John Ortberg’s forward for Wright’s new book

John Ortberg, one of the best known Christian teachers and writers in the country, very kindly agreed to write a foreword for my book.  Here it is, he does a really nice job of capturing the essence of the book.  There’s just one problem, though.  He’s such a gifted writer, that I’m afraid that my own writing will suffer in comparison.  So, read the foreword, but then try to forget just how good it is.  ;-)

“The good news about bad news is that there is not nearly as much of it to go around as you might think.

The bad news about good news is that good news doesn’t tend to sell. Everybody wants to get good news from the doctor and their boss and their (choose one) therapist/stockbroker/fantasy football league commissioner. But it turns out that articles which indicate that the economy should run along OK or that rivers are relatively clean don’t tend to sell newspapers, which means they don’t tend to get writers promoted, which means they don’t tend to get written.

People go to conferences that warn about dire situations.

People buy books that say the world is falling apart.

Bad news has probably always had this pull. Paul Revere didn’t get famous by riding around saying: “The British stayed home. Go ahead and sleep in tomorrow.”

But living in the information age (or perhaps more accurately the Anxious Information Age), we seem to get bad news more often, on more channels, in high def.

For a variety of reasons, folks in the evangelical Christian community are often seem to have a particularly sharp appetite for bad news. Authors and speakers who can document that the younger generation is about to lose their faith, or that churches are about to lose their congregations, or that the nation is about to lose its soul, never seem to run short of listeners no matter how shaky their case may be.

The gravitational pull of bad news is a problem. Like the little boy who cried wolf, the purveyors of doom can eventually lose all credibility, so that when bad news really does happen no one is listening anymore.

But there is Good News.  Bradley Wright has written a terrific book.

The good news about this book is that it is not based on optimism. Its based on reality. It turns out that much of what gets repeated as bad news is often based on bad data. 90% of all statistics in the media are both negative and inaccurate. (I just made that up. But I’ll bet there’s a bias in that direction.)

Brad is an academician, a bona fide believer, and a highly engaging writer. He has a passion for all people—particular for people of faith—to think well and honor the life of the mind and treat statistics with discernment and not to chronically alarmist.

He wants to help us quit mistaking negativity with thoughtfulness.

He wants to help us stop mindlessly passing on pessimistic diagnoses that either neither helpful nor accurate.

He wants us to actually be aware of and celebrate good news that is spreading on multiple fronts.
–Crime is getting better (but we think its getting worse)
–we are working less and playing more (but we think we’re playing less and working more)
–Poverty is going down

Two thousand years ago, a book began to be widely read whose core was summarized as euaggelion—good news. Not dysaggelion.

We, of all people, should be able to recognize and celebrate and express gratitude wherever we find it.

For all good news is God’s good news. And to ignore it, hide it, minimize it, or distort it is neither mentally healthy nor spiritually sound.

So take a deep breath, turn the page, and get ready to be happy.”

A cover story in Christianity Today by Brad Wright

This month’s issue of Christianity Today has an article by me as its cover story. It was both a challenge and a joy to write as it forced me into a bit of a different style of writing, one that I hope is more effective for reaching non-academic types. After 20 years or so of learning to write as boringly as possible, to maximize the chance of getting through peer-review, I’m having to learn some new tricks.

Here’s the link for the article, and below is the first part of it. Let me know what you think. 

***

American evangelical Christianity is ready for its Sally Field moment.

The actress’s 1985 Academy Award acceptance speech is famously quoted as, “You like me! You really like me!”

But we often forget that Field was accepting her second Oscar in five years. She had already won the recognition of her peers. What she really said in 1985 was, “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

Similarly, somewhere along the line we evangelical Christians have gotten it into our heads that our neighbors, peers, and most Americans don’t like us, and that they like us less every year. I’ve heard this idea stated in sermons and everyday conversation; I’ve read it in books and articles.

There’s a problem, though. It doesn’t appear to be true….

Is religion less important than it used to be?

Is religion less important now than it used to be? There are many ways to think of this question. For example, is religion less important in politics, in local communities, in education, in community life, and so forth. However, one critical feature of the importance of religion regards its importance to individual people.

Since 1986, the New York Times, CBS, Gallup, and several other groups have surveyed Americans about the importance of religion. In particular, they have asked Americans the following question: “How important is religion in your daily life? Is it extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not at all important?”

This question has been asked more than 50 times over a 25-year period, which gives a sense of how Americans have changed on this issue.

In the latest survey, collected in February 2011, 26% of respondents reported that religion is “extremely important to them,” 25% said “very important,” 33% said “somewhat important,” and 14% said “not at all important.” As such, about of Americans experience religion as highly important in their lives (i.e., “extremely” or “very”). About one-third hold it as marginally important (i.e., “somewhat”), and the rest not important.

To understand how this has changed over time, I have plotted answers to this survey question over the past 25 years. (I averaged across surveys when multiple surveys asked this question in a given year. Also, this question wasn’t asked in every year). The results are shown in the following figure.

(Click to enlarge)

As shown in this figure, the number of Americans who view religion as not at all important in their daily life held steady from 1985 to about 2003 at around 8-9%. Since then, however, it has risen steadily to 14% in 2011.

At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of Americans who view religion as extremely important in their daily lives has also increased. In the 1980s, only 21%-22% of Americans viewed religion as extremely important. This percentage increased steadily over the next to decades, to where it’s now at 26%–a change almost as large as the increase in Americans who view religion as not at all important.

Religion as moderately to strongly important. Through 2007, at least, the percentage of Americans who viewed religion as “very” important said steady at about 33%. However, the percentage who viewed it as “somewhat” important dropped, from the most frequently-given answer, 36% in 1986, to only 22% in 2007. In 2010 and 2011, however, the percentage of “very” dropped considerably and the percentage of “somewhat” has risen. It’s too early to tell if this is a robust trend.

A more simple examination compares 1986 to 2011.

Extremely important  22% 26%
Very important           34% 25%
Somewhat important  36% 33%
Not important at all     8% 14%

From these data, several trends seem to emerge.

1) Over the past 25 years, Americans are more polarized regarding the importance of religion. More Americans view it as not at all important in their daily lives, and more Americans view it as extremely important.
2) For the most part, the increase in viewing religion as not at all important has come at the expense of those who view it as somewhat important. In other words, some of the people who view religion as moderately important as downgrading it to not important at all.
3) The last two years *may* represent a change in the importance of religion. While the most devout religious people (i.e., “extremely important) hold on to their beliefs, there is a significant drop in those who religion as “very” important, with these people appearing to transition to viewing it as only “somewhat” important. It’s too early to tell, however, whether this is a robust long-term trend. If it is, it could portend further polarization—as the middle ground of religious importance disappears.

Christian Smith on religious pluralism

Christian Smith has a wonderful op-ed on the Huffington Post.

He makes a strong case for “authentic pluralism”–avoiding both sectarian conflict on one side and what he terms “liberal whateverism” on the other. Here is part of his conclusion:

I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that “all religions are ultimately the same.” That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private “opinions.” It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.”

Despite the quality of his arguments, I’m guessing that the longest-lasting contribution of this piece will be the catchy, and somewhat dismissive, phrase “liberal whateverism.” Nicely done.


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