Briefing Sheet #2: The National Biblical Literacy Survey
The Church has gathered a good deal of information charting declining church attendance, membership of church organisations, belief in God, the after-life and the Christian doctrines. However, much less work has been done on people’s use of, knowledge of and attitude to the Bible in the UK. Given the central place of the world’s bestselling book in education, culture and history, this is a strange gap in knowledge which needs to be filled.
St John’s Fellow in Media and Communication, Revd Brian Brown, established the survey and gathered together a raft of sponsoring bodies to explore these issues. In particular, he wanted to look at these questions:
a. Are there vestiges of the “sentimental loyalty to the Biblical inheritance” which Richard Dawkins refers to in contemporary UK?
b. Is there positive evidence of a latent Biblical knowledge?
c. Is there a lack of foundational Biblical and religious knowledge underpinning contemporary culture? Is this as much an issue for the church-goers as well as non-church-goers?
d. How far have novels and films (such as “Da Vinci Code”) impacted on popular knowledge about and attitude to Biblical stories?
e. Are there marked differences in attitude to the Bible and its teachings as a cultural factor between those educated before the 1970s and those educated since the introduction of wider Religious studies syllabuses and the changes in British culture in the last thirty years?
To seek answers to the above questions, we conducted face to face interviews with ordinary citizens of all ages from all classes, backgrounds, and religious and cultural traditions at 9 different locations in England and Wales. At least 100 interviews were conducted at each of these sample points, with only quotas set on age and sex (in particular, there were no quotas set on religious affiliation). Interviewers invited people randomly gathered from streets and shopping centres to answer face to face a series of questions in halls nearby. The face-to-face interviewing was completed over a 4-6 week period between November and December 2008 by teams of experienced professional interviewers who were not church-affiliated.
Interviewees were asked about their possession of Bibles and their usage of it both now and in their childhood; its significance in their lives; its place in their schooling; their attitude to the Bible now and their knowledge of and valuation of Biblical ethics (the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, etc). As our national calendar is based upon the Christian festivals and these in turn have Biblical stories associated with them, interviewees were also asked their knowledge of these Biblical roots. Recognising that Biblical stories are a source of entertainment on the stage, cinema and TV and that much information about the Bible may now be gained from these sources questions sought to elicit their knowledge of non-print Biblical presentations.
Christianity is a religion of story. The Bible is a book full of stories and characters in stories. These have been kept alive in art, music and culture and more recently in stage, film and TV shows. Interviewees were asked a series of questions on Bible characters and well known Bible stories. Through a list of well-known stories Biblical knowledge and understanding were sought.
What is encouraging to note is that all the interviewers reported an unexpected willingness of respondents to give over half an hour of their time during shopping to be interviewed on so sensitive personal issues as the Bible and religion. This counters the prevailing view that people are unwilling to talk religion/faith.
The questionnaire was undertaken at 9 locations across England and Wales. It is likely that further samples will be undertaken in 2010 in Scotland and at least one more in north Wales. At present, the sampling points cover a good range of urban, suburban and rural England, north and south, and urban South Wales. Further sampling will enhance the survey even more.
Although broad quotas on age and sex were set at each of these locations, the demographic breakdown was slightly different overall to that of England and Wales. The data was thus slightly weighted to iron out such differences. All results below refer to this weighted data. There is, however, little difference between the corresponding figures from the non-weighted data. In all of the analysis, non-responses (‘don’t knows’) have removed from the base when appropriate. A larger than expected number of respondents self-designated as practising Christians with over 70% aligning themselves to one or more Christian church, with almost a quarter of respondents self-designated as agnostic, atheist, humanist or of no religion.
1. The Bible is certainly still out there in people’s homes and in schools
· 75% said that they owned a Bible, 46% of these owned a traditional Bible, 18% a modern version and 36% said that they owned both a modern and a traditional version
· 39% said that their parents read them Bible stories as a child
- 72% said that they heard or read Bible stories in primary school and 49% said they heard or read Bible stories in secondary school.
- 18% studied the Bible for school examinations (and yet in other questions interviewees told us that “schools don’t teach the Bible anymore”)
So, one of the key aims of the Protestant Reformation, that every person might have their own copy of the Bible, would seem to have been successful with three quarters of the population having access to the Bible according to our survey. Moreover, more than half of those who do have a Bible have a modern translation. Of course, we don’t know whether this means a copy of something like the Gideons’ Bible given freely or whether it’s a cherished family heirloom, or one specially purchased, or one given by the local church during some preparation class. This still means a quarter do not have their own Bible and almost half of those who do do not have a modern translation – so there is still space in the market! Of course, the even bigger question is whether those Bibles are being used or whether they remain gathering dust on the bookshelf or hidden away in an old school bag!
2. Is the Bible being used?
- 18% said that they had read the Bible in the last week
- 13% said that they had never read the Bible
- 31% said the Bible was significant in their lives now and of these 74% said it always had been
47% said the Bible was never significant to them
It’s clear then that the Bible remains important today, in some kind of latent way, for almost a third of those surveyed, although that relevance decreases among the under 45s. But the Bible remains irrelevant to almost half the population (47%) and this figure increases to 70% among those between 16 and 24. Clearly the Bible becomes more important the older you get – under the grounds of ‘grandma sitting for her finals’ or because older people have a greater hold on the importance of the Bible or because they were taught it better. All people see the Bible as the preserve of holy people, religious people and so clearly younger people who often regard themselves as almost immortal would not need see a need for what they think the Bible offers. So almost half of those surveyed think the Bible is irrelevant and only 18% read their Bible in the last week. This figure is also concerning, especially given the high rate of religious affiliation in this survey. Why is it that 70% of people self-designate as associated with a Christian Church but only 18% read their Bible that week? Clearly reading your Bible is not something people associate with being religious. Or, as we shall see later, people regard Bible reading as a specialised task, something for the super-religious to do, something for professionals rather than for them. Bible reading has become a preserve of other people, of holy people, of experts.
This finding would appear to undo what was previously said about the Reformation ideals. We have indeed expanded possession of the Bible in the vernacular. However, we have also managed to professionalise (clericalise) the Bible to such an extent that some might argue we are undoing the Reformation by depriving the masses of the very text which we wanted to bring them. We do this by making the Bible the preserve of the clergy or the expert or the religious. We tell people that the Bible needs to be interpreted properly and through specific quasi-scientific approaches that normal people cannot possible understand. As such, we might as well have kept the Bible in Latin and the preserve of the Church. Instead, we have given people their own Bible but persuaded them that they still can’t read it – they still need another to interpret the mysteries whether that other is liberal, evangelical, catholic or charismatic. Biblical Literacy will need to look at ways in which we can develop Bible engagement among a much wider readership. There are some good possibilities – not least in the Catholic Church’s approaches to Lectio Divina (see also www.biblesociety.org.uk/lyfe).>
3. The Bible and The Movies/Theatre/TV
- 51% said they had seen the blockbuster Biblical films such as Jesus of Nazareth
- 50% said they had seen Ten Commandments
- 45% had seen Samson and Delilah
- 27% had seen Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ
- 19% had seen BBC’s Passion
- 18% had seen the cartoon Prince of Egypt
- 48% said they had seen either the show or film / TV versions of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
- 41% had seen Jesus Christ Superstar
- 15% had seen Godspell
The visual arts/media are therefore providing a good deal of Biblical input for our contemporary society and the development of digital media will continue this process. However, input from films or shows, recorded or live, will tend to provide a one-off, particular input rather than a regular intake of Biblical knowledge. It’s important not to minimise this result. Clearly Biblical knowledge can be enhanced by film/theatre/TV within the digital environment, not least because learning styles are much more visual in the 21st century and frequently movie clips and visualisations are being used to supplement teaching within the church. However, categorising the Bible as another show, another film, another TV programme, or any set of pages on Wikipedia, may have the disadvantage of dis-engaging the reader from the text itself – of simply making the Bible another resource to go to when we decide to watch some entertainment or to google an answer to a problem we have – to the Bible being yet another resource in cloud-knowledge rather than in mind/head/brain-knowledge – a resource separate from the reader to be accessed on demand rather than something hard-wired into the chip?
The dangers inherent in this approach, namely that there is no direct association between visual input through entertainment media and knowledge retention are clearly shown through the survey. Whereas over half of those surveyed said that they had seen a media production of Joseph, when asked to give some information about the actual story of Joseph and his brothers, over half the people surveyed failed to provide any information! It is worthwhile noting that at the time the survey was taken, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a new star to sing Joseph on stage was a prime time TV show.
4. Knowledge about some of the more well known characters in The Bible
· Encouragingly, 75% of respondents could accurately tell us something about Moses
· 68% could accurately say something about Judas
· 42% of respondents could accurately say something about Thomas
· 42% could accurately tell us something about Mary Magdalene
· However, although Abraham is a major figure in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, 79% could not accurately name one thing about him (one respondent confused him with the former President of the United States!)
Even if the information about Bible reading habits is a little gloomy, knowledge about core details of the Christian faith and some of the central Biblical figures are better. We shall see more on specific stories which people remember from the Bible. However, this information suggests that character studies of the Bible may be a good way in to more general Bible knowledge for some (for example, Ruth Perrin’s www.cloudofwitnesses.org.uk). Moreover, from answers to other questions, it is clear that Judas, Mary Magdalene and Thomas evoke warm responses. This is perhaps because they have been represented sympathetically in recent novels or films or because their stories resonate with so many in contemporary UK. What is surprising is the lack of information provided about Abraham, especially in a rich multicultural society and the introduction of multifaith syllabi in the education system.
5. Knowledge about well-known Bible stories
· With respect to New Testament stories, the positive news is that 83% could accurately tells us something about the Crucifixion; 80% about The Resurrection; 78% about The Feeding of the 5,000 and 74% about The Last Supper
· With respect to Old Testament stories, the positive news is that 73% were accurately able to tell us something about David and Goliath; 66% about The Crossing of the Red Sea; 65% about The Ten Commandments and 63% about Samson and Delilah
· However a good deal of New Testament stories which we anticipated would be relatively well known proved not to be. In particular, 83% could not say anything correct about the parable of The Sower; 80% knew nothing correct of the story of The Stilling of the Storm; 62% could say nothing correct about the parable of The Prodigal Son; 60% could not say anything accurate about the parable of The Good Samaritan. These final two are extremely surprising results and more research needs to be done on what is happening here to two stories which have so much capital in Western culture. Samson and Delilah
· Similarly, with regards to the Old Testament, 89% could not say anything accurate about Jacob and Esau; 85% could say nothing correct about Daniel in the Lions Den; 79% could say nothing accurate about Abraham and Isaac and 76% could say nothing correct about The Fall of the Walls of Jericho.
Again, there is good news mixed with bad here. It is remarkably good that about 80% of those surveyed had some knowledge about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – the central story of the Christian faith. That such imagery could be used in TV series like Dr Who and in novels/films like the Matrix and Harry Potter and Atonement suggest that some good cultural capital remains in the use this imagery to connect with the public – and perhaps this is surprising! Indeed, that similar figures are given for a nature miracle and for the institution of the Lord’s Supper shows how pervasive Christianity is into the mindset of British society still. This suggests that we can readily assume that such stories may be an appropriate way to engage with people about the Bible.
However, knowledge about some essential stories are being lost – and they are the very stories which the Church has assumed would stand the test of time within a newly narrativised culture. Within a New Testament perspective, some urgent work is needed to clarify what has happened to knowledge about the parables when so much of the language of them is part and parcel of British culture and there remains so much cultural capital invested in them.
The situation with the Old Testament narratives is perhaps more perilous. Although people knew something of Moses (slightly interesting in itself), their lack of knowledge about Abraham, his willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the very stories which we would have expected them to know well, suggests that there is a major deficit in connecting people to Old Testament narrative. Presumably people used to be taught about Daniel and the Lion’s Den in Sunday School and the demise of that movement has meant that the story simply isn’t being told anymore and so dies away from public memory? But this has some major implications for the mission of the Church and for the appropriate interpretation of the New Testament. The Church can hardly afford to let the Old Testament slip into disuse. CODEC will seek to address this issue through a specific project.
Festivals and the Bible
· On the positive side, 58% of had some knowledge of the stories associated with at least 3 of the following 9 items: Advent Calendars, Hanukah Cards, Christmas presents, Pancakes, Palm Crosses, Passover Meal, Hot Cross Buns, Chocolate eggs and Whitsun
· In particular, 60% had some knowledge of the gospel story associated with Christmas presents, 44% knew something about the stories associated with Passover and 21% knew something about the story associated with Hanukah
· On the negative side, 71% had no knowledge of the gospel stories associated with Hot Cross Buns and 67% had no knowledge of the gospel stories associated with Palm Crosses. Maybe this can be attributed to the secularization and commercialization of events and artefacts associated with them
· More strikingly, 93% had no knowledge of the Bible story associated with Whitsun and 85% had no knowledge of the story associated with Advent calendars. The Whit walks have long gone in many areas of the North and secular Advent calendars have long replaced the original Christian ones.
There is clearly some major confusion here about the source and provenance of some of our key festivals and a changing vocabulary for them. Even in the Church, we rarely call the celebration of Pentecost by its old name of Whitsun. Moreover, with the advent of hot cross buns across all seasons, who is to know what story lies behind them. Indeed, there may simply be a misunderstanding within the question at this point of the survey. Would it have been better to ask what Bible stories people might associate with hot cross buns or pancakes, rather than asking “What Bible story do you associate with…”? I don’t associate any Bible story with chocolate eggs – it’s all pagan to me! But is there a more serious issue here of dislocation between Bible knowledge and contemporary society’s celebrations?
Knowledge of the 10 Commandments
· On the positive side, 57% could name three or more of the Commandments
· On the negative side, only 5% overall could name all the Ten Commandments and worse, 16% could not name any of them
· Only 16% could name all three of the bedrock Commandments (stealing, killing and false testimony) although 75% could name at least one
· 11% knew what Jesus declared the greatest commandment and 6% knew what Jesus declared the second
· What is interesting is that 41% of non-church goers (no stated religion or not visited in last year) knew the “golden rule” (Do unto others as you have them do to you) as opposed to 31% of churchgoers (claimed 26+ visits in last year)
Again, we see partial knowledge of a core part of the Old Testament, although retention of core knowledge such as this (as opposed to narrative) may well have dwindled because of the way we deal with factual knowledge in the 21st century – we tend to ‘google’ it rather than retain it. Is there an issue here for the Church?
Who does read the Bible and why?
Three questions on the survey asked respondents:
· What kind of people do you think read the Bible regularly?
· Why do you think these people read the Bible?
· What do think puts other people off reading the Bible?
The responses to these questions deserve some more detailed research, not least because they are all verbatim answers rather than multiple choices. However, what is clear is that most people in the survey think that holy people read the Bible regularly – people holier than them! Religious people, holy people, vicars, theology students, priests, nuns. Moreover, when asked what puts people off the answers are similar – lack of understanding, lack of faith, lack of religion, it’s boring, unreliable, associated with church, needs explaining. In other words, as we found above, the masses have been persuaded that the Bible cannot be understood without someone else coming to interpret it or indeed make it more simple – to broker the Bible. Once again, we are offered the stark reality of a people who have been robbed of their Bible, robbed of the words of life by elitism and clericalism. For Biblical Literacy to make an impact of some kind, we need to re-engage the masses with their Bible, to return it to the people: we need a New Reformation!
The Research Team
The research and analysis was conducted by Rev Brian Brown, Fellow in Media and Communication and by Dr Paul Brown on behalf of CODEC (incorporating the Centre for Biblical Literacy), St John’s College, Durham University.
Rev Brian Brown is a Methodist minister and formerly Head of Religious Studies at Lady Spencer Churchill College, Oxford and Head of the Television Research Unit, Oxford Polytechnic. He was Executive Producer of the ITV children’s animation Biblical series StoryKeepers and later created Friends and Heroes (CBBC). He has been Fellow in Media and Communication at St John’s College Durham University since 2006.
Dr Paul Brown was formerly Statistics Manager for the consumer magazine Which? He now researches and teaches mathematics and statistics at Birkbeck College, University of London and Middlesex University.
This Briefing Sheet has been put together by Revd Dr Peter Phillips, Director of Research, Centre for Biblical Literacy and Communication. Further research on the Survey and the formal report will be undertaken by the CODEC Team at St John’s College.
When using statistics and material from the survey or from this briefing sheet, you are kindly requested to make reference to CODEC as the source of the survey.
If you would like to make a donation to the work of CODEC and the ongoing research, please contact Pete Phillips at the address in the footer.