Books, Christianity After Religion

Christianity After Religion: Great Awakening

Note: readers of this series will be interested to read Philip Clayton’s op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, in which he sings the praises of the Emergent Church movement.

The charismatic movement that seized my parents in 1983 and turned my brother into a suit-clad 8 year-old missionary was a backlash. The whole complex of books and television shows and music and even stand-up comedy and bodybuilding exhbitions was part of a Ronald Reagan-inspired program on the part of religious conservatives in America to return to the country’s God-fearing heritage.

So it’s characterized by Diana Bulter-Bass in her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Birth of A New Spiritual AwakeningLeaning heavily again on the work of William McLoughlin, Bulter-Bass explores the period between Reagan’s election in 1980 and the mid 90’s as an interruption, an assertive turn away from the egalitarian, feminist, humanitarian “spiritual revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s.

Quoting McLoughlin’s Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform:

“There almost always arises a nativist or traditionalist movement within the culture that is an attempt by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the older order” to organize a backlash to “return to the ‘old-time religion,’ ‘the ways of our fathers,’ and ‘respect for the flag.’”

This always happens with awakenings. It has happened with every wave of spiritual awakening in American history, as “Old Light” forces react to the experience and change advanced by the “New Lights” driving the awakening. However, since 1980, something funny has happened to the revivalist evangelicalism that drove earlier waves of American religious awakening: it has become the force opposing awakening. In Butler-Bass’s terrific phrase: ” . . . the New Lights of the old awakenings have become the Old Lights of the new one.”

This kind of retrenchment effort is what I experienced in the tongues-speaking church of my childhood and then again at the evangelical Christian college I inexplicably landed at in 1990. Butler-Bass calls it “dogmatic evangelicalism.” Dogmatic evangelicalism stands opposed to the “romantic evangelicalism” that so inspired Butler-Bass and her college classmates in the 1970’s to challenge poverty and injustice and racism in the social order.

Dogmatic evangelicalism is advanced by “those who want to shore up boundaries, reinforce creeds, and ensure group identity through theological purity and strict behavior.” Romantic evangelicalism “is led by those who wish to connect with people and ideas that are different, to explore the meaning of story and history, and to include as many as possible in God’s embrace.”

This distinction, imperfect though it may be, helps me understand the difference between movements within my own denomination, The Fellowship of Presbyterians and The NEXT Church. The former is organized entirely around reasserting standards and boundaries of belief and behavior. The latter is loosely confederated upon innovation, narrative, and inclusion.

Despite the efforts of nativist retrenchment movements, Butler-Bass is describing a significant awakening of “Romantic Realism” continuing unabated in the second decade of the 21st century. This one, though, is not exclusively protestant as were its predecessors; it’s not even exclusively Christian.  It’s an inter-religious “spiritual” awakening of men and women seeking “connection, networks, relationship, imagination, and story.”

Yet that awakening is not continuing unchallenged. If every awakening gives rise to nativist Old Light reactions, then why would this one be any different? There’s the Tea Party and Westboro Baptist Church and even the Presbyterian minister who was my seminary classmate but who I had to un-friend on Facebook last week for the video he posted and subsequent conversation he facilitated about the many evils of Muslims.

Where are you part of the awakening Butler-Bass describes? Where are you opposing it?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

The Great Reversal

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning


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Review of last week:

Posted this on Monday, asking, “Where are the adults in our young peoples’ lives who care about them for their own sake and not for some alterior, career-advancing motive?”

Went to the Emergent Theological Conversation on Wednesday to hear the likes of Tripp Fuller, Philip Clayton, and John Cobb talk about process theology. Clayton I found particularly compelling.Bought Kindle version of Clayton’s latest book, “The Predicament of Belief,” in which I discovered this quote while reading on Thursday:

One cannot assume, after all, that the mere fact of an agent’s taking an interest in the existence of other beings is morally admirable, even if it entails a certain amount of self-limitation on that agent’s part. One thinks of numerous mundane analogs: the farmer who shows concern for the well-being of his livestock only for the sake of maximizing his own financial gain; the would-be father who works long hours so he can start a family but who mainly wants children out of loneliness or for any of a host of social or cultural reasons; the teacher who pours her life into the minds of her students because she sees them as a way of establishing her career and exerting influence over the future of her profession. The motives involved in each of these cases are not obviously evil and do not involve any sort of deception; but neither are they altruistic.

Thought, “Hmmmm.”

Wondered if I could get Philip Clayton to be a volunteer leader of my youth group.

In Which A World-Renowned Theologian Says Exactly What I Was Thinking

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Tony Jones on Theology after Google

Tony Jones has a quick nod to Tripp Fuller and Philip Clayton for their work on Theology after Google, even as he acknowledges some of the events frustrations:

. . . because of that quality, the participants walked away somewhat disappointed.  That’s because this was a demanding group, and because events, by their nature are bound to disappoint.  Someone’s constituency is always underrepresented; someone else’s ego not sufficiently stroked; and someone else is convinced they could have given a superior presentation (which surely they could have).

Tony’s right about this. It’s one of the liabilities of “progressive-ism” and its attendant diversity that several agendas are operating at once.

Conservative evangelical Christianity in the United States has done its work largely by flattening out the message and limiting the participants (and therefore the views).

That’s bad theology and bad church practice.

But it works better to create a movement.

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