The Bible Bee: Where the Word Becomes Sport

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."

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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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