Tony Watkins highlights how our secular culture can influence the way we view the Bible, and suggests how Christians can factor that in when they read Scripture.
For someone living in the modern west, it’s hard to imagine living in Britain in 1611, the year in which the King James Version of the Bible was published. It became the default version of the Bible in English, though it was not the first to be widely available, and is the bestselling book of all time. Less than a century before, William Tyndale had to flee to Germany to work on his English translation, and was later martyred for his troubles. That wasn’t because of opposition to religion, but to the form of it which Tyndale stood for—Protestantism. Everybody shared a Christian worldview, though there were major theological tensions, resulting in some horrifying actions. By 1611, everyone in Britain must have been aware of the sharp differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Yet the possibility of not being a Christian of some sort was virtually unthinkable.
For someone living in 1611, however, it would be hard to imagine living in our modern society, in which it is normal to identify with no religion, and Christians are seen as the weird ones. Ours is a world in which it can be easy to live without regard to God. Modern science can explain so much that, for many people, it seems obvious to reject a creator, scoff at supernatural beings, and imagine that, given time, human beings can find technological solutions to all problems. In today’s world, it is easy for people to assume that the Bible’s claims have been swept aside by the tide of our expanding knowledge about the world, and that it is, at best, a relic of an age long gone.
Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the most significant thing about our secular age is not the divide between sacred and secular (though there is one), nor that spirituality is in decline (that’s really a complicated question). The key issue, he says, is that religious ideas are now open to debate; western culture no longer has an unquestioned default Christian worldview. However, every other perspective is also open to debate. Everyone knows that, whatever we believe, someone else will argue against it. The swirl of choices in relation to ideas, beliefs, and practices creates what Taylor calls ‘cross pressures’: the culture is pulled in different directions. Believers sometimes find themselves wondering if their atheist friends might be right; but non-believers sometimes find themselves haunted by the possibility that God might be there.
How does this play into the ways that people read the Bible in a secular age? I suggest that it does so in five interconnected ways.
How our secular age views the Bible
First, many people simply don’t know the Bible. They probably know a few familiar biblical ideas or phrases, without realising where they come from, but they don’t know the stories because religious observance is no longer part of life for most people.
Secondly, many people don’t understand the Bible. They don’t realise that it’s written by many authors over 1500 years or so, in a variety of genres. They know little of the cultural and historical background or the geography. They don’t understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, if they even know about them.
Thirdly, many people don’t trust the Bible. They have absorbed widespread negative ideas about it being unreliable or that it has been disproved by science. In research carried out for Bible Society in 2018 (in the UK), participants chose five words to describe their response to the Bible. The two most common choices were ‘outdated’ (36%) and ‘contradictory’ (32%). Other typical attitudes to the Bible are that it is confusing, ambiguous, and untrue, though people also see it as a potential source of guidance or inspiration. Many resonate with the view of actor Ian McKellen who says, ‘I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying, “This is fiction.”’
Fourthly, many people are highly suspicious of the Bible’s message, associating it with discriminatory attitudes such as misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The third most common response in the Bible Society survey was that the Bible is ‘judgemental’ (25%). People are quick to condemn the Bible for being out of step with contemporary sensitivities.
A fifth way that our secular age shapes approaches to the Bible is tied up with our default epistemology—how we think about truth and knowing anything. Since, say, Descartes’ statement, ‘I think, therefore I am’ (1637), western culture has been dominated by rationalism: the valuing of reason above all. As a result ‘knowledge’ is seen as facts, propositions, and things that can be proved—objectivity. Anything to do with subjective perspectives, emotions, or our selves is seen as inferior. Western readers come to the Bible with a western mindset: without realising it, we pay particular attention to information and statements that are true or false. We want to know whether archaeology can prove or disprove the Bible’s historical accounts. Readers stumble over phrases such as ‘He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved’ (Psalm 104:5), or Jesus’s statement that anyone who ‘does not hate’ their own family cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26).
Secular age Christians
All these issues affect Christians. A 2018 survey of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) revealed that 51% of Christians in that age bracket only engage with the Bible a few times a year or less. My sense from conversations over the years is that a surprising number of evangelicals, despite their high regard for the Bible as God’s word, have only patchy knowledge of it. This disconnect arises partly because Christians are not immune from the cross pressures of the secular age. People who become Christians discover a radically new dynamic at work in their lives as the Holy Spirit indwells them.
Yet their culture still shapes them because God made humans as cultural beings, not isolated individuals. None of us lives in a vacuum: our communities form our ways of behaving, our values, and the ways we think. Our culture shapes us decisively, but we’re as unaware of it as of the air we breathe. Christians, therefore, also sense the modern world making it easy to live without reference to God. Engaging with Scripture can seem merely helpful, not what gives life its fundamental orientation.
Christians resist the notions that the Bible is outdated, confusing, and contradictory, but they also sometimes struggle to understand it and see how it addresses our situations. The idea that the Bible is discriminatory presents a big challenge for Christian readers today. The Bible has been used to justify slavery and other mistreatment of people, and some passages feel very uncomfortable. Yet it is Scripture itself that provides grounds for seeing all human beings as having equal value and dignity, and for resisting discrimination on the basis of sex or ethnicity.
Perhaps the most pervasive way that the secular age affects Christians reading the Bible is also the least recognised. The default epistemology I described above is so intrinsic to western culture that it passes unnoticed—by Christians almost as much as anyone else. It is what sociologist Peter Berger calls a ‘plausibility structure’, so deeply embedded within society that it goes unheeded and unchallenged. Christians regard Scripture as God’s word, yet many—myself included—slip into analysing the text rather than meditating on what its Divine Author is saying. In the former, I search the Bible to find facts and information about it; in the latter Scripture searches me and finds me out. I admit that this is a false opposition: identifying the structure, features, and meaning of the text is not incompatible with hearing God’s voice. Indeed, diligent study is often what enables me to really hear what God is saying. The problem is that intellectual engagement with the Bible easily becomes the end not the means. Knowing information about God is not knowing God.
Relearning how to read the Bible
How, then, do we read the Bible in a secular age? It requires a posture of humility and prayerfulness, opening oneself to God’s word and sitting under it, not trying to mine it for facts, or stand over it in judgement according to the scruples of our age. It is fundamentally a relational activity—wanting and waiting to hear the voice of a heavenly Father—not an analytical one. It means asking, not, ‘What do I want to do with this text?’, but, ‘What does God want to do with me through this text?’
With this attitude, when I read passages I don’t understand or that feel uncomfortable, I will want to dig deeper to discover what I’m not seeing because of my cultural baggage or my own ignorance. I want to indwell Scripture, leaning into it and living it, not merely reading it. Then I will also be able to live with some mystery, recognising that, in my finiteness and fallenness, I will not understand everything immediately, if at all. As I indwell Scripture and deepen my relationship with God through it, I will grow in my trust of it and the One who speaks through it.