The Bible Bee: Where the Word Becomes Sport

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In the glow of a spotlight, a chubby-cheeked 8-year-old with dark, blunt bangs and a slightly upturned nose walks onto the stage and proudly introduces herself. "My name is Olivia Davis and I use the NIV." 

"NIV" is an abbreviation for New International Version, the translation of the Bible that Olivia has been studying for months. She is a finalist in the primary division at the National Bible Bee, taking place at the Marriot Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg, Illinois. At a judge's prompt, Olivia begins to recite a passage from Corinthians. Speaking in a slurred monotone, she sounds like a groggy third grader reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-- not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters," says Olivia, her childlike lisp an endearing contrast to all the fire and brimstone. She reaches the end of the passage, then looks anxiously towards the judges from behind her wire-rimmed glasses.

"That is correct," announces the contest moderator. Jubilant, Olivia heads back to her seat on stage right, making sure to give two-handed high-fives to each of four finalists sitting next to her. It will turn out to be a good day for Olivia, who will win her division and be awarded a $25,000 prize.

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The National Bible Bee, now in its second year, is a glitzier and more competitive version of what's long been a tradition in American churches and elsewhere: scripture memorization. In Mark Twain's classic, Tom Sawyer famously swindled his way to the top of one Bible bee, trading a fishhook and some pieces of "lickrish" for tickets given to those who'd memorized their verses. Today, scripture memorization remains a thriving pastime, and some influential evangelicals are striving to bring it to a larger audience.

Tom Widdoes, vice president of development at the Shelby Kennedy Foundation, the non-profit group that organizes the Bee, acknowledges that even though the competition is not the first of its kind, "it's definitely the largest." The foundation's explicit goal is to create "a competition that's at least as prestigious as the Scripps National Spelling Bee."

While Bible Bee isn't quite there yet, it has made swift and steady progress. This year, over 6,000 contestants took part in more than 150 qualifying bees nationwide. While these numbers pale in comparison to the estimated 11,000,000 who competed in local spelling bees, the Bible Bee has one significant advantage over its secular counterpart: money. The Bible Bee hands out some $260,000 in cash prizes, with $100,000 going to the winner of the top age category. Compare that to the Scripps champion, who takes home a measly $30,000. Given that sort of monetary reward, it's easy to see why Widdoes predicts the bee will attract some 25,000-30,000 participants next year.

Liesl Lawrence was the ultimate victor at this year's bee, taking home $100,000 which she plans to use towards college tuition. The 17-year-old from Georgetown, Texas, first learned of the competition through an ad in World magazine, a bi-weekly Christian news magazine. (Sarah Palin's ghost writer is an editor at the publication.) Over the past six months, Liesl estimates that she practiced an average of three hours a day, memorizing 14 verses five days a week; weekends were for review.

The time commitment--even for those with less ambitious goals than Lawrence--is considerable. In exchange for a $25 entrance fee, each contestant gets a packet of Bee-prep materials. There's a Bee-branded Bible in a choice of five versions--the New International Version is the most popular, followed closely by the beloved King James Version. It should be noted that Bee participants are not actually expected to memorize the entire Bible. Instead, each child gets a box of 250 to 800 "memory verses," depending on his or her age group and ambition. The final piece of the puzzle is a 12-week intensive study guide to a selected book of the Bible; this year it was Colossians. This is designed to foster what Widdoes calls a "family discipleship model" rather than mere rote memorization.

Like Lawrence, Sophie LaFleur is a homeschooled 17-year-old who found out about the Bee from an ad in World. Though she was initially skeptical of the endeavor--"I thought it would be really corny and lame and all that"--LaFleur says that through the Bee she "really rediscovered the powerful and living word of God." Though a single flubbed pronoun meant LaFleur was knocked out in the semifinals, her impassioned delivery earned her the distinction of the Chairman's Oratory Award. It was presented to her by Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. "It's an award for someone who speaks the word with conviction, not just precision," she explains. "I've tried to say the verses the way God would want me to and not just in a monotone. When I recite, it's real and alive."

The vast majority of Bee participants are homeschoolers like Lawrence and LaFleur. Competing in the Bible Bee at the national level requires a serious time commitment, and the flexible homeschool schedule enables contestants to devote much of their day to memorizing verses. Homeschoolers, it should be noted, have long been standouts in secular academic competitions, like the Scripps Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee; in 2000, each of the top three finishers in the Scripps Bee were homeschooled.

The Bee's board of directors is a who's-who of the homeschool movement and the Christian right--increasingly one and the same thing. Farris, who was the master of ceremonies at this year's bee, is also the chancellor of archconservative Patrick Henry College, founded as an elite university for homeschool graduates. Other fundamentalist luminaries on the board include Doug Phillips, the president of Vision Forum, a publishing and lifestyle company closely identified with the Biblical patriarchy--a.k.a., "Quiverfull"--movement; Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council; and Tim La Haye, author of the bestselling Left Behind books, a series of thrillers about teenagers living on earth after the Rapture.

Like other evangelical cultural institutions--including the Creation Museum and the San Antonio Independent Film Festival--the Bible Bee presents a savvy and unthreatening version of conservative Christianity. Gone are the sweaty televangelists of the 1980s and the dim yokels depicted by Twain: today's Bible Bee presents a thoroughly modern, if not exactly worldly, image. The Bee has adopted what Widdoes calls a "franchise model" designed to make it easier for interested churches and schools to host their own local bees; all that's required is a tax-deductible $250 donation. The Bee's website is a sleek multimedia affair, jammed with profiles of each of the 300 contestants, videos for prospective judges, and a widget displaying the weather forecast in Schaumburg.

There's even a pinch of Hollywood glamour: Growing Pains star-turned-evangelizer, Kirk Cameron, appears in a promotional video prominently displayed on the homepage. "If there was no local Bible Bee event near you last year, please ask your church or local Christian school to host one. What better way to make a difference for Christ than to plant a godly heritage in the next generation?" says Cameron, flashing the grin that moved millions of copies of Tiger Beat back in the '80s. "Let's make 2011 the best Bee yet!"

The obvious question in all this: Just what is the implicit value of memorizing the Bible word for word? Just because a kid can spell "appoggiatura" doesn't guarantee he or she can string together a coherent sentence; likewise, does the memorization of vast swaths of scripture actually "plant a godly heritage in the next generation"?

Not surprisingly, the Bee's proponents have answers to these questions. LaFleur, Widdoes, and Lawrence each talk about the power of "hiding the word in your heart," an allusion to Psalm 119:11: "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you." Replace "heart" with "head" and you have a pretty clear idea of the theory behind the Bee. 

Indeed, in one of the Bee's preliminary rounds, contestants are asked to recite 30 passages in 10 minutes. Unlike the "sudden death" finals in which a single mistake means disqualification, speed is the main goal here, and any inaccuracies are deducted from your final score; it's not unlike a typing test. The goal isn't just memorization, but instant, nearly reflexive, recall of the Bible. Widdoes draws yet another comparison to the Scripps Bee. "If you're just going to memorize how you spell a word, how much more valuable to memorize God's word?"

For LaFleur, the ability to instantly summon verses makes it that much easier to live according to the Bible's dictates. "It's so ingrained in my heart that I can just say it. I know it without looking it up," she says.  "It becomes so much more a part of every moment of your life. As you lie down and go to sleep, whenever it's quiet, verses will come to mind."

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Meredith Blake is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is  a contributor to The L.A. Times and The Book Bench, The New Yorker's literary blog

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