Popular conservative television and radio host, Glenn Beck, created a stir last month when he preached a sermon threaded with Mormon theology at the evangelical Liberty University. During the talk, Beck referred to the Mormon doctrine of the Council of Heaven and showcased a valuable relic, the pocket watch of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Some university alumni and donors were upset that the school allowed Beck to sermonize the students and contacted Liberty to place complaints. An email response was sent from the office of Johnnie Moore, senior vice-president for communications and assistant to the president at Liberty. Most of the letter was boilerplate verbiage that sounds like a sales pitch for potential students. But in the last paragraph Moore states that Beck may have had a “born again experience”…
When it comes to navigating the interface between faith and culture, there aren’t a lot of pastors I look to. Most I encounter tend to be having conversations that lag somewhere between five and 10 years behind secular society and the academy. This isn’t a criticism as much as an observation.
But James Emery White is an exception to this generalization and is often on the leading edge of pressing cultural conversations. White is founding pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church–a congregation that claims 70% of its growth is from unchurched individuals–and a former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written a new book, “Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”, in which he explores why so many Americans are allergic to organized religion and what he thinks Christians can do to capture them.
RNS: The fastest growing religious group in America is those with no religious affiliation, the so-called “nones.” Why are so many walking away from church or unwilling to give it a chance?
JW: There are two dynamics at play. The first is the reality of being the first generation to live in a truly post-Christian context. The currents of secularization, privatization, and pluralization have taken their toll. Meaning, there is less of a supportive presence of Christian faith in the marketplace of ideas, spirituality is expected to be kept in our private worlds, and the idea that all faiths are equally valid and true permeates our psyche. But if you ask the “nones” themselves, they would give you another answer along the lines of “lawyers, guns and money.” By that, I mean the perception that Christians and churches are overly entangled with law and politics, filled with hateful intolerance and aggression, and consumed with materialism and greed.
RNS: Many growing churches today are only experiencing transfer growth–that is, Christians moving from one church to another. You argue that this is a problem of evangelism. What are we doing wrong?
I recently published the first part of my interview with Episcopal priest and New York Times bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor. In it, we explored her new book Learning to Walk in the Dark and how she wants to help Christians explore what she calls “lunar spirituality.” Below is the second part, in which Taylor and I discuss personal topics such as what she believes makes one Christian, if she believes in a literal devil, and whether she is afraid of dying.
RNS: You’ve talked a lot about your journey out of the church world. What do you consider yourself now? Christian or Episcopalian or something else?
BBT: It’s true that a wrote a book called Leaving Church in which I detail leaving parish ministry, but I’m still very much involved in the church world. I end up speaking and lecturing in church settings at least twice a month. So I haven’t journeyed out of the church at all as far as I can tell. I’d say I consider myself a practicing Christian and in April I’ll celebrate my 30th anniversary as a priest in the Episcopal church. So I’m an active and practicing Christian, though I’m as bad at it as most of us are.
RNS: So if you’re a Christians and other who have very different beliefs and practices than you are too, what makes a person a Christian exactly?
BBT: I can call myself a Christian, and there are bodies of Christians who could disagree with me based on their own criteria about what makes a real Christian. But I think a lot of us are rethinking what it means to be Christian. And a lot of us are rejecting other people’s rejection of us as Christians. At this point in my life, I am pretty willing to let people tell me whether or not they are Christian rather than imposing my own definitions of it on them. My base definition is “here she says, here she is a Christian.”
What I don’t think is working so well–except perhaps for very tightly enclosed communities themselves–is defintions of what makes one truly Christian or not. That may be why we have more than 900 denominations in this country.
Have you seen that new movie “Hell Is for Real?” Of course, you haven’t. Because it doesn’t exist. It’s heavenly counterpart, however, earned $21.5 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend.
Sixty-four percent of Americans believe in the survival of the soul after death, and a majority believes in both heaven and hell, according to a Harris Poll released in December 2013. But while most are comfortable discussing the afterlife and heaven, talk of hell can scatter the masses.
So why are Americans afraid to talk about hell?
Rebecca Price Janney, a cultural historian and author of “Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell,” traces the shift back about 70 decades to World War II. During this time, many asserted that American soldiers couldn’t possibly go to hell because they’d already served their time having “been through hell” on the battlefield. The idea offered great comfort to those at home who were grieving lost loved ones.
“This [idea] caught on and persisted over the decades,” Janney says, “and we saw it re-emerge strongly during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: ‘How could these dear people who died so tragically possibly go to hell?’”
Resisting the idea of a literal hell may offer comfort, but the reasons many today shy away from it may be more simplistic and pragmatic. I spoke to several people who have studied the issue and they listed at least three reasons we shrink back from hell-talk:
She’s been called a heretic by some and a prophet by others. Baylor University even named her one of the 12 most effective speakers in the English-speaking world. Her name is Barbara Brown Taylor, and she is on a mission to redeem the darkness.
“Christianity has never has anything nice to say about darkness,” says the 62-year-old Episcopal priest in her new book, Learning to Walk in The Dark. Taylor charges churches with propagating a “full solar spirituality” that “focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock.” But she says the faithful need to discover a “lunar spirituality,” which recognizes that humans need both darkness and the divine light .
It’s fitting that Taylor’s book should release before Holy Week, a time when Jesus entered what many Christians would call one of the darkest periods in his own life. Was Christ’s dark period a positive thing overall? I imagine most Christians would say “yes.” Yet, some of those same Christians resist embracing darkness in their lives.
In the first part of my interview, Taylor and I discuss her message about darkness and why she thinks Christians need it. In part two, which will be posted tomorrow, we explore hot topics such as what she believes makes one Christian, if she believes in a literal devil, and whether she is afraid of dying.
RNS: How do you think modern Christians have misunderstood darkness, both in scripture and in life?
BBT: Once you start listening to how people use the words dark or darkness, it doesn’t take long to realize that the references are 99% negative. I don’t know how that happened in every day speech. Maybe it’s a linguistic fossil leftover from our days in caves or maybe it is a predictable association for people who’ve become addicted to light.
Where scripture is concerned, I don’t think Christians have misunderstood much of anything. From Genesis to Revelation, darkness is used a synonym for ignorance and sin and evil and death. But there are also narrative passages that form an easily missed minority report.
The Green family, owners of the 609 Hobby Lobby stores, are to conservative Christianity what the Kardashians are to the E! network: poster children.
The billionaire believers are outspoken Christians who claim to run their company based on the teachings of the Bible and spend at least one-third of the company’s annual profits on evangelical causes. On March 25th, the Greens prayed together before entering the Supreme Court to argue that their $3.3 billion for-profit business should receive a religious exemption from the Obamacare contraception mandate. Conservative evangelicals everywhere were interceding with them.
Given the way the Green’s fight with the federal government has rallied so many believers, one might assume the 77% of Americans who identify themselves as Christian overwhelmingly support the Greens and the battle against contraception. (Hobby Lobby continues to provide insurance coverage for 16 forms of birth control but object to any form of contraception that would terminate a fertilized egg.)
But many believers—namely Christian women—don’t see the issue quite the same way.
New analysis of previously released data shows a sizable gender gap among Christians on employer provided contraception.
According to a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll of 1,009 Americans, 60 percent of Christian women agree “all employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost.” The survey also shows that a majority of Americans—including Catholics and white mainline Protestants—support requiring employers to provide health care that includes free contraception.
Standing in front of a luxury pool, a hyper-masculine American working man asks, “Why do we work so hard? For this? For stuff?”
For one minute and two seconds, a new Cadillac commercial that debuted in primetime during the Sochi Olympics attempts to answer that question. The advertisement is jarring and brash, mocking workers in other countries who take a month off in the summer and crediting Americans’ success to being “crazy driven hard-working believers.”
“You work hard, create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible,” the ad’s star says as he powers up his Cadillac ELR, a sleek vehicle that comes with a $75,000 price tag.
“As for all the stuff? That’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”The advertisement for the newest addition to Cadillac’s opulent fleet encourages Americans to continue worshipping at the altar of work and stuff because, well, it’s worth it. That tingly feeling when you power up your expensive car or jiggle the handle of your mammoth McMansion is what really matters. Any sacrifices made in terms of spiritual vitality, the wellbeing of one’s family, or personal health are little more than collateral damage.
Just when it appears we’ve crossed the rubicon on gender equality in the evangelical world, we realize we haven’t.
The 21st century has seen massive strides on the issue. Leading theologians like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Stanley Gundry, I. Howard Marshall and Gordon Fee made cases for gender equality on Biblical grounds, and they’ve were joined by prominent pastors like Bill Hybels and John Ortberg. Books by women began filling the shelves of Christian bookstores, often outselling those written by men. In 2008, hoards of evangelicals voted for a Presidential ticket that would have placed a woman in governmental authority over them in the second highest office in the land. And perhaps the greatest sign of the times is that the most popular preacher in the Southern Baptist Convention is, well, Beth Moore.
And yet, debates among some Christians about women’s roles in the church and home still rage. Organizations like the conservative Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood still wield a lot of power in American evangelicalism. Many churches will not ordain women—though they often offer women the same jobs and responsibilities as other ministers with a lesser title—and refuse to let them teach men in any capacity.
And what of the state of the multi-million dollar Christian conference industry?
In New York City, everything is always changing all time. From the skyline to the weather to transient residents jumping from neighborhood to neighborhood trying to find the right mix of price, size and location, the city is perpetually in flux.
But the Big Apple is experiencing a surprising kind of change—the religious kind—as more Christian communities and leaders are taking root and flourishing there.
New York City is not known as a particularly religious place. Though Gallup reports an above average population of Catholics and Jews, the state of New York is well below average for Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians.
But according to Barna Research’s survey of more that 3,400 residents in the New York media market, New York City is more spiritually active today than in the late 1990s or even 2001 in the wake of 9/11. Barna reports that church attendance is increasing, the number of “unchurched” residents is decreasing, and the number of “born again” Christians is on the rise, surging from 20% in the late 1990s to 32% today.
According to Barna, born again Christians are “individuals who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in the life and who believe they will go to Heaven because they have accepted Christ and been forgiven of their sins.”
Possible explanations for New York’s Christian renaissance are numerous, but the city’s crop of increasingly influential Christian pastors, educators, and thought leaders is partially responsible. Here are at least 16 leaders–in unranked order–who are contributing to the city’s Christian revival:
1/2. Tim and Kathy Keller: As founding pastor of Manhattan-based Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Tim Keller has become a respected Christian voice within New York. But his New York Times bestselling books, including The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, have expanded his influence well outside the borders of the five famous boroughs. In recent years, Tim’s wife, Kathy, has also emerged as an influential voice in her own right, even recently penning a popular book on faith and gender.
3. Sally Lloyd-Jones: Very few children’s book writers have the influence or success that Sally Lloyd Jones does. Her Jesus Storybook Bible, for example, has been a runaway success and a New York Times bestseller. Recently, the book’s publisher, Zondervan, announced that sales had exceeded one million units. With those kinds of sales, it’s hard to deny her impact on Christian families and children in New York City and elsewhere.
In the universe of thinking about Christianity and culture, Andy Crouch may be as close to Yoda as you’ll get.
He is Executive Editor of Christianity Today and a popular speaker at churches, colleges, and conferences. His book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, was named one of the best books of 2008 by Publisher’s Weekly, Relevant, Outreach, and Leadership. His newest and long-awaited book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, has just released and is unsurprisingly creating waves. Here, we discuss how Christians have misunderstood power and how he believes they are meant to steward it.
JM: What is your definition of power? How does it differ from, say, Nietzsche’s?
AC: My definition of power is “the ability to make something of the world.” It’s about both the ability to actually transform your environment, and about your ability to interpret and make meaning from the world (the more metaphorical sense of “make something of”).
Nietzsche believed power was ultimately about the strong compelling the weak. You could say that Nietzsche’s ultimate form of power was violence. My definition of power focuses much more on creativity–because I believe the power to create and make is actually much deeper, truer power than the ability to compel or force.
JM: Is power the same thing as authority? If not, what’s the relationship between the two?
AC: Usually we use “authority” to refer to power that is seen as legitimate–that is, power that has earned the right to be used. You could say that authority is “authorized” power. But there are many forms of power that aren’t necessarily “authority” in that sense. If you are young and beautiful, you have power in American culture—even if you haven’t earned authority. If you are a celebrity, you have power—whether or not you have earned it.
JM: Can you say something about Christian attitudes toward power? I don’t hear a lot of Christian leaders and thinkers discussing power.