On September 28th the New York Times published the results of a phone survey that asked 3,400 Americans 32 questions about the Bible, world religions (including Christianity), and constitutional principles regarding religion and public life. Few people did well on the test. Atheists and agnostics scored highest, followed by Jews and Mormons. Protestants of all kinds lagged behind – as well as people who said they were “nothing in particular.”
The results neither surprised nor alarmed me (I don’t place much stock in phone surveys) but I had to smile at the reaction of Charles Silverman, President of American Atheists. “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
Well said! Giving a person a Bible outside the context of a living faith community is an effective (if not foolproof) way to turn them away from church or synagogue. Much of the Bible is impossible to understand and/or boring, at least on first reading. Along with beautiful poetry and inspiring stories, both Testaments are full of violence (often attributed to God) and instructions that would be immoral if taken at face value – such as Paul’s admonitions to slaves to stay with their masters and women to be silent in church. Although the Holy Spirit moves where it will, the words of the Bible, when read in isolation, are not likely to bring people to God.
This may be why God didn’t rain down Bibles from heaven. Instead, the Spirit worked through faithful people seeking to understand the Word of God as it was revealed to them through experiences, visions, the words of others and encounters with Jesus Christ. The stories, the commandments, the letters and the prophesies were first spoken, then written, then interpreted time and again, by followers of Yahweh and disciples of Christ. The Bible makes Christians and Jews rather than atheists when it’s read in a loving, prayerful and intellectually honest community; when Bible believers do justice and show kindness; and when it’s proclaimed in joyful worship.
As we begin the Sunday School year I’m especially grateful to the teachers who will be nurturing our children and young people in the Word. And may the Word be shown in the faithfulness of our lives, so that when we give our daughters and sons a Bible, it becomes for them a living Word. A Word that brings them to God.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Cheryl Pyrch