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The Bible's Influence on America's Culture

"The Bible is Planet Earth's operating system
thinly disguised as a piece of literature."
--RABBI DANIEL LAPIN


by Dr. Woodrow Kroll

In earlier articles I have discussed the influence of the Bible on America's founding, our early government and leaders, and the origins of American public education. It is evident that the Bible's influence on each of these was both persuasive and pervasive.

But what about our daily life? Did the Bible equally impact everyday life in "Old America," the America that reflected what our Founding Fathers desired? What can be said for it's influence on our American culture? Often that influence flies just under our radar, but if you look carefully, it's clearly there.

Naming Names

When my wife, Linda, and I were naming our children, we stayed away from the typical names the flower children gave to their children--Cinnamon, Rainbow, Sunflower, Honeysuckle, etc.--and chose names we liked, not family names. The Bible has often significantly impacted the names Americans have given their children.

Naming Babies

John was the most popular boys' name from 1880 (the earliest year my research could trace) through 1924. Mary was the most popular girls' name from 1880 until 1947 (when it was knocked out by Linda, only to return in 1953 to hold the top spot until Lisa knocked it out again in 1962). In 1972 it fell out of the top ten and has never returned.

In the early years of America, most children were named Jeremiah, Abigail, John, Josiah, Peter, Sarah, Paul, or Elizabeth.Today, many of these Bible names are making a comeback. In fact, of the top 50 names given to girls in America in 2005, 14 are Bible names. Of the top 50 names given to boys, 25 are Bible names.

Since historically Americans have been a Bible-reading people, that was bound to show up in naming our children.

Naming Places

Interesting, isn't it, that so many small towns and villages in America have biblical names. In eastern Pennsylvania you can begin at Philadelphia (a Bible name--Revelation 3:7) and in two hours you can visit both Bethlehem and Nazareth, as well as Emmaus, Bethesda, Shiloh, Bethel, Eden, Ephrata, Zionsville and New Jerusalem. If you choose, you can stop by Mount Nebo, Mount Zion, Mount Joy, Mount Lebanon, and Mount Carmel. Have you wondered why? It's because the Bible had a direct impact on the society and culture of Old America and it shows up in the names they gave their towns and villages.

America has more towns named after Bible towns than anywhere in the world, except, of course, the Bible lands themselves.

But you say, "That's Pennsylvania. Don't a lot of Amish live there?" Maybe you expect it in Pennsylvania, but take a drive through the Lone Star State and you can visit Athens and Corinth, as well as Karnack, Palestine, Hebron, Eden, Joshua, Temple, Bishop, Blessing, and Corpus Christi.

Again, you object. "That's Texas. It's part of the Bible belt. A lot of Southern Baptists live there." Okay, how about California? You wouldn't expect as much Amish or Baptist influence there. And yet in California you can visit Antioch, Carmel, Goshen, Bethel Island, Joshua Tree and Temple City. You could drive through Angels Camp or even go to Paradise, and if you didn't like that you could go to Diablo.

It doesn't matter where you go in the United States or whom you meet, when it comes to naming names, the influence of the Bible on America is undeniable.

Speaking Bible as a Second Language

What about the words and expressions we use? Is there any evidence of the Bible's influence in what we say? Well, because it's more blessed to give than to receive, and because I don't want you to be at your wit's end, let me suggest that the English language, as well as many other languages, is chock full of phrases and proverbs from the Bible.

Familiar Expressions
Here's a partial list of common phrases from the King James Bible we Americans use almost daily.

  • "Apple of his eye" -- Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8
  • "Blind leading the blind" -- Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39
  • "Eat, drink, and be merry" -- Ecclesiastes 8:15 KJV
  • "Eye for an eye" -- Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20; Matthew 5:38
  • "Good Samaritan" -- Luke 10:25-37
  • "Handwriting on the wall" -- Daniel 5:5
  • "My brother's keeper" -- Genesis 4:9
  • "Out of the mouths of babes" -- Psalm 8:2
  • "Red sky at morning" -- Matthew 16:3
  • "Signs of the times" -- Matthew 16:3
  • "Strait and narrow" -- Matthew 7:14
  • "Sweat of your brow" -- Genesis 3:19 KJV
  • "The blind leading the blind" -- Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39
  • "Thorn in the flesh" -- 2 Corinthians 12:7

These aren't all, of course. In fact, these are just a "drop in the bucket" (Oops! that's from Isaiah 40:15). Oh, and what I said above about it being more blessed to give than to receive and not being at your wit's end, those expressions come from Acts 20:35 and Psalm 107:27. It's hard to speak the English language without quoting the Bible.

Common Words

Here's something else that may surprise you. It's the number of words that were introduced into our English language through the Bible. The following is a partial list of words and phrases that first appeared in English translations of the Bible.

adoption
ambitious
bald head
beautiful
busybody
castaway
cucumber
holier than thou
house divided
left wing
liberty
network
puberty
scapegoat
two-edged sword
under the sun
wordy
wrinkle
Surprised? Me too.

Teresa Watanabe, a feature writer for The Los Angeles Times, noted, "The [Bible] is a cornerstone of Western civilization, inspiring the art of Michelangelo, the plays of William Shakespeare, the novels of John Steinbeck and the films of Hollywood. It's prose has enlivened our language: Salt of the earth. Wolves in sheep's clothing. Drop in the bucket. Skin of my teeth. Woe is me!"

In America, if you speak English, you're
speaking the Bible as a second language.

William Tyndale coined a variety of expressions in his translation of the Bible into English, including: "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3); "The powers that be" (Romans 13:1); "My brother's keeper" (Gen. 4:9); "The salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13); "A law unto themselves" (Romans 2:14); "Filthy lucre" (1 Tim. 3:3).

The Bible has played a major role in the formation of our English language, even though most of us aren't aware of it.

The Bible and American Masterpieces

Since the Bible has been kicked out of public education, students today have difficulty recognizing biblical expressions from great novels written before 1950. Students do not recognize literary references to "Jonah" or "the prodigal son." Professors are forced to decode these images so students dumbed-down in the Bible can understand the context of our masterpieces of literature.

Educator Allen Bloom suggests, "Imagine such a young person [devoid of history, especially Bible history and the stories of the Bible] walking through the Louvre or the Uffizi, and you can immediately grasp the condition of his soul. In his innocence of the stories of Biblical and Greek or Roman antiquity, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and all the others can say nothing to him. All he sees are colors and forms--modern art. In short, like almost everything else in his spiritual life, the paintings and statues are abstract."

You don't have to go to Paris or Venice to see the dazed looks on students' faces.& Without a proper foundation in the Bible, American students betray those same faces in our own galleries and libraries.

American Literature

The world has been touched by the Bible in every discipline, and we in the United States have not escaped. Literature and art in this country are as much or more influenced by the Bible than in any other country.

Again, here are some of literary classics by American authors that use biblical themes, references or allusions, some even in their titles.

The Grapes of Wrath -- John Steinbeck  
The Song of Solomon -- Toni Morrison
Moby Dick -- Herman Melville
Lord of the Flies -- William Golding
The Scarlet Letter -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
Uncle Tom's Cabin -- Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 38 of 45 chapters in the American classic
Uncle Tom's Cabin there are references to the Bible.

Uncle Tom's Cabin contains almost 100 quotations from or direct references to the King James version of the Bible. Most often it is the narrator who makes the connections between the story and the Bible, but among the characters, it is Tom himself who most frequently quotes the Bible. It is nearly impossible for American school children to understand this American novel without some knowledge of the Bible.

American Poetry

Poetry, by its very nature, is often brief. Even still, detecting the influence of the Bible on American poets is not impossible. Many American poets reference God or their longing for God in their poetry. As is the case in American film, American literature, and in other cultural genres, sometimes God doesn't fare well in American poetry; other times He does. Regardless, God and His Bible have left their imprint on the poetry of America.

Here are some representative titles:

The Battle Hymn of the Republic -- Julia Ward Howe
The Crowing of the Red Cock -- Emma Lazarus
Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl -- John Greenleaf Whittier
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek -- Annie Dillard
The Only News I Know -- Emily Dickinson
The Living Temple -- Oliver Wendell Holmes
Journey of the Magi -- T. S. Eliot

There is a growing band of Christians who are invading the once secular world of American poetry. The Bible has always had some influence on American poetry, but it is now coming front and center.

American Film

Believe it or not, even Hollywood has been impacted by the Bible. You only have to remember some Tinsel Town greats (and not-so-greats) to remember that the Bible or biblical themes were seminal to many of them. For example:

The Ten Commandments
The Passion of the Christ
King of Kings
Bruce Almighty
Pulp Fiction
Armageddon
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Lord of the Rings
The Prince of Egypt
The Matrix
Chariots of Fire
The Exorcist

Of course, the Bible is not always treated fairly by Hollywood, but in an essay in the Journal of Religion and Film, Adele Reinhartz discusses some of the movies popular with college students and concludes, "The many uses of the Bible in film is a powerful argument for biblical literacy. Should our students, university administrators or provincial ministers of education question the on-going relevance of biblical studies programs, let us simply point them to the nearest Cineplex and ask them, as Jules [of Pulp Fiction] asks his erstwhile victims, 'Do you read the Bible?'"

The Bible's influence on our culture is everywhere. Old American society would not be the great society it is today without the impact of the Bible. Ironic, isn't it, that the Bible is everywhere in our culture but itself is neglected by our culture. It seems we'd rather see a bad movie based on biblical themes than read the Good Book. What will be the impact of that? Stay tuned.