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MANY INFLUENCED BY BIBLE, FEW READ IT

A recent survey of 1,000 chief executive officers at Fortune 1000 companies and presidents of 1,200 colleges and universities revealed that the Bible was the book that most changed or influenced their lives.

Even in this secular world, that's not so surprising, perhaps, given that virtually every home in America has at least one Bible and, according to George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, four Americans in five believe it is in some way the literal or inspired word of God.Gallup and Castelli, in their book "The People's Religion" (Macmillan), note a crucial paradox in Americans' attitude about the Bible: They revere it but rarely read it.

Despite the large number of people who believe the Bible is the word of God, only one-third read it at least once a week and just 15 percent read it daily.

"More than half of all Americans read the Bible less than once a month, including 24 percent who say they never read it and 6 percent who can't recall when the last time they read the Bible," they write.

Perhaps that is why the nation is also one of biblical illiterates.

For example, eight of 10 say they are Christians but only four in 10 know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. One might wonder how many of those four know what's in that sermon.

In addition, less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and nearly as many do not know how many disciples Jesus had (12) or where he was born (Bethlehem).

Castelli and Gallup also found that a large majority of Americans believe that the Ten Commandments are still valid rules for living today, "but they have a tough time recalling exactly what those rules are."

The two found "particularly shocking" the lack of knowledge of the Bible among college graduates. Again, only four in 10 college graduates know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

And they quote sociologist Miriam Murphy's observation that there are many people in America today "with a Ph.D in aerodynamics, but only a third-grade knowledge of religion."

The cycle of illiteracy seems likely to continue, they argue, because today's teenagers know even less about the Bible than do adults.

They use Easter as an example.

Christians believe Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the central tenet of the faith, yet three in 10 teenagers - including 20 percent of those who attend religious services regularly - do not know why Easter is celebrated.

And while the Southern Baptist Convention continues to be embroiled in a "battle for the Bible" pitting fundamentalists against moderates, the overall proportion of Americans who are fundamentalists - who believe the Bible is "the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word" - continues to decline.

Only 31 percent of those polled by Gallup adhere to the fundamentalist position, down from 34 percent in 1985 and from 65 percent in 1963.

Still, despite the illiteracy and the changing perception of the Bible, there is something to Edwin S. Gaustad's question, raised in his essay, "The Bible and American Protestantism," in the volume, "Altered Landscape" (Eerdmans): "Yet, what other book comes close to being read as much?

"Moreover, even those who do not read it hear it in sermon and song, see it in art and architecture, contend with it in education and reform, and find themselves shaped by it in ways too subtle to trace."