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Readers of the Bible seem to be getting more discerning


There's good news about Bible reading.

The Gallup poll people report that only 20 percent of Americans now believe that the Bible is God's literal word.

As the report to which I just linked you notes, that 20 percent figure is "down from 24% the last time the question was asked in 2017, and half of what it was at its high points in 1980 and 1984."

But there's also bad news about Bible reading.

That same Gallup report notes that "a new high of 29% say the Bible is just a collection of 'fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.'"

Well, the Bible, indeed, contains some of all of those kinds of writing, but it has shown itself over history to be considerably more than that. And about half of Americans seem to understand that.

Which means that the kind-of-neutral news about Bible reading, also from Gallup, is that 49 percent of Americans think the Bible is "inspired by God, (but) not all to be taken literally." That percentage has stayed pretty steady for quite a while, and I'm in that 49 percent figure.

So why do I say it's good news that the percentage of people who take the Bible literally has dropped? Because it's impossible to read the Bible as God's literal and inerrant word while at the same time taking that word seriously. You can do one or the other but not both at the same time.

(A literal reading of the Bible is one way to come up with the bogus idea that God hates LGBTQ+ people because homosexuality is a sin. That conclusion leads to all kinds of evil. One of those evils has to do with the way LGBTQ+ people are quite often cyberbullied. This site can help those of you who need guidance on how to confront such hateful aggression.)

And while we're talking about the Bible, it also helps to identify which Bible you're talking about. The Hebrew Bible? If so, which translation? The Christian Bible? If so, not only which translation but do you mean a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, which some branches of Christianity do not include in the official canon? (Or are you with a woman who once told the former director of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., that if the King James Version was good enough for St. Peter it was good enough for her?)

There isn't, it turns out, just one Bible.

Beyond all that, it's important to recognize that the Bible (whichever version you've chosen) is a collection of writings that dozens of writers took at least 1,500 years to create. And although those writings include some verifiable history, they also use metaphor, poetry, simile, allegory, song lyrics and, well, tall tales to make valid points about God and about God's relationship to humans and the rest of creation.

The Bible is not a journalistic account of events written by the equivalent of Associated Press or Reuters reporters at the time. (Had it been put together by a TV reporter back when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the reporter delivering the news no doubt would have mentioned the 10 total number but then, for the sake of brevity, added, "the three most important of which are. . .")

The Bible is way, way better and more interesting than that. But if you read it as if God spoke the words directly into the ears of the robotic-like writers and they simply jotted down those words of divine origin, you dehumanize the book and miss its point(s).

The Gallup report to which I linked you above also notes this: "The shift in attitudes about the Bible is not an isolated phenomenon. It comes even as a number of indicators show a decline in overall religiosity in the U.S. adult population."

And while it's true that such things as church membership have been on the decline for decades and the percentage of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated has been on the rise rather dramatically over that same time, that doesn't mean that people who read the Bible with some regularity and understanding have gotten dumber and dumber about the book.

Yes, biblical and theological illiteracy is rampant in churches and synagogues (ask the nearest pastor or rabbi). But the news that fewer people think the Bible is God's literal word is a sign of some growing theological maturity.

And who can be against that?

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Yes, the photos from the Webb space telescope have been stunning. And please notice how much better the Catholic Church reacted to them than hundreds of years ago when it put Galileo under house arrest for suggesting that the church's view of how the universe is structured was faulty and that, as Galileo insisted, Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. This time, a leader of the Vatican space observatory (yes, the Vatican has one of those) issued a statement expressing awe at what the Webb is showing us. As the RNS story to which I've just linked you reports, Vatican astrophysicist Brother Guy Consolmagno's statement included these words: “The science behind this telescope is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe.” No one should fault Brother Guy for connecting Catholic theology to the Webb photos. That's part of the job of religion. But unlike the many times when religion has denied what science has revealed, this time we have an example of religion appreciating the work of the scientists. Galileo must be happy.


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