Recently the Barna Group reprised research that finds only 17 percent of self-described Christians who regularly attend church actually believe the core tenets of Christian teaching. Its new poll, conducted this spring, found that one-quarter of Christians think what is right depends on the views of each individual, and that four in ten are sympathetic to Muslim beliefs.
This spring Gallup also released a survey heralding the decline of biblical Christian belief in the United States. The story ran under the blaring headline: “Record Few Americans Believe Bible is Literal Word of God.” Unlike the Barna research, however, this survey says more about Gallup’s ignorance of Christianity than it does about the state of American Christian belief.
The survey purports to show that less than a quarter of Americans—only 24 percent—believe that the Bible is actually God’s word. By contrast, 26 percent say that it is a collection of manmade myth, history, and precept. Gallup offers as a possible explanation the hypothesis that Americans want to embrace the scriptures as divinely inspired while leaving themselves free to interpret away negative biblical statements about issues like gay marriage and physician-assisted suicide.
“Americans…still largely accept the Bible as a holy document, but most…downplay God’s direct role in it,” Gallup reports. The story sums up its findings by reiterating the conclusion that Americans hesitate to describe the Bible as actually God’s word: “Over the past three decades, Americans’ view of the Bible as the literal word of God has been declining.”
Devil in the Details
The problem is that the question Gallup asked its respondents has no bearing on the alleged finding of the survey. The question does not ask whether the Bible is literally the word of God, but whether the Bible is the word of God and should always be interpreted literally.
The question Gallup asked reads as follows: “Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your views about the Bible –  the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,  the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, or  the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man?”
Belief that the Bible is not “the literal word of God”—the wording used in Gallup’s conclusion—seems to mean belief that the Bible is not actually God’s word. (That Gallup means this is confirmed by its description of its contrasting second option as the belief that the Bible is “at least God-inspired if not God’s own words.”) On the other hand, belief that the Bible is not “to be taken literally, word for word”—the wording actually used in Gallup’s question—means to believe that some parts of the Bible are not to be interpreted literally, without making any judgment about whether the Bible is God’s word.
The two ideas are entirely distinct. Americans did not reject the idea that the Bible is literally God’s word. They rejected the notion that every part of it is to be interpreted literally.
No One Interprets Everything Literally
There is a further problem. No Christian well-educated in the faith would agree with the statement that the Bible is “the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” The first part of the statement may be true, but the second part is certainly false. And a statement that conjoins a true clause and a false clause is false. This is not a question of liberal versus conservative interpretation. Qualified expositors of whatever stripe will agree that reading all parts of the Bible literally is simply terrible exegesis.
Gallup appears to think that reading the Bible faithfully means always reading it literally. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some forms of communication are not supposed to be read in a literal manner. Poetry is the most obvious example, and a significant part of the Bible consists of poetry. When the book of Psalms speaks of trees clapping their hands and mountains skipping about, no one in their right mind takes this poetic expression as intended to convey literal truth.
Idiom and figures of speech are also not meant to be read literally. If you tell Amelia Bedelia that you drank a glass of water, she might think you swallowed your cup, but most people understand that such expressions convey something different from the literal meaning of the individual words. Similarly, when Deuteronomy speaks of God leading the Israelites “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” one is not supposed to take the expression as implying that an immaterial being has physical body parts.
Still another example is apocalyptic. The book of Revelation seems lurid and strange to the uninitiated reader, but it belonged to a well-known genre in the ancient world. Apocalypses were intensely figurative books. Instead of writing literally about the evil of serving pagan gods with one’s thoughts and actions, one might write figuratively about the evil of being branded on head and hand with the mark of an evil beast. To drive the point home, one might give that beast a “number,” 666, that corresponds to the name of a well-known despot (the emperor Nero).
In all of these instances, literal reading and faithful reading are two very different things. The purpose of faithful analysis of a text is to discover the author’s intention. If one interprets literally what the author meant to be figurative, one will fail to interpret the text correctly. The problem for orthodox Christianity in America, in other words, is not that fewer people agreed to Gallup’s first statement that the Bible should be interpreted literally, word for word. The problem is that anyone agreed to it at all.
What Does the Survey Mean?
Gallup’s survey did not find that few Americans believe the Bible to be literally God’s word. It is hard to say what it found, actually. Did fewer people say the Bible is to be interpreted literally because fewer Americans take Christianity seriously? Or did fewer people give that response because Christians are becoming better educated about their faith? And how many were confused because they realized there was no good answer and therefore chose option one or option two randomly as a result? It is impossible to say, based on Gallup’s data.
All one can really be sure of is the broadest dichotomy Gallup offered. Twenty-six percent of Americans believe the Bible is a human document. That is an increase of about 5 percentage points from two years back. Yet 71 percent of Americans still believe that the Bible is, at least in some sense, God’s word. That is perhaps a more surprising result, and certainly a more optimistic one for American Christianity, than the faulty conclusion of the study. Reports of the demise of American Christianity may have been greatly exaggerated.