Posted by: gmscan | May 3, 2013

Dumbed Down Christianity

The current issue of Modern Reformation, the monthly magazine of the White Horse Inn, includes some astonishing information.

One article is by Dr. John Bombaro,  senior priest at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego and professor at the University of San Diego who conducted a survey of over 500 students at the school. All were baptized Christians and 88% had a Bible app on their smart phones or computers. He found –

  • Only 19% could rightly order Abraham, the prophets, Christ’s death, and Pentecost.
  • Only 12% could sequence Moses in Egypt, Isaac’s birth, Saul’s death, and Judah’s exile.
  • More than two-thirds could not identify Matthew as an apostle.
  • 96% could not find Paul’s travels in Acts.
  • Only 10% knew that the Christmas story was in Matthew or that the Passover story was in Exodus.

Obviously, these people had never read the Bible. Sure they had an app on their smart phone, so they can look up a pithy quote when they need one. But they have no idea of Scripture as one long coherent story of a people struggling to find their way. They don’t understand that the human race hasn’t changed a whit in 3,500 years. We wrestle today with the exact same temptations, limitations, and sins as our ancestors did.

And the answer today is exactly the same as it has always been – from Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. “ to Luke 10:27 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

This Biblical illiteracy is a huge problem. Almost all of the people I come across who reject Christianity don’t know the slightest thing about it. This especially includes people who were raised Christian but never learned more than the dumbed-down childish tales they were taught in Sunday school.

Nothing new about this, either. Augustine was repelled by the absurd notion that God looks like man, since he was told that man was created in God’s image. (See my earlier post) He mocked any religion that would be founded on such a simplistic idea. But when he finally looked more deeply and discovered that isn’t at all what Christians believe, he felt like a fool himself.

Many people who grew up in the church have similar ideas. They were taught nonsense as children and they bitterly resent being played for fools. Plus, they witnessed a whole lot of “holier than thou” attitudes by members of their churches and, like only children can do, they easily saw through the hypocrisy.

Are we really doing our kids any favors by turning scripture into pabulum? By making it all about tales of adventure (Samson and Delilah, Jonah and the whale) rather than explaining how God’s love redeems human weakness?

But it isn’t just about school children. Very often atheists understand more about Christianity than professed Christians. Some time ago I wrote about a dialogue between famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and a (Unitarian) minister.  She told him in her most ingratiating manner –

“I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”

And Hitchens replied—

“I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

When I was a young man living in Maine, a Congregational pastor told me that if I smiled when the sun came up in the morning, I was a Christian! Really? I thought to myself if that is all you believe, why bother even having a religion? How is Christianity any different than paganism?

It is small wonder that so many of our young people are shunning church affiliation even while they believe in God and feel spiritual themselves. Because the churches have failed to teach them the Word, they are left to their own devices and their own feelings to make sense of it all and to fill the void in their souls.

This is tragic. They are repeating what hundreds of generations before them have done, even while the answers to their questions sit right before them between the pages of a book. Like me, Christ will eventually guide them to the right path. But, also like me, they may regret the years they are wasting.



  1. No Greg, the answers are not right there between the pages, at least not without a fairly sophisticated theological education. I find the good book to be fairly confusing. Some scripture is allegorical, some metaphorical and several areas totally contradictory. Some meant to be symbolic yet religion, or some religion takes it literally while others don’t. I played rugby with CH and appreciated his wit, depth and understand why he believed as he did. Nothing like a post match libation to spur philosophical debate !!

    • I don’t agree Doug. Sure it helps to study beyond the Bible and some training in Greek and Hebrew wouldn’t hurt, either. But the essential tenets are all right there.

      You are fortunate to have known Hitchens. I admired his honesty and intellectual rigor. Too many Christians are lazy and casual in their beliefs, and no match for a fine mind like Htchens.

  2. Greg:
    Thanks for posting tyour thoughts, so that we can get some dialogue going.
    I heard a story about a participant on “the Millionaire,” who was asked a $200 question, “Who wore the coat of many colors?”
    The fellow thought for a moment, and then asked fior a “lifeline” to call someone.
    The fact that people are unaware of certain Biblical facts is very troubling.
    It indicates they are unfamiliar with the basics, and thus, probably ignorant of their important human foundational applications.
    On the other hand, having knowledge of the facts does not ensure in any way their appropriate application.
    I just started reading a book entitled “When Your World Makes No Sense,” written by Dr. Henry Cloud.
    I have been wanting to read his bestseller “Boundaries,” and found a book that talks of 4 ways of living a God-filled life, of which one way is to establish boundaries.
    The other 3 are bonding, resolving problems of good and bad, and establishing authority over one’s life as an adult.

    I do not spend any time reading ther Bible, but do spend a lot of time reading books that use the Bible to clearly articulate important ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.
    In short, knowledge of the facts is important, but applicatiion of their ways of thinking, speaking, and acting are more practical and more fulfilling.
    Don Levit

    • Don, sorry to be slow in “getting the dialogue going.” You are right that “the facts” are only the beginning. But as I wrote, I don’t think you can get very far in understanding without reading the original. It is the whole sweep of the narrative that tells the story.

      For instance, Judges is powerful in telling us that apostasy is always a threat. It comes and goes constantly. We succeed when we are faithful and we fail when we are not. Yet we never quite absorb the lesson.

      The stories of David and Solomon tell us that even God’s chosen ones are frail and subject to temptation and sin. This is echoed in how even the Disciples betrayed Jesus.

      I am comforted by all this. If God’s grace is applied to these men, then redemption is available to all of us — even a fool like me.

  3. Greg:
    I admire people who have read all of the original text.
    There simply is no substitute for it, I don’t think.

    What I have discovered from Chabad (I have been attending about 5 years) is that the original text for the Jews is really the Cliff’s Notes version.
    For example, observant Jews try to keep as many of the Commandments as they can.
    But the Commandments simply speak about the various observances, without supplying the details of how to actually do them.
    Through various texts (we call them the “Oral Torah,”) we learn more precisely how to put on tephillin, for example.

    The power of the text, for me, is in the white spaces in between the Hebrew letters.
    The “Oral Torah” fills in the gaps and gives me a lot of encouragement and understanding of the Jewish mindset.
    Doug, you are correct that the Bible can be confusing. This is why it is important to study it with knowledgeable people in a group.
    To dialogue over various passages, really meditate on them, so it affects you mentally and emotionally, is very important.
    Sort of like what we are doing right now.

  4. I witnessed a sad example of biblical illiteracy today as a well placed (non clerical) full time church worker in foreign Mission had trouble deciding where the story came from of the midwives who protected the Hebrew children from the “king’s” orders to have them killed. “Was it from the bible? I think so, not sure. Old or New Testament? I think it must be in the New Testament.. Not sure”

    I don’t know, Greg. I hope that’s the rock bottom of the problem.

    I have serious problems with the way conservative Evangelicals interpret the Scriptures at times, but they are still central to our diet. Without them we all starve to death.

    I am open to suggestions as to how to address the issue in an effective way.

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