Islam is at a crossroads in America. Jackson residents read the Bible and believe in its accuracy more than most people in the U.S., according to a new report released by the American Bible Society.
Based on random telephone and online interviews with 42,855 adults conducted during a seven-year period ending in 2012, Jackson ranked fifth as one of America's "Most Bible-Minded Cities."
Cities that embrace the Bible most also include Knoxville, Tenn., Shreveport, La., Chattanooga, Tenn., Birmingham, Springfield, Mo., Charlotte, N.C., Roanoke/Lynchburg, Va., Huntsville, Ala., and Charleston, W. Va.
The "Least Bible-Minded Cities" include Providence, R.I., and New Bedford, Mass., (tie) , Albany, N.Y., Burlington, Vt., Portland, Ore., Hartford/New Haven, Conn., Boston, San Francisco, Phoenix, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Buffalo, N.Y.
Conducted by Barna Group, the study analyzed 96 geographic regions across the U.S.
Findings also show a trend related to population density. Of the top 25 Bible-minded markets, only three have a population greater than 1 million households: Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville and Raleigh/Durham, N.C.
"I find this most interesting as this, perhaps, flies in the face of more general religious shifts for the South," said the Very Rev. Edward O'Connor, dean of the Cathedral Parish of St. Andrew.
O'Connor said recent data analyzing religious practices in the South also came from The Barna Group, a California-based company that conducts research about cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
According to Barna, there hasn't been a lot of religious change in the South over the last 20 years, O'Connor said. And the significant change that has occurred in the South was identified in just four of 14 items tracked in the Barna study.
Some of those four items about the South seem to differ from the American Bible Society's findings about Jackson.
Referring to the Barna study, O'Connor said:
• Adult Sunday school attendance dropped in the South by 10 percentage points to 21 percent.
• Attending a church of 600 people or more became somewhat more common in the Southern states between 1991 and 2011, rising from 10 percent to 17 percent.
• Qualifying as an unchurched person, for example, someone who has not attended a church service during the past six months, other than a special service such as a wedding or funeral, increased from 20 percent to 31 percent.
• The only belief that sustained significant change was the 10 percentage point decline in adults who strongly agreed that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches, O'Connor said. That dropped the figure to half of Southerners (50 percent) who hold this point of view.
"I'm not sure if Jackson is different, so much as it speaks to our 'context,' " O'Connor said. "Jackson is in the 'buckle' of the 'Bible Belt,' and I think the mainline protestant ethos has been, and continues to be, the dominant lens with which many see. And, that tends to be a more conservative, orthodox, literal, fundamental approach to Holy Scripture."
Thomas M. Kersen, graduate director of the sociology program at Jackson State University who studies religion, said it's important to note that based on the Pew Forum's "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey" from 2010, the West, East and Midwest scored higher than the South on respondents' actual religious knowledge.
"So, any information that shows that Jackson and Southerners are the most Bible-minded needs to be tempered with a dialogue about quantity versus quality," he said.
Kersen said, even if the American Bible Society's survey is accurate based on responses, "what does it really mean when Southerners tend to miss more knowledge questions (who led the Jews out of Egypt, etc.) than respondents from other regions of the country."
Kersen said it's important to know how the respondents defined "Bible-minded."
"Do they mean counting how many times they read the Bible? Going to church? And if so, why does this not translate to higher religious knowledge," he asked. "To be fair, most Americans tend to be ignorant about religion and even their own faith," said Kersen.
The American Bible Society said survey respondents who reported reading the Bible within the past seven days and who agreed strongly in the accuracy of the Bible were classified as "Bible-minded."
Bennie Reynolds, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Millsaps College, said he loves teaching the Bible in the South because he never has to convince anyone that his field is interesting and useful.
"But teaching the Bible also brings its share of challenges and frustrations in a place like Jackson," he said. "Both my students and the public are often shocked to learn about the methods and results of modern biblical scholarship.
"My field has existed for over 200 years, but I've rarely met a "Bible-believing" Christian in the South who is aware of even the most basic results of serious scholarship produced by experts."
Reynolds said, despite their great interest in and reverence for the text as an icon, most people still read the Bible with the same assumptions that ancient and medieval readers brought to the text.
"The tools developed by modern biblical scholars haven't begun to be explored or exploited by Bible readers in Jackson," Reynolds said. "In some cases, this is understandable, since serious Bible study requires an advanced knowledge of difficult languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek at a minimum. But scholars have been working hard to translate the results of our efforts into more accessible formats."
Reynolds, however, said the fact that Jackson is among the five most Bible-minded cities in the country confirms that he his in the right place doing the right thing.
"At Millsaps College, (religion professor) James Bowley and I regularly offer courses on the most historically significant and cutting-edge results of biblical scholarship," he said. "Indeed, we at Millsaps regularly produce scholarship that is read by serious students of the Bible all over the world.
"We'll be working hard to continue to introduce our city to the rich results that modern, critical, biblical scholarship has produced over the last 200 years."
American Bible Society's study of America's Most Bible-Minded Cities also found that while the Bible Belt performed strongly, Colorado Springs, Colo., deemed the No. 1 "holiest city" by Men's Health just two years ago, has now dropped to the middle of the pack.
Other stereotypically known Bible Belt cities that fell to the mid-range rankings include Houston, Texas; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Antonio, Texas.
"We are continuously evaluating interaction with and views of the Bible among Americans," said Geoffrey Morin, chief communications officer at the American Bible Society, in a news release. "Knowing the Bible landscape across the U.S. is key to helping people engage with the most-translated, best-selling book of all time."
Most Bible-Minded Cities
Least Bible-Minded Cities
Providence, R.I./ New Bedford, Mass.
Hartford/New Haven, Conn.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
To view the full list of city rankings, visit BibleMindedCities.com.
To learn more about The Barna Group, visit barna.org