the ABS study shows that something different is happening. I see this study as another waypoint signifying the sharp decline of religion as culturally influential in the West.

Maybe we can disparage their fortitude and say that these Bible avoiders went out from us because they were not of us, or maybe the current technological revolution is discouraging people from reading altogether? Either way the reality we are facing is a world where more and more people have decided to commit time doing things other than reading the Bible. We Christians can also point our fingers all we want at others who are expressing their moral views in the public square, but we must look at what is happening within our own communities as well.

But I am not a complete pessimist. The history of the church has always waxed and waned through various cultural movements, and I believe, as the words of the Bible proclaim, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). But I also know that if this trend continues, habits are easily broken but not always easily cultivated. Christians who stop reading the Bible will stop thinking about the way the theological and moral vision of human flourishing offered in the Scriptures should shape our world.

How do we respond to the fact that the Bible is rapidly losing influence and no longer a culturally shaping text?

At least the first step is following the example of someone like Augustine and “take up and read.” I do not mean this in any flippant way — I think that at the very least, it starts with you and me. “The amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as important as the number of times,” James Clear writes in the best-selling book, “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good habits & Break Bad Ones.”

So, take a few moments today and read the Bible. Maybe you won’t be inspired (or able) to chisel a resplendent statue of David or paint a touching portrait of the prodigal son’s return home, but at least we might be shaped by the words we read and learn to “walk in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 119:1).

Stephen O. Presley is senior fellow for religion and public life at the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy. He’s also an associate professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He completed his undergraduate work at Baylor University and earned a master’s degree in Historical Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He also received a doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he carried out his research in patristics. Presley is the author of numerous books, articles and essays, including a forthcoming book on cultural engagement in early Christianity (Eerdmans).