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Researchers Awarded Grant to Study 'The Bible in American Life'

Researchers from an Indiana university announced on Wednesday that they have been awarded with over $500,000 in grant money, which will be used to study how Americans use the Bible in their everyday lives.

Lilly Endowment Inc., a private foundation based in Indianapolis that focuses on philanthropy in the areas of community development, education and religion, awarded the grant to researchers at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis several weeks ago.

According to the center, the three-year research project is one of the first large-scale national studies of its kind.

"The Bible is by all accounts the most important book in American culture,” said Peter Thuesen, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at IUPUI, in an interview with The Christian Post on Thursday.

“It has been ever since Europeans colonized these shores, and it's always been the biggest American bestseller in all the varied versions. And so what we're interested in is how are people actually using the Bible."

Thuesen is one of three principal investigators in “The Bible in American Life” study, alongside the center's executive director and associate director, Philip Goff and Arthur Farnsley.

Previous research, Thuesen said, indicates that most Americans believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but beyond that little else is known.

How often do Americans read their Bibles? Do they read it at all? Who, or what, helps them to understand it? Is it common for children today to memorize Bible passages? How do the Scriptures impact daily decision-making in the lives of Americans? How does electronic media impact the approach to the Bible in a society that emphasizes the use of technology? These are just some questions they hope to begin to address, though the answers won't come all at once.

"There's only so much of that we can get at in a limited set of survey questions, but what we hope this will do is open up the subject, at least, for increasingly more study,” Thuesen said.

The trio of scholars will find their answers by tying their questions to other surveys: the National Opinion Research Council's 2012 General Social Survey, the “gold standard” of social research surveys according to Thuesen, and Duke University's National Congregation's Study. By using both surveys, the researchers will be able to ask questions and examine responses from both the general American public and also from a specifically Christian demographic.

Once the survey has been conducted, interpreted and reported on, they will also sponsor a conference in Indianapolis in 2014. During the conference, peer-reviewed papers will be presented on issues relating specifically to the Bible and its use by Americans, including historical information that will add to the overall understanding of the team's research.

"We hope to deepen the survey results with some historical context as we move along in the project,” Thuesen said.

The grant and the research come at a fitting time, too, as 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the first edition of the King James Bible. Thuesen believes there is no other sacred book that has shaped American culture like the Bible has, but researchers still don't know precisely how its use is changing and how it impacts people on a daily basis.

"Scripture has a great deal of potency as a symbol of religiosity in this country,” he said, “but that doesn't mean people are necessarily actually reading it.”

The findings of the research project, he noted, would not only be beneficial to religious leaders but would benefit scholars who study economics, politics and a number of other disciplines as well.

"We certainly do have in mind leaders of religious communities, because it is always helpful for pastors to know more about the habits of the people in their congregation and how people are really approaching the sacred text and thinking about it today,” he said. “But we also – because we're a research center that is not religiously affiliated – we're also always interested in benefiting the scholarly community ... people who are trying to understand how American culture works and how it is changing.”

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