I couldn’t get sleepy last night at the usual hour so I decided to stay up and do the poor man’s version of a massive survey on how people think about the Bible. What I found deserves some attention.
What I had primarily in mind to find out was this:
How many people think about reading the Bible vs. the number of people who think about understanding or mastering it?
If you’ve followed my other writings, you’ll know that I find it ironic that so many people seem to say so much about the high value of the Bible when so very few seem to be busy trying to glean all the treasures from its 1,000+ pages.
About My Method
Before you science-minded readers have a fit, please be advised that I’m making very little claim about the research you are about to see, other than that it probably indicates that a more scientific study is in order. I searched the following terms at Google, always in quotation marks, so as to get returns only from web pages where those exact words were used in that exact order. Here’s my list of search terms.
- “The Bible”
- “Read the Bible”
- “Understand the Bible”
- “Study the Bible”
- “Master the Bible”
- “Believe the Bible”
- “Love the Bible”
- “Follow the Bible”
- “Obey the Bible”
You will notice that they all form a sentence except for the first one. The idea for searching just “The Bible” was to get some sort of baseline idea of how much “The Bible” is being talked about on the Internet. I got 123 million returns on that search, by the way. And if you’re not sure about how to size that up, that’s a pretty big topic on the Internet. A search for “NFL” (which is the acronym for the National Football League) got 338 million returns, while a search for “Iraq war” got 13.2 million returns.
For whatever reason, I also decided to add in the gerund form of each of the unique terms in numbers 2-8 above. For example, in addition to searching for “Read the Bible”, I also searched for “Reading the Bible”, counting those returns in along with the “Read the Bible” returns.
Here are my total results in table form.
Now, we have to be very careful to be intellectually responsible with these numbers because this is far from a true scientific approach to the overall subject of what people think about the Bible. What we can draw responsibly from this data, are conclusions such as this: Let’s divide the number of times that “master the Bible” and “mastering the Bible” appear on the Internet (508,000) by the number of times that “read the Bible” and “reading the Bible” appear on the Internet. The quotient is approximately 0.009. That’s 9/10 of 1%. So we can round that off at an even 1% if we want to make it easier for us to grasp it mentally:
In other words, a person is roughly 100 times more likely to find talk on the Internet about reading the Bible than he or she is to find talk about mastering the Bible.
This makes me wonder what results we’d get if I could survey or observe a hundred thousand people directly to find out how often they ever discuss reading the Bible versus how often they discussing mastering it. Would the ratio be similar?
Here is the same data from above, this time presented in a bar chart format so that it’s easier to get a grasp on the ratios between the various search results.
Now, before we continue pondering, here’s where I must stress again just what shaky ground we are on scientifically when we try to take these results and make assumptions about what they might mean for related questions. Perhaps it’s best simply to direct your attention by way of asking a few rhetorical questions prompted by the data. Here are some things to ponder with the bar chart above in mind.
- How many people talk about the Bible versus those who want to master its content?
- How many are interested in actually studying the Bible versus those who are simply interested in reading it?
- How many people will tell you that they love the Bible versus the number of people who will tell you that they study it?
- What should we expect to get if more people are interested in following the Bible than are interested in understanding it?
We could ask many more questions than these alone, of course, but these are probably adequate to paint a picture that we are already quite familiar with ourselves. Aren’t these findings above roughly similar to your own experience in the churches you may have attended? Consider all the people you’ve ever seen at church, and then ask yourself what number of them were actually in the habit of studying the Bible routinely.
Ah, but that raises the question of what it means to “study”, Jack!
Indeed, it does! Study requires comparing passages, making notes, searching terms, reading commentaries or lexicons, etc. And that is far different from the habit of devotional reading practiced by so many, where they goal seems to be either:
- To read until you get some sort of “buzz”, or
- To read mostly so that you can say you fulfilled your reading goal or duty for the day.
Devotional reading does very little toward the goal of mastery, and it simply isn’t the culture of our churches to strive toward mastery of the material in the Bible. How do I know that? Well, if it were, I think we’d find a great many more mentions of it on the Internet–especially now that most churches are squarely planted in the digital age, publishing more and more of their business online for all to see. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Haven’t we all shrugged our shoulders over the low-motivational state of the membership in the churches? Haven’t we all sighed and rolled our eyes when the lack of energy is obvious?
How Does God Feel About All This?
Well, that’s the question, now, isn’t it?! If you want to know the answer, you’ll either have to ask him yourself, or do some rough reasoning from what you can find in the Bible. I, for a sample of one, imagine that God might reasonably use one’s level of interest in the Bible as some sort of indicator of that person’s level of interest in God himself. If that’s not correct, it would at least be reasonable. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine someone with a high level of interest in God simultaneously having a low level of interest in the book that he himself claims has been delivered to our generation by God’s providence.
So maybe this data can nudge a few to roll up their sleeves and to start digging in the Bible with a view to actually understanding it as it was meant to be understood. Most churches, meanwhile, have a nasty habit of condensing the 1,000+ pages of Bible information into just a few bullet points for their “What We Believe” web page. If the data in the research above were also indicative of how individuals behave, we should expect to find 30 people interested in believing the Bible to every 1 who is interested in mastering it. And of course, the number of those who are merely interested in mastery will undoubtedly be far higher than those who actually achieve some appreciable level of mastery.
How does this bode for the churches, then? What is the likelihood that in their “What We Believe” lists, they will have errors that don’t actually match up with all the information in the Bible?
Let us imagine a meeting of the “What We Believe” committee, who is charged with the task of determining just what bullet points to put on the church’s What We Believe web page. If the numbers above are any indication, we might expect to find 30 members wanting to include some certain item on the list for every 1 member who is wanting to go master that topic to be certain that they have got it right before they publish it.
And then there’s the question of whether that one mastery-minded person will actually vocalize that concern, versus simply considering him- or herself outnumbered and then keeping quiet about it. And from there, suppose that he or she decides to speak up and is, to his or her surprise, encouraged to do the proposed study after all. What are the chances that his or her level of mastery is actually up to the task of accurately determining the truth of the matter? And after that, what are the chances of convincing a majority of the committee that the corrected doctrinal statement that resulted from the investigation is the version that should be published over the one they already had in mind?
We don’t have enough information to calculate all this, but we can be sure that the result gets smaller and smaller each time we calculate the odds of another such hurdle being successfully cleared.
I believe that this explains a great deal about the sad state of today’s churches. They have very little interest in the actuality of the information in the Bible, and a great deal of interest in something else entirely. Ironically, in this “Information Age”, the 1,000+ pages of information in the Bible seems largely wasted on the churches, so many of which, it seems, would be perfectly content if they never learned another new thing from the Bible.
For all the talk of “relationship with God”, one would expect something quite different. Hence, my deepening disrespect for the hypocrisy that is so prevalent.
So Where Does the Root of This Problem Lie?
The root of this problem lies, I believe, with the reader who will shake his head at this obvious quagmire of incuriosity, and who will then go on to do nothing about it. It is with the reader who looks down on his churchmates and their incuriosity, yet who is not making obvious strides in his own study. It is with the one who believes that so many others should be busy studying to overturn their established-and-erroneous beliefs about the Bible, and yet who doesn’t consider that he himself is likely in error on some points. It is with the one who says, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that sinner over there.”
“If you’re like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”
~Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
There’s your problem.