The Evangelical 99 Percent

A guest post by Richard Flory

Last week I spent a day at the annual Evangelical Theological Society meetings in San Francisco. My entree to the event was an invitation from some colleagues who are working on an project linking theological reflection and California culture, which allowed me to get a closer look at a gathering of several hundred evangelical theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers, pastors and political interlocutors–in effect, the brain trust of conservative American evangelicalism.

I went fully expecting to hear the working out of the theological and philosophical arguments that underlie the strident voices that emanate from the religious right. While there was a bit of shrill posturing (apparently some religions–one in particular–could legally be outlawed, according to one point of view), most of the sessions amounted to earnest attempts to uncover and present deeper thinking and reflection about the Christian scriptures, how Christians should live in the world and how they might have a positive influence in American culture.

I wasn’t surprised to see that most (85 percent or more) of the participants were white men. Still, there was what appeared to be a good number of blacks in attendance (in addition to a scattering of other minorities). But like the phenomenon described in the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? the non-whites gravitated toward one another in the conversations between sessions. This in itself isn’t too surprising, given the isolation that many people of color experience at evangelical colleges and seminaries, which tend to be overwhelmingly white.

Equally unsurprising was the assertion that [Read more...]

Haitian Catholics and Gratitude

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, I thought it best to re-post here a blog I wrote last Thanksgiving about what Haitian Catholics taught me about gratitude. The blog original appeared at the University of Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities blog.

It is appropriate that Anne Barnard’s front-page New York Times piece on Haitian Catholicism, entitled “Suffering, Haitians Turn to Charismatic Prayer” appeared on Thanksgiving Day (2010), for one of the strongest themes of the Haitian Catholic Charismatic movement is gratitude. During the nearly two years of fieldwork I conducted in Haiti and among the Haitian Catholic communities of Miami, Montreal and Paris for my book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, I was also struck by how often Haitian Catholics thanked God for such blessings as food (however meager), life (however difficult) and faith (however severely challenged).

The modern ideal of autonomy—and its discontents

Many U.S. observers have been confounded over the decades by the resilience of Haitians’ faith in the face of poverty, dictatorship and—in January 2010—the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Perhaps their joy in the midst of suffering confuses us because we moderns so often seek security in our homes, cars, neighborhoods, jobs, and health.  We believe that we can hide out from human frailty in a fortress of material comforts. A modern narrative of autonomy and self-fulfillment so common in the U.S. leads us to believe that our happiness depends fundamentally on ourselves. To suffer, then, seems a moral failure—a failure to fulfill our characteristically modern aspiration to self-sufficient success.

True, human beings are made for happiness and fulfillment. But to find them, we need relationships. And relationships demand [Read more...]

Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? Breaking-up with a God Who Failed Them

Part 2 in a series on deconversion.

In a study of religious deconversion, we analyzed 50 on-line testimonies posted by former Christians, and in these testimonies we found four general explanations for deconversion. The first explanation, which I wrote about last week, regarded intellectual and theological concerns about the Christian faith. The second, which I elaborate here, regards a failed relationship with God. Almost half (22 of 50) of the writers expressed sentiments that in some way God had failed them by His not doing what they thought He should.

God’s perceived failure took various forms, most of which fall under the general heading of “unanswered prayers.”

One way that people felt that God had failed them happened when He did not respond to requests for help during difficult times. A young man raised in a Baptist church epitomized this feeling of failure when he wrote about God not answering his prayers about family difficulties. He wrote: “The first time I questioned the faith was when my grandmother shriveled up in front of me for 6 month’s due to cancer. I was 13 & my mother & father [were] getting a divorce. My father told me I should have been aborted. I prayed to God but nothing fails like prayers.”

Likewise, a woman raised in a Methodist household described her [Read more...]

CCM: Contemporary Catholic Music?

My wife is a big fan of contemporary Christian music (CCM), and has listened to it as long as I’ve known her—about 22 years. I’m a fan, too, I suppose, although at a much more “socially acceptable” level than she is. (I just had to say that.) Basically, she introduces me to new songs, albums, and musicians—some of which I wind up enjoying, others not so much.

Our transition from evangelical to Catholic has shed light on the role of music in one’s faith tradition. (It’s also gratefully revealed little that’s distinctively Protestant about most CCM.) For many evangelicals, CCM is a hallmark of their cultural consumption patterns. Sure, there are different tastes and preferences, from the cheesy to the edgy, from the very to the barely (Christian). But one fact seems pretty clear: most performing artists in the CCM world run with evangelicals, so far as I can tell. Very few are Catholic. Why is that?

My best guess at an answer is three-fold. First, CCM’s origins are evangelical, and thus—speaking sociologically—there probably weren’t many “cross-cutting social circles” in its development. That is, when a brand new—or in CCM’s case, a hybrid—cultural form emerges among one group of people, it won’t likely emerge similarly among a different group if social ties between members of the two groups either don’t exist or aren’t strong. So the first part of the answer is rooted in older patterns of sociality; that is, historically evangelicals and Catholics haven’t socially interacted all that much, curbing the likelihood of diffusing cultural forms between them.

This is similar to the reason why country music is a largely Protestant thing as well. If you look at a map of religious affiliation distinctions across the US, Nashville—the CCM and country music capital of the world—is smack in the middle of a very Protestant state (and region). This is probably the primary reason behind the lack of diffusion of CCM.

A second (more interesting) part of my answer/guess is rooted in [Read more...]

Intellectuals Need to Question Conventional Categories

How does one’s faith influence the intellectual vocation? In part, at least, by encouraging both deep questioning and seeking to be consistent in one’s thinking. The renowned economic historian, Professor Harold James of Princeton University, recently shared his thoughts with Princeton Professor Robert George, himself a renowned political theorist, on his faith and his work. The full interview appeared in the Daily Princetonian this week.

I particularly liked how Professor James described the Christian vocation to be consistent in standing up for what is right, whether that accords with popular opinion or any particular political party:

“RG: So are faithful, consistent Catholics destined to be regarded as right-wingers by the left-wing and as left-wingers by the right?

HJ: Right. So I think you’re correct that we need to question conventional categories. But that vocation to question is actually a vocation that intellectuals should have in general.”

While a graduate student at Princeton, both Professor James and Professor George impressed me with their attempts to to integrate their faith, intellectual life, and life as citizens.

To read the full article, click here.


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