The Bible is a great piece of English literature, say many who read the beautiful Shakespearean cadences of the King James Version of 1611. I recall one devoted teacher of English literature drawing my attention to the wonderful use of language in a passage in James 3 on the problems wrought by the human tongue.
It's commendable to appreciate fine literature, but when it comes to real knowledge of the Bible beyond a superficial grasp of its content, little can be said for most people in the Western world. Yet we claim this book as a foundation of our Western heritage. In the United States, thought by many to be an unusually religious nation, surveys reveal a lack of some of the most basic biblical knowledge, even among those who lay claim to the name "Christian."
It has been said that only four of 10 churchgoers can identify the man who betrayed Jesus Christ, and that many cannot list the first four books of the New Testament. In Europe lies an area known as "the North German plain of irreligion," stretching from Germany through Scandinavia. There the Book of books attracts little serious attention in everyday life, yet that is the Europe tourists flock to in appreciation of magnificent cathedrals , churches and religious art.
Is the Bible itself destined to become no more than a mildly interesting religious artifact, like the buildings and paintings of a bygone age? Does it hold any relevance in a postmodern world? Some would say yes, citing the United States as an example of commitment to biblical values.
A few years ago I interviewed a man whose name is synonymous with surveys, George Gallup. We discussed the state of religious belief in the United States. I asked whether it was true that America is a religious country.
He said, in effect, that it depends on how you ask the question. If you're asking about religious affiliation, 98 percent will fill in the blank with the name of a denomination. Dig a little deeper and ask about regular church attendance, and you are down to 42 percent. But, when it comes to whether a person's everyday actions are affected by his religious convictions, we are dealing with less than 10 percent of the population.
It was an enlightening finding about an ostensibly religious nation. Perhaps it says something, not just about the state of knowledge, but about Americans' understanding.
The Bible makes extraordinary claims about its authorship and its value to humanity. For example, the apostle Paul wrote to his fellow laborer Timothy that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Here are words that bear careful examination. The assertion is that Scripture contains words inspired by God Himself. Further, this passage claims that the Hebrew Bible, of which Paul was speaking at the time, was good for discovering truth, improving life and building character, and imparting knowledge of the right way to live. The Bible provides the man or woman who would seek God the platform from which to serve Him and humanity. We celebrate the lives of those who give of themselves to serve others. Certainly we should be thankful for their service and example. But should such good works be so remarkable? The Bible teaches us that they are our duty.
This issue of The Good News is focused in part on the Word of God as our guide to life. In a world adrift from its moral moorings, lost in a sea of relativism, it is vital that we discover the safe harbor of God's Word. GN