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What do Americans really think about the Bible?

It's tempting to think of it as a collection of stories not very relevant to our contemporary lives. But if we do think that way, we'd be missing a lot.

Every year the Barna Group, a polling organization that has an interest in religion, comes out with some fascinating facts about the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (otherwise known as the Old and New Testaments).

The number of those who report being either "engaged" (they read the Bible four or more times a week, and think of it as God's Word) and those who are skeptical (it's just another book of human teachings) are so close that they almost cancel each other out. But the numbers of Americans who have a friendly or a neutral view of the Bible is much larger than either of the other groups. About 13 percent of Americans are hostile to the Bible, believing it was meant to manipulate and control people.

Women and older Americans are more likely to be heavily invested in Bible reading. Though nine out of ten of us own one, the way we read the Bible may be changing, with interest in online formats and Google searches growing.

More than half of us wish we read the Bible more often than we do, says Barna.

Perhaps if we did, we'd find some stories with strong, complex characters that open our eyes -- not only to the world in which they lived, but to our own.

There is Jacob, the ambitious and sometimes unscrupulous younger brother of Esau, who wrestles with a mysterious man at the ford of the Jabbok River in Genesis 32:22-32 and lives to tell the tale. We live in an age of ambition. When is it healthy and when is it harmful?

While men mostly play leading roles in the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures offer a number of women making decisions that change the course of biblical history, from the prophet/judge Deborah in the four and fifth chapter of Judges, to the Persian queen Esther who plays an important role in saving the Jewish people (her cousin Mordecai helps foil a plot to kill the king in the book of Esther), to Mary the mother of Jesus and the outspoken Samaritan woman getting water from a well in the New Testament. These women are nothing if not smart and resourceful.

There are prophets we come to know in the books named after them, as they beg God to be merciful and hold God's people accountable for their misdeeds. Perhaps we have had someone like a Hosea or a Jeremiah in our own lives -- a person we respected and perhaps feared at the same time.

Then there are characters about whom we know very little, like the thief (the so-called "good thief") who is crucified next to Jesus and recognizes Him, even in these last moments of his own life, as someone holy. Many of us are aware of how very easy it is to go astray, in spite of everything we have been given, and find ourselves in a frightening place -- one in which we may not even recognize ourselves. Who inspires us to change our course in these dark times? Have we known people in whom we recognize a profound goodness, one that attracts us to them?

If you are one of the nine out of ten people who has a Bible lying around, you might want to follow up and take a deeper look at some of the characters mentioned here. There are many, many others. When we are prone to see Scriptures as a set of "do's and don'ts" (and there certainly is moral teaching in it), we may be more prone to avoid getting in too deep. But the moral teaching of the Scriptures makes more sense if you understand the real-life dilemmas of the people who inhabit its pages.

Once they come to life for you, they may take you places you never thought you'd go. The Bible as an adventure story? Nothing in the least bit old-fashioned about that.

Written by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

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