Three Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Liberal Arts religious studies professors set out to answer that question through nationwide surveys and explored the results with the help of other preeminent religion and history scholars. The culmination of that work is a new book, “The Bible in American Life,” published by Oxford University Press.
Philip Goff, Peter J. Thuesen, and Arthur E. Farnsley II (pictured from left to right) served as co-editors and the driving forces behind the book, which explores how the Bible is used by Americans in their personal lives.
“People are always interested in the Bible, but usually it’s more in public life — how it might show up in film or in literature, certainly in politics,” said Goff, executive director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. “We wanted to see how it worked out in people’s personal lives. That really had never been done.”
With a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., the professors were able to add questions to the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study in 2012. Participants were asked to name which translation of the Bible they most often read, if they had read the Bible outside of worship services within the last year, the extent and purpose of their usage, if they read it on electronic devices, and more. The answers, combined with participants’ demographic information, provided a baseline for study.
“This isn’t exactly a surprise in the survey, but one response was 50 percent — exactly half of the people had read the Bible outside of a worship service in the past year,” said Farnsley, director of the Indiana University Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI and associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. “There have been people who said to us, ‘Wow, I would have thought it would be a lot more,’ and people who said ‘I thought it would be a lot less.’ It turns out, it depends on where you’re coming from — what 50 percent looks like.”
Among the findings were that African-Americans read the Bible at a higher rate than other races; women read it more often than men; older citizens read it more than younger; and the American South had higher readership than the Midwest, West, and Northeast. Also, the 400-year-old King James Bible is the most-read version.
“The extent to which people are still attached to a 17th-century translation of the Bible indicates that people are not necessarily looking for clear meaning or teaching; what’s also important is the actual sound of Scripture,” Thuesen said.
Amanda Friesen, an assistant professor of political science and faculty research fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, wrote a chapter exploring how American men and women read the Bible. Conclusions included that women, in reading the Bible more than men, do so with motives more toward personal devotion than political reasons.
Paul Gutjahr, the Ruth Halls Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, contributed a chapter on the use of production and reception studies to determine the most popular English-language translation of the Bible in contemporary America, reiterating that the King James Version is the most popular despite many newer translations.