When a survey and its interpretation miss the point entirely

In an article at Christianity Today, Ryan Burge reflects upon the results from the General Social Survey about American Christians’ view of the Bible. The GSS has been asking the same question since 1984:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word

2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word

3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men

Burge says, broadly, that these views may be fairly said to represent (1) evangelicals, (2) mainline Protestants and Catholics, and (3) those who are not Christians.

Here is a graph of the overall picture when it comes to Americans in general:

While the middle group has stayed rather consistent, the “literalist” group and the “fables” group have seen some change. Burge opines that this probably reflects the growing number of Americans who have become religiously unaffiliated over the past few decades. However a strong majority still sees the Bible as God’s Word.

However, when the sample is limited to those who belong to a Christian tradition, the picture has remained remarkably consistent since 1984. About 4 in 10 hold to the “literal” position, 1 in 10 hold the “fables” position, and about half of all respondents make the middle choice.

If the sample is further limited to those who are active in church attendance (at least once a week), then the number of “literalists” jumps to nearly 60 percent. (You can see the corresponding charts at Burge’s article.) Burge attributes this to the decline of the mainline churches and the growth of evangelicalism, and tries to reassure evangelical leaders that, among active Christians, America is not becoming more theologically “liberal.” In fact, we may even be more conservative today.

• • •

What are we to make of data and commentary like this? Let me suggest a few perspectives today.

First, the “literal, word for word” questions represent fallacious thinking.

The first answer, if I understand it correctly, is not really even a legitimate option, except for the most anti-intellectual fundamentalist. A significant difference in answer 1 and 2 is that the first says the Bible is the “actual” word of God vs. the “inspired” word of God in the second. But unless you hold to a pure dictation method of revelation, you cannot make that kind of distinction. The first part of answer #1 thus does not accurately describe most evangelicals, who accept that people wrote the Bible, inspired by God.

There is another problem in the second parts of the first two answers. The choices are (1) the Bible “is to be taken literally, word for word,” and (2) “not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.” These choices reflect “Battle for the Bible” slogans rather than reality.

“Literalists” don’t take every word literally. They don’t believe the Lord is a shepherd, that he is a rock in which believers find refuge, or that Jesus is literally bread or light or a vine. They may insist that the Bible is historically accurate, that its moral precepts reflect universal divine standards, and that it is internally consistent and does not contradict itself when rightly understood, but I don’t know too many evangelicals who take the Bible “word for word.” They don’t insist that people shouldn’t wear polyester/cotton blend clothing, that rebellious children should be stoned to death, or that a brother should be required to marry his sibling’s widow if he dies. Heck, most of them don’t even have much of a problem with divorce anymore.

No matter what we say in slogans — God said it, I believe it, that settles it! — nobody reads the Bible that way and so questions like this just tend to reinforce tribal loyalties rather than get to any meaningful insight about how someone might actually read and understand the Bible.

Second, the questions represent false alternatives.

My misgivings about these choices are further reinforced by reading answer #3. I, for one, have no problem with saying “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men” AND “The Bible is inspired by God.” The Bible can be God’s word and the words of people at the same time. In fact, that’s the genius of God’s revelation — it is incarnational. God’s glory shines through human flesh, words, and activity.

Furthermore, although some who call themselves “literalists” may have a hard time understanding this, some of us happen to think that God can communicate truth through “fables, legends, history, and moral precepts,” as well as any other kind of genre. If Genesis may appropriately be called “myth” — the origin story of the Hebrew people — as some of us think it is, that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is inspired by God, whether it is “true” or communicates God’s truth, or whether it leads people to Christ. Some of us argue, in fact, that the “truth” communicated through various forms of literature can be more profound and help people draw closer to God much more effectively than historical reporting or “factual” narrative.

Third, the author’s conclusion totally misses the point.

“Pastors, denominational leaders, and curious Christians need to be reassured—American Christianity is not becoming more liberal.” This is what Ryan Burge wants us to take from this survey and its results.

I, for one, am not reassured at all. The answers and Burge’s misapprehensions represent the simplistic, jingoistic way too many people look at matters like religion in America. The answwers are more about what team I’m on than about any true appraisal of theological positions. This is most certainly not reassuring to someone like me who cares that people grow and mature in Christ and in their understanding of the faith.

But on the other hand, I’ve learned also not to put too much stock in people making the correct precise formulations about what they believe or don’t believe. I’m much more concerned with whether people read the Bible, listen to it, love it, and let it lead them to Christ than I do whether they can craft correct definitions.

39 thoughts on “When a survey and its interpretation miss the point entirely

  1. I had thought it was a footnote in the Scofield Study Bible that caused havoc in fundamentalist circles, something about the end-times, maybe? Or was it about the timing of Creation? Or both?

    I remember some controversy over it. But I can’t recall details.


  2. Can’t we just take LIFE and all it’s bitter iniquities and sum it up in simple digestible vignettes? Isn’t this America? Don’t we have the right to bring things down to the Jerry Springeresque lowest common denominator? Regurgitatable elementariness? Can’t we all just categorize?


  3. KJV and Schofield are unassailable.

    In which case, I’d like to introduce you to Dake’s Annotated Bible…


  4. Plus I think it gives the actual date of creation. Not sure what all the fuss is about since Schofield and Bishop Ussher gave us the answers.


  5. Don’t forget the Scofield Reference Bible. It helped answer questions that were never asked and made verse links to unimaginable places. KJV and Schofield are unassailable.


  6. “Isn’t this poll measuring those tribal loyalties? In which case these are nearly perfect questions.”

    I do not think the motive is to measure anything, I see it as an attempt to reinforce preconceived boundaries and/or to force choosing a side. In my opinion it does not cover all of the possible choices. Where would you put Martin Luther for example as he felt James and Revelation should not be included in God’s word.


  7. To expand on John’s response, “white evangelical” also, and probably originally, serves to distinguish it from traditionally black churches such as the AME or National Baptist Convention, which often are theologically evangelical. These date back to the days when many white churches were adamantly white, so blacks formed their own. Things get fuzzier when we move the discussion to Pentecostal churches. Modern Pentecostalism originally was unusually integrated. Many–perhaps most–Pentecostal churches got over that quickly and divided along color lines, but the process was not complete. So it is possible to find Pentecostal congregations that have never been clearly a white or a black church. But in practice these are exceptions within the broad category of American Evangelicalism.


  8. I always wondered exactly WHAT the evangelical criterion was for choosing whether or not to take something in sacred Scripture literally.


  9. Insofar as it actually is a socioeconomic power bloc as an expression of the middle/upper middle class. However, there are plenty of white Evangelicals who have no socioeconomic clout and may in fact be despised by those who do have such: see Appalachia, the Ozarks, Pentecostals, working poor…



  10. It’s a commonly used demographic term and category. It doesn’t mean exclusively white, or overtly racist (though the issue of racism is a whole other conversation), but certainly refers to majority-white congregations, of which there are plenty. Sunday mornings are still some of the most segregated time in American life.


  11. > White evangelicalism doesn’t seem to really comprehend how much trouble it is in.

    OR it is doing just fine. And some are defining “it” incorrectly; as a Theological construct rather than the socioeconomic power block which it is.


  12. Agree. I tend to read “conservative” disingenuously, so ~~~. The statement: “””becoming even slightly more theologically conservative””” can also be interpreted tribaly. Admittedly that makes almost the entire stack meaningless… I guess I am just very open to that reading these days.

    I find this statement wierd as well: “””While millions of Americans have declared that they are religiously unaffiliated, those who remain are steadfast in their faith and in their theological convictions.””” So, We the steadfast-remnant? I could just as well write that as: “the implacable hangers-on”.

    The old “””So, what’s happening here? It’s very likely that this is due, in some part, to the decline in mainline Protestants. ….””” defense falls apart pretty quickly in light of other data.


  13. perhaps the evangelical world picks and chooses what it thinks should be taken ‘literally’, in which case, it has introduced a human factor into the equation


  14. “’Pastors, denominational leaders, and curious Christians need to be reassured—American Christianity is not becoming more liberal.’ This is what Ryan Burge wants us to take from this survey and its results.”

    So the thing about which people should be reassured can be described in what are now read as political terms? Terry Mattingly at the Get Religion blog often writes that to most journalists all religion stories are ultimately about politics. Of course, the terminology problem is one that American Christians started by choosing the words to describe something in a sound bite without a proper definition. But to me, Burge’s statement comes across as very shallow, and I think it reflects not only the shallowness of asking the same questions as were asked 30 years ago in the face of very obvious sociological changes, but also the general shallowness of most of American Christians (including some number of folks in my own tribe).

    “There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.”



  15. John , how do you define white evangelicalism? Does it mean only whites can be evangelical? Do white evangelicals bar other “colors” from their worship services? Are there black evangelicals? Hispanic evangelicals? Does the RCC only belong to Italian people? What exactly is a white evangelical other than a person who describes as evangelical that happens to be white? Thanks


  16. David Cornwell, I agree with your observations and well said. If a fundamentalist, a liberal, a conservative, a social justice warrior, a whatever truly accepts Jesus as his Savior and the only verse he knows is John 3.16 so be it. Again with polls it is of course all about the wording, I wonder how many here will answer my poll question “Do You Still Beat Your Wife?” or to be PC “Your Spouse”?. My poll shows that it about a 50 percent split based on my exit interviews. Always remember the Bradley effect.


  17. A lot of the stuff at CT, whether intentionally or not, has the theme of reinforcing the idea the white evangelicalism is doing just fine, etc.
    The one exception I think in the past year was coverage of a survey that showed a shocking number of people in the pews in evangelicalism agreed with theological statements that were either completely off base or in some cases outright heretical. You would think a piece like that would get some traction and reaction, but there seems to have been very little.
    White evangelicalism doesn’t seem to really comprehend how much trouble it is in. Sometimes I think this might be because it doesn’t really want to.


  18. Tell me about it.
    I’m a survivor of The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay. I remember “Bible Studies” where the only book used was Late Great Planet Earth, i.e. “The Plain Reading of SCRIPTURE(TM)”. All by Ultra-Literalists where every Chapter-and-Verse Zip Code was “THE! WORD! OF! GOD!” — Six-day YEC, Rapture/Trib Choreography checklist, you name it.

    That suggests that for many people, holding “correct” beliefs about the Bible is more important than actually behaving according to those beliefs.

    Ideological Purity (in Marxspeak).


  19. He is the one who is being disingenuous, along with CT, who wants us to think this article represents a serious effort to measure theological commitment.

    “Theological” or IDEOLOGICAL?
    (Long ago, I observed that sometimes the only difference between Christians and Communists is which Party Line gets rewordgitated.)


  20. First of, +1 for the essay. I could have written it myself, but Chaplain Mike saved me the bother. If only I could trick him into writing essays about 19th century baseball…

    My addition: writing surveys is hard, even when done in good faith. They are attempts to take complicated and nuanced questions and reduce them to statistics that can be analyzed. This is tough, even when dealing with objective reality. This is the essence of arguments about what baseball statistics to use. These arguments have been going on well over a century and a half, starting about a week later than did organized baseball.

    Part of the problem with surveys is that the questions will be asked of a range of people, who will interpret the questions differently from one another. Often, the person who actually stops and thinks about the question is the hardest subject. I once took one of those personality type psych evaluations, answering with a number from one to five, or from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” or the like. The question I remember was along the lines of “Do you enjoy going to parties?” I thought about that. Are we talking about a few friends sitting together with food and drink, discussing topics of mutual interest? That sounds lovely. Or are we talking about a crowded room with poor lighting and music blasting so loudly you can’t talk to anyone? That is pretty much my vision of Hell. The question did not specify, so I went with the middle answer. I did that a lot. The guy who analyzed my answers complained about this, as being evasive.

    I would have the same problems as Chaplain Mike with the questions in this religion. It is much like “Biblical inerrancy.” I have more than once been asked in a confrontational manner if I believe in it. If I am not looking for an argument, I smile serenely and say that of course I do, before continuing about my day, discreetly failing to expand on what I mean by that. But then again, my questioner is unlikely to have any considered understanding of the phrase. He is asking me if I am part of his tribe, or does he have to try to save my soul? I, not feeling the need to have him save my soul, choose to interpret the question as theological rather than tribal.

    Were I to take this General Social Survey, and assuming I wasn’t feeling contrarian that day, I would interpret the questions as tribal rather than theological, and check the middle box as it places me within my correct tribe. I learned back in school, taking standardized tests, that the “correct” answer depends on who is asking, and often is not the actually correct answer to the actual question.


  21. ““literal” is a term of emphasis, as in “no, I literally did that!”.”

    I don’t buy this interpretation. Move the discussion to certain specific bits, e.g. the first two chapters of Genesis or the story of the Flood, and people will be quite insistent that they are using “literally” literally, not for emphasis. I don’t believe for a moment that self-identified literalists consciously means to use “literal” one way with regard to the Flood and another way with regard to, say, the Psalms. Frankly, that would be giving them too much credit. I believe their use of “literal” is devoid of semantic content, being nothing more than a shibboleth.


  22. It’s worth noting that among “literalists,” there’s a rising trend of extreme ignorance of Scripture. You would expect that if someone takes such a high view of Scripture, they would read the Bible all the time, study it intensely, and want Scripture reading to be a major part of their worship services. But in general, the more “literalist” a congregation is, the less Scripture they read during worship and the less the sermons actually focus on the text.

    That suggests that for many people, holding “correct” beliefs about the Bible is more important than actually behaving according to those beliefs.


  23. “I’ve learned also not to put too much stock in people making the correct precise formulations about what they believe or don’t believe.”

    This is one of the results of the Reformation: the permission to decide for oneself what truth is or is not. Everyone can and does become his/her own expert. Or to not think about it at all if one chooses.

    I think that one can know Christ even with a very shallow knowledge of the bible. Or one that is warped at some point(s). In the end, Christ will draw us all unto Himself and the scales will be removed from our minds and our eyes. The blinding light of the Living Word made flesh, crucified, who lives again, will, at last, be revealed in all His glory.


  24. ATW , I agree, but the author of the article seems to want to make this more about theology than team loyalty. He is the one who is being disingenuous, along with CT, who wants us to think this article represents a serious effort to measure theological commitment.


  25. In the new age in which we live, a survey is a way to generate a group to whom the generator can use in multiple ways in the future. And most people, whether they can grasp this truth or not, still answer in ways that they feel help the generator And those who prefer independent thought forego the process. Diversity is not a group process at all( whether sex, race, tribe, or any way to try to partition). Diversity actually is a dividing line between authoritarian( totalitarian) and democratic( inalienable) thought.


  26. It is also important to think about: what are THEY attempting to measure? It may not be what *I* would prefer to measure. The quality of something has to be indexed with the goals of it’s creator|executor, not one’s own goals.


  27. Invoking the word literal is a way of separating “real” Christians from fake ones. It’s like a magic formula for revealing the truly faithful. If you are not willing to confess the word literal, then you need to be “saved”; even worse, you may be an agent of the Devil, pretending to be an angel of light!


  28. > questions like this just tend to reinforce tribal loyalties rather

    Isn’t this poll measuring those tribal loyalties? In which case these are nearly perfect questions. Loading survey options, intentionally, with keywords is a time honored tradition. I can respect that, it is those loyalties which drive people’s behavior to a large degree – from who they vote for, to where they live, to what entertainment they consume, to where they vacation….

    > nobody reads the Bible that way

    They believe they do, they will insist they do, so measuring that is sensible. “literal” is a shibboleth that does tell one something important about who someone is. “literal” is a term of emphasis, as in “no, I literally did that!”.


  29. Even though the examples are a bit dated, I highly HIGHLY recommend Darrell Huff’s book *How to Lie With Statistics*. (It was assigned reading in my stats class in grad school.) One of the things he talks about is how framing the sample and the questions can manipulate the answers you get from a survey like this.


  30. And that is why these types of surveys annoy me so much. They try to partition folks into categories that do not fit. My take on this is that the survey is not intended to find understanding but to promote an agenda but for the life of me I do not see how the author thinks the results indicate “we may even be more conservative today.”


  31. And sometimes the Catholics are more literal than the Evangelical literalists because they believe the communion bread and wine is the actual flesh and blood of the Savior.


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