According to a Harris poll conducted in April, the Bible remains the all-time favorite book of a majority of Americans, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. (For those who are wondering, fave No. 2 is Gone with the Wind, followed by the Lord of the Rings trilogy.)
This news is heart-warming, but mind-troubling. For few Americans seem to read their favorite book.
Biblical illiteracy is growing, especially among the young. A 2004 Gallup survey of teens revealed that two-thirds couldn't place "Blessed are the poor in spirit" in the Sermon on the Mount, or recall what happened on the road to Damascus. An earlier poll conducted by George Barna showed an ignorance or rejection of basic Christian doctrines (such as the sinlessness of Christ) among a significant number of self-identified Christians.
Imagine a Margaret Mitchell fan who can't identify Ashley Wilkes or recall who said, "Tomorrow is another day." In defense of the average reader, the Bible lacks the narrative drive of a novel, the focus of a self-help book, and the chronological order of a biography. In an age of declining literacy and short attention spans, it's no wonder such a demanding book loses readers.
And in an age of public license, it's evident that even those who read do not heed.
But that doesn't explain why the Bible remains so popular, No. 1 on a list that includes such anti-biblical titles as The Da Vinci Code (No. 6) and Atlas Shrugged (No. 9). Its sales regularly outstrip not only the latest Harry Potter (No. 4) but any phenomenal seller of any given year.
Part of the reason must be its talismanic quality. Even non-churchgoers pick up a Bible now and then for a perusal of Psalm 23 or 1 Corinthians 13, or to look up those passages listed under "When You're Feeling Alone." It's a point not lost on Bible publishers, who have become ever more creative at packaging.
What began as accessibility with Good News For Modern Man (Today's English Version) and The Way (Living Bible paraphrase) is now big business. Around the turn of this century came an explosion of new formats (glossy-paged, laminated, color-coded, personalized) aimed at niche markets: teens, dads, married and career women; surfers, hikers & bikers; health nuts and executives. There's even a paraphrase called The Voice, tailored for the emergent church movement and "re-authored" by novelists and artists as well as scholars.
The word is the word, and does not return void. But trendy packaging obscures its purpose: not to meet the felt needs of a particular group but to transform individual lives. Sidebars by celebrity Christians or bite-sized scripture applications amount to spot-cleaning, when what we need is a daily bath.
The Bible certainly could have been shorter. In fact the gospel and the basics of Christian living could be capably expressed on a handful of index cards. But given the human proclivity for missing the point, we would likely become followers of the cards instead of Christ, churches of the words instead of the Word.
Transformation is a long, slow process of the word becoming flesh in a Christian's life, as he contemplates the character of God and conforms to the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But who has time for that? A few years ago Paul Caminiti, head of Zondervan's Bible division, explained his company's mission by citing Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. The evangelist "provides just a little bit of color commentary, and the light comes on. . . . And that's what we're doing. We're coming alongside the text and providing some color commentary." Perhaps the eunuch could have used a Chief Financial Officer's Bible, with daily planner sidebars and money-wise tips.
An acquaintance once told my daughter that he didn't go to church but reading the Bible gave him comfort. Her reply: "It shouldn't." If that's the only reason they read it, maybe the Bible shouldn't be Americans' favorite book, either.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.