Monday, December 20, 2010

unChristian America

Ross Douthat surveys two recent sociology of religion books on the state of Christianity in American culture and comes to this conclusion:
...this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
This is an assessment I have shared with my congregation on numerous Sunday mornings and it is a common refrain in post-modern church circles as well as the anabaptist circles I have contact with (where the assessment is greeted by a rowdy cheer growing out of a belief that this is precisely where Christianity belongs).

It is worth pointing out, though, that there is at least one enormous difference for Christianity between now and then: then it was a new movement with a unique message about God and about how to live together in the world. It's organization, its member-care and its outreach were all revolutionary. As Rodney Stark has reminded us the Christians made a very real-world positive impact on the culture; the citizens of Rome had never seen anything quite like the Christians before.

In marked contrast, today, as we Christians find ourselves in the West increasingly marginalized and having to make the case for why anyone should participate in our communities, a large part of the challenge comes from carrying around 2000 years of baggage. It is one thing to to be a brand-spanking-new Christian and have to contrast yourself with the pagans and Jews everyone knows; it is another thing altogether to have to explain how you are different than thousands of different Christian sects and perhaps more importantly how you choose to account for the accretions of two thousand years of Christian culture, a culture that for all its accomplishments has at moments a shameful history on many issues.

Sometimes I wonder if a new religion might someday burst on the scene in the way Christianity did 2000 years ago and rock the world. Or perhaps it already has and is just waiting for its Paul. Or perhaps that new religion is science and technology and the manner in which we live, work and play in its world and accept its worldview.

In the meantime those of us in Christian communities must choose what to do with our baggage and how to respond and hopefully thrive in a challenging culture. I am sure it is my own particular heritage bleeding through, but I think the way forward is going to be found in communities that gather for food, stories, music, art, and ritual, that focus on serving others, and that teach and practice non-violence. There is nothing earth-shattering in this; it certainly isn't new news or coming from the latest marketing research, but it is faithful to Jesus and the best of our Christian culture, and when it is done well it just works.

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