Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Only 11% of Americans say they’ve read the entire Bible. Fewer than 16% have read even half. These numbers are startling in a country where more than 70% of the population identifies as Christian. A whopping 53% admit they’ve consumed very little of God’s word, ranging from several passages or stories to only a few sentences. (And these stats are coming from a Christian research site.)
I’ve been left speechless after finding out Christians I’ve known for years have never read their Bible. They have one, of course. 90% of American households do. Biblical illiteracy is on the rise among my fellow Millennials, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised. But, but, they're Christians, my mind grapples.
Here’s the thing… I get why people don’t want to read the entire 1,200-page book. It’s tedious. And heavy, in more ways than one. I’m one of the 11% who did read their entire Bible. (I know, toot toot.) I also come from an evangelical background, where almost half of us are more likely to read scripture every day. Why did I read the whole thing? Because. I called myself a Christian. I felt I ought to know what I’m ascribing to, what people would associate me with if I made such a claim.
I realize I sound super-judgy right now. Self-righteousness was the sin I struggled with most (its secular equivalent of being judgmental still a thorn in my side, smh. Sorry.) Truthfully, I wish I could take back those hours spent reading long-winded genealogy lists of who fathered who and where they went when the Lord their God called them. Yet I cannot help but feel a bit shocked when Christians seem to have little knowledge of Christ himself, never mind the rest of the book.
Most Millennial Christians I’ve met don't know most of Christ's words. They might be familiar with tattoo verses, sure - the ones like John 3:16 about God sending his only begotten son, or the pillowcase version of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 popping up on Pinterest boards showing four verses out of a book that mainly talks about why sex is bad, why slaves shouldn't be concerned, and why women aren't equal to men. “Love is patient, love is kind,” the pillowcases say. “It is not jealous, it does not boast.”
Love, you are also misinformed. At least this is what I secretly think when people say Christianity is a religion of love. Yes, I know there are plenty of peaceful verses about mercy and charity. What about the rest of the Bible? What about the words of Jesus that are a little more, shall we say, jolting? Even Christians who eschew most of the New Testament - and definitely the Old - in favor of only following Jesus’ actual words and not the apostle Paul’s are stunned when I’ve asked them what they make of verses like Matthew 5:30.
“If your right hand causes you to stumble,” Jesus says, after waxing poetic about how blessed are the peacemakers, “cut it off and throw it away.” (Side note: ‘stumble’ is often interpreted as masturbate.)
Their eyes widen, then squint with suspicion. “What? I don’t think Jesus said that.” A quick Google search ensues. “Oh,” they say. “Well he’s speaking metaphorically.”
Of course he is.
Jesus' riddles stressed me the F out as a Christian. The wages of sin is death, and I'm supposed to know what's a literal sin and what is only a metaphor? Most Christians today agree we are not to take verses like Matthew 5:30 literally. Yet we are to take literally the verses about love being patient and kind, and accepting Jesus as the only way to heaven. How are you supposed to know when Jesus means what he says and when he wants you to play a guessing game? The Holy Spirit will convict you.
Or at least that’s what's in the Bible, but the people I’m talking with selectively quoting Jesus often don’t know that. They seem more into the idea of a watered-down Jesus than the son of God himself. Which is fine. For who wants to associate with a healer who discriminates against women outside his own race? Oh yes. Matthew 15:21-28 tells us this tale.
Jesus has just finished scolding some Pharisees for being too literal. He goes on with his disciples into the lands of Tyre and Sidon (present-day Lebanon) where a Canaanite woman runs up to him. Now, God told his chosen people, the Israelites, to completely destroy the Canaanites. "Do not leave alive anything that breathes,” were his actual words. But the Israelites missed a few, for here is this Canaanite woman running up to Jesus. She’s heard of his miraculous healing power, crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus completely ignores her. Just keeps walking. The Canaanite woman is persistent, and the crew is starting to get annoyed. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away.
“She keeps crying out after us,” they complain about the pesky minority.
Jesus is like, “But I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” He won’t even acknowledge her to send her away.
Then the woman flat out kneels in front of Jesus. “Lord, help me!” she begs.
Finally, Jesus deigns to acknowledge her. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (It’s true, Jesus did like a good metaphor. The common interpretation of this nugget is that God’s children are to receive bread. Not dogs. I mean, non-Israelites.)
This woman has major cojones. She doesn’t miss a beat, coming right back at Jesus with, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus takes a moment, probably having to concede she has a point. Then he says to her, “Woman - ” he likes addressing females as “woman,” even his own mom - “you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And, so the tale goes, her daughter was healed at that moment.
It’s understandable why this Bible story is not very Pinteresting, or tattoo-able. In the era of equality, the mixed Eurasian ethnicity of the Lebanese Canaanites (let’s be honest, they were probably stunning) makes this particular tale of Jesus woefully inappropriate to our times. #CanaaniteLivesMatter.
Was Jesus always a dick to women? Well, at least two of his friends were female. Mary of Magdalene/Bethany (hotly disputed if they’re one and the same) and her sister, Martha, were known to have Jesus over for a good hang out. But Martha was always doting on him and Mary liked to “sit at his feet.” Ahem. (Yes, I know that now I’m having too much fun with this post-Christian perspective on familiar old stories. Lemme reign it back in a bit.)
Bottom line: pillowcase Christianity is a far cry from Christ-like Christianity.
Yes, Jesus had some nice sound bites about love and forgiveness. He did say to turn the other cheek. (But what about victims of domestic abuse!) He did say to love your neighbor as yourself. (But what if not loving your neighbor is a reflection of not loving yourself?) He did have a soft spot for sinners, saying whoever believes in him will have everlasting life. (But he also said that not everyone who calls him Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven.)