I recently ran across this gobsmackingly self-deluded blog post from fundagelical group The Gospel Coalition (TGC) about why they think Christians don’t read their Bibles enough. It gave me such a fit of the giggles! After I recovered, I thought maybe I’d help them out a little by showing them why they really shouldn’t trust Christian surveys–and what the problem likely actually involves.
The post in question is called “Let’s Be Honest: Reasons Why We Don’t Read Our Bibles,” though I don’t see much about it that’s really honest at all. It’s written by a fellow named Erik Raymond, who has written numerous other pieces for TGC that take a very culture-war tack. He’s a hipster-looking young pastor out of Nebraska, which might explain why he is totally convinced that praying lots and lots and lots will totally prevent a Christian from becoming a hypocrite with a “secret life of sin.” He’s a fundagelical’s fundagelical, in other words, completely mired in magical thinking and divorced from reality.
And he’s totally sure he knows why Christians don’t read the Bible as much as he thinks they should.
First, let’s look at some statistics.
Simply put, Christians today are very likely the most Bible-illiterate group of Christians since the Reformation. They neither know much about their Bibles nor delve very far into it. The other day in comments a few people noted that even the most Bible-idolizing Christians rarely study more than a few cherished verses and chapters in the book they think is absolutely essential reading.
LifeWay discovered a while ago that of active churchgoing Christians, only some 19% of them read the Bible every day outside of church. About a quarter said they read it a few times a week, 14% replied that they read it once a week, 22% said once or a few times a month, and 18% said they almost never read it at all.
Barna, a survey group that seems slightly more reliable than LifeWay, released a study in 2014 indicating that Bible reading was on the downturn, with an accompanying decrease in the number of people since 2011 who viewed the Bible as authoritative, inerrant, or a source of comfort or solutions. 2014 is also about when Biola University (a major Christian college) released an official statement saying that Bible reading in America is now so minimal that it constitutes a “crisis” that is “killing [Christians].” (I wonder how they’d describe the 2017 numbers, if 2014 was “killing” them! That’s really the big problem with hyperbole, isn’t it?)
By 2016, the picture had gotten even worse for Christians. Only about 34% of Christians read the Bible weekly (and again, this is all self-reported). The year 2017 has barely begun, but the same group, Barna, has recently put out a survey that found that about 2/3 of responding adults say they’ve resolved to read the Bible more often this year.
I find myself giving these surveys quite a lot of side-eye, as you might have guessed.
I was Christian for half my lifetime, much of that spent in denominations that really stress Bible reading. I was married for some of that to a guy angling for ministry and we were friends with lots of professional full-time ministers. I probably read the Bible more than anybody I knew short of the pastor himself, which isn’t saying much. My then-husband himself didn’t read the Bible much at all that I can remember except in the context of group reading, preaching, or research, and that was about the norm. Thanks to that background, I can personally attest that those studies don’t sound like they’re accurate reflections of reality.
Pew Research Center, probably the most reliable survey group of the lot, ran a survey back in 2010 that discovered that white evangelical Christians only scored 7.3 out of 12 on a quiz about the Bible and Christianity. Mormons scored a 7.9. And that was as good as it got in terms of Christians; white evangelicals and Mormons were the only two groups that scored above 7.
Atheists/agnostics scored 6.7, incidentally, and I’m sure most of us are just surprised that the score was that low!
Why the Picture Is Worse Than It Seems.
I suspect that the real picture is even bleaker than it seems (for Christians, at least).
Every single survey on the topic of Bible reading does this kind of two-step shuffle where everyone pretends that the answers they’re getting are totally accurate. Christians as a whole are very good at giving answers that they think will sound good, but when quizzed about their Bible knowledge, they really don’t do as well as one would expect to see people perform when they’re constantly immersed in the book they say they’re totally fascinated with.
Go ask a Harry Potter fan what patronus Luna Lovegood has–or what club Hermione started in 4th year–or what the names of Ron’s parents are. They’ll be able to tell you. Someone like me won’t have the faintest idea, because though I like the series generally, I read the books like 15 years ago and never got to the very last ones. I’ll vaguely remember that the guy playing Ron’s dad in the movies also played one of Lister’s pals in Red Dwarf some years ago and that’s about as good as it gets with me.* But someone who claims to read their favorite book in the world at least once a week ought to be able to manage to remember basic stuff about it, wouldn’t you say?
Especially since the King James Bible has about 783,000 words in it compared to the 1,084,170 words in the Harry Potter series, I’d expect a Christian to know a lot more about the Bible than a Harry Potter fan knows about their canon. Plus, as far as I know at least, no character in the Harry Potter books has threatened to set anybody in real life on fire if they don’t do as the books’ author commands, whereas that’s a major plot point in the Bible apparently and Christians still don’t read the blasted thing.
The only way I can reconcile this level of ignorance with this level of self-reported reading is to think that they’re just skimming the words or can’t understand what they’re reading–
–or that they’re not being totally straightforward about how much reading they’re actually doing.
One might also quietly note that given how magical Christians think the Bible is, one would also expect a group of people immersed to the eyebrows in Bible reading to be slightly less hypocritical as a group than they actually are. But I don’t think the Bible is magical, so this at least wouldn’t be my own criticism. It’s way more of a problem for someone who really thinks that the Bible is divinely transformative and inspirational than it is for someone like me who knows it is neither.
The Trouble with Self-Reporting.
The other big problem with these surveys is that they rely completely on self-reports, meaning that researchers ask respondents for information and then consider whatever answers they get to be accurate. The level of Bible reading doesn’t ever seem to change a whole lot over the years, which is a very good indication in my opinion of overly wishful self-reporting.
It’s not particularly practical for researchers to go to the wall to prove the accuracy of the answers they’re getting. Nor is it ethical to follow Christians around to see just how much they truly read their Bibles (like a sort of Secret Eaters for the religious crowd). At least with calorie intake, there are ways to find out whether someone’s self-reported food consumption actually matches their real level of consumption–and to discover that it very rarely does. Even when people are trying to be accurate about how much they do something, if there’s a perceived virtuous level of that activity involved then they’re going to play to that virtuous level even when doing so works against their goals. I don’t see any reason to suspect that people’s self-reported levels of Bible reading are any different from anything else they’d report. If Christians know that X amount of Bible reading is good, then they’re going to miraculously hit X level or thereabouts in surveys.
If inaccurate self-reporting is taken as gospel (haha), then the conclusions drawn from those reports won’t be accurate either–and the suggestions for moving forward will be even less constructive. Studies are like houses; they need the firm foundation of accurate information (and it seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before…).
Indeed, there’s a surreal, bizarro-world quality to both the answers these surveys get and the recommendations they make. On that most recent survey, Barna found that the people who reported increases in how much time they spent reading the Bible gave answers that sound like they came straight out of a fundagelical Bible College’s textbook: the respondents “came to understand it [the Bible] as an important part of [their] faith journey” (67%), they wanted to find answers to life’s questions and problems in it (26%), they’d seen Bible reading transform another person’s life (SERIOUSLY) (14%), and my personal favorite: someone asked them to read the Bible with them (10%, and yeah, that’s totally for real believable, YEPyepyepyepyepyep, totally /thathappened).
Red Flags, All the Red Flags.
When we look at fundagelicals’ suggestions for How to Fix Everything Going Wrong Around Here, be paying attention to the Christians who urge their followers to keep the system as it is, just be more fervent and energetic about doing exactly what they’ve always been told to do. Their leaders aren’t going to suggest anything that’ll break up or shake up their lopsided authority structures, dismantle their tribe’s fixation on authoritarian rules, or (oh heavens forfend!) challenge the wisdom of the right-wing culture wars. Hell, they wouldn’t even be able to handle the suggestion that any of those things might be problematic.
Also be on the lookout for the blame game. In a toxic group, leaders won’t ever want to examine how they’re doing things or ask whether or not they’re making unreasonable demands of members. The system itself is always going to be held up as perfect, and it is always going to be immune completely from examination or challenge. Instead, they’ll always blame their adherents and followers for not living up to their demands–even if those demands are completely unreasonable or even physically impossible.
I’d say it’s sad to behold, except I know how much this dysfunction is likely hurrying along the religion’s demise.
So here is why Erik Raymond, pastor-at-large, thinks Christians don’t read the Bible enough.
Reason #1: It Makes Christians “Uncomfortable.”
Really. Mr. Raymond insists that reading the Bible makes his tribemates feel super-uncomfortable and fidgety because it’s just so gosh-darned blindingly true and so they just cringe at the idea of being confronted with their sinfulness and the fact that they’re doing something wrong.
I had to stop and ask myself if this guy actually knows any Christians. That doesn’t even sound a little like anything I’ve ever seen.
I’ve never encountered any group of people more motivated to see themselves as practically perfect in every way as Christians in Mr. Raymond’s end of the religion. The more right-wing the Christians, the more certain they are that they’re doing that Bible thing perfectly. The last thing I’d ever think of them is that they might read the Bible and come away with anything but smug assurance. Even if one of them had murdered someone, they’d be able to find some Bible verse that seemed to excuse everything.
Of the rest, the ones who might actually be inclined to read the Bible and come away feeling guilty, most of its rules aren’t even considered to be in effect anymore. The Old Testament is largely considered “fulfilled” by Jesus, meaning that all those tedious dietary laws are no longer obligatory, while the ones that aren’t still in effect are unlikely to be ones that plague most Christians. The New Testament repeats itself over and over again in the Gospels (unsurprising, given that its anonymous authors were cribbing from each other and some other source), and the epistles are labyrinthine and difficult to navigate or give a shit about–which goes double for the final book, Revelation, which reads like an acid trip.
I can honestly say that I have never once, in my entire life, met a Christian who avoided Bible reading because they were so scared of running across a Bible verse or myth that might make them feel guilty or remind them that they need to make some personal change. And even at my most religious, that concern had absolutely nothing to do with why I didn’t read my Bible as often as my leaders insisted every Christian should.
Verdict: Hahaha–no. Not even a little. This is the reason that Christian pastors wish was the reason.
Reason #2: “It’s Too Hard.”
He says he thinks “this is a rarity but there are some people who find the Bible very difficult.” Really. Ya don’t say? It’s an absolute mess of a document, filled with stuff that seems arcane, archaic, boring, and repetitive–where it isn’t downright evil.
I suspect that a lot more Christians than Mr. Raymond suspects would agree with this assessment. Strangely, he doesn’t wonder why a real live god who really wants to communicate with humankind would create a document that anybody would find too difficult to read–or, for that matter, a communication that requires reading at all, much less translating, editing, and endless explaining. It’s unlikely his tribemates would wonder that either.
Verdict: True, but to a far greater extent than Mr. Raymond indicates. “A rarity,” indeed. However, it’s not the whole story by a longshot.
Reason #3: “[Christians] Are Undisciplined.”
I had to laugh about this. In a weird way he’s right, of course; Christians are hugely undisciplined people. They grow up being forced to follow rules and obey without flinching or questioning and often threatened with brutal punishment for noncompliance. But when that element of coercion isn’t looming over their heads, they’ve got no idea how to self-regulate and self-manage themselves.
Even when I was Christian I was noticing just how flaky and undependable my “church family” was. That’s why Christian kids who get to college tend to flunk out or get sucked into substance abuse or caught up in time-wasting hobbies they weren’t allowed to participate in back at home, and why vices related to self-management are so commonly found in extremist ends of the religion. Just about every guy I knew in Pentecostalism had a ginormous problem with explosive rage, along with many of the women–including me. Just about everyone also had some problem with sexual sin. Overeating to the point of obesity was already common then–and more common now. Next to those eye-popping hypocrisies, fundagelicals’ tardiness and complete lack of follow-through might seem minor–but are really just outgrowths of the same exact dysfunctional core.
It’s ironic that Erik Raymond is shaking his finger at his tribe for being undisciplined when the system he’s helping to build and administer all but guarantees that outcome.
Of course, his stated solution to this problem is to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” In other words, just do it. He has no actual useful suggestions here, which might be because he hasn’t got the faintest idea how to cultivate discipline.
Verdict: True, but it’s not the whole story either. At all.
Reason #4: “[Christians] Think It’s Stale and Lifeless.”
Notice the weasel wording there. The Bible is not “stale and lifeless.” No, people just think it is. And Mr. Raymond is just so baffled here, because he’s not bored with it; how could anybody else be bored with the Bible’s stale, lifeless text, if he’s not? And the Bible even says it’s not boring (and he has a Bible verse he thinks backs him up here–Hebrews 4:12-13), so that pretty much settles that.
Of course, though he’s totally confused about how someone could possibly fail to be endlessly fascinated with the same thing he’s totally fascinated with, he knows without a doubt why people who aren’t fascinated feel that way:
- They’re too “infatuated with the trivial to appreciate something of substance.”
- They haven’t yet grasped “the coin of its central truth.”
- “Maybe [they] have yet to see that God is truly good and that [humans] are truly not.” (Don’t ask him to explain this one–it’s just one of those deepities fundagelicals like to say when they haven’t got a clue what’s going on but want to look profound and wise.)
- They haven’t been “conquered by the truth of the gospel.” (See above parenthetical note.)
- They don’t realize that the Bible isn’t “a book about God instead of a book about our god.” (See above again. Also, emphases are his.)
- They don’t really love “God.”
- They’re actually the boring ones, not the Bible. Neener neener!
As you can see, he’s really starting to hit his stride here.
Verdict: This guy is all the explanation we need for why Christianity is starting to circle the drain.
Reason #5: Christians “Have a Dysfunctional Relationship with God.”
He words it very clumsily, but what he means is that Christians don’t prioritize Bible study over other types of reading. He talks about how, when he got a snail-mail letter years ago from his wife (who was in the military serving abroad), he’d pore over it and analyze every single little detail about it, while junk mail and bills languished. He compares the Bible to a love-letter from “God” and wrings his hands over how many people let it languish like it’s a piece of unwanted junk mail.
After once again accusing his tribe of not really loving their god, he pulls what I suspect he thinks is a mic drop: “Let’s be honest: if you don’t read your Bible it is because you don’t want to read your Bible.” OMG! And since a fundagelical cannot, in his words, “separate a love for the Word of God and the God of the Word,” that obviously means they’re just not TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like he is) and they need to “repent and speak to God in confession,” after which they will totally and for sure love reading the Bible just like he does.
Verdict: This is another of those situations where a Christian is half-right, but for the wrong reasons.
Nowhere in this whole shebang is the fundagelical doctrine of inerrancy or authoritativeness addressed or questioned, and adherents shoulder the blame completely for a variety of reasons. Didja notice?
The Real Reason.
He’s right about one very big point, though. If a Christian isn’t reading their Bible, it’s because they don’t want to do it.
Nobody’s forcing them to do it, after all, and it’s incredibly easy to fudge how much time is being spent at the task. What this situation should be telling us is that not only are Christians not reading the Bible, they’re not even interested in lying about doing so.
People make time for what’s important to them, and in this day and age (of This Current Year, no less!), nobody’s got time for stuff they don’t care about. And Christians are clearly becoming less and less afraid of judgmental pastors with earnest lumberjack beards preening in their churches in Deerfuck, Nebraska and deciding who is and isn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ based on how much like him they are.
People talk a big game, but when push comes to shove, they demonstrate where their allegiances and affections lie by what they actually do.
That means that after decades of fundagelical posturing and pandering, after endless Bible studies, small group meetings, apologetics blather, and other such lectures, after all the totally awful parenting tactics and youth-ministry rah-rah, people still know, deep down, that they’d rather spend their time doing something that’s actually meaningful–and that the Bible doesn’t qualify.
(That’s why Christians tend to be such hypocrites, too, incidentally. After centuries of fearmongering, you’d think that Christians would be too frightened to “sin” and thus doom themselves. But adherents act like they know deep down that Hell isn’t real or a threat they need to worry about.)
There’s a sharp limit to just how much Happy Pretendy Fun Time Games fundagelicals want to play. And Erik Raymond and his pals might just discover that if they push too hard for their flocks to spend more time on that game than they really want to spend, the flocks just might decide that they’re not even interested in making the halfhearted stabs at compliance that they’re making now.
Nobody enjoys being lectured and told they’re failures all the time, after all; it’s exhausting and frustrating, especially when the failures involve trying to reach an unattainable goal in a broken system that’s completely stacked against laypeople. Nor are people generally big fans of being constantly shamed and blamed. But lectures and shaming are pretty much all that the Erik Raymonds of the fundagelical world have for their adherents.
The worst part, in my opinion? Jesus didn’t tell Christians that they’d be known by how much time they spent reading the Bible. He told them they’d be known by their love. But love is clearly a much harder metric to measure than “hours spent in Bible study per week.”
We’ve got a full plate next week, but I’m hoping to squeeze in a nice Semi-Drunken Review. I’m also planning posts about metrics generally, as well as in-groups, out-groups, and all the places in-between. (I do so love a nice full dance card.) I hope to see you then! Have a wonderful weekend and thanks for traveling along with me all this way. <3
* Fun fact: the guy playing the captain in the same show played the McDonald’s-loving cop in The Fifth Element years later.