I love looking at religious research. It’s a strange quirk of mine. I love sorting through numbers and graphs and statistics. Whenever I hear that some foundation has published its findings, I secretly get all giddy. And then I scour the Internet until I can get a hold of it.
That is the absolute beauty of living in the 21st century. As a research assistant in seminary, just ten years ago, I had to look through lots of libraries to find a particular fact. Now I have all of that data sitting here, in my lap. I scroll through it until I get eyestrain.
As much as I love the data, I wonder about all these surveys. How do people answer questions like, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Yes or no.
I know that I would say yes. And then I would erase it and wonder, Are they talking about a Bible without error? Are they going to assume by my answer that I think the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes or contradictions in it at all? Am I signing my name to the belief that the books were automatically dictated by some sort of non-thinking human? Or do they mean that I think it’s scientifically accurate? That the whole world was created in seven literal days? Or do they mean that it’s inspired and inspiring?
You know, more and more surveys and research come out all the time. Not just religious surveys, but political ones. And customer service ones. And every time I get an oil change? I get a call asking me to answer a quick survey.
I got a call from the Kennedy Center, about contributing money. It wasn’t a call asking for money, it was a survey, trying to find out the reason why I haven’t given any money.
In every community we live in, my husband and I try to make some sort of donation to support the arts, but with the housing costs here, we haven’t been able to manage it. I answered the survey quickly: “We bought a house. So we just don’t have any money to put into the arts at this time.”
But they had more questions for me. They kept asking, “Do you understand the educational contributions that the Kennedy Center makes? On a scale of one to five, one being ‘completely understand’ and five being, ‘do not understand at all.'”
“Listen. I get it. We go to the free shows all the time, so we would give if we could. We just don’t have the money in our budget right now.”
“One to five, ma’am.”
“Okay… whatever the number for completely understand is. You know, I already told you why we’re not giving money.”
But she was relentless, she came back with, “On a scale of one to five, how much do you think the Kennedy Center is funded by the government?”
“What? One to five? Listen. Please. I don’t care. I would give money, but I DON’T HAVE ANY.”
But the questions continued until I was yelling at the poor telemarketer, “YOU called ME to get information, and now you won’t LISTEN to me. Do not call me ever, ever again. I will never give money now. Put that down on your survey. I will never give money because your survey was so incredibly irritating, and you’re not listening to me.”
And she answered, “Is it because you’re not aware of our children’s programs? One to five. One is for ‘not aware at all’ and five is for ‘completely aware.'”
I recently taught a class on Robert Coles’ book, The Spiritual Life of Children. It was so refreshing. You know why? It wasn’t because he amassed mountains of data into one tiny chart. He didn’t try to fit their answers into A, B, C, or D. It was because he actually listened to the children. He took the time to understand them. He took their complex stories about God, respected them, held them gently, and told them to us.
As we continue to look over the vast religious landscape of the United States, I hope we can do the same. While we try so hard to hear people, I hope that we can actually take some time to listen to them.