In a recent study by The American Bible Society two groups, Millennials (age 18-29) and All Adults, were asked about sacred texts and the bible. According to the polling 13% of all adults believe that no literature is sacred compared to 19% of millennials. 26% of all adults have never read the bible compared to 39% for millennials. Half of all adults believe that the bible has too little influence in society compared to 30% of millennials and half of all adults believe that the bible contains everything a person needs to live a meaningful life compared to 35% of millennials. In England recently, an Oxford City Council denied a church a permit to conduct a Good Friday passion play acting on the presumption that it was a live sex show.
Anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann (When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship with God, 2012) has been studying what happens when people pray. Her research has led her to compare the experience of hearing God in Ghana, South Africa and the San Francisco Bay area. The congregations are all English speaking and all have college-educated participants. Some are charismatic and some are not. When comparing the experiences of hearing God in West Africa compared to America Lurhmann has found that in the secular West people have trouble experiencing God speaking to them while in West Africa the supernatural is intermingled with the material in concrete ways; God speaks and people hear.
In a recent interview (The Christian Century, May 2014) Lurhmann responded to a question about how people respond to her work by saying that non-believers assume that she is trying to make imagined beings come to life and to believers she’s reducing religion to psychology. When asked what American clergy might learn from her work she thinks that the message for noncharismatic pastors might be that “knowing God involves skill” and the message for charismatics might be that “not everyone can have an intimate conversation with God.” When responding to a question about her own spiritual journey Lurhmann said that when she first started her work she was focused on whether God was or was not out there and that now she’s much more comfortable with ambiguity… that she hears people talking about God and reaching for joy which is “a project that you can get on board with.”
In the church where I work a colleague and I have started a project called The Core Curriculum. We’re hoping to create a curriculum that will allow people to deepen their spiritual life. In the first session of the Core we studied methods of prayer, looking at the prayer lives and experiences of saints, mystics and theologians – those for whom the experience of God is conversational, supernatural and materialistic. The work was demanding for everyone. Some loved that first session and others found it challenging, if not a little absurd… “I’m not a mystic!”
In the second session of the Core we are looking at sacred scripture. Most participants began the second session by admitting that their knowledge of the bible was very limited. This work is a little more concrete (but certainly not less spiritual or demanding) and people are responding more favorably. Interestingly enough, when the Bible is read as literature it demands that the reader embrace both God’s ambiguity and God’s demand for a spiritual and ethical approach to life. God is both/and, as they say.
These experiences lead me to believe that Lurhmann’s conclusions are on the mark: That at the outset of a spiritual journey knowing God involves skill and that not everyone can have an intimate conversation with God. And yet, Lurhmann herself has moved from searching for the concrete to accepting ambiguity, admitting that now she has “developed a sense of God.”
Based on my experiences with the All Adult category in the Barna research above (many of whom admit little real knowledge of the bible), it’s a little frightening to me that biblical literacy and the ambiguous struggle with sacred texts among millennials is decreasing. I wonder what a culture that has lost both – sacred texts and spirituality – might look like. So much for spiritual but not religious… how about neither?
Searching for God and finding joy in life requires skill and accepting ambiguity. Reading the Bible requires the same. The hope of the church is that everyone can find their way to a conversation with God, however ambiguous and challenging that may be.