Chattanooga may be ranked first in a list of America's most Bible-minded cities, according to the American Bible Society, but officials say that makes its residents no more biblically literate than going to church makes them Christians.
The study, recently conducted by Barna Group, moves the city up from No. 3 on last year's list. Knoxville, No. 1 on the list released in 2013, fell to 10th. Nashville was 13th.
"I'm not surprised," said Gary Phillips, co-pastor of Signal Mountain Bible Church. "In Chattanooga, we're blessed with many wonderful Bible-believing churches. Bible history is taught in the schools. Many biblically based ministries reside here. People give to many worthy Christian causes. All of that is very encouraging, so [the results] make sense in a way."
However, that's where the Bible becomes countercultural, he said.
"To be Bible-minded, you have to start with information," Phillips said. "That's where the survey stopped. After information has to come application. The issue is how do we live for Jesus and how we treat others around us."
Ralph Mohney Jr., president of Bible in the Schools, said while Bible knowledge in Chattanooga may be high, Bible understanding is likely much lower.
"We live in an increasingly secular society where Bible literacy is at a relatively low level," he said.
However, Mohney said he believes the court-approved Bible history courses taught in 17 Hamilton County middle and high schools -- and in various forms over the past 92 years -- may help with that knowledge.
"I do feel the presence of a Bible history program ... has had some impact," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of children who have passed through have learned about the Bible. I think that contributed in some way. And it continues to be an opportunity."
Mohney said his organization knows that 50 percent of students who first take a Bible history class have had little or no exposure to the Bible and that a majority of students who attend a local school offering the elective class end up taking one.
"I think that speaks to the popularity of the classes and to the teachers we have," he said. "Most of the other schools would like us to be present, but it's a matter of funding. It's a great opportunity if funding ever becomes available."
The American Bible Society survey says Bible-mindedness is calculated based on combined levels of regular Bible reading (whether the respondent has read it in the last seven days) and residents' belief in the Bible's accuracy.
Therein lies the rub, said Dr. Douglas Fairbanks, a native Chattanoogan who is senior pastor at First-Centenary United Methodist Church. What the survey means by "belief in the Bible's accuracy" may mean different things to different people, he said.
It may mean inerrancy or it may mean God's revealed truth in love for humanity and in offering us a correct pattern of behavior, he said.
Fairbanks said the community is much more diverse today than when he was growing up.
"But this city overall continues to take the Bible very seriously," he said. "It still impacts the way we live our lives."
Angie Conroy, volunteer director of Chattanooga Bible Institute, an organization founded in 1933 to support local churches and their ministries, said the ranking for the city, sitting as it does in the middle of the Bible Belt, is deserved.
"It rings true of the cities I've visited," she says. "The Bible is a very precious and reverent book to the people in this city."
Conroy said most Chattanoogans want to believe the Bible, hope it's true, follow its moral lessons and believe Jesus was real.
Whether residents believe as she does, in the infallibility of the Bible and that it is the inspired word of God, "I have no way of knowing," she said. "That's really between the individual and God."
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