December 14, 2010

"[T]he 'strict church thesis'... argued that conservative, hard-line suppliers of religion (fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals) thrive, while lenient ones (liberals, progressives) decline."

That was the standard sociological line on religion, but new research undermines that theory.
Why has there been such a lack of familiarity, indeed, of interest, among academics in the cultural depth and complexity of American evangelicalism until so recently? Perhaps we don't do as much book browsing as most people do in Wal-Marts and Targets, and so are less likely to encounter evangelicalism in everyday life. Being among the least-churched populations in the United States, moreover, most academics don't hear about it on Sunday mornings, when we're more likely to be reading The New York Times than listening to a sermon. Beyond that, I wonder if there is a sense among many of us that the whole world of evangelical Christianity represents academic culture's other, the antithesis of who we are as scholars and educators.... 

38 comments:

rhhardin said...

Harold Bloom, The American Religion, shows a lively interest and fondness for all of them, except Jehovah's Witnesses.

"There is something particularly childish in these Watchtower yearnings: they remind me of why very small children cannot be left alone with wounded and suffering household pets."

traditionalguy said...

If this dude is ashamed to be rubbing elbows at Walmart, Target and McDonalds, then he will miss out on a lot of interesting life. Being isolated eventually makes Phds dull folks. As a lawyer I cannot imagine what to say to a Jury of Academics rather than one of salt of the earth evangelicals. One thing is for sure, the jealousy from the Phds at the lawyers would be off the scale. If one was elected Foreman, the poor judge would get question after question from the jury and finally a 30 page verdict that failed to say who won. I would also hate seeing Trooper on a Jury...then the 12 would come back and find the lawyer guilty.

sean said...

I haven't read all the cited books, but nothing in the article does much to refute the strict church thesis. At most, the article shows that (i) "strictness" doesn't mean the exact same thing in 2000 as it would have in 1900 and (ii) there's a lot of diversity among the thriving churches. As George Orwell might have said, only an intellectual would find such commonplaces to be surprising or novel.

traditionalguy said...

I would never underestimate the resilience of Christian faith. It has a history of popping up again after being declared dead and buried.

mesquito said...

My Mexican-American aquaintances(and here in South Texas that means most of my aquaintances) are pretty much evenly divided among unengaged Catholics and deeply engaged evangelicals. This to me is very interesting. Which is more "strict"? Only an insular academic could boil it down to such a pointless fromula.

sean said...

The church which has deeply engaged participants is the "strict" one. It is also the growing one.

donttread2010 said...

@sean

"As George Orwell might have said, only an intellectual would find such commonplaces to be surprising or novel."

Bingo.

IMHO (oversimplified and overgeneralized); 'fundies'/'evangelicals' (people of faith) rely more on divinity and Biblical interpretation for understanding the human condition and the world, while academics/intellectuals tend to be more secular/relying on their own understanding of things.

Crimso said...

"then the 12 would come back and find the lawyer guilty"

I recommend "The Dosadi Experiment" by Frank Herbert.

Jason said...

These media types will never, ever get it as long as they're reporting on evangelicals as a f***ing anthropology project and not as, you know, people.

Saint Croix said...

There is no "new research" that contradicts the decline of Liberal Protestant churches and the rise of Evangelical churches.

From 1965-2005, attendance in the Episcopal church fell 34%, United Church of Christ fell 40% and the Presbyterian church fell 45%.

In the same time span, attendance in Roman Catholic churches rose 49%, Southern Baptist rose 51%, 7th day Adventist rose 164%, Mormons rose 218% and Christian and Missionary Alliance rose 565%.

Among other things, what Evangelicals do is missionary work. They try to bring people into the faith. So of course their numbers go up, since they're actively trying to increase them.

Jews, to use another religion, do not try to convert anybody. Which is why Judaism is a tiny world religion. And I can tell you, belonging to the Episcopal church, that we don't try to convert anybody, either. Which is why our numbers are shrinking, too.

The entire western civilization has become more secularized (hello). The growth of hard-line churches has been a response to that. And also these churches have had massive growth in Latin America, Africa, Asia.

In the Episcopal church, we have characters like Bishop Spong, who write books about how Mary wasn't a virgin, Jesus wasn't resurrected, and Christianity must change or die. Since the Episcopal church has made this moron a Bishop, you can see why church attendance has shrunk. I mean, if the Bible is a crock, why go to church? Why identify as an Episcopalian at all?

Saint Croix said...

I got to quit calling people names.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, "You fool!" will be liable to the hell of fire.

edutcher said...

Have to agree with Saint Croix. I have a feeling this new interest and research is the beginning of an attempt at Grmascian infiltration.

mesquito said...

My Mexican-American aquaintances(and here in South Texas that means most of my aquaintances) are pretty much evenly divided among unengaged Catholics and deeply engaged evangelicals.

Be interesting to know how many of those Catholics are in "Father Feel-good", guitar Mass parishes.

ricpic said...

Given the amount of social justice theologizing out there I'd say the Gramscian infiltration is well underway.

Saint Croix said...

When my mom doubted that Jesus was born of a virgin, I told her, "Mom! You're a Jew!" She thought that was funny. Still goes to church, though.

former law student said...

The church is a source of community in a culture that lacks it. The big evangelical churches where I live provide something for everyone. They have one charismatic leader and a fleet of subpastors. They have satellite parking lots and shuttle buses.

elcrain said...

Having watched the overturn of the Episcopal Church during my lifetime as a member, I'd say it's Gramsci's most successful project to date.

Sofa King said...

The church is a source of community in a culture that lacks it.

Not really. If people want community, they'll join a bowling league. What the "strict" church provides that is lacking in popular culture is moral authority. It seems that many people would rather choose sharply defined moral codes - even acknowledging their own failures to meet those codes - than embracing morality as inherently vague. As the moral authority of the state wanes, these types of churches will wax.

former law student said...

If people want community, they'll join a bowling league.

How do you join a bowling league if you don't know anyone in it? Just kinda sidle down the aisle, hoping someone will notice you? That people who have been bowling together for years will suddenly have an opening?

Contrast this with the typical evangelical church, whose members eagerly welcome new blood, and offer a variety of activities -- including bowling leagues for various age groups.

TMink said...

Well, just to muddy the waters with a little spirituality, the growth in evangelical churches is a revival! God is at work, His people are returning to Him. Church's that water down the gospel are fading, congreagations and denominations that treat the Bible as authoritative are growing.

Christmas is a great time to check out the claims of Christ.


Trey

former law student said...

What the "strict" church provides that is lacking in popular culture is moral authority.

I have my doubts about how effective that is. The divorced guy at work who started a popular Bible study apparently had never heard of Matthew Chapter 19. His then-girlfriend ended up in the battered women's shelter -- that was the last I saw of him.

David said...

I wonder if there is a sense among many of us that the whole world of evangelical Christianity represents academic culture's other, the antithesis of who we are as scholars and educators....

You wonder? Stop wondering, it's a slam dunk hard ass fact. The intellectual-academic-cultural self conscious elites can not abide strong faith. They consider the people of faith inferior, no less than once blacks were considered inferior.

traditionalguy said...

The community experience starts with a common worship...of something or someone. Diverting that worship to ourselves leads to the decline. There are many such diversionary teachers/preachers from Theology Schools who spend their time trying to free their flock from any faith. They do this by explaining that scriptures were only tribal Hebrew political propaganda, or by showing how ancient scripture 345 is proven wrong by ancient scripture 123, all of which they have already written off as mis-translated, ancient ignorance. You can tell what a Church is like when MLK, Ghandi, Buddha, Neitzche, and even painters from the middle ages are discussed freely, but at the mention of the name of Jesus, the group nearly faints.

Will said...

The divorced guy at work who started a popular Bible study apparently had never heard of Matthew Chapter 19. His then-girlfriend ended up in the battered women's shelter -- that was the last I saw of him.
And obviously, since this clown was a hypocrite, all of Christianity lacks moral authority, right?
The church is not a resort for saints, it is a hospital for sinners. Authentic Christian teaching has moral authority, even if the teachers fall short of the ideal.

reader_iam said...

And also these churches have had massive growth in Latin America, Africa, Asia.

Also, see realignments within the worldwide Anglican Communion.

reader_iam said...

The church is a source of community in a culture that lacks it.

and


What the "strict" church provides that is lacking in popular culture is moral authority.

wv: ledur

How about source of community AND source of moral authority?

Mitch H. said...

Those pervasive, broadly popular myths, the author argues, not only "anesthetize" participants to systemic social injustice but also "flatten internal contradictions" among African-American Christians, thereby creating a false sense of commonality within and among otherwise diverse communities.

Wow, it takes a while, but eventually you hit the postmodern doctrinaire rock inside the sociological snowball.

And anyone honestly surprised to discover that evangelical Protestants are a fractious, diverse bunch can't have ever spent more than an afternoon with the literature. "Low church" protestantism is inherently divisive, by the simple social and theological mechanics of the beast. If you want social unity, you really ought to go become a Catholic...

virgil xenophon said...

David hits it square in the nuts. Christians as the new Jim Crow blacks (except for black Christians, which get a pass because a) well, they're *black* and b) lefties dig the singing and c) they reliably vote Democrat) banned from public places--Christmas decorations, anyone?--and shunned in polite company by their social and intellectual condescending "bettors."

virgil xenophon said...

"...the postmodern doctrinaire rock inside the sociological snowball."

LOL. I like that phrase so much I'm stealin' it, Mitch H!

former law student said...

banned from public places

You do know the Salvation Army is an evangelical church, right?

virgil xenophon said...

fls/

Yes, and many have been the business' both large and small which have banned them from their premises in recent years..

former law student said...

many have been the business' both large and small which have banned them from their premises

I shop where the bellringers are.

TMink said...

" You can tell what a Church is like when MLK, Ghandi, Buddha, Neitzche, and even painters from the middle ages are discussed freely, but at the mention of the name of Jesus, the group nearly faints."

Well, you can tell if it is a bona fide christian church that way. I recall someone criticizing the church for being to Christocentric!

More postmodernist mush, and entertaining as it usually is.

Trey

Trooper York said...

Don't worry traditionalguy. In all the many times they called me for jury duty I was never selected for a case. No defense lawyer in his right mind would put a big white Irish guy who looks like a cop on the jury. In fact when I go into the box for the voir dire I always go:
"Seriously, you know you are not going to pick me so why are you wasting our time here."

Trooper York said...

The main stream media and academics as a group know very little about church going people of any stripe. Let alone people who are serious about it and really believe.

Bender said...

Why has there been such a lack of familiarity, indeed, of interest, among academics in the cultural depth and complexity of American evangelicalism until so recently?

I don't know about academia and Evangelicals, but why has there been such a lack of familiarity, indeed, of interest, among academics in the fact that (a) there has been a great deal of study on religion in society and culture and (b) the modern university is itself the product of the (Catholic) Church?

Bob said...

"Perhaps we don't do as much book browsing as most people do in Wal-Marts and Targets, and so are less likely to encounter evangelicalism in everyday life."

Good grief, you don't need to dirty yourself by visiting Target, just turn on the freakin' radio. Every market of any size in the country has Christian radio stations and you can hear sermons all day long.

I'm not a Christian, but I often listen just because it can be interesting. Where else can you hear people on the radio talking about ancient history, Greek grammar, and Puritan philosophy?

The big names in Christian radio -- John Piper, Alistair Begg, R.C. Sproul, David Jeremiah, and dozens of others -- have a bigger audience in one week than most college professors will have over the course of their entire lives. Most of them are exceptional speakers (I wish I was half as good).

I don't believe a word of their theology, but for goodness sake, turn on the radio for free and listen if you want to hear what millions of people around the world are listening to outside of your faculty lounge.

Sofa King said...

Authentic Christian teaching has moral authority, even if the teachers fall short of the ideal.

Often, you could replace "even if" with "especially if." Part of what I think makes "stict" churches so attractive to some people is a simultaneous combination of high expectations and forgiveness and understanding of falling short. There is actually something very liberating about being able to say, "Yes, this is wrong, and I was wrong to do it," and actually being forgiven - to know that it is understood that everybody - *everybody*, no exceptions - fails sometimes.

reader_iam said...

So many things aren't that hard to discover, unless you're determined that they should be. It's a human thing, and by a human thing, I do mean a generally human thing.