The rose-colored glasses of progressive Christians

Earlier this week, my twitter and facebook feeds were awash with likes, shares, and retweets of an article in which the author urged mainline churches (especially, presumably, Episcopalians) not to abandon traditional forms of worship to accommodate young adults. She urged us to change wisely.

Towards the end of the week, there was a similar response to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that claims there are more religious progressives (23%) among the millennial generation than religious conservatives (17%, with 22% unaffiliated). Of those aged 67-88, only 12% are progressive while 47% are conservative.

In the midst of a dominant narrative of long-term decline among mainline Christianity, such stories reassure us that we’re on the right track. We don’t have to do anything about our liturgy or worship to adapt to the tastes of a changing culture. In fact, the culture is changing in our direction–if the trend continues, in a few decades there will be more progressive Christians than conservative Christians!

But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Among those classified in the survey as “religious progressives” are people “who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition but claim religion is at least somewhat important in their lives” (18% of the overall total) as well as non-Christians (13%). Both of the latter are no doubt going to continue to grow in the coming decades as the number of affiliated Christians continues to drop. If the designers of the survey had divided things up a little differently and defined the religiously unaffiliated as non-religious, the percentages would have been quite different.

And the same is true of the lovely piece proclaiming the appeal of traditional liturgy to young adults. For every article that makes such claims, there are probably a thousand or ten thousand stories of young people who find our liturgy and institutional life stultifying and meaningless. And Dilley herself pointed to what is a distinct possibility:

Even so, your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.

Grasping at straws isn’t the answer. Facing the future and creatively responding to its possibilities and challenges, is.

Not all atheists are created equal

Salon reports on a new study that reveals the complexity within the general grouping of “atheists and non-believers.” Most interesting for church folk is this:

6. Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. While you might think the anti-theist is the non-believer type that scares Christians the most, it turns out that it may very well be the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. This group, making up 12.5 percent of atheists, doesn’t really believe in the supernatural, but they do believe in the community aspects of their religious tradition enough to continue participating. We’re not just talking about atheists who happen to have a Christmas tree, but who tend to align themselves with a religious tradition even while professing no belief. “Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish),” explain researchers, “or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.”

Huffington Post also reports on the study. The study itself can be found here.

Its description of the “Ritual Atheist/Agnostic” includes this observation:

The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic individual perceives ceremonies and rituals as producing personal meaning within life. This meaning can be an artistic or cultural appreciation of human systems of meaning while knowing there is no higher reality other than the observable reality of the mundane world. In some cases, these individuals may identify strongly with religious traditions as a matter of cultural identity and even take an active participation in religious rituals.

This is hardly a new phenomenon but it’s still worth pondering the significance of it for matters like church growth and congregational development, not to mention evangelism.

Hauerwas on the American story and the Christian story

Hauerwas writes regularly for the Australian Broadcasting website. His essays are insightful and often frustrating. This week he looks at the end of American Protestantism and looks back at American belief:

Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.

I heard something quite similar from him at the CEEP conference in March. He’s laying out an argument that the story of freedom and self-determination that is at the heart of the American mythos is profoundly different from the Christian story:

the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.

It’s well-worth reading, especially on this 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg and all of the stories that have been created about the Civil War and the making of our nation.

Perhaps most brilliant is his observation of the utter absurdity of the statement “Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my opinion.”

More on decline in the Southern Baptist Convention: A mirror image of the Episcopal Church?

Jonathan Merritt offers advice to the SBC. Some of it might be of interest to Episcopalians.

Of note:

If you review the resolutions, reports, and microphone grandstands of the SBC’s annual meeting during recent years, you’ll find a lot of energy expended on secondary things. The Associated Pressreported this week on how debates over Calvinism is dividing the Convention. Add to this recent squabbles over the “sinner’s prayer” and other lesser issues, and you have a denomination that spends major energy over minor issues.

The SBC’s resolution history also seems to bear this out. There was the ineffective 1997 boycott on Disney, a resolution to retain the traditional method of calendar dating (B.C. / A.D.) in 2000, and a 2011 resolution disapproving of the revision to the world’s most popular Bible translation (NIV), which requested that LifeWay Christian Stores stop carrying it. (One year later, LifeWay still sells the translation.)

If the Southern Baptist Convention wants to regain the credibility, interest, and relevance it has lost, the denomination must learn to put first things first. Namely, sharing the gospel through missions and showing the gospel through acts of service, compassion, and justice.

And this:

Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.”
He concludes:
The denomination must now decide whether to chart a new path for the sake of its future or maintain its current course. But one thing is certain. When the convention gathers for its annual meeting in another decade, people will still be talking. The question is now, “Will anyone be listening?”

Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials

from the Barna Group

David Kinnaman has this to say:

one of the key insights emerging from the tour was that “nomads, prodigals and exiles share something in common: being somewhere other than home. One of the characteristics of Millennial life has become the image of the traveller. They want to wander the world, both in real life and in digital ways. They want to feel untethered. There is a trend among young adults of delaying the pressures of adult life as long as possible; they want to embrace a lifestyle of risk, exploration and unscripted moments. At the same time, they want to be loyal to their peers. The generation has come to appreciate and take identity from a spiritual version of life on the road. In other words, it is a generation that is spiritually homeless.

“This transience stands in contrast to the staid, predictable, and often overprotective experience that most churches seem to offer. The gap is simple: Millennials are a generation that craves spontaneity, participation, adventure and clan-like relationships, but what they often find in churches are featureless programs and moralistic content. Leaders who hope to alter the spiritual journeys of today’s Millennials need to embrace something of a ‘reverse mentoring’ mindset, allowing the next generation to help lead alongside established leaders. Millennials need to find spiritual rootedness, but that’s not simply to preserve old ways of doing church.

The backlash of institutions (and their spokespeople) against “Spiritual but not Religious”

Another week, another study. There are some remarkable numbers here. Among those aged 18-24, 32% prefer no religion; of those between the ages of 25 and 34, 29% claim “no religion;” Among those 35-44, only 19%. But underneath those headlines lies  a more complex reality. They may have no religious affiliation but the vast majority of Americans continue to express belief in God or belief in a higher power. The percentage of those identifying as atheist (3.1%) or agnost (5.6%) remains very small.

This study, as others before it, makes clear that while institutional affiliation may be falling dramatically, religious belief and practice are not declining significantly.

Gary Laderman, chair of the Religion Department at Emory University and scholar of American Religion, points out that the rise of the “nones” means the study of Religion in America is more interesting than ever. He gives several reasons for the rise, one of them is:

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

Elizabeth Drescher is studying the prayer practices of the “nones” and has some pointed questions about prayer divorced from religious traditions and communities.

I’ve blogged about Lillian Daniel’s views before. Her recent book continues to garner interest. I’m not exactly sure who she’s writing for, to reassure those of us who are caretakers of traditional religious institutions are doing valuable work? Is she trying to convince the SBNR folks that their efforts to make meaning in their life are of little value? At least she doesn’t harangue them quite like Rabbi David Wolpe.

One one level, all this consternation from religious institutions and their representatives about the nones reminds me of the complaints throughout history of pastors, theologians, bishops, and other insiders about the behavior of their flocks. In the fourth century, Ambrose worried that the faithful were going out of the city to martyrs’ shrines and not attending his sermons. In the Middle Ages, preachers and priests complained that people didn’t pay attention to sermons or came only when they heard the sanctus bell that indicated the moment of the consecration of the host. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant preachers also complained that attendance at services was poor and devotion languished. Had you asked those who were criticized for their lukewarm faith and behavior, I’ve no doubt they would have responded by saying they were good Christians. They just weren’t the sort of Christians their leaders wanted them to be.

The fact of the matter is that throughout the history of Christianity, indeed, throughout the history of religion, there has been a disconnect between what institutions and sacred experts wanted in terms of behavior (and doctrinal purity) of their communities, and what ordinary men and women actually did religiously, and how they understood and appropriated what they did. What we are seeing is not so much a decline in religious practice or belief, but rather a decline in the understanding that religious practice and belief must be tied to religious institutions. They are free of the religious expectations imposed on them from above.

The question, then, is not how to get people back into the pews, but rather, how can we connect with people who no longer automatically see us as valuable experts on religion or even as valuable spiritual guides? How can we encounter them where they are, invite them to ask their questions, encourage them to enter more deeply into the rich spiritual traditions of Christianity, but at the same time recognize that they may never join the Altar Guild. It’s likely, however, that if we have concrete outreach opportunities for them to engage, they will work side by side with us. To succeed with the nones may not mean getting them to join our churches. Instead, it may mean recognizing the legitimacy of their spiritual journeys and engaging them there, rather than trying to force them to engage us on our terms.

The Changing Sea Project is exploring the spirituality of emerging adults and their relationship with religious institutions. More on the spirituality and religious practices of “emerging adults:”

This group of emergent adults says they feel close to God. They adapt religious traditions according to their own individual needs and desires. But religion has high salience for them. They really care
about the meaning of life and other deep questions. Religious attendance is medium, with some regular attending and others not. They engage in service to others. It’s a religiosity that would not exclude attendance or personal prayer.

And another cautionary note: Young philanthropists want to support causes not institutions:

They have judged previous generations to be largely motivated by recognition for their giving and want little part of it. They want to see societal change through the causes they support; they could care less about the named scholarship fund or the plaque on the wall. Christian institutions making appeals to younger donors need to show how their work is part of the unfolding shalom of God for all of creation.

And

young donors want to be engaged in the work of a cause or institution itself. As the study notes, this is a generation that grew up volunteering and believes that investing time as much as money is essential. But note — this on-the-ground service is also another way that they will assess impact over rhetoric.

The American Jesus: Reflections on Djesus Uncrossed

Conservative Christians are outraged, outraged, by the SNL parody of Tarantino films: “Djesus Uncrossed.” Yes, it’s over the top as Saturday Night Live always is. It’s in poor taste, but how could it be otherwise, since it’s parodying the tasteless violence and gore of Tarantino. Still, I love the line: critics rave “A less violent Passion of the Christ.”

And a great deal of the outrage, I suspect, is because the parody hits rather too close to home. For many American Christians the image of Jesus Christ presented in the skit is very close to their own–a violent savior who will destroy his enemies. There’s some biblical warrant for such a view:

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.  Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles. (Rev 14:14-20)

Or this image from popular American Christianity:6a00d83451c45669e20134896b9de5970c-800wiAs David Henson points out:

We have tried to arm him with our military-industrial complex, drape him with our xenophobia, outfit him with our weapons, and adorn him with our nationalism. We’ve turned the cross into a flagpole for the Stars and Stripes. We have no need for Tarantino to reimagine the story of Jesus into a fantasy of violent revenge. We’ve done it for him. We’ve already uncrossed him, transforming him from a servant into a triumphalist who holds the causes and interests of our country on his back rather than brutal execution.

The SNL sketch reveals the paucity of American popular theology with its camouflage and flag-draped Bibles that segregate the story of God for American patriots only. It pulls back the curtain and shows us just how twisted our Jesus really is: We want a Savior like the one SNL offers. We want the Son of God to kick some ass and take some names. Specifically, our enemies’ names. And maybe the names of a few godless Democrats. Definitely the Muslims. And the atheists. And the … I could go on.

Christianity in America has become so intertwined with nationalism and patriotism that American conservatives have fashioned an image of Jesus Christ that conforms to their patriotism and to the cult of violence. That image is shaped by popular culture, especially by film. Note the allusion to both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the billboard above. And just as our popular culture is wedded to the myth of redemptive violence, so too is the Jesus of conservative Christianity like the lead character in so many of our action films, leaving blood, destruction, and mayhem in his wake as he rides through the scenery.

The myth of redemptive violence and the image of Jesus in that myth has been shaped by the language and imagery of Revelation. It’s misleading for critics of that myth and that image of Jesus to deny its presence within scripture. But it’s also important to point out that the Jesus we encounter in the gospels bears no resemblance to the destructive and revenge-seeking Jesus of conservative Christianity. The Jesus of the gospels was killed by an oppressive and violent empire that bears more similarity to our own Empire, than many of the self-proclaimed followers of Jesus today bear to Jesus’ teachings and first followers.

Sure, the SNL parody was in poor taste but it also held a mirror up to the image of Jesus worshiped by much of conservative American Christianity. The more that image is exposed for the idol it is, the better.

Christians and Gun violence

Today is the Inter-Faith Call-In Day to Prevent Gun Violence. The Episcopal Church is participating in this effort in a number of ways. The Presiding Bishop has released a letter in support. The Episcopalians Against Gun Violence group is on facebook. There’s information in all those places on how to participate.

There’s ongoing debate about “God, Guns, and Christianity.” Andrew Sullivan is worth paying attention to on this. He points out, for example, that if one is pro-life, one ought to be opposed to easy access to handguns. Just as an example: Among the over-20s, 60 percent of gun deaths are from suicides, compared with 37 percent for homicides. The presence of guns in a house makes attempted suicide more likely; and increases the odds that an attempt will be successful. The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the likelihood of a killing.

Sullivan also responded to the outrageous and remarkably ahistorical assertion that “Jesus would have backed the Second Amendment. But many Christians disagree and the Arkansas house of representatives has just passed legislation allowing “concealed carry” in churches.

I think we are sometimes inured to how pervasive violence has become in our culture. Apparently, since 2009, there has been at least one mass shooting every month. Every month! This graphic from Slate reminds us of the approximate toll of gun violence in the US since Newtown.

In Madison, I will be participating in a candlelight vigil at First Congregational Church on February 7 at 7:00pm. More about that here.

Today, President Obama spoke about his efforts to reduce gun violence.

 

 

 

 

Christianity and the Second Inauguration–Our Perilous Journey

Today began with the traditional service of Morning Prayer at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square.

Merlie Evers Williams offered the invocation. Video and text here.

Luis Leon, Rector of St. John’s Lafayette Square, offered the benediction. Part of that prayer:

We pray for your blessing because without it, we will see only what the eye can see. But with the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor.

We pray for your blessing because without it, we will only see scarcity in the midst of abundance. But with your blessing we will recognize the abundance of the gifts of this good land with which you have endowed this nation.

During the Inaugural, Evangelical superstar pastor Mark Driscoll tweeted this:

BBJX5-nCAAAeKnDThere was considerable controversy last week over the inclusion of evangelical Luis Giglio, even more controversy when he withdrew. There was controversy in 2009 over the decision to have Rick Warren pray. These are rituals of civil religion; even the service at St. John’s is largely a ritual of civil religion (to the extent that when FDR began it, the Episcopal Church was by and large the civil religion of the US).

I think Episcopalians would do well to engage in a lively conversation over whether bowing to that tradition of civil religion bodes well for us in the twenty-first century. Today,  I cringe at the Episcopal Church’s association with political power and prestige, and our apparent implicit consent in the wars, torture, use of drones, and assault on civil liberties, as well as domestic policies that have worsened the plight of the weakest in our society.

On the other hand, whatever conversation we might have would be drowned out by those like Driscoll who reject our Christian faith and the president’s; and by the shouting match between the religious right and the secularists who want nothing religious in the Inauguration; for example decrying the use of bibles in oath-taking ceremonies.

Negotiating our faithful journey among those alternatives requires a great deal of prayer, scriptural reflection, and much more humility than most humans have.

 

 

God, MLK, and Guns–updated

Jim Wallis has this to say:

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said this as his response to the massacre of children at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Conn.: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

That statement is at the heart of the problem of gun violence in America today — not just because it is factually flawed, which of course it is, but also because it is morally mistaken, theologically dangerous, and religiously repugnant.

The world is not full of good and bad people; that is not what our scriptures teach us.

Apparently Rush Limbaugh contends that if civil rights activists had had weapons in the 1960s, they wouldn’t have been beaten or killed: “you think they would have needed Selma?”

To which Rep. John Lewis responded:

“Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity,” said Rep. John Lewis.  “African Americans in the 60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to.  We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence.  Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means.  We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.

“And that is why this nation celebrates the genius and the elegance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and philosophy.  Through the power of non-violent action, Dr. King accomplished something that no movement, no action of government, no war, no legislation, or strategy of politics had ever achieved in this nation’s history.  It was non-violence that not only brought an end to legalized segregation and racial discrimination, but Dr. King’s peaceful work changed the hearts of millions of Americans who stood up for justice and rejected the injury of violence forever.”

Then there’s the outrage that during this weekend with MLK Day, a day in honor of the assassinated civil rights leader (if he’d been packing heat, he could have shot back!), the NRA and its supporters have declared January 19 to be Gun Appreciation Day. Among the sponsors, (apparently since scrubbed from the website) is a White Supremacist group.

Oh, and this: “They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom, and they are absolutely essential to living the way God intended for us to live.” — California Rep. Tim Donnelly (R), talking about guns on The Bottom Line.

The mind boggles.

Jesus said,

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Mt. 5:38-45).