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The Complexity Problem


David Roark

There are large swaths of men and women interested in reading and learning more about the Bible, but they don’t know where to start, often giving up before ever opening a page or an app on their smartphone. Whether it’s the thousands of pages or the 72 different books or the extensive genealogies with names impossible to pronounce, research confirms that many people find the Bible to be overwhelming.

“It’s confusing and hard to understand. I need help without being sold.”

A book written thousands of years ago in foreign, unfamiliar languages by dozens of authors over several centuries, the Bible can be daunting to those intending to read it. Depending on the translation, it can be a bit difficult to read—even for more pedigreed readers—and not every symbol and motif translates seamlessly to a modern-day audience. Despite being curious about the Bible, most people never get past the table of contents because the writing feels goth, convoluted, and cumbersome.

In 2016, The Richards Group and American Bible Society performed an online omnibus survey with 1,000 nationally-representative participants. Of those respondents:

  • 20% said they don’t read the Bible because the language is challenging, and
  • 25% said it is too time-consuming.

In the same year, Barna Group led a series of 8 focus groups with a total of more than 50 participants. In addition to the quote above, common sentiments from those groups included:

  • It’s too hard. It’s confusing. It’s daunting.
  • I don't believe in a higher power, the Bible doesn't speak to me. It's just like a foreign language. It's not connecting
  • If you ever became interested in the Bible, how would you approach exploring it?

Even more, the Bible doesn’t just come across as complex because of the dates it was written or the multiple authors. People also believe the Bible is complex because of the vast span of genres and styles. The Bible officially contains seven different genres of literature, including narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic. As the books move from genre to genre, from serpents talking to the first humans in an enchanted garden, from the seeming genocide of an entire people to visceral visions of the end times, the Bible can seem difficult to navigate, especially for those without appropriate knowledge and training to study it.

Despite how complex the Bible can appear, as Christians we haven’t been successful in teaching people how to read and study the Bible—those inside and outside our churches. Instead, we’ve expected people to figure it out for themselves, creating more roadblocks than entry points. In failing to break down barriers, we’ve contributed to the confusion and complexity rather than eliminating it.