A recent article on the Christianity Today web site brought considerable surprise to many. The article revealed that a recent poll sponsored by LifeWay Research found that owning a Bible is quite different from reading it. Most polls, surveys, and studies that have examined the Bible's influence in America have looked at views of its inspiration and various methods of interpretation. Gallup, for example, has routinely asked Americans how literally the Bible should be taken. But almost no research has looked into what happens when people actually read the Bible. This new research, conducted by Baylor University, indicates that reading the Bible on one's own makes a real difference but the difference is one that some did not see coming.
First, frequent Bible reading does have some predictable effects. It increases opposition to abortion as well as to homosexual unions. It also boosts a belief that science helps reveal God's glory. It also diminishes hopes that science will eventually solve humanity's problems. But unlike some other religious practices, reading the Bible more often has some other (much less expected) effects. Christianity Today suggested that these effects are more akin to liberal political beliefs than conservative ones. They also noted that the research shows us that this is true even when you account for factors such as political beliefs, education level, income level, gender, race, and religious measures (like which religious tradition one affiliates with, and one's views of biblical literalism). You can read the whole story for yourself.
Frequent Bible reading influences one’s views about criminal justice, opposition to the death penalty, national security, the war on terrorism, the environment and a number of related (not so politically conservative) issues. And the way Bible reading influences how people think about these issues is what shocked some readers. The more someone reads the Bible, the more likely he or she is, for example, to believe science and religion are compatible. But some of the most interesting findings related to moral attitudes. "How important is it," the survey asked, "to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?" As you might expect, those with more liberal political leanings were more likely to say it's very or somewhat important. But those who read the Bible more often were more likely to agree. Indeed, they were almost 35 percent more likely to agree at each point used on Baylor University’s five-point scale. Christianity Today adds, “That may be bad news for Glenn Beck, who last year told believers to leave their churches if they hear ‘social justice’ language being used.” (I’ll say no more about Glenn Beck resisting the temptation to tell you what I really think about him!)
These results do not surprise me at all. I talk to younger Christians almost every day. I can tell you that they think for themselves and that they read their Bible for themselves. (There are dangers here, I acknowledge, since evangelicals read their Bible without concern for the larger church and the ancient faith!) But these Bible readers also ask great questions that most political conservatives either ignore or trash in the public diatribes of our day.
The reason I believe this is happening is that a new concern for justice is growing as Christians read the Bible more holistically. When open minded people really read the Bible, and do not simply listen to their politically conservative churches tell them how to think about every single issue, they find real surprises in the Scripture. And they are willing to think outside the box much more than my generation.
Clearly, one of the overwhelming concerns of the biblical text, and of Jesus' teaching in particular, is for social justice and the plight of the poor. A growing change in attitudes about this truth is also reflected in the growth of better missiology joined with real concerns about how the gospel addresses personal and systemic sin. When wealthy and middle-class Christians read the Bible with a conservative political perspective they miss whole elements of the gospel itself, reducing the good news to the question of how to get my soul saved and then get into heaven when I die. Apparently new Bible readers who actually bother to listen to the text see other concerns besides those of a politically conservative way of thinking.
In the end this comes back to the issue of discipleship. Put more particularly, are mission, personal discipleship and social justice (all three) intimately connected in the Bible or are they separate and unequal paradigms? The relationship between these three is very clear when you read the Bible for all its worth and not repeat conservative political mantras. I would submit that even the terms liberal and conservative are rather meaningless if you read the Bible properly. I think the Spirit is up to something here. I am ready to embrace where I believe the Lord is leading us in understanding and applying the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel that I grew up with was racist, elitist and closed to corporate repentance in profound ways. I welcome this recovery of the gospel of the kingdom and await what God will now do with new leaders that I get the privilege of teaching and sharing with almost daily. I am doubly blest to have this joy. These are exciting times in which to live the good news of the kingdom. If you feel otherwise you will likely grow weary and succumb to one or more of the regnant theories of eschatology and culture that fosters pessimism.