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Blog / Mark Noll on Our Changing Understanding of the Bible in America

Mark Noll on Our Changing Understanding of the Bible in America

Professor Mark Noll..Photo by Bryce RichterYesterday, Mark Noll delivered a public address in conjunction with the Bible in American Life conference. Noll is a respected scholar of the history of Christianity, as well as the author of the influential Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I thought I’d share just a few of his insights here.

In his address, Noll presented four findings of the Bible in American Life Report that he feels say something particularly important about the way Americans experience the Bible. (If you haven’t done so, I strongly encourage you to read the report’s findings—they’re fascinating and surprising. We summarized some of the key findings here.)

Here are the four findings that Noll held up as saying something particularly important about the Bible in American life.

1. Catholics are reading the Bible outside of worship services more.

The Catholic church has long been accused by Protestants of discouraging people from reading the Bible “on their own,” outside the context of worship services. The Bible in American Life Report found, however, that Catholics are reading the Bible on their own more and more—so perhaps it’s time to retire that old criticism. Noll pointed out that this increased Bible reading among Catholics has coincided with new, and unprecedented, joint actions by both Catholics and Protestants in the public sphere.

2. The KJV continues to be overwhelmingly popular.

The massive, ongoing popularity of the King James Version is one of the most remarkable findings of the report. Despite the presence of many popular and respected alternative translations, the KJV remains the most popular by a considerable margin. This study doesn’t tell us why this is the case, but it will be fascinating to see how scholars unpack this in the future. Is this preference for the KJV an aesthetic one? Is the KJV our shared cultural “sacred language,” the base vocabulary of American Christianity? Is there an ethnic or cultural element to this preference (the KJV is most heavily used in African American churches, for example)?

3. African Americans read the Bible much more than other communities.

Bible reading is highest, by a large margin, in the African American church. Why is this? The study doesn’t say, but Noll suggested that the answer might be traced back hundreds of years in the past, to the slave experience of the Bible in America. Black slaves were drawn to the Bible’s message of personal transformation—but understandably not to a white American church corrupted by its support of slavery. The result, Noll argued, was that African American Christianity was rooted in a special relationship to the Bible itself without the “baggage” of the institutional church, and that this relationship survived and evolved through the long journey towards equality in America. Hopefully, this report will inspire more historians and scholars to delve into this question.

4. The real story of the Bible in America is more interesting than we thought it was.

In recent decades, popular understanding of the Bible in America has centered more and more on its role in the political sphere—as a weapon, a litmus test, and an identity marker in the “culture wars.” But the report shows that on the whole, Americans are still reading their Bibles privately—and that they’re reading the Bible to cultivate their personal faith, not just to dig up ammunition for political campaigns or to discover the secret to wealth and prosperity. Noll called for journalists, scholars, and everyday Americans to think more deeply than we have about what the Bible means in American life.

This quick summary hardly does justice to Noll’s address, but I hope it prompts you to read the Bible in American Life Report and to take a look at some of Noll’s recent scholarship!

Filed under History, The Bible