Last weekend, a national survey showed that more than half of Britons would reject the opportunity to take the Bible with us if we were stranded on a desert island. In a society where around one in 10 people attend church regularly, perhaps the more surprising finding from the research was that 31 per cent of people would still actively choose to keep the Bible.
The ComRes poll, commissioned by the Church and Media Network, points to a fluid relationship with the scriptures amongst Britons that we experience daily in our work at Bible Society as we strive to bring the Bible to life. Intersecting networks of beliefs, self-descriptions, behaviours and Bible habits are much more complex than a stance that consigns the Bible to the realm of ‘religious practice’ will allow.
For instance, research conducted by Theos in 2012 demonstrated that around eight in 10 of the population hold some kind of positive regard for the scriptures. The trajectory from this attitudinal figure to the 31 per cent who answered affirmatively in the recent poll illustrates varying degrees of inclination towards the Bible, ranging from the abstractly benign – “it’s good for society” – to personal benefit – “it might be useful for me… if I was really stuck”.
One of the undeniable facts is that there is much greater goodwill towards the idea of the Bible than active engagement with the scriptures themselves. And I think the recent poll points to just a few of the reasons why…
- We’re better together
For years, many Christians have modelled an encounter with the Bible that is highly individualised. As if we’re marooned on the desert island of Bible reading, all alone – just me and my Bible.
My own experience has been that while personal engagement with the scriptures is vital, without the creative, conflictual and convicting voice of others, my experience of the Bible becomes poorer. I need other people to help me to engage with the Bible because it can be tough going. The encouragement and practical help I receive from others helps me to grow more confident in what can be quite a daunting proposition. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d cope well on a desert island with just me and my Bible.
There are excellent resources and practices out there that encourage collaborative reading of the Bible – for example, Biblica’s Community Bible Experience and our own Lyfe. But unless we get better at facilitating positive group encounters around the text inside and outside the Church, the perception of the Bible as a personal project, only open to the qualified, competent and well behaved will further increase.
- The Bible is more than a book
Biblical literacy doesn’t just mean being able to play a mean game of Bible cowboy, reaching chapter and verse before your opponent. Often, Christians have so favoured copies of a physical, bound book that we have overlooked the scriptural inspiration we can find in the cultural and creative world around us. Listen to Desert Island Discs any given week, and you’ll find that the song choices bear many connections, allusions and parallels to the Bible and biblical themes. And there can sometimes be a really meaningful, fresh encounter with the text when you approach it through the sounds and lyrics of Bob Dillon, Faure or Nina Simone. Giving permission and encouragement to those we meet to make connections between their own experiences – the music they listen to, the films they watch or the food they eat – with God’s story has to be part of our vocation as Christians, as Bible translators in the 21st century.
- The Bible is seen as dry and dusty.
An elderly monk I know once said to me: “You can’t really understand the Bible until you’ve been lost in the desert.” Of course, this is partly true in an historical sense; the birthplace of many of the scriptural books was barrenness and desert. But more than this, we become best placed to hear the word when we are deeply aware of our own thirst and fragility. As Psalm 63 so eloquently phrases it: “My soul thirsts for you… as in a dry weary land without water.” And today, as much as ever, we as a society find ourselves thirsty and fragile, wandering in the desert.
Why would anybody want to take a dry, dusty Bible to a desert island when they see that Bible as containing more dryness and dustiness. The challenge for each one of us as advocates for the Bible is to live the scriptures with vim, vigour, positivity and prophetic edge. It’s only when we do this that more people will see the Bible as a life-affirming text, the living water for our thirsty journey.