About 92 percent of Americans own at least one, and the average household has three. Two-thirds say it holds the answers to the basic questions of life, and George W. Bush will take a solemn oath on it.

It is the Bible, also known simply as "the Good Book," and it remains unrivaled as the world's all-time best-seller. It is also widely and frequently hailed as the underpinning of America's values system.

Only one-third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (many named Billy Graham, not Jesus).

And yet even as the nation painstakingly closes the book on an election in which the candidates quoted the Bible as often as their party platforms to court voters, Americans are showing themselves to be remarkably ignorant of biblical basics. One Gallup survey, for example, shows that fewer than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only one-third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (many named Billy Graham, not Jesus), and one-quarter do not know what is celebrated on Easter (the Resurrection, the foundational event of Christianity).

The Bible, it seems, is the book that everyone wants to read but few do.

"It's the real dumbing down of America in that sense," said the Rev. Andy Dzurovcik of Faith Lutheran Church in Clark, N.J. A pastor for 28 years, Dzurovcik recently made his own small effort to encourage Bible reading, posting this adage on the church's sign: "A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to a person that isn't."

But such persons are growing rarer. While polls show a sturdy minority of Christians, perhaps 15 percent, participate in Bible studies, and while at least 20 million Bibles are sold each year in addition to tens of millions that are distributed free, Bible reading is declining.

Last month, another Gallup poll showed that the number of people who read the Bible at least occasionally has dropped to 59 percent from 73 percent in the 1980s.

And that makes things tougher for pastors who say that, compared with a generation ago, they have to spend far more time explaining common Bible stories to listeners instead of teaching about what the stories mean for their lives.

"Biblical illiteracy is rampant even though so many people seem to be getting into the Word," Dzurovcik said, using a popular term for the Christian Scriptures. "The Bible is the best-selling, least read and least understood book."

Or as George W. Gallup, the nation's foremost religion pollster, has put it:

"We revere the Bible but we don't read it."

Worse, Gallup said, the percentage of people with a college education has more than tripled since 1935, "but the level of biblical knowledge appears to have hardly budged."

The evidence from Gallup and several other surveys, many by publishing houses, makes that clear.

For example, despite the talk about how important the Ten Commandments are to the moral health of American society, six out of 10 Americans can't name half of them, much less in order.

And a 1997 Barna Organization poll showed that 12 percent of Christians think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc, while 80 percent of born-again Christians believe it is the Bible that says "God helps them that help themselves."

Actually, Ben Franklin said that. But don't feel bad if you got it wrong. George W. Bush, who famously cited Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, also cited Franklin's adage as the Christian basis for his policy of "compassionate conservatism."

This biblical illiteracy is especially confounding to religious leaders, given the ubiquity of the Bible in American life.

Gideons International annually distributes more than 45 million Bibles--an average of 86 per minute, better than one every second.

A National Bible Week survey prepared by Zondervan Publishing House of Minneapolis, the world's largest publisher of Bibles, shows that gift-giving is the top reason (49 percent) for purchasing a Bible. Another survey bore that out with the finding that most Bibles (71 percent) were originally received as a gift.

So what's the problem?

According to a survey by Tyndale House Publishers (named after the 16th century Englishman who was burned at the stake for translating the Scriptures into the vernacular for the common folk), 64 percent of Americans don't read the Bible because they're too busy.

The other big obstacles seem to be the daunting size of the Bible and its dense language.

A large majority--80 percent--say the Bible is confusing. Little wonder, since most of the time people read the King James Version, still the favorite Bible by a 5-1 ratio, even though its phrasing is as impenetrable as it is gorgeous. Even pastors find the Shakespearean-era language tough slogging. "I have a hard time with it," said Dzurovcik.

But the most widely read contemporary translation, the New International Version, representing half of all Bibles sold today, is written at a seventh-grade reading level.

Last March, Tyndale launched an edition simply called "The Book," the fruit of a seven-year project by 90 scholars to render the Bible into "understandable English."

The Tyndale launch was combined with a $7 million biblical literacy campaign, underwritten by televangelist and religious-right leader Pat Robertson, to convince Americans "that Bible reading is cool."

"The Book" has clear print and a single-column format plus an index of basic themes and "Great Bible Stories" to help readers get the basics quickly and easily.

Will the simplification campaign work?

Joan Begitschke, director of marketing for Tyndale, said that in the short time since its release, "The Book" has become the third-best-selling edition, after the King James and the New International Version. "Hard to put down" is one of the blurbs readers have provided.

"We made it like a novel," Begitschke said. "The layout is like a book, and it reads like a book. The goal is so you don't have to read the same sentence twice."

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