In a needful break from reliving the coverage of 9/11 yesterday, I happened on this piece linked by someone on Twitter. In a nutshell, recent polling shows that the vast vast majority of self-identifying Christian “evangelicals” do not actually believe Christian doctrine, in particular, that the Holy Spirit is even a member in good standing of the Godhead:
The study shows, in general, that while a majority of America’s self-identified Christians, including many who identify as evangelical, believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and is the Creator of the universe, more than half reject a number of biblical teachings and principles, including the existence of the Holy Spirit. Strong majorities also errantly believe that all religious faiths are of equal value, people are basically good and that people can use acts of goodness to earn their way into Heaven. The study further showed that majorities don’t believe in moral absolutes; consider feelings, experience, or the input of friends and family as their most trusted sources of moral guidance; and say that having faith matters more than which faith you pursue.
The piece concludes this way:
“As the groundbreaking American Worldview Inventory surveys have demonstrated, just 6% of U.S. adults possess a biblical worldview. Labeled ‘Integrated Disciples’ for their demonstrated ability to assimilate their beliefs into their lifestyle, this group consistently — albeit imperfectly — comes closest to reflecting biblical principles into their opinions, beliefs, behaviors, and preferences,” Barna explained. More than 99% of this group “believe that the Bible is the accurate and reliable words of God, believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful and just Creator of the universe who still rules the universe today” and “say they have a unique, God-given calling.” Significant minorities still held beliefs that challenge the biblical worldview. These include: 25% say there is no absolute moral truth; 33% believe in karma; 39% contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity; 42% believe that having faith matters more than which faith you pursue; and 52% argue that people are basically good. “The survey results clearly demonstrate how careful you have to be when interpreting data associated with a particular segment of people who are labeled as Christians,” Barna warned. “Political polling, in particular, may mislead people regarding the views and preferences of genuine Christ-followers simply based on how those surveys measure the Christian population.”
I wanted, having read through it twice, to explain to anyone who would listen that this couldn’t possibly be so. They should go back and do the study again. Surely a “biblical worldview” should hover in the population of “Christians” somewhere around at least 30 percent, if not actually 100. After all, it feels to me like a lot of people do go to church, and I’ve visited some bigger box churches and heard good and sound preaching. Surely the situation is not so dire. But then I scrolled some more around Twitter and had to admit that, like the study that found so long ago that those who move their legs faster arrive at their intended destinations more quickly, the evidence is there if anyone wants to see it.
What are the consequences for the church, in its larger sense, if most people who wander in don’t believe the basic tenants of the Christian faith? And, the corollary and pressing question might be, does a collapse of theological knowledge among self-identifying Christians portend anything for the wider culture? When a preacher stands up in the pulpit on Sunday and gazes disconsolately out over the smattering of people who hauled themselves out of bed that morning, what should he say? If most of those people don’t think the text he is preaching about is true, if they don’t think that God has anything meaningful to say about their own lives and behavior, if they don’t think that God is ordering history for his own purposes, should he even bother? Does he begin at the beginning, as if no one knows anything at all? Does he just keep going and hope for the best? Which bad belief does he try to combat first? Or perhaps he should creep away and give up altogether.
That is the least good of all the bad options. He should not absolutely despair, because this problem–of bad or non-existent belief–has been going on a long time. Consider what our Lord himself was up against even as he went steadfastly to the cross. From the lections for this morning:
And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
This little bit of text is so interesting because Jesus has just been up to the Mount of Transfiguration, made radiant there in spotless white before the inner circle of, as yet, completely confused disciples, communing with Moses and Elijah. Peter, dull-witted as ever, wants to build tents for them, probably hoping that they will all stay there in that glorious place as long as possible. But before he can really flesh out his thoughts, it’s all over and they are trudging back down the mountain into the muck of ordinary life. And there, at the bottom, are all the other disciples failing to heal this child who has long been plagued by “an unclean spirit.”
I love how frustrated the father of this child is. He hasn’t been able to do anything helpful for a long time, except drag his child out of the fire and the water where the spirit would hurl him “to destroy him,” in a strange shadow cast of the way that God promised to drag Israel out of the fire and the flood of destruction and sin. But the father could not get rid of the spirit, and neither could the disciples, though they kept trying and trying. And so the father has to come to Jesus, finally, to beg for help because surely the unclean spirit will persist to the absolute death of the child.
There is so much helplessness here, which is really the subtext of all the Christian scriptures, and why the plain text is so hard to understand and so impossible to embrace. We work so hard all the time to solve the problems in front of us, the ones that threaten to overwhelm not only the children wiggling next to us in the pew, but the person three rows over, and the whole town, and the whole nation, and the whole world. Surely if we keep at it we will eventually succeed. The American can-do spirit will finally win out against the spiritual forces of wickedness pressing in on every side.
I remember that, in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a brief bright moment of goodwill among all Americans. Indeed, the whole world felt the pain and horror of all the lives destroyed, of those mangled and bent metal spires sticking out of the rubble. We were going to rid the world of terrorism so that this sort of thing would never happen again and all our allies pledged to join us. And we were going to love our neighbors here at home. We were going to try again, as we had tried before, to embrace the peace that the whole world, or a lot of it anyway, longs for. “Never forget,” we say every year on that day though the goodwill long ago evaporated in the muck of social media.
And so we are evermore convulsed in the fire, in the flood of unbelief, in the stupid and helpless effort to bring about what is good without the God who made us and who would take care of us if we begged him. We stand around arguing and incriminating, yet trusting in our own pathetic systems to heal and restore not only the corporate body of civic goodwill, but discourse itself. And occasionally, some rise up out of the fray to be particularly angry at evangelical Christians for being bigoted.
But I wonder if the anger isn’t some sort of deeply uncomfortable unlooked-for knowledge that if Christians–more than 6% of them–really did believe enough to pray and ask God for help that the help that God would give would manifest that he is real and that he has true things to say about how we should live, and that would not make anyone happy, believer and unbeliever alike.
Whether you are hanging on to the thoughts and feelings of Joel Osteen, or Kristin Du Mez, or that Jeffress guy in Texas–all of the people trying to cast out the unclean spirit of whatever is rotten at the core of America are all pretending that the Bible is just an instruction book about how to do it better. They don’t really believe that God is real and that if you pray to him and ask him for help, he will seize the hideous uncleanness at the center of the human heart, wrench it out, and rescue the person from the fires of hell. They don’t really want you to pray to such a God, to listen to him and let him restore you to himself. They just want you to keep trying, keep waving your arms, keep being upset.
I mean, it is upsetting. There is so much danger and ruin on every side. The only remedy against any of it–all of it–is a desperate and helpless prayer not to yourself, not to karma, not to ‘Merica, not to progressive shiny systems, but to the true and living triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to come and save you. He will do it, if you ask him, and that’s the problem.
See you in church!