Faith, the Bible, and why we're not as divided as we think
There's a story about Christianity in the West that we've got used to hearing. The story is that it's had its day: that science has somehow disproved it, it's out of step with the modern world and that sensible people don't need it.
The Bible is part of that story: it's supposed to be full of myths and legends, with its odd bits and pieces of ancient wisdom offset by offensive and even hateful teaching about sexuality and violence.
Many Christians who listen to that story know it doesn't match their own experience. But it can lead to an unhealthy sense of being embattled. We can develop a fortress mentality and feel like an isolated and oppressed minority, surrounded by people who are hostile to things we hold dear. So interactions with people who don't share our faith, whether personal or online, can feel like ventures into enemy territory – and that's never a good place for a conversation to begin. Defensiveness isn't attractive.
Now, let's be honest: it's true that some people are hostile to or contemptuous of religion. But what Bible Society's research shows is that these are a small minority. Our 'Bible Dismissive' persona, within which this group sits, represents 31 per cent of the population – not a small proportion. But within this minority, a far smaller proportion could be described as hostile.
For most people, attitudes to faith and the Bible are much more complicated. We don't necessarily have a fully worked-out position, for a start – very few people sit down and think through a total philosophy of life. We're influenced by how we've been brought up, the friends we talk to, what our families think, our life experience, what we've read, the films and TV we watch, and the general mood music in our communities. We reflect on these – inconsistently and erratically, probably. Occasionally we come to a decision that relates to our attitude to faith and the Bible, but most of the time we just assume things. We become a certain type of person almost by default.
Here there are echoes of one of Jesus' parables. In Matthew 13 he tells of the sower who scatters seed on various types of soil, with varying results. At first glance, it's just a description of how people are conditioned to respond to the word of God. We might then think it's rather bleak and deterministic – we are what we are, and it's only the good soil type that's ever going to bear fruit.
But then we remember the first image of God in the whole of Scripture: he is a gardener. A gardener cultivates the ground, removing the weeds, adding good soil, breaking up the stones and making the desert bloom.
The personas Bible Society has identified reflect some distinct types. But these types aren't cardboard cutouts: they represent living and breathing human beings. And because of that, there are relatively few of them who are completely closed to new experiences or new ideas, or wholly opposed to learning more or changing their minds about faith. The ground can be cultivated. The Bible Cultural person for whom the Bible is about as relevant as Nelson's Column might find that, unlike an ancient monument, it is living and active. The Bible Conflicted person filled with compassion for the world might find the Bible speaks to human far need more clearly than they could do themselves. The faith of Bible Nostalgic people might come and go, but faith isn't a strange idea to them. Bible Uncertain people might really appreciate the good works Christians do.
So the Bible communicator for whom we've created Lumino might need a change of mindset. The Church is not a fortress, whose battlements are defended by faithful warriors determined to preserve it from error or disturbance, who make occasional raids on the outside world in search of new recruits. It's an open city, in which believers – confident but not arrogant – are open to encounters, conversations and experiences. We can be unguarded in talking about and living out our faith, because most of the time we don't need to be guarded. We're farmers, not fighters.
Our research shows that far from facing a population that's simply indifferent or hostile to faith and the Bible, we're embedded among people who are infinitely various, interesting and, very often, interested. Communication begins with listening: Lumino has emerged from our attempt to listen to what people really think.
Mark Woods is Bible Society's Editor.