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