Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Bible in America—reasons for hope, cause for concern

Recently, Pope Francis—speaking both figuratively and literally—suggested that people keep a Bible on hand to consult with the same alacrity with which they turn to their smartphones for entertainment, news, or keeping up with the goings on of friends and family.

For sure, there are plenty of Bible smartphone apps that make this a reasonable and practical idea for just about everyone. In terms of outreach to millennials and teens, such tools are golden. At the same time, the Pontiff put his finger on a troublesome issue that is, or ought to be, a concern for Christian Churches of all stripes: Engagement with and appreciation of the Bible as the objective embodiment of the Word of God is declining across the West and across all age groups.

This trend is true in particular among those who rarely attend worship services or have stopped going to church altogether. It is especially the case, of course, for those—young and old—who regard the Scriptures as simply man-made storytelling or, still worse, as a source of oppression in terms of homophobia and other forms of alleged denials of human liberty.

The Barna Group—in partnership with the American Bible Society — has performed an extraordinary service with its publication of “The Bible in America: The Changing Landscape of Bible Perceptions and Engagement,” a compilation of comprehensive research that is the fruit of 14,000 interviews with American adults and teenagers over the past six years. The study features extensive demographic segmentation, from teens to baby boomers and seniors, recording the views of both believers and non-believers, churchgoers and “de-Churched” believers, with respondents belonging to the Catholic tradition as well as to both the mainline and non-mainline Protestant Churches.

These findings, derived from an extensive and highly nuanced probe of attitudes and perspectives regarding the Bible and its role in private and communal life, should prove to be a power tool for American Church leaders in their urgent task of stemming a definite and alarming decline in Bible engagement in the United States.

Let’s be clear: love and use of the Bible has remained steady among Church-goers and committed believers. In fact, thanks in part to a revival of the ancient practice of Lectio Divina among both Catholics and Protestants—a method, ultimately, of reading the Scriptures as a gateway to contemplative prayer and mysticism—the Bible has become still more rooted in countless people’s lives.

Much credit and deep gratitude go to the American Bible Society  for giving me the opportunity to produce a multi-lingual series of Lectio Divina manuals during my extremely fruitful years heading the ABS Catholic Ministries department. Though Catholics continue to trail Protestants in Bible engagement, the Catholic Church has made huge strides since Vatican II.

Yet, the Barna research sounds a dire warning: in 2016, the number of American “Bible skeptics” has grown to 22 percent, with the percentage of “Bible engaged” Americans standing at 17 percent. Back in 2011, just 1 in 10 Americans was skeptical of the Bible and 45 percent of respondents confirmed that “God regularly speaks to them through the Bible.” That is a huge shift, although one tempered by the finding that, in 2015, 61 percent indicated that they “wish they read the Bible more.” In 2016, 53 percent of Americans believed politicians could do a better job “if they read the Bible more often.”

Nonetheless, the Barna research finds there is a decline in Bible engagement in the U.S. that is most dramatic among the young, millennials and teens in particular, especially the un-Churched. In his preface to the study, Jason Malec, managing director of ABS’s Mission U.S., does not mince words. Confirming that the Bible “has had a more profound impact on our culture than any other book,” he warns that “if the current trends continue, the Bible will certainly lose its place as our leading culture-shaping factor.”

Barna Group President David Kinnamon attributes the decline in use of the Bible and an attendant drop in Bible literacy to increased skepticism about the “origins, relevance and authority of the Scriptures” and, according to what he calls “a new moral code,” more people (even including Christians) who “embrace self-fulfillment as the highest good.” This orientation makes the culture more resistant to Bible-based faith that espouses “God’s moral order leads to human and societal flourishing” rather than an all-consuming pursuit of self-determination and self-improvement.

On the bright side, Kinnamon notes that “digital access” is a boon in the form of “new tools and technologies that are making the Bible… more accessible than ever before.” Of course, access without accompanying education and guidance is no guarantee of a deepening of Biblical faith and engagement.

“If these trends hold steady,” the report warns, “there will be continuing downward pressure on the number of people (especially young people) who see the Bible as sacred” and the source of the deepest wisdom about life and the nature of ultimate reality. The heart of the problem is that, “increasingly, Americans are rejecting external sources of moral authority, both spiritual and civic.” Still, “2 out of 32 millennials and 7 out of 10 teens hold an orthodox view of the Bible,” the report finds. Yet, lack of time prevents one-third of millennials who practice their faith from reading the Bible.

The study presents a checkered landscape. Again and again, problematic findings are punctuated by hopeful signs. For example, 68 percent of U.S. adults “strongly or somewhat agree”—whether they regularly read the Bible or not—that the Scriptures are a “comprehensive guide to a meaningful life.” Notably, this conviction is strongest among African Americans, stronger among women than men, and strongest—not surprisingly—in the South, and weakest on both the East and West Coasts.

Despite the contradictory findings, the report notes that “many Americans seem to experience little cognitive dissonance between their acceptance of the new moral code [endorsing the pursuit of self-fulfillment] and their view of the Bible as a guide for life.” One could argue, of course, that these particular respondents’ actual grasp of Scripture—beyond a broad, if vague sense of appreciation for the Bible as a patrimony of Judeo-Christian civilization to be valued and respected—is rather superficial.

What can compel people, regardless of age, to seek greater engagement with the Bible? When asked, the number one response is coming to an understanding that reading and studying the Bible is “an important part of my faith journey,” followed by a “difficult experience in my life” and a “significant” event in life, such as marriage or the birth of a child.

For ministers, pastors, and lay catechists, these are teachable moments that must be seized proactively, windows of opportunity to demonstrate the power of Scripture that often quickly close again. Church leadership must be more vigilant than ever before. Above all, writes ABS President Roy Peterson, the teachers of the flock “must be actively engaging” the Bible themselves, “creating daily opportunities to be shaped and guided by God’s word of life.” Only then will they “become living witnesses to the power of Christ to transform the human heart.” Meanwhile, the Barna Group and American Bible Society have given Church leaders a formidable arsenal of actionable research.

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