The American Bible Challenge: More than a game

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2012 4:55 p.m. MST

For an example, he pointed to the use of the organ in church services. “When the organ first came into church it was opposed by a lot of people because it was a secular instrument. It was a thing you played in a bar. ‘How can you have that in a church?’ people asked. Well, people will like the music and maybe they’ll come to church more, pay more attention, want to sing more, sing with more enthusiasm.”

When asked specifically about "The American Bible Challenge," Prothero, author of the book “Religious Literacy," said that enlisting a comedian like Jeff Foxworthy to host the show can help draw people in.

“He can get people laughing and, perhaps, wanting to know more," Prothero said. "Pop culture can make religious literacy seem cool.”

Tracy Fox, creator of the One Minute Bible Study, a daily email service, agrees. She said pop culture can help expose people to the Bible and make it seem less intimidating.

“Many people think they can’t read the Bible for themselves,” she said. “They think it has Shakespearean language, it’s too big, it’s out of date, it’s just some old dusty book in the back of the pew. That’s how I used think, even with my mother as a minister.”

Not everyone is comfortable with the show's treatment of the Bible. Eliza Wood is a religion columnist for the Huffington Post. Having watched every episode, she wonders if the program isn’t guilty of “sugar coating” the Bible.

“Is it really an honest assessment and cross-section of the teachings in the Bible?” Wood asked. “Or are they going for the more popular, crowd-pleasing, commonly taught aspects of the Bible? I find it curious.”

Schiff said the show’s intent is not to interpret. “The book has a myriad of meanings to different people,” he said. “Our approach is that whether you believe in this book or not, no one can deny how important it is to hundreds of millions of people. People have spent their lives studying it. We wanted to celebrate that.”

Public interest

Prothero points out that in a pluralistic, post-9/11 society in which religion plays a major role, biblical literacy and religious literacy more generally can foster increased understanding as well as more respectful, intelligent debate.

Not only is the Bible the canonical book of Christianity, its Old Testament portion closely corresponds to the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. In addition, Islam counts the first five books of the Old Testament, the Psalms and the Gospel of Jesus — part of which is found in the Four Gospels — as three of its four Holy Books; the fourth and foremost being, of course, the Quran.

Personal strength

There’s another answer to Christina Levasheff’s on-stage question, “How did we get here?” That answer began long before "The American Bible Challenge" was in development.

Rewind to the spring of 2007. The Levasheffs’ 28-month-old son, Judson, was a loving, healthy boy who could sing "The Star Spangled Banner" word for word. However, within a period of just five months he became blind, mute and fully paralyzed due to a disease called Krabbe leukodystrophy, which breaks down the myelin, or fatty coating, surrounding the nerve cells in the brain. He passed away before his third birthday.

The $140,000 won by Judson’s Legacy over three separate episodes will fund a myelin repair lab in Judson’s name at the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Levasheff struggled to describe the feeling that came over her as she stood with her husband at the end of the game show.

“I was so aware that we wouldn’t have been standing on that stage if it wasn’t for our son. I get choked up just talking about it. What I felt then was this clash of deep, deep pain and tremendous joy all at one time. It was surreal. It felt redemptive that out of our son’s life and pain could come such a great gift.”

It's difficult to overstate the role the Bible has played in Levasheff’s life. "For me, biblical literacy has been essential to knowing how to navigate life,” she said. It helped her to deal with the unexpected and overwhelming loss of her son. Then, thanks to a game show, it became a means to perpetuating his legacy.

“The passage that often comes to mind,” she said, “is John chapter 16 verse 33: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.”

To view an award-winning documentary about Judson Levasheff’s life and legacy, visit: http://judsonslegacy.com/Judsons-Eyes

For casting information, or to watch an episode from the first season of "The American Bible Challenge," visit: http://gsntv.com/shows/the-american-bible-challenge/videos/

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at dward@deseretnews.com.

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