Survey says: It’s all good!

bouguereau.jpgCharles Blow fills a niche so precise that The New York Times is one of the few daily papers that could maintain it in these lean times. He is the Times‘ “visual Op-Ed columnist,” which means that Blow, drawing on his long experience as graphics editor and then graphics director for the Times, supplements his concise remarks with graphics.

In his visual op-ed about a survey from the Pew Forum, Blow’s graphic and his insights leave much to be desired. Regarding the graphic: Shouldn’t a survey about people’s beliefs regarding the afterlife look like something other than a digital audio board? What would Nigel Holmes do?

Regarding the insights: Blow clearly is pleased that the Americans in this survey express beliefs that are, for all practical purposes, universalist. That’s his prerogative, of course, both as a visual op-ed columnist and as an American.

What’s frustrating is Blow’s glib tone in describing the historic teaching of the Christian church, which the church, in turn, draws straight from the Gospel of John:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

Exactly what was it, though, that Americans just weren’t buying — what Jesus said of himself? How Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches have understood those words for centuries? The Studio 54-style elitism that Blow imposes on those words?

To his credit, Blow consults with Alan Segal of Barnard College and John Green of the Pew Forum to help interpret the data. But then he closes with another casual dismissal of foundational Christian doctrine:

But I don’t think that they are ignorant about this most basic tenet of their faith. I think that they are choosing to ignore it … for goodness sake.

I know that Blow’s work involves taking dull statistics and making them more interesting with drawings and charts. Still, doesn’t such a weighty matter as eternity deserve something more than the written equivalent of a stickman?

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  • Julia

    According to Pew’s August survey, only 39 percent of Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and 18 percent think that it’s just a book written by men and not the word of God at all.

    There’s a 3rd possible answer: inspired by God and written by man. And even more nuanced versions of all 3 answers are possible.

    It’s Muslims and LDS who think their book was actually dictated word for word. Maybe a few Christian groups do, too, but that’s not the majority.

  • Martha

    “visual Op-Ed columnist”

    I would have thought that was, y’know, a newspaper cartoonist.

    But if it has charts, that’s different. That makes it science ;-)

    As for the results of the survey, it probably falls somewhere between “Gaudium et Spes” (‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery’) and “If you’re a good person, of course you’ll go to Heaven”.

    The velvet-rope imagery is tacky, though. Sneering at those yokels who think they’ve got a lock on Heaven, which you’re too cool to believe in anyway, Charles?

  • Chris Bolinger

    This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians.

    According to Blow, only “evangelicals” believe that Jesus was stating something clearly in John 14:6. Therefore, only “evangelicals” continue to hold to something that for centuries had been a basic tenet of the Christian faith, captured in the creeds. Following the same tortured logic, all creedal Christians now are “evangelicals”. Welcome to the VIP club, everyone.

  • Bill

    Still, doesn’t such a weighty matter as eternity deserve something more than the written equivalent of a stickman?

    Only if one considers eternity a matter worthy of consideration, which Mr. Blow clearly does not.

  • Brian Walden

    “Which kinds of religions/beliefs lead to eternal life?” is not a question that can be answered by a survey and a cute bar graph. What does “lead” mean – is it exclusive or inclusive? What does “eternal life” mean in the context of this question? What’s the relationship between religions and beliefs?

    It’s good to try to get the pulse of what people believe – but that takes a little bit of nuance.

  • Wellsy

    I think what this survey shows is that the American ideal of equality has embedded itself more deeply than religious exclusivism. Granted, there are still many people that believe you will not go to Heaven if you do not believe whatever the Truth is, but it’s changing.

    It just goes to show that religions are devices of man used to reach for God; they are not created by God and they are subject to change. They are culturally influenced.

    A second perspective is that many Americans are just becoming too lazy to critically examine and handle their own faith. They don’t want to approach the tough questions (“Will this Hindu child burn in Hell for not accepting Jesus as his Savior?”), so they simply ignore the conflict that they present. Entering into a true struggle with the answers might put them in direct conflict with their friends, neighbors, and possibly family.

    Though I’m no Christian, I’d say the end result is unfortunate. It leads to a watered-down faith, not a more encompassing faith. Although impossible, it’d be nice to view a survey alongside this one to determine how passionate the respondents were about their faith. Is there a correlation between acceptance of other beliefs and passion for God? I don’t think the world will ever know!