The Bible In American Life

Not too long ago, a report titled “The Bible in American Life” was released by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Based on a nation-wide survey on Bible use and knowledge, this report found a number of things, some of the most interesting being:

— About 50% of Americans read “scripture” at any point during the last year; 48% of Americans read the Bible at some point last year
— 9% of American read their Bibles daily
— The King James Bible is the most popular English Bible translation by far
— The favorite passage among Bible readers is Psalm 23 followed by John 3:16
— Less than half of those reading the Bible sought help in understanding it
— 31% of those reading the Bible did so on the internet; 22% used devices of some sort
— Generally, Protestants read their Bibles more than Catholics, and (theologically) conservative Protestants more than liberal Protestants

Of these findings, I am most surprised by the fact that the KJV remains the most popular Bible in America. While the New International Version (NIV) remains the best-selling Bible, more people read the KJV each year by a wide margin. When asked “Which Bible translation do you most often read?” 55% of people answered the KJV, 19% NIV, 7% New Revised Standard Version, 6% New American Bible, 5% Living Bible, and 8% another translation. As for congregational support, about 40% of churches use/encourage use of the KJV, 21% use the NIV, and 10% use the NRSV. I’m also a little surprised that some of the “new” (or at least “newly hyped”) translations, such as the NET and ESV, did not have a stronger showing in the study.

While certainly the “KJV Only” perspectives contributes to the continuing popularity of the KJV, this phenomena alone doesn’t seem to explain the high percentage of Christians regularly using the King James Version. Another likely contributing factor to the cultural power of the KJV seems to be its poetic prose, which Sylvester Johnson remarks functions as “a type of lingua sacra or sacred dialect.” Mark Noll, adviser to this study, commented:

“Although the bookstores are now crowded with alternative versions, and although several different translations are now widely used in church services and for preaching, the large presence of the KJV testifies to the extraordinary power of this one classic English text. It also raises most interesting questions about the role of religious and linguistic tradition in the make-up of contemporary American culture.”

On a personal note, while I appreciate the impact that the KJV has had on Western Civilization and American culture and certainly know many passages by heart from the KJV, I simply don’t find the translation as useful as other English options of the Biblical text. In my opinion, the KJV “updates” found in the Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and New Revised Standard Version are considerably more readable. That said, it’s good that people are reading their Bibles. If you’re interested in reading more from this report, check out the PDF.

What about you: what’s your favorite version of the Bible? Are there particular reasons why?


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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