A Christmas story

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Dec 21, 2000 12:00 AM
It's almost Christmas. Quick tell me: What are the names for the first four books of the New Testament?

If you are like half of American adults in a Gallup poll taken in the '90s, you can't name even one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans can name all four.

Could be worse. My own unscientific poll suggests that if Americans were asked, "Who said, 'And it came to pass there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed'?" 10 percent would pick Russell Crowe, 20 percent would say The National Tax Foundation, and a majority of folks over 30 would say, "Why that's Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, of course!"

Biblical illiteracy is reaching astonishing proportions, especially in a nation founded on God-given rights, where in recent Gallup polls 94 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and 65 percent of Americans agree the Bible "answers all or most of the basic questions of life." Yet as a 1990 report by the Princeton Religion Research Center put it: "Repeated surveys show that the majority of Americans say they believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living today, but then they have a tough time recalling just exactly what many of those rules are."

Chuck Stetson, vice chairman of the National Bible Association, aims to change all that. "We need to pass along the stories to the next generation. There are too many people who think that Joan of Arc is Noah's wife," he quips. So among other things, the National Bible Association recently taped master storytellers not just reading, but reliving the great Gospel stories. This Christmas more than 160 secular and religious radio stations will air them. (See

www.nationalbible.org for a station near you.)

But don't just listen with your kids, talk to them. A recent study by Purdue University Professor Lynn Okagaki looked at a sample of mostly Christian Midwest college students to see how parents transmit (or fail to transmit) their own religious values to their children. Having a warm but authoritative parenting style helps a lot. So does taking your kids to church (or temple or synagogue) or to the local soup kitchen with you. But one of the most important, often-overlooked factors, it turns out, is -- get ready -- talking to your kids about your religious faith.

Those young adults who could most accurately describe their parents' religious beliefs were most likely to agree with them. Parents who want their kids to grow up Catholic (or Baptist or Jewish) shouldn't just leave it to chance, or to the weekly official sermon. As one young woman described her father's active role: "He would tell me the things he believed, why he believes them, and what the opposite belief is, and why he didn't believe that." "When he would go help someone in our church," reported another, "he would take me along." Actions may speak louder than words, but actions and words together speak louder than either alone.

Me? I read Bible stories to my 5-year-old every night. and when he tells me he's going to marry a classmate at St. Theresa's, I say, approvingly: "A nice Catholic girl!" (Call me narrow-minded if you like, but if my grandkids aren't Catholic, it's not going to be my fault). This Christmas, like every other Christmas, we'll go to Mass to hear of the strange, miraculous, joyful mystery that God has consented to come and be one of us. Maybe this year, ala Chuck Stetson, I'll even take the time to read Luke for my two kids before carving up the turkey. Then I'll thank God for the blessings of two dear sons and pray that somehow it all takes.