About this time every year, a seemly contradictory set of statistics collides: the Barna Group publishes a list of the most “Bible-minded” cities and Gallup releases results of their ongoing study regarding the “well-being” of states.
The findings are somewhat similar each spring. On the one hand, according to Gallup, Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado and the upper-northwest mountain states tend to be the healthiest, happiest and most fulfilling places to live. The areas with the least health care, poorest education, negative working environments and generally bleak living conditions include a band of states in the deep south that extend north through Ohio and Michigan.
On the other hand, Barna focuses not on the living conditions, but on Bible reading and the reader’s affirmation of its accuracy and inerrancy. Year after year, the most Bible-minded cities are found in Alabama, Tennessee, the Virginias and the Carolinas, while the people least interested in Scripture are located in urban centers on the two coasts.
Seeing the two infographics side-by-side tells the story.
The conclusion is inescapable—those areas that strongly value the Bible have some of the worst living conditions. To say it another way: Bible ownership does not equal biblical literacy, and Bible reading doesn’t necessarily translate into holy and holistic living. Casual or marginal interest in the Bible doesn’t seem to shape lifestyle. Another example: the so-called “Bible Belt” has the highest rates of poverty, poor health, racism and political corruption. Being a “nominal” Christian (Barna’s language) with a moderate commitment to the Bible might actually create a perfect context for some of the worst living conditions in the country.
But there is an exception. Other studies have shown that increased Bible reading—the kind that is personal, consistent and inquisitive—actually does shift belief systems and lifestyle choices. But, again, there’s a surprise here. This kind of engaged study of Scripture, doesn’t follow the conservative Bible-thumping stereotype, but nudges the reader into a more progressive or liberally active engagement with the world. In fact, the more frequently someone reads the Bible, the more that person will oppose the death penalty, believe that science and religion are compatible, oppose harsh responses to terrorism such as the Patriot Act, support social justice, agree with immigration reform and seek to reduce consumption and materialism.
In sum, while nominal Bible reading accommodates a host of socially negative conditions, frequent Bible reading pushes readers to actively engage and transform the world in positive ways.
And then add one more consideration from today’s news: In Tennessee, one of the most Bible-minded states but one of the least likely to provide a healthy living environment, Senate and House committees overwhelmingly approved measures to make the Bible the official book of the state. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t our nation be a lot better off if every state would declare the Bible as its official book?
Hmm, I’m pretty sure that kind of posturing won’t help much. Americans already own more Bibles than any other country—there’s an average of four in every household. We don’t really need more copies of the Bible or more official attention given to the Bible. What’s needed is people who will engage Scripture, both personally and in community with other believers, always open to the possibility that it will transform them, changing hearts and minds and actions in ways that won’t be comfortable or convenient.
But that kind of biblical engagement is dangerous. Living Christ-like often is. Even in a “Christian” country. And, perhaps, especially in a Bible-minded city.