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'Biblical illiteracy'?

A recent study indicates people are ignoring the teachings of their churches in favor of a more customized theology

Religion Reporter

Just 40 percent of Americans think Jesus lived a sinless life.

Only 27 percent of U.S. adults think Satan is real.

More members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints subscribe to born-again beliefs than do Catholics or Episcopalians.

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Such statistics, released Monday by the Barna Research Group, illustrate "a crisis of biblical illiteracy" among the American Christian community, according to George Barna, president of the Ventura, Calif., research firm.

While the views expressed by 6,000 randomly-sampled adults nationwide represent views of believers rather than official church doctrine, Barna noted that the study reveals a "substantial theological shift" within Christian churches during recent years.

"Recent theological battles over scriptural interpretations regarding homosexuality, women in leadership, divorce and euthanasia have encouraged more people to ignore the teach ings of their church in favor of customized theological views," Barna said in the report. "In many ways, we are living in an age of theological anarchy."

The Rev. Terry Ellis, pastor of Spring Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, says a "cafeteria approach" to religion may be contributing to some of the study's findings.

"Faith becomes simply a matter of whim instead of a matter of understanding and obedience," Ellis said. "I think that we've reached a stage where you can believe almost anything, but don't believe it too strongly and don't believe it too publicly."

Ann Jordan, a member of the Mobile ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said it's a "sad thing" that more people don't feel a need to discuss religion.

According to the study, just 32 percent of Americans believe they have an obligation to share their religious faith with those who believe differently. That number jumps to 73 percent among Pentecostal/Foursquare believers, and drops to 12 percent for Episcopalians.

"A lot of people don't want to be pushy. Unfortunately, a good many more people don't know really what they believe," Jordan said. "The best way to do it is to teach by example, and then, if you feel so inspired, to say: 'This is the church I belong to. Would you like to know more?'"

The beliefs of those within Christian congregations today, however, differ drastically from the ideas espoused by denominational leaders.

"One of the problems with preaching is that you can leave things out," said the Rev. Edwin P. Beachum, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church on Springhill Avenue. "Sometimes we overlook subjects."

For example, Beachum said, there's not much talk from the pulpit about Satan these days. So perhaps it's no surprise that only 17 percent of Catholics believe the devil is a real being. Latter-day Saints are more likely to believe in Satan than any other denomination surveyed; 59 percent said they think the devil can influence people's lives and isn't just a symbol of evil.

Says Jordan: "It's almost impossible to believe that the Holy Father and Jesus Christ are living, breathing beings and not believe the same thing about Satan. He's the yin to the yang. You can't have good without bad."

Only 27 percent of adults surveyed agreed.

Likewise, Americans seemed to have a difficult time believing that Jesus never sinned during his earthly lifetime.

Clergy members say contemporary teaching and preaching that emphasizes Jesus' humanity may be responsible for those numbers. Just 40 percent of adults are convinced Jesus lived a sinless life on earth.

Ellis noted that in the past, the emphasis on Jesus' divinity was so great that "he wasn't accessible to us." As clergy members and theologians stressed Jesus' humanity, Ellis said, "maybe we've lost some of the notion of what it means to be God."

Beachum said the emphasis on Jesus' humanity has been especially great during the past 40 years.

"It's difficult for us to, I guess, imagine someone living without sin," Beachum said. "So I think that perhaps they'll start to swing in the other direction. It's hard to get a balance."

Still, Beachum said, some ideas do trickle into the laity's conscience.

Less than two years ago, Catholics and Lutherans signed the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith in Augsburg, Germany. The document, which helped mend one of the best-known rifts in Christendom, states, "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."

For centuries, the Catholic Church taught that salvation was a matter of grace - the love and favor of God - but also stressed that good works played a role in one's salvation. But in October of 1999, Catholic and Lutheran leaders announced their belief that salvation is a gift from the Almighty, who inspires people to do good.

Today, 9 percent of Catholics - compared to 27 percent of Lutherans - strongly disagree with the notion that good works earn individuals a place in heaven.

"They understand that salvation really is a gift and that there is nothing that we can do to earn our salvation, but rather that we respond to God's gift of faith with good works," Beachum said. "As we bring Lutheran speakers into Catholic seminaries and Catholics go into Protestant seminaries, there is a greater understanding of what it is that we believe."

But for many Christians, the study shows, a sizable gap remains between denominations teach and what adherents accept.

"Sometimes, people delude themselves into believing everything is great," Jordan said. "Once you start giving yourself flexibility one place, where do you stop? I think that's a problem. Nothing's sacred anymore."

© Mobile Register. Used with permission.

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