by Pastor Doug Kings
Last week the Gallup organization released the results of a new survey of people’s views of the Bible. Gallup has been asking such questions since the 1970s; the last time was 2017. As has been true throughout this period, by far the largest number agree that the Bible is “inspired by God, not all to be taken literally.” The percentage choosing this option has been climbing slowly to now just under half at 49%.
The big change in Gallup’s findings has been at the extremes. In 1976, nearly 40% said the Bible is the “actual word of God, to be taken literally.” That number has since dropped by half to just 20%. In contrast, the number of those who believed “the Bible is a collection of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man” has nearly doubled, from just over 15% in the first survey to 29%. Thus those accepting a “humanist” understanding of the Bible now substantially outnumber Biblical literalists.
One takeaway from this is that 80% of Americans rejected the notion that the Bible contains the literal words of God. Among this number, some may believe they “hear” God speaking but this is inevitably subjective and open to interpretation. They also understand that others may hear something different, or nothing at all.
The survey’s results are not surprising given the steady, half-century decline in nearly all measures of religious belief and participation. What is surprising considering this survey is the seeming ascendance in political power of those who do have a literalist view of Bible. The most recent example, of course, is the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade by a phalanx of avowedly conservative Christian justices.
A New York Times article recently looked at the rise of conservative Christian political candidates. Nearly all connect their religious beliefs with support for gun rights and opposition to abortion. A (losing) Georgia Republican primary governor candidate combined them in a simple slogan: “Jesus, Guns, & Babies!” Another increasingly common aim of these candidates is to abolish the separation of church and state. The founding of the US as a Christian country and the biblical basis of the Constitution are repeated themes.
Many would say these positions are nonsense from both a historical and political perspective. My concern is that they are nonsense from a theological and biblical perspective. And the Gallup survey provides a clue about why people are getting away with making such ridiculous pronouncements: they literally don’t know what they are talking about.
In my first congregation, the senior pastor told me to not be surprised when visiting inactive members to find a Bible prominently displayed on their coffee table. He was right! It was usually large, fancy, and obviously hardly touched. Today for Christians of all persuasions, the Bible is a revered symbol but largely unread.
And for good reason. The unspoken but obvious truth is that the Bible is very hard to read. There are, of course, many wonderful stories and passages. But if, like most people, you are unfamiliar with the Bible’s content, good luck finding them. They are like needles in a haystack. Open the Bible randomly and you will most likely encounter word salad. What is the writer talking about? Before long, your eyes will glaze over in incomprehension.
The Bible is very old, written in dead languages within long-gone cultures understood only partially even by dedicated scholars. In truth, it often says little or nothing about the contemporary questions and issues that perplex and frustrate us. Specifically, for example, it says nothing about abortion, homosexuality, gun control, democracy, or capitalism. All these issues arise out of our unique historical and cultural contexts. Does the Bible provide general principles that could be applied to them? Of course, but not in any simple or obvious way, and not without serious interpretation and debate.
I love the Bible. It fascinates me and speaks to me. It also drives me crazy. And I know that people who believe they know the Bible at least as well as I do, come to completely different conclusions about what it says and means. Protestants, especially, like to say their churches are “based on the Bible” but this has come to be a very shaky foundation. The countless occasions of churches pulling themselves apart over this or that theological or social issue have shown that it just doesn’t work that way.
The church’s error has been its simplistic belief that it could. Today biblical scholars agree that the Bible is itself a conversation among its many writers, not a unified pronouncement of divine truths. Of course, the Bible contradicts itself! Of course, you can make the Bible “say anything.” It is not one voice but many voices, and they are not, literally or figuratively, all on the same page. They often vehemently disagree with each other, but more often find peace by agreeing to disagree.
The Bible is not an answer book, as much as the church has treated it that way and we may want it to be. It is an ancient discussion about God, the world, and our lives with God in this world. Some voices are hopeful while others see only dark clouds. Some voices are happy and others angry. Some expect a lot of God; others wonder what good God is really for.
While much of the Bible can make sense only to the people who wrote and first read it, overall I believe it is a conversation still worth listening to. But we must always remember, as Bible scholar Marcus Borg said, that the Bible was written neither to us nor for us. It can still speak to us, but we will only genuinely hear it with effort.
Its wisdom is often profound, exposing the shallowness of many of our modern values. Its stories are often moving (and funny) and its joy contagiously uplifting. But the Bible is of no value if we come to it assuming we already know what it says, looking for the answers we want to find. Instead, like Mary in this week’s Gospel, we need sit at its feet and just listen.
Blessings in your life and ministry.