Trend or not? Evangelicals reportedly questioning the Bible

Ted Olsen is managing editor for news and online journalism for Christianity Today, the popular evangelical magazine. He’s an excellent journalist who recently co-authored an intriguing piece titled “Meet the Non-Christians Who Take the Bible Literally, Word for Word.” As a matter of full disclosure, I write freelance stories for CT.

All that said, if Olsen has concerns about a news report on evangelicals (see the above tweets), then I’m inclined to agree. He has the street cred.

The Orange County Register (which earlier this year laid off veteran Godbeat pro Cathleen Falsani) reports that some evangelicals are rethinking the Bible and “growing numbers are asking whether their reading has become too rigid, too simplistic and too alienating.”

The top of the story:

What is the Bible?

It’s a straightforward question. But for Christians these days, it turns out there’s no straightforward answer.

Not even for evangelical Christians, who for centuries have remained near unanimous in their belief that the Bible is the authoritative word of God – until now.

At a time when fewer Americans than ever read the Bible or even regard it as sacred, even evangelical Christians are beginning to ask whether their historic embrace of Scripture has become too rigid, too simplistic and too alienating in an increasingly pluralistic society.

“We’re in a moment of history where things are shifting,” said Rob Bell, a best-selling evangelical author and former megachurch pastor who lives in Laguna Beach.

Bell is one of several prominent evangelicals who in recent months have published books or extended online essays questioning traditional claims that the Bible, as Bell put it in all capital letters in a blog post, “IS THE INERRANT TRUTH ABOUT WHICH THERE CAN BE NO COMPROMISE.”

Alas, this is one of those “three examples make a trend” stories that presents a collection of anecdotes as empirical evidence.

For a variety of reasons, it’s extremely difficult to put a precise number on the evangelical population in the U.S. But just for fun, let’s say the figure is 100 million. Yet the Register quotes three or four evangelicals scattered across the nation and deems their perspectives a major trend.

After quoting Bell, here’s the second example offered by the California newspaper:

In churches, seminaries and online, evangelicals are asking whether the Bible was directly inspired by God; whether Scripture truly condemns homosexuality; and whether strict observance of biblical rules is even possible given the complexities of language, history and culture inherent in biblical interpretation.

“The Bible is complex and, while influenced by God, it is not dictated by God,” prominent megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton told the Religion News Service in May.

Hamilton was speaking about a book he published in March that encourages Christians to abandon overly literalistic approaches to Scripture.

Here’s my (sincere) question: Is Hamilton an evangelical? The RNS story that the Register referenced noted that he leads the nation’s largest United Methodist church — a congregation “considered by many to be America’s most influential mainline Protestant church.” Aren’t evangelicals and mainline Protestants different animals?

The Register’s third example is a 24-year-old from Kansas who “leads a national network of evangelicals dedicated to promoting tolerance of homosexuality in churches.”

Later in the story, this is the paragraph that sparked Olsen’s original tweet:

Jeff Tacklind, pastor of a medium-sized evangelical church in Laguna Beach where Bell sometimes attends services, said his congregation embodies the complex evolution of evangelical approaches to Scripture.

Yes, it was strange not to ID the church. And just for kicks and grins, why not give an actual membership figure instead of using a vague term such as “medium-sized?” Of course, that might constitute too much hard data for this story.

In the same way I flee root canals, broccoli and New York Yankees fans, I usually avoid reader comments on newspaper stories.

But in the case of the Register story, one comment — from a reader whose Facebook profile identifies him as a journalism teacher — seems apropos:

such an unbalanced story … where are the quotes from the many pastors of “mega-churches” who believe the Word of God comes directly from God Himself?

Exactly.

Bottom line: If the trend the Register purports to identify actually exists, this story falls way short in reporting it fully, accurately and with appropriate context.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • fredx2

    Standard stuff for the media. It comes under the heading of “stories we would like to see come true” rather than something that actually exists.

    As long as there are a couple of outliers anywhere, doing anything, it is a trend if the media says its a trend. If it is not something the media approves of, say, like the March for life ( The March on the anniversary of Roe v Wade that has hundreds of thousands of marchers every year) , it does not exist as far as the media goes, and is certainly not a trend.

    Anyway, I had no idea who Rob Bell was until a couple of weeks ago, when I came across this short youtube video from Lutheran Satire. It shows you what Evangelicals really think about Mr. Bell. Very funny. Enjoy. (Lutheran Satire is very well done and quite addictive)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdVOPhhggEA

    • Julia B

      I really found this one offensive and I’m not easily offended. Benedict had the same problem with the press. I never noticed Billy Graham’s statements being parsed like this. Care to talk about Luther’s opinions of Jews and Galileo?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEchg1KhmTY

  • http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/ steve

    I was first introduced to Rob Bell at a Friday devotional at the house of some very standard evangelical friends who showed several of Bell’s Nooma programs. I guess 6 or 8 years ago. We are all Church of Christers. I was moved by the videos and immediately became a fan. Rob Bell has definite evangelical cred as he was born and raised that way. He is a widely read author who for a while was respected and identified as an evangelical. His more recent works have drawn the ire of the more traditional evangelicals because it questions the traditional conservative Protestant view of scripture. Yet his books continue to be read and discussed. I think this in part validates the gist of the article. My experience is that many young people who start out life with a desire to serve in the ministry, often, after studying in grad school or seminary, come to a different view of inspiration than the traditional one. Even when they study at standard conservative universities. Formerly, these people left for a ministry in a mainline church or left for another occupation. Now, some of these are remaining and still identifying themselves as evangelical (which is a sociological category and not just a list of doctrinal beliefs) and are creating new approaches. They may identify as missional or emergent or postmodern Christians, for instance. And there are dozens of books by them. They obviously have a following within evangelicalism and I suppose without. It is also the case that those who are professors who come to such views are kicked out of their conservative schools, from time to time.


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