In an out-of-the-way room on the ground floor, seven congregants of Longs Chapel United Methodist Church in Lake Junaluska gather around two beat-up tables. It’s Sunday School, a staple of Protestant church life, and there are thousands of groups just like it meeting around the country right now.
The room, even, is like any other Sunday School room. Battered rocking chair, metal folding chairs, a nondescript bookshelf or two.
The goal, though, is different.
They’re here trying to do something that few Americans have done: read the Bible — the whole thing, Old and New testaments — in 90 days.
Today, the topic is Genesis and parts of Exodus, and it’s a little controversial even among this group of professing Christians, many longtime churchgoers.
“I don’t like all the animal sacrifices,” says Kim Mullholland, a mother and full-time speech therapist who says she’s been in church her whole life. “It’s something that’s innocent, that’s what bothers me.”
Andrew Cooper also has some reservations. He’s much older than Mulholland, but is himself reading through the entire book for the first time.
“I’ve got a lot of questions now about this same God,” says Cooper. “I don’t know about all that.”
There isn’t much reliable data to show how many Americans have ever gotten from Genesis to the last page of Revelation. But there is a plethora of studies that tell us that, on the whole, even those who say they’re Christians are ignorant of most religious texts, the Bible included.
A 2007 Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans don’t know who gave the Sermon on the Mount. Roughly the same number couldn’t name all four gospels.
A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly half had never heard of Ramadan and 61 percent couldn’t identify the Biblical character Job.
Among Christian subgroups, the stats weren’t much higher, even for the most basic doctrinal questions.
That, says Teressa Spencer, is the whole point of her church’s Bible in 90 Days initiative.
Spencer is director of ministries at Longs Chapel, and she’s been trying to get a read-the-Bible program going there for years.
“It just became really obvious to me how many people in worship spaces had not read the Bible,” said Spencer. And after enough talking about it, one pastor finally gave her a hand, finding a curriculum from Bible-publishing giant Zondervan.
It’s called, aptly enough, The Bible in 90 Days, and the Bible it’s using looks much more like a hardback self-help book than Bible.
It’s meant to be that way, says Ted Cooper. He is the guy who started the program by simply reading through the Bible in 1999. It wasn’t quite a literary exercise, but it was close.
Cooper was agnostic, and decided to read the Bible as a matter of interest, not devotion. So he got a large-print Bible and started on page one.
“I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to read the Bible just like any other book,” says Cooper. “I didn’t know that if you were going to try to do that you were supposed to do that over a long period of time.”
Back in the Sunday School room, that’s one of the obstacles that these regular churchgoers are tripping over. Though they study the Bible, they do know that few read through it like a novel. And most Bibles aren’t as reader friendly as novels, either, with their leaf-thin pages, copious footnotes and inches-thick bindings.
“Most people that try to read through the Bible bog down in Leviticus and lose it. Don’t be one of them,” says the smiling speaker on the study video that accompanies the course.
In much of his publicity material, Cooper highlights a stat from a 2007 study that says 72 percent of Americans would like to read the entire Bible some time in their lives.
But the problem many run into when trying is that, though they’ve long self-identified as Christians, what they find in a straight read of the Bible is at the very least unexpected and probably either loathsome or tiresome.
“I started reading and I was just appalled at what was in it,” says Cooper of his first read through. “It just had all these rapes and murders and disembowelments.”
He used to come home, he says, and read particularly shocking passages to his wife, both laughing in disbelief.
It did change his life, though. He changed from agnostic to Christian and decided to help other people read the good book, not necessarily with an eye towards conversion, but just because it’s a good idea.
“We do not say,‘Oh gosh, if you don’t come out of this thing as a believer, then you’ve failed,’” says Cooper. “Our goal is to help people read it, all of it, and we kind of think God can do the big stuff.”
Personal religious convictions aside, a survey of university professors across the ideological spectrum found that knowing the Bible is educationally helpful.
“I can only say that if a student doesn’t know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on,” said Robert Kiely, a Harvard English professor, in the study by the Bible Literacy Project.
The numbers from that study showed that 92 percent of his colleagues agreed, which makes sense, given even a cursory look at art and literature.
Take Absalom, a minor character from the Old Testament. He murdered his half-brother, attempted to usurp his father’s throne and was subsequently killed when his own hair hung him in a tree. He appears for a few chapters in 2 Samuel, yet there are references to him in poetry, music, art and even William Faulkner used the allegorical theme of son revolting against father in his seminal Southern Gothic novel, Absalom! Absalom!
The utter lack of biblical knowledge is somewhat surprising, given that the Bible is the No. 1 bestselling book of the year. Every year.
Selling the Bible is a big business — Thomas Nelson, one of the largest Bible producers, was sold for $473 million in 2006.
Reading it, it seems, isn’t.
Cooper, however, has had success in every state and several countries largely, he thinks, because his program turned the Bible into a book again.
Ninety days, he says, is doable. There’s a light at the end of that tunnel. If you take a year to read any book, for most people, failure is almost a foregone conclusion.
The other key to the program’s success is doing it with other people. Because, Cooper says, the Bible is actually a fairly shocking book.
“Somewhere between 65 and 80 percent of our typical groups have read not very much of the Bible before they do this. Those people are encountering a God that they don’t know, and in many respects they don’t want to know. It’s disturbing to people,” says Cooper. “So if they don’t have anybody to talk with and process with, if you don’t get to share those emotions, either you quit or you feel defeated.”
So, like Mulholland and Cooper and their compatriots, readers get together. They talk about it.
When the 90 days concludes, Cooper says most people have made it through the entire Bible.
“We don’t have to convince people that they want to do this,” says Cooper. “We just have to convince them that they can do it.”