One of the World's Most Popular Books

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On March 16, 1985, journalist Terry Anderson was kidnapped from the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. As a political pawn he was held hostage for 2,454 days—almost seven years. During this excruciating ordeal Mr. Anderson showed remarkable courage, although frequently stretched to near his breaking point.

On the first day of his confinement his abductors hustled him at gunpoint from his car into theirs, then took him to a half-built apartment building. There they blindfolded him and chained him to a cot.

During his first 24 days in chains, bound and restrained like an animal, he struggled to find a way to maintain his sanity. Realizing the need to summon courage and strength from somewhere, he asked his captors for a Bible.

In his memoirs Mr. Anderson related the result of that request: "The next day, late in the afternoon, the English- speaking guard came in and threw a heavy object on the bed. I reached for it, felt the smooth covers of a book. The guard came around to the head of the bed. 'Good?' 'Yes, very good, thank you.'

"I cautiously pulled my blindfold up a bit, until I could see the book...A Bible, the Revised Standard Version. I caressed it gently ... I read the title page, the publishing and copyright information, the notes of the editors, slowly, carefully. Then: Genesis. 'In the beginning ...'" (Terry Anderson, Den of Lions, 1993, pp. 14-15).

How often in crises have men and women turned to the Bible for help? The value of the Word of God is acknowledged at such moments of unease, uncertainty and apprehension.

A perennial best seller

The Holy Bible is regarded by millions as the written Word of the one and only true God. Indeed, the Bible claims this distinction for itself. In the eyes of many others it is highly regarded as a collection of some of the world's greatest literature.

The nonprofit American Bible Society has, in more than 180 years of its existence, distributed more Bibles than there are people in the world—some 8.5 billion. The British and Foreign Bible Society has distributed several billion more in dozens of languages.

More than 100 million new Bibles, reflecting numerous translations, are sold or given away freely every year. Translations exist in more than 2,000 languages and dialects.

Today the Bible is especially popular wherever English is spoken. It is "the most widely known book in the English-speaking world ... No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible" (E.D. Hirsch Jr., Joseph Kett and James Trefil, The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 1988, p. 1). So within the English-speaking world, even where religions other than Christianity dominate, a basic knowledge of the Bible is essential if one is to be considered an educated citizen.

"Literate people in India, whose religious traditions are not based on the Bible but whose common language is English, must know about the Bible to understand English within their own country. All educated speakers of ... English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest between David and Goliath or whether a person who has the 'wisdom of Solomon' is wise or foolish ..." (ibid.).

Many people attribute great influence to the Bible. In a survey by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club, readers were asked which book had most influenced their lives. What topped their list? The Bible! In a 1938 Gallup poll the Bible was considered the most interesting of all books read that year. It was rated by a majority as more interesting reading than the 1930s novel Gone With the Wind. However, in more secular Britain this is not the case. In a similar British survey the Bible came in 35th in a field of 50 books.

The Bible is quoted by statesmen, politicians, philosophers, poets and even orbiting astronauts. People from all walks of life have found in its pages just the right words for innumerable situations. Its insights often provide the right accompaniment for moments of awe and inspiration, stress and anguish, confusion and doubt.

The Bible neglected

However, for all of the attention given to the Bible, its value is underestimated. When we probe a little deeper we find the Bible being lauded, even revered, yet a book whose contents are often little read and even less understood.

Much of the world is biblically illiterate. In his 2007 book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn't, Stephen Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University, documents Americans' abysmally low awareness of what the Bible says. Among his findings:

• Half of adult Americans can't name even one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

• Most can't name the Bible's first book (Genesis).

• Two thirds couldn't name Jesus as the One who gave the Sermon on the Mount.

• Most think the Bible says Jesus was born in Jerusalem (He was actually born in Bethlehem).

• One in 10 believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

Far too many neglect to take the Bible seriously. They fail to recognize the Bible for what it is—the handbook for humankind, provided by God for our journey through life. It is a source to be consulted in every life situation, with guidelines for triumph and adversity, joy and sorrow, prosperity and poverty, confidence and doubt.

The Bible itself asserts its divine authority; it claims to be the very Word of God. It declares an understanding of mankind's purpose—to attain the awesome destiny planned for us by our Creator. It offers guidance, encouragement and direction at every turn.

But can the Bible withstand scrutiny? Is it true just because it claims to be true? Can you—should you—believe it?

In the chapters that follow, we will see whether the Bible stands as the very Word of God.