Barna and the Bible

Good grief, George. Your latest survey on American attitudes toward the Bible can’t tell us much when you ask square questions of a multi-shaped people.

Image from barna.orgBarna’s latest survey on what Americans think of the Bible was released today, in an apparent attempt to take advantage of the buzz created by Mark Burnett’s surprisingly popular “The Bible” miniseries. The survey, like the miniseries, includes both interesting and misleading information. The spurious parts result from misguded presuppositions built into the survey.

I’ve critiqued Barna’s surveys before, usually because his definition of “evangelical” eliminates everyone but inerrantists and fundamentalists, while the evangelical movement is much broader.

The recent Bible survey takes a similar approach, as illustrated by one group of results in particular. Attempting to measure Americans’ level of engagement with the Bible, Barna has four categories ranging from “engaged” to “antagonistic.”

To be “Engaged” with the Bible, in survey terms, people believe “The Bible is the actual Word of God with no errors” and “Read the Bible at least four times weekly.” Twenty-one percent of Americans fit that category, according to the survey, up from 20 percent in 2011.

To have a “Friendly – moderate/light” engagement with the Bible, according to the survey, respondents must still believe “The Bible is the actual Word of God or inspired with no errors,” but don’t read it as often. Barna puts 39 percent in that camp, down from 45 percent two years ago.

People who are “Neutral” toward the Bible, in the survey’s view, are those who believe “The Bible is the inspired Word with errors or not inspired but tells how writers understood (the) ways of God.” In addition, they “Rarely or never read the Bible.” Barna says 23 percent of Americans fit here, compared to 25 percent in 2011.

Finally, the survey designates as “Antagonistic” those who believe “The Bible is just another book written by men with teachings and advice,” and “They rarely or never read the Bible.” This group has grown from 10 to 17 percent in the past two years, which Barna finds troubling.

The problem with this line of questioning is obvious: the survey assumes that to be “engaged” with the Bible, one must believe it is inerrant, and that anyone who doesn’t take a fundamentalist or inerrantist position can’t be anything more than “neutral” toward the Bible.

Whoever formulated the survey apparently can’t imagine that someone who considers the Bible to be sacred and central to one’s faith — but not necessarily inerrant — can’t also read the Bible every day and be deeply engaged in serious Bible study.

When survey questions are based on false premises, survey results are meaningless. Americans are quite capable of being actively engaged in Bible reading and Bible study without simultaneouly holding an inerrantist approach to the scriptures, and millions of them are … but you won’t find them in Barna’s survey.

 

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