BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Historically Birmingham has been notorious for its divisions. Martin Luther King Jr. targeted Alabama’s largest city for protest marches because, as he told President John F. Kennedy, it was “by far the worst big city in race relations in the United States.” Thanks to King and his marchers, racial segregation has long since ended. To be sure, many of the same divisions persist along geographic and economic lines. But now the city’s attention focuses on more benign rivalries, particularly between the University of Alabama and Auburn University’s football teams.
Then and now, only one thing transcends black and white, crimson and orange in Birmingham. Love for the Bible. Last week the American Bible Society (ABS) announced that Birmingham is the most “Bible-minded” city in the United States. Using survey data from the Barna Group, ABS said that 51 percent of the Birmingham metro area’s population read the Bible in an average week and firmly agree that the Bible is accurate in what it teaches. The findings weren’t particularly surprising; last year Birmingham came in second behind Chattanooga, Tennessee, only a two-hour drive northeast through America’s Bible Belt. The proportion of Bible-minded Birmingham residents nearly doubled the national average of 27 percent.
When King referred nearly 52 years ago in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Nebuchadnezzar, Birmingham understood his point. He spoke the only language that could unite the races and eventually bring peace and justice. Many other influential figures in the state's history have likewise understood the power of the Bible in popular appeals. Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was relieved of his duties in 2003 when he defied a federal court order. He had been told to remove the 5,280-pound monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed in front of the court building, across the street from King’s old Montgomery church. But the voters in Birmingham and the rest of Alabama returned him to office in 2012 with 52 percent of the vote. This week he urged the state’s governor not to abide by a federal court ruling in Mobile to allow same-sex marriages in Alabama. Less than 10 years ago, 81 percent of voters approved a state ban on such marriages.
Respect for the Bible and a conservative culture resistant to change and outside pressures have made Birmingham fertile ground for Protestant churches. If you’re a young adult who’s moved here to attend medical school or work at one of the large bank headquarters, you’ll probably gravitate toward a church if only to find community. Civic leaders in all spheres profess belief in biblical values. Non-profits that place babies for adoption or fight sex trafficking or promote literacy proliferate. Scan any coffee shop and you’ll soon find one-on-one discipleship meetings. The Bible Belt is no mere historical artifact.
No Higher Authority
Even so, you would never confuse Birmingham for the millennial kingdom. The millennial generation shows signs of discomfort with biblical teaching on sexuality. The aforementioned racial divisions juxtapose some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods with some of the poorest. Politicians and business leaders who boast of their Christian faith fight to fend off corruption charges. Large Baptist churches seem to anchor every few blocks of real estate. But many of them have emptied, gutted by liberal theology or racism or stubborn resistance to neighborhood change.
How can such sins persist in a city where more than half of the residents read the Bible regularly and believe what it says? Do we merely blame the other 49 percent and seek their conversion? Certainly there are opportunities to share the good news about Jesus, even in America’s most Bible-minded city. But anyone engaged in local church ministry in Birmingham sees a more sober picture than the surveys portray. Some Christians openly defy biblical teaching when they know better. Others simply ignore it. Still more bounce from megachurch to megachurch in search of an ear-tickling message. Such drifters usually settle at the Church of Me. All these people would be included among the Bible-minded, according to Barna.
Just because you make the Bible an authority doesn't mean you make it the authority. That’s the key to understanding what makes the Bible Belt different from everywhere else in the United States. There is no doubt more people here hold the Bible in high regard. They have professed personal faith in Jesus Christ and consider church to be an important part of their lives. Open discussion of faith is usually welcome in ordinary conversation. But if Jesus’s teaching falls on the priority list after family loyalty, financial security, and personal pleasure, can it be truly authoritative? Not according to the first commandment on Chief Justice Moore’s monument. And not according to Jesus in Luke 14, where he reveals the cost of discipleship. “[A]ny one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Jesus will never be content as one God among many. Such amazing love as he displayed on the cross demands my soul, my life, my all. The Jesus revealed in the Bible is no less than “the heir of all things,” agent of creation, “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” the one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:2-3). You can’t just fit him around traveling youth sports. You can’t open your wallet for him only after the last house payment has been made. You can’t vote against gay marriage but wink at divorce.
To be Bible-minded means to confess our failure in trying to obey everything Jesus commanded. And to accept his forgiveness as we seek in the power of the Holy Spirit to bridge every division between God and man. We hear a lot from the Bible in Birmingham. We need God's grace to now do all that it says (James 1:22).
Two upcoming events for The Gospel Coalition Birmingham regional chapter aim to equip this area’s churches to love God and neighbor in our particular context. Next week on Tuesday, February 3, we welcome Russell Moore and Harry Reeder for “Beyond the Bible Belt: Changing Culture Inside and Outside the Local Church” at 7 p.m. in Hodges Chapel at Beeson Divinity School. This lecture and panel discussion is free and open to the public.
Then on Monday, March 2, we’re hosting “Endure: Five Challenges Facing Southern Church Planters.” Held at Redeemer Community Church in the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham, Endure features five experienced church planters, who will offer biblical and personal perspective on challenges such as maintaining personal spiritual vitality, resisting the urge to grow too quickly, and building multi-ethnic churches. We welcome pastors from throughout the South to this day-long event, cosponsored by the Acts 29 Southeast Region. Registration is $20 and includes lunch from a local eatery.