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CULTURE DIGEST: Young Americans know little about Bible; mainline churches no longer majority; show explores resurrection

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book,” The Weekly Standard’s David Gelernter posited in a recent look at Bible literacy in America, with young Americans knowing very little about the Word of God and thus lacking the perspective necessary to understand major themes of history.

“What made John Adams say, in 1765, ‘I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence’? What made Abraham Lincoln call America (in 1862, in the middle of a ruinous civil war) ‘the last, best hope of earth’?” Gelernter wrote in the May 23 issue.

“… One thing above all made them true prophets. They read the Bible.”

Gelernter briefly traced the role of the Bible through history, from the Puritans of the 18th century, when America was “born in a passionate spiritual explosion” created and fueled by the Bible, to George W. Bush’s worldwide war on tyranny as a quintessential biblical project, “one that sees America as an almost chosen people, with the heavy responsibilities that go with the job.”

The Bible Literacy Project, based on a Gallup-conducted survey of young people mostly in the seventh through ninth grades and 41 teachers in both public and private schools, found that the fewer than a quarter of the students were what teachers would call “Bible literate.”

The report, released in late April, said the teachers were convinced that students ought to know the Bible and don’t. Forty of 41 agreed that “Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage,” the report said.

Seventy-two percent of students in the survey could answer correctly that Moses “led the Israelites out of bondage,” Gelernter noted, and 90 percent realized that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman in Genesis. But 8 percent of teens “believe that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles.”

Aside from such basic questions, the Bible Literacy Project reported that “very few American students” have the level of Bible knowledge that high school English teachers regard as “basic to a good education.” Nearly two-thirds failed to choose the right answer out of four choices when asked to identify a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount, and two-thirds didn’t know that the Road to Damascus is where Paul was blinded by a vision of Christ.

“But students need to read the Bible, not just read about the Bible … It happens that nearly all of the smartest, deepest readers of the Bible through the ages have approached it from a religious direction,” Gelernter wrote.

The responsibility for providing America’s youth with an intimate, adequate understanding of the Bible, and thus of American history, should not fall on the public schools, Gerlenter said, but on “our churches, our synagogues, and all other institutions that revere the Bible.”

MAINLINE CHURCHES NO LONGER DOMINATE — Mainline Protestant churches no longer dominate a list of the 25 largest American church groups, according to the National Council of Churches’ 2005 “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.”

Pentecostal and African American churches made significant gains, the yearbook reported, and the Southern Baptist Convention with more than 16 million members and a growth rate of 1.18 percent remains the second-largest denomination in the United States.

The data for the report was gathered by churches in 2003 and reported to the yearbook in 2004. The yearbook provides information on 217 national church bodies with 150 million members, including brief church histories and contact information for church leaders, according to an NCC release.

Until 1968, the yearbook published statistics on American home and foreign missionaries, and after a 36-year break, the stats are being published again. Mainline Protestants have increased their mission activity for the first time in a quarter century, the report said, and American Christians are “attempting great things” in missions. Mainline church agencies reported an increase of 600 missionaries over the number reported in 1966, the release said.

Of the roughly 6 billion people on earth, about 33 percent consider themselves Christians, the yearbook said. Most of the world’s Christians, as is widely known, are Roman Catholics. Independents account for the next largest group, followed by Protestants, Orthodox, Anglicans and “marginal Christians.”

For more information on the yearbook, visit www.ncccusa.org.

ABC EXPLORES THE RESURRECTION — During the May 20 installment of ABC’s “20/20,” anchor Elizabeth Vargas explored the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ by consulting historians and biblical scholars of various persuasions.

Vargas’ report was neither comprehensive nor conclusive, according to television reviewer Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald, but she managed to weave “a fascinating narrative from the most mundane details of the crucifixion.”

Some commentators were convinced the resurrection did not happen, or if it did, it was only spiritual and not physical. One said Jesus was never really buried in the tomb where He supposedly rose, and another said the body was surely stolen.

But some stood firm in their conclusion that Jesus conquered death, as the Bible says, despite a reluctance of the human mind to grasp such a concept.

“If the worldview is, this is only a material world, and there can be no outside intervention, then, yeah, you’ve got a problem explaining the resurrection, because there is no naturalistic way that Jesus rose from the dead,” Lee Strobel, host of “Faith Under Fire” on PAX and author of “The Case for Christ,” said. “It’s not possible. But, if we open ourselves up to the possibility that God exists, and created the universe — if God exists and created the universe, this is child’s play for Him.”

Even John Shelby Spong, the controversial Episcopal Bishop Emeritus of Newark, N.J., nudged toward the resurrection.

“I don’t think that most of the Resurrection narratives in the New Testament are historical at all,” he said. “But I don’t think there would have been a New Testament or a Jesus movement had there not been some astonishing experience of power that caused these people to see Jesus in a way they had never seen Him before.”

TED BAEHR CAUTIONS ABOUT ‘REVENGE OF THE SITH’ — Ted Baehr’s Movieguide, though praising “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” as an exciting, epic spectacle, warns parents to talk with their children about the “strong New Age pagan context” in which the nature of evil is presented.

Movieguide cited as an example the line in the blockbuster where Obi-Wan says that only evil people believe in absolute truths.

“This statement contradicts the movie’s own characters, as well as what God teaches us,” Movieguide said in its review. “Thus, the new Star Wars movie presents a confused worldview that ultimately undermines the story’s moral, redemptive power.”

Conservative critics also have questioned writer and director George Lucas’ motivations for including Anakin’s line, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” saying it echoes President Bush’s international ultimatum after the Sept. 11 attacks, “Either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists,” according to a CBS News report.

Though Lucas didn’t hesitate to express personal views in opposition to Bush’s foreign policy decisions when questioned in interviews, he said he wrote the outline for the Star Wars series 30 years ago when Vietnam and Watergate were fodder, not the current war on terrorism.

Even so, he said, “You sort of see these recurring themes where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kinds of issues, and threats from the outside, needing more control. A democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody’s squabbling, there’s corruption.”

Revenge of the Sith shattered previous records for a four-day opening, taking in $158.45 million at the box office May 19-22.

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  • Erin Curry