SELECTED  READINGS  060212

CHURCH: A New Exodus? Americans are Exiting Liberal Churches (050606)

 

:We have figured out your problem. You・re the only one here who believes in God.; That statement, addressed to a young seminarian, introduces Dave Shiflett・s new book, Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity. The book is an important contribution, and Shiflett offers compelling evidence that liberal Christianity is fast imploding upon itself.

 

Shiflett, an established reporter and author, has written for The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Investors・ Business Daily, among other major media. He is also author of Christianity on Trial and is a member of the White House Writers Group.

 

Shiflett・s instincts as a reporter led him to see a big story behind the membership decline in liberal denominations. At the same time, Shiflett detected the bigger pictureXthe decline of liberal churches as compared to growth among the conservatives. Like any good reporter, he knew he was onto a big story.

 

:Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity,; Shiflett asserts. This author is not subtle, and he gets right to the point: :Most people go to church to get something they cannot get elsewhere. This consuming publicXpeople who already believe, or who are attempting to believe, who want their children to believeXgo to church to learn about the mysterious Truth on which the Christian religion is built. They want the Good News, not the minister・s political views or intellectual coaching. The latter creates sprawling vacancies in the pews. Indeed, those empty pews can be considered the earthly reward for abandoning heaven, traditionally understood.;

 

Taken alone, the statistics tell much of the story. Shiflett takes his reader through some of the most salient statistical trends and wonders aloud why liberal churches and denominations seem steadfastly determined to follow a path that will lead to their own destruction. Shiflett also has a unique eye for comparative statistics, indicating, for example, that :there may now be twice as many lesbians in the United States as Episcopalians.;

 

Citing a study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center, Shiflett reports that the Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6% over the previous decade, while the United Methodist Church lost :only; 6.7% and the Episcopal Church lost 5.3%. The United Church of Christ was abandoned by 14.8% of its members, while the American Baptist Churches USA were reduced by 5.7%.

 

On the other side of the theological divide, most conservative denominations are growing. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] grew 42.4% in the same decade that the more liberal Presbyterian denomination lost 11.6% of its members. Other conservative denominations experiencing significant growth included the Christian Missionary Alliance (21.8%), the Evangelical Free Church (57.2%), the Assemblies of God (18.5%), and the Southern Baptist Convention (5%).

 

As quoted in Exodus, Glenmary director Ken Sanchagrin told the New York Times that he was :astounded to see that by and large the growing churches are those that we ordinarily call conservative. And when I looked at those that were declining, most were moderate or liberal churches. And the more liberal the denomination, by most people・s definition, the more they were losing.;

 

Any informed observer of American religious life would know that these trends are not newXnot by a long shot. The more liberal Protestant denominations have been losing members by the thousands since the 1960s, with the Episcopal Church USA having lost fully one half of its members over the period.

 

In a sense, the travail of the Episcopal Church USA is the leading focus of Shiflett・s book. Indeed, Shiflett states his intention to begin :with the train wreck known as the Episcopal Church USA.; As he tells it, :One Tuesday in latter-day Christendom, the sun rose in the east, the sky became a pleasant blue, and the Episcopal Church USA elected a gay man as bishop for a small New Hampshire diocese.; How could this happen? The ordination of a non-celibate homosexual man as a bishop of the Episcopal Church flew directly in the face of the clear teachings of Scripture and the official doctrinal positions of the church. No matterXthe Episcopal Church USA was determined to normalize homosexuality, even as they have normalized divorce and remarriage. As Shiflett explains, :It is commonly understood that the election of the Reverend Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to be bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire was undertaken in clear opposition to traditional church teaching and Scripture. What is often left unsaid is that this is hardly the first time tradition has been trounced. The Reverend Gene Robinson・s sexual life was an issue and was accommodated, just as the Episcopal Church earlier found a way to embrace bishops who believe that Jesus is no more divine, at least in a supernatural sense, than Bette Midler.;

 

What makes Shiflett・s book unique is the personal narratives he has collected and analyzed. Exodus is not a book of mere statistics and research. To the contrary, Shiflett crossed America, interviewing both conservatives and liberals in order to understand what is happening within American Christianity. Shiflett・s interviews reveal fascinating insights into the underlying realities and the personal dimensions of theological conflict. Exodus is written in a very direct style, with Shiflett providing readers anecdotes and analysis of his personal interaction with those he interviewed.

 

One of Shiflett・s interviewees was the Reverend Bruce Gray, Rector of St. John・s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. In an interesting comment, Shiflett recalls that this was the very church where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech in 1775Xthe speech in which Henry cried: :Give me liberty, or give me death!; As Shiflett notes, :The Episcopal Church, by freeing itself from many of its traditional beliefs, sometimes appears to be well on its way to achieving both.; Revered Gray supports the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and he told Shiflett that the biblical condemnations of homosexuality had been considered by thoughtful people who had decided that the texts do not mean what they appear to mean. He cited his own bishop, who had issued an episcopal letter arguing, :Many people believe any homosexual activity is purely prohibited by Scripture . . . . But other Christians who take Scripture seriously believe that the Biblical writers were not addressing the realities of people with a permanent homosexual orientation living in faithful, monogamous relationships, and that the relevant scriptural support for those relationships is similar to the expectations of faithfulness Scripture places on marriage.; That is patent nonsense, of course, but this is what passes for theological argument among those pushing the homosexual agenda.

 

In order to understand why so many Episcopalians are leaving, Shiflett visited Hugo Blankenship, Jr., son of the Reverend Hugo Blankenship, who had served as the church・s Bishop of Cuba. Blankenship is a traditionalist, who explained that his father must be :spinning in his grave; in light of developments in his beloved Episcopal Church. As Shiflett sees it, the church that Bishop Hugo Blankenship had served and loved is gone. In its place is a church that preaches a message Shiflett summarizes as this: :God is love, God・s love is inclusive, God acts in justice to see that everyone is included, we therefore ought to be co-actors and co-creators with God to make the world over in the way he wishes.;

 

Shiflett also surveys the growing list of :celebrity heretics; whose accepted presence in liberal denominations serves as proof positive of the fact that these groups will tolerate virtually anything in terms of belief. Shiflett discusses the infamous (and now retired) [KH: heretical] Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong. :When placed in a wider context, Spong is simply another character from what might be called America・s religious freak show.; Yet, the most important insight to draw from Spong・s heresies is the fact that he has been accepted without censure by his church. As Shiflett explains, Spong・s views, :while harshly criticized in some quarters as being far beyond the pale, are present not only throughout the mainline but throughout Protestantism, even in churches that are assumed to maintain traditional theological rigor.;

 

In Shiflett・s turn of a phrase, these liberal theologians believe in a :Wee deity,; a vapid and ineffectual god who is not much of a threat and is largely up for individual interpretation.

 

On the other side of the divide, Shiflett spent time with conservative Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Southern Baptists, and the larger evangelical community. In considering Southern Baptists, Shiflett largely drew upon interviews he conducted with me and with Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Shiflett understands recent Southern Baptist history, and he takes his readers through the denomination・s :conservative resurgence; that defied the conventional wisdom that denominations can never be pulled back in a more conservative direction.

 

More importantly, Shiflett understands that doctrinal beliefs are the crucial variable determining whether churches and denominations grow or decline. He deals with the statistical data honestly, even as he points to the larger context and the underlying factors at work.

 

Shiflett・s opening story about the seminarian who was confronted by his peers underlines the importance of theological seminaries as agents for either the perpetuation or the destruction of the faith.

 

In this case, seminarian Andy Ferguson, who had questioned the anti-supernaturalistic claims of his seminary professors, was confronted by a fellow seminary student who said, :We・ve been talking about you. We know you・re having a rough time, and we・ve finally figured out what your problem is . . . . You・re the only one here who believes in God.; Andy Ferguson decided that his fellow student was right. :They believed in things like the redemptive power of the universe, but I was the last one there who wanted to defend the biblical GodXthe God who makes claims on us, who said we should do some things and not do others, and who put each one of us here for a purpose.;

 

In the end, Andy Ferguson left the liberal seminary, converted to Catholicism, and went into the business world. He told Dave Shiflett that liberal Protestantism is doomed. :Mainline Protestantism will reach a certain point where it will appeal only to Wiccans, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, and people who play the recorder. No one will feel at home there if they believe in God.;

 

Exodus is a book that is simultaneously brave and honest. Refreshingly, he eschews mere sociological analysis and points to the more foundational issueXtruth. No doubt, this book will be appreciated in some quarters and hated in others, but it is not likely to be ignored.

 

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SOCIETY: What is Postmodernism? (Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, 020600)

 

Postmodernism is frequently used to explain contemporary cultureXbut what exactly does it mean?

 

Christian witness in our world demands that we get up to speed with postmodernism. Whether we like it or not, postmodernism is one of the most powerful forces in philosophy and culture. Postmodern ideas and motifs dominate the intellectual landscape and shape public opinion. Matt Donnelly argued in a Christianity Today article that neglect of postmodernism is the :missing link; in Christian apologetics. He lamented that Christian web sites devoted to defending the gospel virtually ignore the presence and power of postmodern views.

 

Understanding postmodernism requires that one have some sense of the major changes in religion and philosophy over the last 500 years. Here is one way to capture the revolutions that have shaped the West since the end of the Middle Ages. First, think of the period 1500-1600 as the time when the power of Roman Catholicism was broken by Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers. By the end of the sixteenth century one could no longer think of :one Church.; There were Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, and this was just the start.

 

Second, the loss of unity in Christendom led in the next century to a radical crisis in philosophy and religious certainty. Paradoxically, the Reformers started a train of thought that had a dark side: if Luther can question the Pope, and Calvin can question Luther, and Henry VIII can doubt all of them, and the Anabaptists can doubt everyone from the Pope to Henry, then why not doubt religion altogether? When René Descartes wrote his famous line: :I think, therefore I am,; he was trying to work his way out of the skeptical fog bank of his time.

 

Third, in the next century rationalism became everything to philosophers. God no longer judged human reason; God was judged by reason itself. This period (1700-1800) is known as the Enlightenment. Such philosophers as Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Voltaire believed that reason must be used to question all views and ideas, especially crucial Christian themes that framed Western philosophy for centuries. The light in Englightenment was :reason; and not :Jesus.;

 

Though Christian faith has remained under attack since the Englightenment, in the nineteenth century it became increasingly difficult for philosophers and other intellectuals to agree on what constituted reason or on how useful rationalism was as a philosophy. If the Enlightenment represents the modern trust of reason, the last two centuries have witnessed the rise of the postmodern distrust of reason.

 

Postmodernism is a term of recent vintage, but the seeds of postmodernism hark back to thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Martin Heidegger who raised radical questions about the intellectual, cultural, and political ideologies of their day. Though none of these thinkers was a postmodernist per se, each saw that powerful elites use :reason; and :logic; and :truth; to hold humans in captivity in some form. Their deep critique of social, philosophical, and psychological norms led to the profound questioning of rationalism that has characterized the leading postmodernist thinkers such as Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jacques Derrida (b. 1930).

 

Though Foucault, Derrida and company are notoriously difficult to understand, the basic thrust of postmodernism can be captured quite readily in 10 principles (see sidebar: Postmodernist Viewpoint).

 

Christian scholars are divided over how to react to postmodernism. Some (e.g. Stanley Grenz, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton) are deeply concerned about certain aspects of the postmodern mind, but they celebrate other aspects of postmodernity. They believe that Foucault and company rightly expose the danger of trusting in reason as an ultimate guide.

 

Other Christian scholars give virtually no credibility to postmodernism. They believe that it is a godless relativism that is a cancer against the gospel. Doug Groothuis argues in Truth Decay that postmodernism represents a dead end intellectually and morally. At last fall・s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Colorado, Doug Geivett, a Christian philosopher, gave a public lecture against Stan Grenz for the latter・s openness to key themes in postmodernism.

 

Of course, even if one follows Grenz and others in seeing some good in postmodernism, all Christian scholars have noted that ultimately postmodernism is an anti-Christian perspective. That means, in the end, that Christians in this postmodern world must seek to present Christ in such a way that postmodernists will recognize in Him the path to truth, the way to meaning, the cause of beauty, the answer to oppression, and the solution to despair. If Christ is all that and more, who would want to stick with postmodernism?

 

For further reading: The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix by Brian D. McLaren, Zondervan Publishers

 

James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. His web site is www.religionwatch.ca

 

Postmodernist Viewpoint

 

* There is no single world view that captures reality, no master story (or meta-narrative) that underlies humanity.

 

* Reason is to be distrusted because there is no way to know which person・s reason is reliable.

 

* There is no such thing as objectivity.

 

* There is no :truth; to appeal to for understanding history and culture.

 

* There are no moral absolutes.

 

* The West, with its colonialist heritage, deserves ridicule.

 

* Texts, whether religious or philosophical or literary, do not have intrinsic meaning.

 

* Ideas are cultural creations.

 

* Everything is relative.

 

* We need to be deeply suspicious of all ideas given the way that ideas are used as tools to oppress and confine humans.

 

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THEOLOGY: Can We Be Good Without God? (031203)

 

The greatest moral question hanging over America・s increasingly secular culture is this: Can we be good without God? That vital questionXthough almost always unaskedXis the backdrop for most of the issues aflame in the media, the schools, and the courts.

 

Secularization, the process by which a society severs its ties to a religious worldview, is now pressed to the limits by ideological secularists bent on removing all vestiges of the Judeo-Christian heritage from the nation・s culture. They will not stop until every aspect of Christian morality is supplanted by the new morality of the postmodern philosophersXa morality with no absolutes, and without God.

 

How bad is it? Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, an influential liberal partisan in the Culture Wars, rejects the idea that belief in God is necessary for moral goodness. In Letters to a Young Lawyer, Dershowitz argues that obedience to the God of the Bible can often be immoral. We should not be good because we fear divine punishment, Dershowitz argues, but because we aspire to good character. :In deciding what course of action is moral,; he instructs, :you should act as if there were no God. You should also act as if there were no threat of earthly punishment or reward. You should be a person of good character because it is right to be such a person.;

 

Of course, this begs the question of character itself. How do we know what character is without an objective reference? If human beings are left to our own devices and limited to our own wisdom, we will invent whatever model of .good character・ seems right at the time. Without God there are no moral absolutes. Without moral absolutes, there is no authentic knowledge of right and wrong.

 

According to the new American secular orthodoxy, no reference to God or faithXno matter how vague or distantXis allowable in public conversation, much less in governmental policy making. The end result is a total collapse of moral conversation. All that is left is a burlesque of moral nonsense with endless debates going nowhere in particular, except away from Christianity.

 

For example, we are now told that concern for sexual abstinence is just another imposition of a Christian morality. Planned Parenthood and the proponents of teenage sexual activity oppose abstinence-based sex education as :inherently religious.; That is, the only arguments against teenage sexual promiscuity are based on religious convictionsXwhich are forbidden grounds for public consideration.

 

In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union has successfully fought abstinence-based programs in several states, arguing that such programs violate their radical notion of church/state separation, and put the public schools in the position of teaching .religion.・

 

This nonsense would be laughable if its results were not so devastating among America・s young people. One parent opposed the program, stating: :I am extremely upset that this school board wants to teach my Jewish kids Christian values.; Pardon me, but who dropped Judaism from the Judeo-Christian heritage? Christianity and Judaism differ on any number of central issues of faith, but we share the Ten Commandments. As rabbi Jacob Neusner once lamented: :A country without a sense of shame or of sin does not have a sense of what is right or wrong, just what is useful or what you can get away with or not get away with.;

 

Are moral values now off limits just because they may be affirmed or shared by Christians? As columnist Mona Charen asked, :Have we reached the point in America where virtue is considered contaminated because it has been known to keep company with religion?;

 

If abstinence-based sex education is :inherently religious,; then so is the criminal code which outlaws murder. After all, :Thou shall not kill; was first inscribed on tablets of stone by God, not contrived by a secularist lawmaker in Washington. What about prohibitions against robbery, rape, or lying? Out with them all, for they are part of God・s moral law as well.

 

The sheer nonsense of this makes it difficult to take the argument seriously, but courts at the local, state, and federal levels are heeding these secularist arguments. Our ability to conduct any meaningful moral discourse is fast evaporating.

 

Just how far we have come is made clear by a glance at the most formative legal commentary which lies behind this nation・s legal tradition, William Blackstone・s Commentaries on the Laws of England. English common law is, after all, the basis of our own legal doctrines. Just before the American Revolution, Blackstone wrote: :Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is an entirely dependent being.;

 

The legal tradition which gave birth to this nation, formed the background of its Constitution, and sustained our laws and their interpretation for a century and a half, is now itself ruled out of bounds. Any moral tradition which even whispers the memory of the Almighty is now ruled null and void.

 

But can Americans be good without God? Can we even entertain the fiction that citizens can create a totally secular morality? Nonsense. There is no secular morality of any substance. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky acknowledged, :If God is dead, everything is permissible.;

 

So, we live among the ruins of a moral value structure destroyed by the wrecking ball of a radical secularist agenda, but already weakened by compromise from withinXeven from within the Church.

 

The Church of England and its sister church in America, the Episcopal Church (USA), are competing in a disbelief derby to see which church can produce more heretical bishops. Richard Holloway, the Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, now argues that morality must be freed from Christian teaching for the modern age. As he argues, :We either admit that God is, to some extent at least, a human construct that is subject to criticism and evolution, or we weld religion to unsustainable prejudices that guarantee its rejection for the best, not the worst of reasons, so that to abandon it becomes a virtuous act of revolt against an oppressive force that imprisons rather than liberates humanity.; According to this bishop, the only way to be moral is to reject the Bible and the very notion of moral absolutes. In effect, the only way to be a good person is to function as an atheist.

 

With Friedrich Nietzsche, Holloway wants modern humanity to be freed from :slave obedience; to the morality of the Bible. In Godless Morality, the bishop insists that we must just learn to live with moral ambiguity. As for Scripture, it must be abandoned as authoritative moral guidance, for :it no longer conforms to our experience of truth and value.;

 

The same rejection of biblical morality is all too common on these shores as well. Liberal theologians and church leaders display the same embarrassment over the moral teachings of the Bible. Among evangelicals, outright rejection of biblical authority is more rare (at least for now), but too many pulpits remain empty of biblical content and moral confrontation with the issues of the day.

 

In the confused public square of America・s cultural currents, the situation is far worse. Now that God is off limits, we face the morality of the cultural elites and media celebrities.

 

Evidence of the inevitable confusion that results is seen in the nation・s nonsensical moral fireworks over Michael Jackson・s arrest for child molestation. Americans seem certain that Jackson・s publicly acknowledged behaviorXmuch less his alleged crimeXis wrong, even immoral. But why? Will his trial for sexual molestation bring moral clarity to the situation? Probably not. Lawyers like Alan Dershowitz earn their lavish incomes by making certain that moral arguments are kept out of the picture. As Dershowitz instructs young lawyers, :So you want to do good. Don・t we all. But when you became a lawyer, you have to define good differently than you did before.; Obviously.

 

Several years ago, a group of boys at Lakewood High School in southern California were arrested as members of a :sexual posse; which kept score at the sport of sexual intercourse with different girls. Several of the boys・ fathers said that nothing was wrong with their behavior. Eric Richardson, one of the Lakewood boys, said, :They pass out condoms, teach sex education and pregnancyXbut they don・t teach us any rules.;

 

Welcome to post-Christian America. All the rules are offXit・s everyone for himself. Write your own rules, find your own way, just be sure to leave God out of it. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, warning that :The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God has been made plain to them; [Romans 1:18]. God is not mocked. Welcome to RomeXAmerica in the postmodern age.

 

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APOLOGETICS: Christianity Transformed? An Important New Look (031027)

 

Alan Wolfe thinks we are not much of a threat. In The Transformation of American Religion: How we Actually Live our Faith, Wolfe presents a sociological analysis of American religion that deserves attention. The bottom line of his study is that :American religion has been so transformed that we have reached the end of religion as we have known it.;

 

Wolfe is Director of the Boisi Center for Religion in American Public Life at Boston College, and may be the most-quoted sociologist of religion in America. He is greatly respected in the media, because he tends to offer a reassuring promise that Americans are basically united and that the clash of worldviews is grossly overestimated. In his 1998 work, One Nation, After All, Wolfe argued that the culture wars dividing Americans on issues of moralityXand especially sexualityXmask an underlying consensus that unites most Americans in a muddled middle.

 

His analysis is worth note. There can be no doubt that millions of Americans are basically disengaged from the issues of moral debate and do not live in the midst of ideological combat like that found on cable news programs. Nevertheless, the culture war is very real and the issues are urgently important. Wolfe tries to find assurance that the American social compact is still in tact. At times, this leads him to underplay the real conflict of worldviews.

 

Wolfe has now turned his attention to the tendency of organized religions to accommodate themselves to the culture of postmodern America. Though he considers Roman Catholicism and Judaism, the main thrust of his book is an analysis of the accommodationist impulse in American evangelicalism. As Wolfe sees it, there is very little distinctive Christianity remaining in evangelicalism.

 

Wolfe concludes that American evangelicals have negotiated their way into a completely new theology. As he explains, :More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem. Traditional forms of worship, from reliance on organ music to the mysteries of the liturgy, have given way to audience participation and contemporary tastes. Some believers are anxious to witness their faith to others, but they tend to avoid methods that would make them seem unfriendly or invasive.; Wolfe adds: :If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well, he would likely be appalled; far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.;

 

Wolfe is himself a secularist. As he explains, :Although raised to be proud of my Jewish ethnic heritageXI still remember the names of the Jewish major leaguers of my youthXI am not, and never have been, a person of faith. When it comes to religion, I hear no inner voices, am attracted to no supernatural explanations of everyday events, look neither upward to heaven nor downward to hell, identify with no particular tradition, and feel no guilt in having married a Christian (by birth, though not by conviction) and having, together with her, raised three children without benefit of confirmation or bar and bat mitzvahs.;

 

That is not to say that Wolfe finds believers uninteresting. :I am attracted to religion and to religious people, out of a sense that one-way conversations with the like-minded are never very satisfying. Perhaps that is why my travels in the world of religion as well as my research into the sociology of religion have enabled me to cross paths with evangelical Protestants I have come to count among my friends.;

 

In a very real sense, Wolfe is not writing to evangelicals, but about evangelicalism. His intended audience is not religious believers, but secularists worried about the threat posed by the :religious right.; As he sees it, conservative Christians are really not much of a threat. We offer more bark than bite, and have so accommodated ourselves and our faith to contemporary America, that we are really a harmless part of the mainstream.

 

In a penetrating analysis, Wolfe traces the pattern of cultural and theological accommodation. He begins with worship, noting that :Americans revere a God who is anything but distant, inscrutable, or angry. They are more likely to honor a God to whom they can pray in their own, self-chosen way. In the process they have substantially altered the faiths in which they believe.;

 

Wolfe traces the pattern of church-swapping and denomination-switching. This :circulation of the saints; is a pattern tied to consumerist religion. Worship is no longer dictated by theological conviction, but rather by personal taste. Heavily influenced by an entertainment culture, modern evangelicals are looking for worship that is experienced with the thrill and excitement of the latest musical styles and video technology.

 

Writing in a dispassionate style, Wolfe argues: :Generally speaking, preaching in evangelically oriented growth churches, however dynamic in delivery, has remarkably little actual content. Scripture is invariably cited but only as a launching pad to reinforce the message of the salvation that Jesus can offer. Rarely is the congregation challenged to do anything other than give itself over to Christ, and even the pursuit of that objective is not accompanied by any sense of complexity or difficulty.;

 

Wolfe takes particular shots at the :insipid music; often found in evangelical worship and the popularity of The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson. :Whatever else one thinks of such dyed-in-the-wool religious conservatives, they at least ought to be people who take their Christianity seriously,; Wolfe argues. :And yet what is offered in Wilkinson・s book is a conception of religion so narcissistic that it makes prosperity theology look demanding by contrast.;

 

Wolfe also looks at the rise of small groups within church ministries, explaining that this is the result of an anti-institutional bias and a desire for intimacy. He also considers the rise of para-church movements and the mega-churches, arguing that both are effectively becoming substitutes for the historic denominations.

 

What about doctrine? Wolfe does acknowledge the deep doctrinal concerns that drive many conservative evangelicals. Nevertheless, he argues that most evangelicals are basically disinterested in doctrine and ignorant of even the most basic theology. Wolfe goes so far as to argue that :Evangelical believers are sometimes hard pressed to explain exactly what, doctrinally speaking, their faith is.;

 

:Conflict over doctrine is fast becoming a phenomenon of church history,; Wolfe argues. :Evangelicals have exchanged orthodoxy for popularity,; he explains, :and since American popular culture is one that puts more emphasis on feeling good than thinking right, these movement tend to be especially hostile to potentially divisive doctrinal controversy.;

 

In other words, many churches will do almost anything to avoid doctrinal controversy, even if this means avoiding doctrine all together.

 

Tradition is also a thing of the past. Without accountability to a doctrinal heritage, the issues of the contemporary culture displace the historic concerns of the church. Wolfe points to the predominance of therapeutic categories in evangelical church life and preaching. Sin has been replaced with the language of self-esteem.

 

Underlying all this, of course, is a fundamental shift in the concept of God. :America・s God has been domesticated,; argues Wolfe, :there to offer solace and to engage in dialogue with the understanding that, except under the most unusual circumstances, he will listen and commiserate.; And sin? :In a world governed by this more accessible God, sin still exists and atonement is still possible. But the sins are less numerous, less serious, and more forgivable.;

 

Wolfe evens finds evangelicals confused about the gospel. Still committed to a conversionist theology, evangelicals seem to be uncertain of what conversion really requires. Furthermore, the influence of postmodern culture has brought a change in the way truth itself is conceived. The absolute truth claims of historic Christianity are, he claims, fast being transformed into truths held to be something less than absolute.

 

In his attempt to find middle ground in the culture and in order to press his case that religion is not divisive factor in modern America, Wolfe turns his guns on those who would argue otherwise. In particular, he aims his critique at Christians who believe that truth claims are of fundamental importance.

 

He describes those who argue for the exclusivity of the Christian gospel as intolerant. The encounter of Christianity with Islam is one of Wolfe・s particular concerns. He quotes me (correctly) as stating: :An Islam that settles for religious pluralism is not authentic Islam, and Christianity without zeal for conversion is not authentic Christianity.;

 

So far, so good. But Wolfe goes on to argue, :If we believe, as Mohler does, that .religions stand or fall on the validity of their truth claims,・ there will inevitably be as many truths at war with each other as there are faiths.; Of course, without truth claims, Christianity is reduced to a spirituality that offers no hope of salvation. Or, as Wolfe would prefer, a Christianity that poses no threat to unbelief.

 

Evangelical Christians should read Wolfe・s book with great interest. His indictment of evangelicalism・s accommodation to the culture is perceptive, even if unoriginal. Most thoughtful evangelicals have been concerned about these trends for some time and have documented the same patterns with greater insight. What Wolfe offers is an outsider・s perspective with a fascinating angle. Evangelical Christians will read his account as a tragic loss demanding recovery, even as Wolfe finds assurance in the domestication of Christian belief.

 

Alan Wolfe wants to assure his fellow secularists that evangelical Christianity is not much of a threat. He provides a wealth of documentation and illustration in order to prove his point. While evangelical readers may find many points of disagreement with Wolfe, the basic thrust of his argument is difficult to deny. Cultural accommodation and surrender to the narcissistic culture of the self do indeed mark the transformation of American religion. Nevertheless, what Wolfe finds so culturally reassuring brings judgment upon American evangelicals.

 

Unless evangelicalism recovers its theological integrity and cognitive courage, American secularists will have every reason to believe that Alan Wolfe is right. We really are not much of a threat.

 

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