Time magazine claims that Bible-ness is next to Godliness

An old Salvation Army musical production — the kind of church entertainment often aimed at youngsters and teen-agers — had a catchy little chorus about that Christian group’s fabled “slum sisters” of years ago, whose work in tenements was legendary:

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness

“Soap-and-water is divine.”

Those words came to mind as I read a rather astonishing Time magazine online piece that seems to put a whole lot of, well, faith in a survey undertaken by the Barna Group for the American Bible Society:

America, you may have a new Sodom and Gomorrah.

The two least “Bible-minded” cities in the United States are the adjacent metros of Providence, R.I., and New Bedford, Mass., according to a study out Wednesday from the American Bible Society.

The study defines “Bible-mindedness” as a combination of how often respondents read the Bible and how accurate they think the Bible is. “Respondents who report reading the bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as ‘Bible Minded,’” says the study’s methodology.

Yowza! If there isn’t “enough” Bible reading in New Bedford, watch out for the brimstone! Oh, and don’t look back, or you could become a true pillar of the community. (Cue snare drum!)

While I don’t want to demean the American Bible Society, a nobile group that has had its ups and downs recently, or belittle the research that the Barna folks have done, I was struck both by the research results — more on that in a moment — and Time‘s interpretation of the data.

Providence and New Bedford are noted for many things, but a modern day Sodom-and-Gomorrah — when it comes to moral conduct — isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, or even the second or third.

In other words, did anyone ask this basic question: Is Bible-less-ness really an indicator of rampant sinning?

I’m not saying folks shouldn’t read the Scriptures — I’m all for it — but might we have a little more here on the part of Time to make the connection? You know, some, er, data or facts perhaps?

Instead, I get the feeling that this piece was intended to generate heat, and not light. The snark from the lede morphs into hair-splitting later on:

Surprisingly, that den of sin called New York City didn’t make the top ten least Bible-minded cities, coming in at 89th in the list of 100. Suspecting New York’s large Jewish population may have rescued it from the bottom ten, TIME inquired as to whether the Torah counted as the Bible for the purposes of the survey. A spokesperson said questioners left it up to respondents to determine what they considered to be the sacred text, but the question asked was, “How many times do you read the bible outside of church or a synagogue?”

Har-de-har-har, Time, now that’s a real thigh-slapper!

My overall impression is that Time wanted to have a chuckle at the expense of those who might actually take the Bible seriously, such as, well, the magazine’s late co-founder Henry Luce, the son of missionaries to China. But perhaps I’m too cynical.

That cynicism extends, for this observer, to the Barna survey results ranking Salt Lake City, Utah, 87th on the list of Bible-minded burghs, sixteen places behind Seattle/Tacoma, Washington and twenty-six spots back of Portland, Oregon, supposedly one of the least-churched states in the Union. I seem to recall a major religious organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, one whose adherents are quite fond of the Bible (and, yes, their own Book of Mormon — though not necessarily the Broadway musical). In fact, the National Bible Association — formerly the Layman’s National Bible Association and not to be confused with the American Bible Society — designated Salt Lake City as the “National Bible City” for 2013.

I’m rather uncertain about the Barna numbers, and wonder if more digging — as opposed to more snark from Time — would have yielded greater understanding.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Darren Blair

    There’s another big flaw with the study.

    #43: Waco / Temple / Bryan, Texas.

    As an actual Texan?

    No.

    It’s the Waco / Temple / Killeen Metroplex and the Bryan / College Station Metroplex.

    By merging the two metroplex areas, the Barna group fouled the results for this area. I can tell you from actually living in the Waco / Temple / Killeen Metroplex that we have more than our fair share of Bible-thumpers of the type that the Barna group is looking for.

    So what could be fouling the numbers, then? College Station is the home to the main facility in the Texas A&M system of colleges. I’d suggest that any investigation into why things are the way they are should start there.

    (In contrast, Waco is home to Baylor University, and Belton is home to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, both very much religious institutions despite being open to the public; in fact, UMHB started as the womens’ college for Baylor University proper.)

  • Kevin Spencer

    The story’s quite guilty of making common mistakes such as “All Christians are Protestant,” and “All U.S. Religions use the Bible.” Must be a slow news day.

  • mikecrowl

    Having done a stint as a research assistant a few short years ago, I became increasingly wary of Barna’s surveys, which often seemed too broad to be of any real value. This only confirms my feeling.

    • Kodos

      Barna is also frequently cited in news reports about support/opposition to gay marriage.

  • Marshall

    I’m curious what was meant by accuracy and how the question was asked; I’ve often seen questions that used terms that are vague or don’t allow for much nuance. Roger Olson had a good post on his blog about how inerrancy (which might seem like a pretty straight-forward term) can mean different things to different people, to the point that it isn’t very helpful. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/06/further-thoughts-on-why-inerrancy-is-problematic/


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