Christianity After Religion: The End of the Beginning

This is the second post on Diana Butler-Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening. Find the first post here.

“The End of the Beginning” is the first full chapter, and it sets out to describe the nature of the change happening to every expression of Christianity in America. Using the Sheila made infamous by Robert Bellah’s Habits of The Heart as a point of comparison from the previous generation, Butler-Bass argues that the highly-individualistic “Sheilaism” that distressed theologians, sociologists, and pastors alike is not the lingua franca of the men and women rejecting Christianity today. Instead, the past decade has birthed a generation of religious skeptics who are less stuck on themselves than they are fed up with the business as usual of institutional religion. According to these folks, she writes, “churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations are broken and have made themselves irrelevant.”

What is ultimately happening in this environment is an awakening. As the patterns of participation that sustained institutional faith in America for the past half century continue to decline, something new is stirring. Butler-Bass is making a very valuable contribution here by charting the X’s and O’s of awakenings, how they work, where we’ve seen them before, and what’s difficult about them; this is neither  teeth-gritting plea to look on the bright side nor a return-to-Jesus sermon. Leaning heavily on the work of William McLoughlin, the chapter explores the possibility that American Christianity has entered into a “Fourth Great Awakening,” marked by a “global, egalitarian ethic of environmentalism, community, and economic uplift.”

“The End of The Beginning” thows down a ganutlet:

And the awakening? What will it look like? It entails waking up and seeing the world as it is, not as it was. Conventional, comforting Christianity has failed. It does not work. For the churches that insist on preaching it, the jig is up. We cannot go back, and we should not want to. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back to catch one last glimpse of the past as her family fled to an unknown future (Gen. 19: 26). Centuries later, Jesus reminded his followers, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62).

So then: where are you seeing the spirit of a Fourth Great Awakening (the global, egalitarian ethic of environmentalism, community, and economic uplift)? And where are you seeing more of a looking back? Have you considered these times as more an awakening or simple decline?

Up next: “Questioning the Old Gods.”


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