It took maybe 1,600 years to compose and compile the Bible. The Rev. Ken Sharp figured out it takes 90 hours to read it straight through, out loud.

He knows because, several days ago, he organized a round-the-clock Bible-reading marathon in a city park in Murfreesboro, Tenn., part of a national campaign to raise Bible awareness. In early May, some 600 other localities launched similar reading marathons, led mostly by grassroots evangelical Protestants.

A sign at the podium told the story: “Reading Thru the Bible—Honoring God—The Answer to All Life’s Needs.”

When I got there one cloudy afternoon to see how things were going, the thing was well into the New Testament. A man was reading the Gospel of John.

Under a furnished tent, there were plenty of seats for listening. And there was free coffee and cold drinks on a table nearby.

And, other than the reader himself and organizer Sharp, there was no one was in the audience to hear.

“You can’t be discouraged by the small crowds from time to time,” said Sharp, a Baptist minister.

“You never know who’s going to hear it or what seeds are being planted by reading it aloud in public.”

The event took place over four straight days leading up to National Day of Prayer, in early May. Organizers say they were happy with the results despite a midnight storm one night that left the tent a tangle—and, periodically, the total lack of an audience for hearing the ancient words.

This was Sharp’s seventh year to organize the marathon. He had done the math: He needed 360 people to read 15 minutes each in order to get from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22. In the end, he found nearly 300 readers to get the job done. When necessary, he or other staffers filled in during the wee hours. Everyone read at a podium that was outfitted with loudspeakers. It was all located a few hundred feet off a busy street.

The Bible-reading marathon is the sort of ambitious Protestant spiritual errand that leaves the critics baffled. It attracts clergy organizers who enjoy a logistical challenge and get energized by symbolic gestures of public piety. It’s a labor of love, an exercise in can-do faith and stamina.

It’s also an admission of anxiety—a widespread uneasy feeling that the Bible’s influence is in decline. Thus the need for such a demonstration.

Like a doctor fretting over a patient’s mysterious illness, the Gallup Organization keeps probing attitudes about the Bible, looking for signs of vitality and noting declines. In 2000, a poll said 59 percent of Americans read the Bible at least occasionally. In the 1980s, that number was 73 percent. The number of people who say they read it at least once a week has declined in the past decade too, according to that 2000 poll. The shock of Sept. 11 reportedly bumped up reader interest in Scripture, at least temporarily.

Sharp, pastor at Patterson Baptist Church in nearby Rockvale, Tenn., throws himself into the annual marathon with tireless good humor. He’s liable to ask visitors who wander over if they’d like to read. Many do, grateful to be asked to read the Good Book in public, as an exercise of religious freedom or as a spiritual discipline, no matter if public attention is riveted or not.

“This is a demonstration of what we should all be doing,” said Keith Anderson, who read three chapters of the Gospel of John.

“You pay attention to the words differently when you read aloud. It hits you all at once, the enormousness of it.”

To launch the marathon in Murfreesboro, 150 well-wishers sang hymns under the tent. But Sharp was disappointed in the lack of pastors pitching in for the effort. Next year he plans to be more aggressive about TV and radio promotion.

“I liken this to a small church contrasting with the megachurches,” Sharp said. “The question is always: Are we accomplishing anything? Yet God doesn’t judge by how big it is but by what impact it has on individuals.”

At one point, a jogger wandered within earshot of the reading, raised his hands and said, “Praise be God’s Word,” then jogged on.

When asked about the periodic sparse or even non-existent crowds, reader after reader testified that Scripture is never read in vain. They quoted Isaiah 55:10-11—”For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Participants believe something serious is enacted and set in motion by sacred words declared in a public place. It harkens back to an ancient sense of the physical power of words: Blessings and curses have unstoppable force once they’re uttered.

“This is not a small thing,” another reader said. “This is big—and God knows what he’s doing.”

Panels and seminars will continue to debate the nature or decline of biblical authority. Meanwhile, such is the piety of some that they want to plant the flag for biblical truth in a new and nervous century by reading the Bible aloud straight through, no matter how quixotic the notion.

Scoffers will dismiss the thing as a stunt, a pointless sideshow and rigmarole. But if they show up next year, they should be warned: Likely they’ll be invited to read the Bible, take a 15-minute slot and join the show.

Ray Waddle, former religion editor for The Tennessean, is a Nashville-based writer.

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