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Evangelical Ignorance: “I Don’t Need to Read Any Books, I Have the Bible”

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Evangelicals love to talk about the Bible. They call themselves people of the Book. Yet, despite all their Bible-loving talk, most Evangelicals are quite ignorant about what the Bible actually says. Why is biblical ignorance so widespread within Evangelical Christianity? Evangelicals think that by reading the Bible devotionally they are learning exactly what the biblical text says and means. Rarely do Evangelicals read books dealing with textual and historical criticism. If Evangelicals read books besides the Bible, they turn to books that are approved by their denomination, pastor, or church; or they read books that reinforce their beliefs. Evangelicals are far more likely to read Christian self-help books, Christian romance novels, Christian biographies, or superficial “look what God did for me, he’ll do it for you too” books than they are books that deal with doctrine, church history, or textual criticism. I think I can safely say that most Evangelicals have never read a book written by Bart Ehrman. If pastors and churches sincerely wanted congregants to understand the Bible, you would think that they would encourage them to read the books of the man who has done more than anyone to make the biblical text and early church history accessible to people in the pew. Instead, Evangelicals are often warned to not read Ehrman’s books lest in doing so they have doubts about their faith. What pastors are afraid of is that the people in the pew will learn that what they have been telling them from the pulpit about the Bible is not true. Just stick to reading apologetical books written by Evangelical men of God, pastors say. These authors will never lead you astray. Bart Ehrman is an agnostic, he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. In taking this approach, pastors teach congregants that if you don’t agree with or like the messenger you can safely ignore his or her message.

I was considered by my ministerial colleagues to be well read, especially once I moved away from the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Month by month, my library continued to grow. On more than one occasion, church members came into my office and asked me, have you really read all these books? I would chuckle a bit and say, yes, I have actually read all of them. While most of the books in my library reinforced my beliefs, as I got older I began to read authors that were considered heterodox or liberal. Several of my former pastor friends and congregants have said to me that my voracious reading habit was the reason for my loss of faith. One woman told me that what I needed to do is get rid of all my books and just read the Bible. She thought, I’m sure, that the words of the Bible, once read, would have some sort of magical effect on me. Evidently, knowledge was my problem, and if I would just return to the ignorance of faith, all would be well.

Over the years, I met pastors who prided themselves in being men of one book. One man, a Church of the Nazarene pastor, was proud of the fact that his entire library fit on two four-foot shelves. His library consisted of a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, several books of illustrations, and a smattering of easy-to-read, pabulum-level books. These kinds of pastors believe that they can just read the Bible and understand exactly what the text says and means. After all, the Holy Spirit lives inside of them. He is their teacher and guide. When they stand in front of their congregations to preach the Word of God, they believe they are doing so as a spirit-filled man of God. Some of the most atrocious sermons I’ve ever heard were preached by men who thought this way.

From 1997-2002, I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity Ohio. One Sunday evening, three families who knew each other decided to visit our church. After the service, one of the visitors asked me about some of the things I said in my sermon. I told him that I would be glad to loan him several books that I thought would be helpful in answering his questions. He replied, I don’t need to read any books, I have the Bible. In his mind, all he needed to understand the text of the Bible was the Bible itself. I wish I could say that his astounding ignorance was rare, but over the years I met countless sincere Christians who had no interest in reading religious books. Some of them rarely read the Bible, let alone anything else. The fact that daily devotional books such as Our Daily Bread are used by churches to encourage congregants to read the Bible speaks volumes. For readers who are not familiar with such materials, let me explain what they are. Our Daily Bread, for example, has a devotional reading for each day of the year. The reading usually contains several Bible verses and an inspirational sermonette, all fitting on a small page. They are like SparkNotes for the Bible. For many Christians, this is the only Bible they will read on any given day.

I have known more than a few Evangelicals who, once they have used their Bible during Sunday services, store it under the front seat of their car, in the back window, or in the trunk. This way, they will know exactly where their Bible is come next Sunday. One of the reasons pastors repeatedly preach and teach the same basic sermons — four thousand titles for two sermons — is that Bible literacy is quite low among church members. I spent my entire twenty-five years in the ministry trying to get congregants to take Bible reading and study seriously. I can say with great confidence that I failed miserably. This does not mean that these people weren’t good Christians or that they weren’t serious about their faith. Often, thanks to long hours at work or domestic responsibilities, church members had very little time to devote to studying the unsearchable riches of Christ. I, on the other hand, was paid to read and study the Bible. I had hours every day that I could spend pouring over the biblical text and reading dense theological tomes. I used to nag church members about their lack of consistent Bible reading (and praying), but I quit doing so after I realized that the problem was a matter of time, not desire or faith.

Some pastors think that they are so full of the Holy Ghost that they don’t need to study for their sermons. Evangelist Dennis Corle told me that my time could be better spent soulwinning than studying for my sermons. He believed, as many preachers do, that spending time studying was a waste. There are souls to save, these preachers think. I’m just going to trust God, through the Holy Spirit, to tell me what to say. Such preachers reveal for all to see that the Holy Spirit is illiterate. Unlike many of my colleagues, I chose to devote significant time to preparing my sermons. It was not uncommon for me to spend twenty hours a week reading and studying for the sermons I would preach on Sunday. I like to think that my preparation showed in my sermon delivery and knowledge of the biblical text.

As you can see, theological and biblical ignorance are widespread within the Evangelical community. Researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli pull no punches when they say: “Americans revere the Bible — but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” Many Christians can’t name the four Gospels or more than two or three of the disciples. The same can be said for the Ten Commandments. Some of the ignorance can be attributed to the fact that many Evangelical pastors preach what is commonly called “felt needs” sermons; that people who gather on Sunday to worship God want to hear uplifting sermons that inspire them to live for Jesus. These overworked, stressed out children of God want to be told that their lives matter and that God has a purpose and plan for them. They want to hear sermons based on the Bible stories of men and women who were greatly used by God or who wrought great victories in his name. Theological sermons are often met with restlessness and yawns. What congregants want is a Jesus fix, not a seminary lecture.

Many atheists actually know more about the Bible than the people who say they believe that the Good Book is the inspired, inerrant, infallible words of God. One of the reasons that these atheists left Christianity was that they actually decided to find out exactly what the Bible said. And once they did, they were appalled by what they found. As long as widespread biblical ignorance continues to infect Christianity, pastors have no need to worry about congregants finding out the truth; the truth being, that what pastors say about the Bible is not true; that the Bible is not in any way a supernatural text; that the Bible is not inerrant, but instead is littered with hundreds of contradictions and errors. Once Evangelicals realize that they have been duped, they often leave their churches. Many of them remain people of faith, but they no longer trust religious institutions. I have met many disaffected Evangelicals over the past decade. I’ve noticed, given enough time, that they often slowly move towards indifference, agnosticism, atheism, or some sort of generic spirituality. Evangelical leaders are alarmed by the number of Millennials and Generation Z young people who no longer check the “Christian” box on religious surveys. Much has been made about the rise of the Nones. More than a few atheists have wrongly interpreted this rise to mean that some sort of atheist revival is going on. While it is certainly true that atheism in America has grown dramatically over the past twenty-five years, that doesn’t mean that all of the Nones are atheists. Most Nones, in fact, are indifferent towards religion, and if atheists want to win them over to their side, then they are going to have to preach the humanistic gospel. Disaffected young adults are looking for an ethical and moral framework that best represents their beliefs and understandings of the world. Humanism can and does provide such a framework.

I’m optimistic that better days lie ahead for atheism and humanism — that is, if Donald Trump doesn’t get us into a nuclear war first. Those of us who are humanists need to make case that humanism provides a rich and full way to live one’s life. We know that the Bible has little to offer our modern society, but with the abandoning of the Bible comes a moral and ethical vacuüm. It’s our duty (and privilege) to present humanism as the way forward, not only the United States, but the people of the world.

For those who may not know about what I call the humanistic ideal, let me conclude this post with the Humanist Manifesto:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

Books by Bart Ehrman

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

 Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)

 Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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  1. Avatar

    This, to me, is one of your best pieces of thoughtful, intelligent writing, Bruce. Amen and amen. What is the humanist way of saying ‘amen’. YES!!!!

    Having being raised within a Calvinist church, with expository preaching, and having every banner of truth commentary and books…….. maybe my journey may have been a little different, but at the end of the day when one moves away from dogmatism and cherry picked verses and statements of faith and starts looking and thinking, then one still realises the absurdity of xianity (and all religions, as man made).
    So at 61yo, I join you as a humanist, knowing that having dumped xianity, I am a better not perfect- who is?) person for having done so.

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    The fun thing about the Humanist Manifesto is that it fits on double sized business card. We humanists don’t need a long, meandering, at times boring and at points incomprehensible book. I taped a copy to my notebook i used when I was president of our group. It was all I needed to talk about Humanism.

    • Avatar
      Appalachian Agnostic

      And there is no need to sit in a room each week going over the same material endlessly. Even when I was a believer, I wondered why we had to go to church every single week to hear the same lessons we already knew by heart.

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        Yes, I thought the same, what was there new to say in sermons? Though actually Friendly Atheist has a post today from a wingnut pastor saying dogs will go to heaven, not cats. That really is scraping the bottom of the barrel to me! In my village, I noticed that when a couple of elderly folk had to stop driving, they stopped coming to church even though they were offered lifts. I think they were relieved to have an excuse to stay in their warm home, in a comfy chair rather than in a cold church on a hard seat. They knew more about both life and the bible than most pastors and I’m sure felt god would give them a pass after a lifetime of attendance if they signed out at 80+

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    Just a simple thought if everything is a product of evolution , our eyes ,ears, arms,legs , brains, thoughts and actions, how can things be good or evils , surely all they can be is beneficial for survival or not.So if thought and subsequent actions on rape, murder,genocide, helping old ladies across the street , are just evolutionary traits how are the right or wrong.

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      Evolution is ongoing, no-one who accepts the theory has ever suggested otherwise. Also, how our bodies work biologically and how we choose to act are not the same thing. Rape, murder, genocide are NOT evolutionary traits: they are CHOICES!

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    Very good points, Bruce. I doubt that most Christians truly read the Bible cover to cover. There’s so much that’s boring, so much that’s horrifying, so much that is disturbing. While there are some gems, there is a lot of effluvia. If one truly reads the Bible with an open mind, and not from the presumption that it is the inerrant words of an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, unchanging deity, it is clear that it is a compilation of works from people 2000+ years ago who were ignorant of science and who still practiced slavery and misogyny. Those who follow “Our Daily Bread” and think that they are getting “all the important stuff they need” from the Bible are (yes, I’ll say it) lazy for not delving into a religion that they claim to believe wholeheartedly, that governs their lives, and which they wish would govern the lives of all citizens of our nation and world. Read, study, and examine the whole thing, learn about history from secular sources, and then make that conclusion if that’s where your research leads you. I doubt it will.

    I like the simplicity of humanism, the understanding that as humans evolve and grow and learn more, that we should change our approaches. For example, racism has always been wrong, but it’s only after the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement that working toward racial equality became an open goal in our society (and hopefully our current administration won’t wreck the gains too much).

  5. Pingback:Self-satisfied ignorance | Civil Commotion

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    I taught 5-6yr olds, specialising in those who couldn’t hack the skill of reading after a year in school, I can’t imagine teaching kids to read using only the KJV. All those thees, thous and begats for a start…it would be like starting them off on Shakespeare and guaranteed to put them off for life. Though a fundy did once try to tell me that the illiterate learning disabled man who came to their church had the KJV interpreted to him by the holy spirit so that was OK then!

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    Bob Felton

    One more book recommendation: Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, by John Spong. I don’t know how the devout might be persuaded to read it, but it will rock their world when they do.

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    Well, this former fundagelical read the Bible from cover to cover at least six times. Spent hours on it. And sure enough, when I started researching, things started unraveling. The first question was about tithing. And then the avalanche started. . . .

    So glad there are blogs like this that can help us poor brainwashed, befuddled (now former!) fundagelicals see the light!

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    Well, just sign me up. 🙂 Can I be a Christian humanist? Seriously, this is much of what I believe and affirm as someone committed to follow the way of Jesus.

    I think part of the huge issue with many secular young people who are “nones,” is that they’ve become caught up in a very materialistic, consumer driven culture. This very much shapes and influences their thinking.

    I also think for people who are atheists who strongly feel that all morality is simply culturally determined, and therefore subjective, it is much easier to become ensnared in “the end justifies the means” type of thinking.

    How can all this be addressed ?

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    Given metaphysical naturalism, if you find your self-fulfillment and purpose in the ideals of humanism, great, go for it. If you realize the same following in the path of Jesus Christ, have at it. All paths to oblivion become equally valid.

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        Hi Rebecca,
        By oblivion, I mean a godless cosmos where the best scientific observations reveal a reality of every galaxy outside our local group fleeing beyond our horizon faster than the speed of light, not to mention the eventual heat-death of the universe into a perpetually expanding void. In such a state, there exists no path forward that is ultimately superior to another. Strongly held convictions like “humans have inherent worth and are special because we can understand the universe” are as perfectly valid a means of personal fulfillment as the next person’s ideal of pursuing heaven, or nirvanna.

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    Rebecca, I have teen kids who are “nones” and my experience with them and their friends is that they are very socially active. They like nice things but I don’t find them any more materialistic than my own gen x was.

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    Bruce, this is a very well written post. Looking back on my Christian/church experience (covering about 33 years of my life) I realize that for most of that time, I was very uninformed and uneducated regarding my beliefs. Even though I had been to Bible school, and had read the Bible many times through, I came to this realization around the 29th to 30th year of my Christian experience. The group I was with warned us on a regular basis to not read anything outside of our group because our faith could be contaminated. LOL It sounds so cultic now. I have a good friend who is not a Christian and is very well educated and has a lot of common sense. He started asking me questions about the Bible and about my faith that I had no real answers for. So, I started studying. A lot. I did a long, in depth study of the Bible that included reading books by authors outside of my particular flavor of Christianity. As my church leaders warned, this led to my leaving Christianity behind. But how else will we really learn and be grounded in whatever it is that we believe? If we only read authors and listen to speakers that we already agree with, we won’t be challenged to grow or to see the world and our beliefs from different perspectives.

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      Amen, to that John. But, what makes the difference in people. In the more progressive, mainline seminaries, all of the students study, and are well acquainted with both higher, and textual criticism of the Scripture. Yet, in my experience, this rarely results in people leaving the ministry, let alone the Christian faith.

      Yet, in the fundamentalist churches, it seems that people can read a book or two by a well known critical scholar, and are more than ready to leave their entire faith in the dust. As far as I can tell, they are quite happy and relieved to do so.

      I actually say “good for them.”

      How true or life giving could it have been in the first place, then? There is no point in just going through the motions without real joy or substance. In a deeper sense, perhaps some are now closer to an honest relationship with God, than when they ever sat in church.

      • Avatar
        Bruce Gerencser

        The people on this site certainly weren’t “going through the motions” before they deconverted. For most former Evangelicals, the opposite is true. I met far more people “going through the motions” in mainline churches than I ever did in Evangelical churches.

        And do you really think that loss of faith came from just reading a book or two? That’s a simplistic, reductionist way of understanding Evangelicals who are now atheists.

        You present mainline Christianity as some sort of superior brand of Christianity. I don’t, generally speaking, believe that to be true. Evangelicals and mainline Christians have much in common theologically with each other. At best, they are just sub-groups within the cult.

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    Yes, Bruce, you are right. It is more complex for many people. I agree that my comment was too simplistic, and made without enough deeper thought into the dynamics of deconversion.

    I apologize.

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      Rebecca, In the experience of belief, when I knew the Lord and worshipped/obsessed over faithful living, I too would make an ‘easy’ assumption about those who turned away. When you know the joy of Jesus in your life, it is not a simple thing to realize that the healthy thing for a person to do is to walk away from belief. It is in fact contradictory to all one is holding dear! When you express your observation of somebody walking out of the theatre halfway through the show, so to speak, I get what you are saying entirely: They must not be getting their money’s worth, to be sure. But I have the feeling that you would walk straight out of a Christian service being overseen by a Steven Anderson. In fact, you would run out wondering how in earth you were tricked into being there in the first place.
      I feel that way about evangelical Christianity itself, not just the Anderson. That isn’t a baby I am throwing out with the bathwater, even if some think it is…. it’s a sick clown, a wolf in sheep’s garb.

      • Avatar

        Brian, I’m just so very sorry for my hasty and thoughtless comment. I should know better for judging people based on my own perception, and experience, the very thing Jesus speaks against.

        I will be out of the country for awhile, and I”m not sure about internet service. So, I probably can’t comment for awhile.

        But, I appreciate you and everyone hanging in there with me.

        Be well.


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