Searching for hope – but not finding it?


Many Americans are searching for beacons of hope and moral grounding amidst uncertainty and perceived moral decline. Barna conducted the annual State of the Bible survey, commissioned by American Bible Society, to examine behaviors and beliefs about the Bible among U.S. adults. The results show that Americans overwhelmingly believe the Bible is a source of hope and a force for good even as they express growing concern for our nation’s morals.

This is an interesting quote.  The bottom line is that “many” Americans are searching for something that Americans “overwhelmingly” believe is in the Bible.  However, even as that’s happening, they also think the country is going downhill.  What does that mean?

  1. We have many Americans searching.
  2. We have an overwhelming number of Americans believing the Bible has the answers they are searching for.
  3. The country is perceived as getting worse, not better.

Each of these, by themselves, could mean, respectively –

  1. Maybe “many”, while a large number of people in absolute terms, is actually a small percentage of the people.  I say that because they use the word “many” – not overwhelming, most, or even a majority.
  2. Just because someone believes what they’re searching for is in the Bible, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will take the time and effort to actually read / study the Bible.
  3. Based on various other surveys that are done – political, economic, social, Etc, or even checking out the news – the perception that the country is going downhill seems to be correct.

This leads to the question of why there seems to be such a disconnect between the number of number of people believing the Bible has the solution – but as a nation, we seem to be getting worse, not better.


This is part one of a new series – The State of the Bible.  Truth is, it’s not really “The state of the Bible” so much as it is “The state of people who are exposed to the Bible”.  After all, the Bible doesn’t change – and by that I mean the original / oldest texts that we have, not the translations that are redone every so many years.  However, since the Barna group, who did the study, called it “The state of the Bible” – we’ll stick with that.  The data / conclusions being evaluated are from “The state of the Bible 2017”.

The summary conclusions from Barna are available here.  If you’d like to get the entire document from the study with all the details, you can download it from the American Bible Society here.


Examine assumptions of the study

Whenever trying to validate a conclusion, it’s always important to look at the assumptions made from the very start.  Invalid or skewed assumptions will result in analysis that tends to be biased along the lines of the assumptions.  So – let’s begin by looking at the definitions used by Barna when they did the survey.

Bible Engagement Definitions

SegmentDefinitionPercent
Bible Engaged
  • View the Bible as a) the actual or b) the inspired word of God with no errors, or as c) the inspired word of God with some errors

  • Read, use or listen to the Bible four times a week or more
20%
Bible Friendly
  • View the Bible as a) the actual or b) the inspired word of God with no errors

  • Read, use or listen to the Bible fewer than four times a week
38%
Bible Neutral
  • View the Bible as the inspired word of God but has some factual or historical errors OR not inspired but tells how the writers understood the ways and principles of God

  • Read, use or listen to the Bible one time a month or less

23%
Bible Skeptic
  • View the Bible as "just another book of teachings written by men ..."

19%
Bible Hostile
  • (a subset of Biblical Skeptics)
    View the Bible as a book of teachings written by men and intended to manipulate or control other people

13%
Definitions for 2017 Barna State of the Bible survey

Now, let’s go through them, one segment at a time to see if they’re realistic.

Bible Engaged

  • View the Bible as a) the actual or b) the inspired word of God with no errors, or as c) the inspired word of God with some errors

This raises some interesting questions.

  1. Does the Bible itself say anything about whether it is the “actual” word of God or “inspired” by God?
    It does.  

Paul’s Charge to Timothy

2Ti 3:10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

OK – all scripture is God-breathed.  It’s also useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.  Given that last one, it would be really good for Christians to actually know what God-breathed means – you know, the original Greek word meaning.  Let’s check it out –

2315 θεόπνευστος [theopneustos /theh·op·nyoo·stos/] adj. From 2316 and a presumed derivative of 4154; TDNT 6:453; TDNTA 876; GK 2535; AV translates as “given by inspiration of God” once. 1 inspired by God. 1A the contents of the scriptures.  1)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Let’s look at another source –

33.261 θεόπνευστος, ον: to a communication which has been inspired by God—‘inspired by God, divinely inspired.’ πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν ‘every Scripture divinely inspired and useful for teaching’ or ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching’ 2 Tm 3:16. In a number of languages it is difficult to find an appropriate term to render ‘inspired.’ In some instances ‘Scripture inspired by God’ is rendered as ‘Scripture, the writer of which was influenced by God’ or ‘… guided by God.’ It is important, however, to avoid an expression which will mean only ‘dictated by God.’  2)Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 417). New York: United Bible Societies.

Notice that last sentence – It is important, however, to avoid an expression which will mean only ‘dictated by God. 

This means it is not the actual word of God – but that it’s from a person, guided by God in what they wrote.  Before proceeding to discuss the impact of this finding, let’s look at one more thing from this segment of responses.

  1. Are there errors in the Bible?

This is an important question, because when we say there are errors in the Bible, it raises a whole bunch of questions about who decides what’s in error, and doesn’t that also mean the person(s) deciding is also responsible for what we believe and what we don’t believe, based on whether it’s considered to be an error by those people.  There’s also the issue of who did the research and how much of it was done.  For more on the topic, please see The problem of inerrancy (in the Bible).

Analysis of Bible Engaged Segment

It would be nice to know the percentage of people in each of the three groups in this segment –

(1) those who mistakenly believe the Bible is the actual word of God,
(2) whose who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God with no errors, and
(3) those who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God with some errors. 

It would also be good to know, for the last group, did any of the perceived errors change the basic beliefs – or were they items of a secondary nature that had no effect on the person’s core beliefs about Christianity.   Much of that information isn’t in the summary, but is in the full document,  Here it is, although with an additional statement that those who believe the Bible is the actual word of God also think the Bible should always be taken literally.

  • 46% of the people responding in the Engaged Segment believe the Bible is the actual word of God, has no errors, and should be taken literally.
  • 46% of the people responding in the Engaged Segment believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, has no errors, and some parts of the Bible are symbolic.
  • 8% of the people responding in the Engaged Segment believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, has factual or historical errors, although nothing is said about whether the Bible is to be taken literally or symbolically.

I find this fascinating.  Also disturbing.  Given the previous research where we saw the Bible itself says it is the inspired word of God, where does the belief that it’s the “actual” word of God come from?  

When we read something like this, from Exodus – we see Moses receiving the actual word of God, in stone tablet form –

Ex 24:12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction.”

Ex 31:18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.

Ex 32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

The actual stone tablets, which Moses broke, were the actual word of God.  

Ex 32:19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

Then God told Moses to chisel out the replacement tablets himself –

Ex 34:1 The LORD said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. 3 No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.”

Ex 34:4 So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.

These were the dictated words of God, chiseled in God’s presence.  Remember, what we saw from God-breathed excludes even what Moses did here.

However, other things that Moses wrote in the first five books of the Bible – there’s no indication of any such direct involvement of God in the writing.  In the events, yes.  But in the actual writing, no.  It can be a fine line, however it is a difference.  Especially when we get to the point where we seem to be at now, the difference between actual and inspired is also the difference between literal and symbolic.  
The symbolic issue is important in many cases, one of which is Jesus’ parables.  You can read more in What Is A Parable, but here’s the introduction to that article –

I guess it’s important to look at what a parable really is, before we dive right in and look at them.  While it would be sort of funny to put in the technical definition right away – here’s one that’s actually useful – 

In the NT the actual word ‘parable’ is used with the same broad variety of meaning as Heb. māšāl to refer to almost any kind of non-literal utterance.  1)  

I think the key to this definition is to remember that it’s a “non-literal utterence”.  
In even more plain words, it’s something said that was not, is not, and was never meant to – be taken literally.

This is a huge problem for taking every word in the Bible literally.  I know some won’t like what I just wrote – but honestly, when the Bible says something different from what we believe, how do we justify our beliefs?
Put all of this together and we see that 46% – nearly half – of the Engaged Segment appear to have a view of the Bible that’s not in line with what the Bible says of itself, the culture at that time, and the definitions of the Hebrew and Greek words of the original text. 
Oh yeah – that’s another thing – we need to remember that the culture and the language was very different from what we live with today.  We need to read the Bible not in our native language (unless it’s Hebrew or Greek) and not in our culture – but in the language and culture of the time it was written.

This was the top 20% – the ones who read the Bible most often, presumably would be the most impacted, and nearly half of them may not be getting the correct message from the Bible.  Given that 20% of the respondents were in this group, and 46% of them may not have the correct message, that knocks the percentage of people in the Engaged Group AND are most likely to have the correct message from the Bible down to 9.2% of the total.  Note – we can’t really include the 8% of the third group, since there’s insufficient information on what they believed about the Bible.  If we assume that half them them may be getting the right message (just as the other two groups were split 50/50) – that would bump up the percentage for the Engaged Group up to 50%. 

But think about what that means – no more than 50% of the Engaged Group might be looking at the Bible correctly and might be getting the correct message from it.  Applying that percentage to the total respondents, it means no more than 10% read the Bible four or more times a week, appear to be in a position to get the intended message from the Bible.  That’s a very small number.  I can’t help but think that low number helps contribute to the disconnect between people thinking the Bible has answers, and the nation apparently getting worse instead of better.

Bible Friendly

Let’s look at one other group – the largest one – the Bible Friendly Segment, which was 38% in the summary table above.

  • View the Bible as a) the actual or b) the inspired word of God with no errors

What’s in a word?  Apparently – a whole lot.  The Bible Engaged segment includes some people who believe there are errors in the Bible, however the Bible Friendly group does not.  Given that the Bible Engaged segment reads it more often, that’s a surprising thing to find out.  This is made even more surprising by the fact that the Bible Friendly segment, at 38%, is nearly double the size of the Bible Engaged segment at 20%.  How is it that a group who reads the Bible less often and therefore presumably isn’t as involved with it, seems to have a higher level of trust in it?

Let’s look at the same information from the details of the study that we saw for the first group –

  • 33% of the people responding in the Friendly Segment believe the Bible is the actual word of God, has no errors, and should be taken literally.
  • 67% of the people responding in the Friendly Segment believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, has no errors, and some parts of the Bible are symbolic.
  • 0% – none – of the people responding in the Friendly Segment believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, has factual or historical errors, although nothing is said about whether the Bible is to be taken literally or symbolically.

Seriously – none of the Friendly Segment believes there are any errors.  Is this because they don’t read as often, and therefore don’t recognize potentially inconsistent items?  Maybe they don’t read as closely, or get into the deeper meanings?

Maybe, but then how does one explain that this group appears to recognize that the Bible is the inspired word of God, as opposed to the actual word of God?

Bible Exposure

One of the many things looked at in the study is Bible exposure.  Here’s what they reported –

To determine total exposure to the Bible, adults were asked how often they hear the Bible read aloud at a church service or Mass. About three in five Americans say they hear the Bible read in this setting at least three or four times a year (58%), including 42% who hear it at least weekly. About one in four never hear the Bible read aloud (25%). These numbers are on par with the previous year.

Of those who do not use the Bible at least three to four times a year, roughly one in seven (15%) report hearing it read aloud at a church service or Mass at least three or four times a year. These “hearers” are more often Catholic (29%) or non-practicing Christians (19%).

When combined with the previous question about personal Bible use, total Bible exposure is right at 65% of all adults, which is consistent with the previous year’s findings.

So – some highlights –

  • 60% read / hear the Bible in church at least three or four time a year.  That’s not a lot.  That’s like Christmas, Easter, and one or two other times.  No one learns a lot about the Bible with that kind of exposure.
  • 42% hear the Bible read at least weekly.  While still less than half, this represents a group of people who show enough interest to do something on a weekly basis.  Maybe that’s go to church, maybe listen to or watch some kind of service every week.  Of course, with the number of people attending, listening to, or watching something like the prosperity gospel message – does this really even count?  There’s just not enough information to know.
  • 25% have never heard the Bible read aloud.  That is a lot.  Even minimal involvement in a church or group would have led to hearing the Bible read.  This group has never, in their entire lives, heard the Bible read.
  • Total Bible Exposure is at 65%, based on the combined numbers. The unanswered question is how much of the message intended to be given to us in God’s word is actually delivered, especially from TV and radio.  Note – I’m not knocking all of them.  I am, however, calling into question the ones like those who do the prosperity gospel thing – which is so much opposite of what Jesus taught.

Conclusion

Let’s go back to the beginning, and look at a couple sentences from the opening quote  –

Many Americans are searching for beacons of hope and moral grounding amidst uncertainty and perceived moral decline. … The results show that Americans overwhelmingly believe the Bible is a source of hope and a force for good even as they express growing concern for our nation’s morals.

The study draws few conclusions, other than what you just read.

My goal is to analyze the results, ask questions that were apparently not asked – and see why there seems to be such a disconnect between the two sentences in that quote.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand why they didn’t get into great detail in their questions.  The statistical work would get exponentially harder as more and more questions are asked – making choices more difficult as the differences between those choices are hard to determine.  The report would also be so long that many wouldn’t even bother reading it.

However, I think we need to analyze their results, in order to keep from reaching false conclusions.

One of the other issues involved in any survey is the accuracy involved in any kind of self-assessment.  Any survey of this type is all about people answering questions about themselves.  One of the things that makes this even more difficult is that people may have biases regarding how they want to be viewed as they  answer the questions.  Someone who considers themselves a “reasonably good Christian” is going to want to make themselves look good – tempted to make themselves look better than they really are.  On the flip side, someone who is very much anti-Christian may tend to be predisposed to give an entirely different set of answers.  There’s also the fact that many of the atheists that I’ve communicated with seem to have a better knowledge, although at a very superficial level, of the Bible than some Christians have.  The difference is something pointed out multiple times in the Bible, including this one from Ezekiel –

Eze 12:1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people.

This, of course, means they know the words – remember them, but don’t fully understand / appreciate what those words actually say.

In any case – here’s something from three psychology professors from Cornell, Stanford and the University of Iowa –

SUMMARY—Research from numerous corners of psychological inquiry suggests that self-assessments of skill and character are often flawed in substantive and systematic ways. We review empirical findings on the imperfect nature of self-assessment and discuss implications for three realworld domains: health, education, and the workplace. 

In general, people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance.  The correlation between self-ratings of skill and actual performance in many domains is moderate to meager – indeed, at times, other people’s predictions of a person’s outcomes prove more accurate than that person’s self-predictions. In addition, people overrate themselves.  On average, people say that they are ‘‘above average’’ in skill (a conclusion that defies statistical possibility), overestimate the likelihood that they will engage in desirable behaviors and achieve favorable outcomes, furnish overly optimistic estimates of when they will complete future
projects, and reach judgments with too much confidence. Several psychological processes conspire to produce flawed self-assessments.  3)Flawed Self-Assessment: Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace; David Dunning,1 Chip Heath,2 and Jerry M. Suls3; 1 Department of Psychology, Cornell University; 2 Graduate School of Business, Stanford University; and 3 Department of Psychology, University of Iowa

Here, we see one more possible reason why there might be a disconnect between hope from reading the Bible, an apparent interest in the Bible, and yet results that aren’t forthcoming as expected.

In the remainder of this series – we’ll go through some of the details in the study to see if the issues raised in this introduction show up in those details.  Stay tuned.

References   [ + ]

1. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
2. Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 417). New York: United Bible Societies.
3. Flawed Self-Assessment: Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace; David Dunning,1 Chip Heath,2 and Jerry M. Suls3; 1 Department of Psychology, Cornell University; 2 Graduate School of Business, Stanford University; and 3 Department of Psychology, University of Iowa

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