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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: