Robert Wuthnow, professor of Sociology at Princeton University, in his book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, reveals disturbing trends among young adults who are considered to be biblical literalists and believe in the trustworthiness of the Bible. According to this professor’s research the high view of the Bible that these young Americans affirm (at least in comparison to other young adults) are not as high as one might think. Their beliefs are filled with caveats and contradictions. Three beliefs in particular emerge:
We like to believe the Bible is our authority, yet when it comes down to it we really are.
- Belief #1: I understand God through the Scriptures, but its possible that you may understand God some other way. Wuthnow writes, “…about four in ten (42 percent) relativize their view that Christianity is the best way to understand God by saying it is the best for them personally and not necessarily best for everyone (105).
- Belief #2: I believe the Bible is true and inerrant, but a person can also know God by emptying one’s mind and looking inside yourself. Wuthnow states, “A majority of biblical literalists (58 percent) also hold the interesting view that ‘God can only be known as people empty their minds and look inside themselves.’ In short, whatever faith one has in the truth of the Bible is tempered by the view that one should not think very much about it–or anything else, apparently” (105).
- Belief #3: I believe the Bible is God’s trustworthy word, but I don’t feel the need to read it all that much. Wuthnow continues, “Another notable aspect of biblical literalism that is evident here is the large proportion of biblical literalists who read the Bible at home less than once a week. To be sure, they read it more often than nonliteralists do; nevertheless, a majority (51 percent) of biblical literalists do not consult the Bible on their own even once a week. believing the Bible, again, appears to be an item of faith, more than something grounded in knowledge” (105-106).
This research confirms that many young adult Christians are attempting to hold to orthodoxy and unorthodoxy at the same time. They are double-minded. Wuthnow’s concludes the following,
People don’t reject [orthodox beliefs] because they can so easily be hedged. Cognitive bargaining of this kind can take many forms. People can believe the Bible should be interpreted literally and yet regard it as one truth among many, as a private belief, and as one that a person should not even think about very much. None of this diminishes their sense that the Bible is true. It just gives them a way to negotiate their relationship with the truth (106-107).
The implications that Wuthnow draws from his research reveal a troubling diagnosis among emerging adults. As young Americans, we want to have our cake (the Bible is true) and eat it too (well, not so much). We believe in, to use Stephen Colbert’s aptly coined word, the “truthiness” of the Bible. That is, when the Scriptures reinforce what we want to believe, we believe it; and, when it doesn’t, we can always liberate it to be interpreted according to what we desire. This gives us the comfy position of being over God’s word–picking and choosing what we may like according to personal preferences; not under God’s word– submitting to whatever it says in faith and humility. We like to believe the Bible is our authority, yet when it comes down to it we really are.