Friday, July 04, 2008

Capernaum, the town Jesus called home --

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Faith Works 7-12-08
Jeff Gill

Statistically, It Just Doesn’t Add Up

The Pew Forum survey on the “US Religious Landscape” is jam-packed with stats and numbers, but in many ways it ends up being a commentary on Psalm 14 and James 2:19.

Go ahead, look ‘em up. We’ll be here when you get back.

Find the passages? Great. Anyhow, the point is that for all the detail in the study, the conclusions don’t always add up.

Two people can look at a set of survey numbers and come up with three interpretations, but there are some very interesting trends in the data, or rather, in how writers and reporters are reacting to the data. Let me sort and cherry pick and offer my own misreading and tendentious interpretation (and if you want the link to the big hunk o’ data, navigate over to the home page, and I’ll have the link with the story as posted at the “Notes From My Knapsack” blog).

A couple juxtapositions – 76% of Americans say there are “many ways” to heaven, and 34% say “every word is true” in the Bible. I think that tells me 10% of us would be really interesting to interview about how we reconcile those two statements.

8% of atheists are “absolutely certain” that God exists, and 10% of self-described atheists (“atheists”?) pray “at least weekly.” Oh, and 12% of atheists believe in Heaven, and 10% in, um, the other place. OK, fine – Hell. 10% of atheists. Is that the 10% I wanted to interview up above? (In this column, not up above in . . . oh, stop it.)

And I know it will sound like I’m piling on here, but these numbers just jump out at you – 9% of atheists say they are “skeptical of evolution.” Can there be an atheistic creationist?

Swinging across the spectrum, 13% of self-defined evangelicals don’t believe in a personal God. Really? 48% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, a working majority (!) versus 45% who disagree (7% were waiting for the next Supreme Court opinion, apparently).

Which gets us closer to the problem with this 270+ page report on a survey of over 30,000 Americans. When the Catholics in this study were asked where they get their views of morality, 22% said primarily from religion, with 57% say it comes from “practical experience and common sense.” Only 9% of Catholics say religion is where they ground their political views – that may be bad news for both Obama and McCain.

There is clearly a sense that American ideals about individual freedom and autonomy trump all, even in matters of faith and doctrine. Except . . . in the survey questions, if you take the time to drill down in the data to where the data comes from, which are the questions people are reacting to, you find that the questions themselves leave no room for doctrine or structured belief to come up.

The first twenty-plus questions don’t mention religion at all; the word “Jesus” is never seen at any point in the survey. The question about Heaven is phrased “Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?” Many Christians would say that description bears no resemblance to their beliefs about the world to come, and so do we answer “No?”

And how would you interpret that response?

Which is how you end up with a survey where 21% of atheists believe in God. They aren’t actually measuring anything about faith or beliefs, but about culturally conditioned attitudes toward religion. Their landscape is political and cultural, and I suspect respondents, getting the drift of what they were being asked about, did what Americans do so well – they politely shifted gears to give the answers that they use in public general contexts.

You can argue that there shouldn’t be “two sets” of beliefs (google Goerge Barna for one), but I’ve found there are very few Americans who keep their beliefs right out, oh, on their desk through the week. Most of us have a go-along get-along approach at work and in social life, and a slightly or even strongly structured faith stance at home and in church.

The Pew Forum didn’t get at this distinction at all, and actually built the survey to get the public attitudes only. Does it tell us much about what we do in a voting booth, let alone in Sunday worship? There’s a major survey coming up on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he relaxes by reading survey data. Tell him something a bit more interesting at
Faith Works 7-5-08
Jeff Gill

An Errand, Interrupted and Fulfilled

In the back seat, the small boy noticed that his dad’s attention was swinging off the road in front off to one side.

The car slowed, and then bumped along the shoulder to a stop.

“Are we stopping here, dad?”

“Yes, just for a moment.”

“Should I get out?”

“No, son, just stay put. I won’t be long.”

His dad got out of the car, and walked around the front and jumped over a ditch into an unfenced back yard. Just then another car slowed and stopped on the shoulder just ahead, and another man got out of his car.

The boy watched as his father walked into a yard where a flagpole sat in a garden, with a flag dangling in the geraniums and marigolds off of a swinging rope. They had driven through a quick rainstorm preceded by stiff winds just before, and the sun was coming out accompanied by a brisk, erratic breeze.

As the boy’s dad picked the flag gently out of the flowers, he reached up to the pole where a cleat had torn loose from the pole itself. When he began to unclip the flag from the rope hanging off the pulley far above, the other man who had stopped his car walked up.

From where he sat, there was no conversation between the two adult men, just a glance at each other, and as the boy’s dad finished unclipping the United States flag, the other man picked up the striped end of Old Glory just like they had practiced at a Cub Scout meeting a few weeks before.

He watched as they stepped back from each other, smoothly folded the flag lengthwise once, twice, and then stepped even further from each other, pulling the flag taut, as the strange man began to fold and flip the flag into the proper triangles, ending as he should have with an all blue and starry triangle shaped like a tricorn hat. He handed it to the boy’s dad, and stepped back, saluted him, and walked away. The dad walked up to the porch, arms folded over the damp but properly folded flag, laid the neat bundle on a chair by the sliding glass door, and walked back to the car.

When he got inside, the other car had pulled away.

“Dad, did you know that other man?”

“No, son, he must have seen the same thing we did.”

“You mean the flag that blew down?”


“Do you know who lives there, Dad?”

“No, but it seems like they put their flag up before the storm blew through, so they wouldn’t have known that it all would have pulled apart like that. We saw it on the ground driving by earlier, and it was still there, so I just wanted to get it off the ground. That must have been what the other fellow thought, too.”

“If you didn’t know him, how did you both know . . . I don’t get it.”

“Son, we both know how to care for the flag, and we both felt bad about seeing it drag around in the dirt. Someone taught each of us to fold a flag properly, so we could work together just fine.”

“So you both just knew?”

“We knew we needed to . . . keep the faith. We owed it to the ones who taught us how to show respect, and those we’re showing respect for. It’s not the flag itself, really, it’s . . .”

“I know – it’s what the flag stands for that we are respecting. And the flag represents our country, right?”

“That’s right. So I hope the people living there don’t mind.”

“Won’t they be glad it was folded right?”

“Sure. And I hope they have some idea why we did it.”

“To get the flag out of the garden, and keep it clean?”

“Well, that; and about keeping the faith, with those . . .”

“Who taught you how to fold it the right way?”


“You taught me how to fold it right, and we practiced. I bet I could help, next time we see a flag on the ground.”

“Then I won’t even need to have another fellow stop and come help me, will I?”

“Nope! I can help you, uh, keep the faith, Dad.”

“Thank you, Son.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and he’s gotten to teach many Cub Scouts how to fold flags at Camp Falling Rock. Tell him about how you’ve taught others to help “keep the faith” at