A nation of heretics

Ross Douthat begins with reflections on three recent cases in American religion:  the popularity of prosperity-gospeller Joel Osteen; President Obama’s statement that the reason he now favors gay marriage is because he follows Jesus; and new statistics that find that non-denominational Christianity is now the third largest category, behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists.  He then draws this conclusion and applications:

For decades, the cultural tug-of-war between the Christian right and the secular left has encouraged people to envision the American religious future in binary terms –as either godless or orthodox, either straightforwardly secular or traditionally Christian. But these examples and trends suggest a more complicated reality, in which religious institutions have declined but religion itself has not, and Americans increasingly redefine Christianity as they see fit rather than than abandoning it entirely.

We aren’t a nation of rigorous Richard Dawkins-style atheists and equally rigorous Pope Benedict XVI-style Catholics, in other words. Instead, we’re a nation of Osteens and Obamas, Dan Browns and Deepak Chopras –neither a Christian nation nor a secular society, but a nation of heretics.

To many Americans, this description no doubt sounds like a compliment. Because we’ve always been a nation from of religious freethinkers and entrepreneurs –from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy –the word “heretic” often carries positive connotations in our religious culture. It’s associated with theological daring, spiritual experimentation, and a willingness to blaze new trails and push on toward new horizons.

But the heretical imperative in America’s religious life has usually existed in a kind of fruitful and creative tension with more conservative, institutional, and historically-rooted forms of faith –first denominational Protestantism and then later the Roman Catholic Church as well. And the post-1960s decline of these churches has taken a significant toll on our common life, in ways that both religious and secular observers should be able to recognize.

For one thing, individualistic and do-it-yourself forms of religion are less likely to bind communities together, encourage stable families, assimilate immigrants, and otherwise Americans to live in healthy fellowship with one another. It is not a coincidence that as the institutional churches have lost their purchase among poor and non-college educated Americans, that population’s social ills have multiplied and its economic prospects have dimmed.

At the same time, self-created forms of faith are also less likely to provide a check against the self’s worst impulses –whether it’s the kind of materialism that Joel Osteen’s sunny promises encourage, or the solipsism that percolates under the surface of popular spiritual memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” Many of America’s contemporary crises, from the housing bubble and the financial crash to the collapse of the two-parent family, can be traced to just this tendency — encouraged by too much contemporary religion — to make the self’s ambitions the measure of all things.

Finally, when strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.

via ‘A nation of Osteens and Obamas’ – Guest Voices – The Washington Post.

The rainbow-colored halo

President Clinton was hailed by the liberal media as “the first black president”–on the basis of his soulfulness, sexual appetites, and other racist stereotypes–even though there would be an actual black president a few years later.  Now Newsweek is hailing President Obama as “the first gay president” with a cover story by Andrew Sullivan about alleged affinities between being biracial and being gay.  (Never mind that gays had been disillusioned with the president for not doing anything for them until his recent announcement that he support gay marriage.)

I think this is ridiculous journalism and unfair to President Obama.  What gets me, though, is the cover.  In an extreme version of media hagiography, both of Obama and of gays, the president is adorned with a halo.  A rainbow-colored halo.

Andrew Sullivan on Barack Obama’s Gay Marriage Evolution – The Daily Beast.

We have recently discussed homosexuality and gay marriage, to the point of exhaustion, so let’s not talk about those subjects as such.  Let’s talk about the halo.

In what has to be one of the  most dramatic turnarounds in moral and cultural history, gays have acquired the status of sainthood, while those who oppose homosexuality have acquired the status of evil villain.  Homosexuality used to be considered a mental illness; now homophobia is considered the mental illness.  Gay sex used to be considered a vice; now it is assuming the status of a virtue, while disapproving of gay sex is considered a vice.  Conservative Christians have liked to think of themselves as “good” (despite their own theology); but now they (or we) are demonized.  Gays, though, wear a halo.  Not that everyone believes this, but this is the projection of both the elite and the popular cultures, whose influence is permeating everywhere.

How do you account for this turn-around?  How did it happen?  Why? Are there lessons that Christians can learn from this before the persecutions begin in earnest?  And, to play the Newsweek game, might Christians someday become the “new gays”?

What grates about the GSA scandal

More from that brilliant column by Peggy Noonan, America’s Crisis of Character:

There is the General Services Administration scandal. An agency devoted to efficiency is outed as an agency of mindless bread-and-circuses indulgence. They had a four-day regional conference in Las Vegas, with clowns and mind readers.

The reason the story is news, and actually upsetting, is not that a government agency wasted money. That is not news. The reason it’s news is that the people involved thought what they were doing was funny, and appropriate. In the past, bureaucratic misuse of taxpayer money was quiet. You needed investigators to find it, trace it, expose it. Now it’s a big public joke. They held an awards show. They sang songs about the perks of a government job: “Brand new computer and underground parking and a corner office. . . . Love to the taxpayer. . . . I’ll never be under OIG investigation.” At the show, the singer was made Commissioner for a Day. “The hotel would like to talk to you about paying for the party that was held in the commissioner’s suite last night” the emcee said. It got a big laugh.

On the “red carpet” leading into the event, GSA chief Jeffrey Neely said: “I am wearing an Armani.” One worker said, “I have a talent for drinking Margarita. . . . It all began with the introduction of performance measures.” That got a big laugh too.

All the workers looked affluent, satisfied. Only a generation ago, earnest, tidy government bureaucrats were spoofed as drudges and drones. Not anymore. Now they’re way cool. Immature, selfish and vain, but way cool.

Their leaders didn’t even pretend to have a sense of mission and responsibility. They reminded me of the story a year ago of the dizzy captain of a U.S. Navy ship who made off-color videos and played them for his crew. He wasn’t interested in the burdens of leadership—the need to be the adult, the uncool one, the one who maintains standards. No one at GSA seemed interested in playing the part of the grown-up, either.

Why? Why did they think this is OK? They seemed mildly decadent. Or proudly decadent. In contrast to you, low, toiling taxpayer that you are, poor drudges and drones.

via America’s Crisis of Character – WSJ.com.

HT:  Doug Reynolds

Lutheran Anglicans

I met an Anglican priest the other day who, it turns out, was a big fan of Spirituality of the Cross and my other “Lutheran” books.  As I talked with him, I was astonished at how much he was into Lutheranism.  He explained that there is currently a strain in Anglicanism that is seeking to recover its Lutheran roots.

He said Anglicanism generally has had four theological strains:  (1) The mainline Protestantism of the Episcopal Church in America; (2) Anglo-Catholicism; (3) low church evangelicalism, which is often distinctly Reformed; (4) the charismatic movement.

But now, he says, a number of  Anglicans, especially young theologians, are rediscovering Luther, who was a major influence on the founders of Anglicanism, especially Thomas Cranmer.   They are finding that it is possible to be both sacramental and evangelical, liturgical and Biblical.  Above all, they are discovering that the Gospel as Luther understood it–radical, liberating–speaks powerfully to our own times and to the specific struggles of both Christians and non-Christians today.

The main force in this movement of Lutheran Anglicans or Anglican Lutherans is the Mockingbird Ministry, run by David Zahl and friends, whose main presence is the blog known as Mockingbird.  (Read the FAQ for why it’s called that.)  I have been reading and linking to it without realizing its role in a movement.  It’s a brilliant website, in both design and content.  Much of it is taken up with commentary on music, film, literature, and the culture as a whole.  But it’s also full of discussions of the distinction between Law & Gospel and the Theology of the Cross vs. the Theology of Glory.

It draws on ELCA theologians who are still Lutheran, such as Stephen Paulson and Gerhard Forde (who inspires a regular feature called “Forde Friday”), but also Missouri Synod stalwarts such as C. F. W. Walther and Rod Rosenbladt (who is called “our hero” and a formative influence).

And the design and tone are very cool and cutting-edged, not stodgy but young, sophisticated, even avant garde.

I’m not saying it’s all completely on target or could in every instance pass Missouri Synod doctrinal review–a recent post quotes Rudolph Bultmann, though one in which the liberal theologian sounds Lutheran–but it’s a good site to visit.

And it’s a challenge to us Lutheran Lutherans to remind us that, even as some of our own churches play it down, outsiders are finding our theology compelling.

 

The actual crisis in America

Peggy Noonan cuts to the heart:

People in politics talk about the right track/wrong track numbers as an indicator of public mood. This week Gallup had a poll showing only 24% of Americans feel we’re on the right track as a nation. That’s a historic low. Political professionals tend, understandably, to think it’s all about the economy—unemployment, foreclosures, we’re going in the wrong direction. I’ve long thought that public dissatisfaction is about more than the economy, that it’s also about our culture, or rather the flat, brute, highly sexualized thing we call our culture.

Now I’d go a step beyond that. I think more and more people are worried about the American character—who we are and what kind of adults we are raising.

Every story that has broken through the past few weeks has been about who we are as a people. And they are all disturbing.

She then runs down the list:  The GSA scandal, the Secret Service scandal, the soldiers posing with body parts scandal, the YouTubes of the tourist getting beaten in Baltimore while passersby laugh and the woman crying as she’s being felt up by the TSA.

In isolation, these stories may sound like the usual sins and scandals, but in the aggregate they seem like something more disturbing, more laden with implication, don’t they? And again, these are only from the past week.

The leveling or deterioration of public behavior has got to be worrying people who have enough years on them to judge with some perspective.

Something seems to be going terribly wrong.

via America’s Crisis of Character – WSJ.com.

Could it be cultural breakdown, a state in which there is no longer a sense of community that exerts any kind of social pressure to do what is right?

What do you think?  And is there any way to restore a sense of civilization and character?  (Politics will clearly not do that, since it provides so many more examples of this crisis of character.)

HT:  Doug Reynolds

The influence of the Lutheran parsonage in Germany

Sociologist Peter Berger on the influence of the Lutheran parsonage in Germany, particularly in East Germany under Communism:

[Chancellor Angela] Merkel [daughter of a Lutheran pastor] and [President Joichim] Gauck [a former Lutheran pastor] share a background of Protestant life in Communist East Germany. To what extent has this background shaped their worldview and their overall lifestyle? I don’t think that I know enough about these two individuals to answer the question—though it is hard to believe that the conditions under which one lived during one’s formative years leave no traces in one’s later life. In the event, one can take an individual out of a Lutheran parsonage—I doubt whether one can take the parsonage out of the individual. The powerful language of Luther’s German translation of the Bible and the powerful music of Lutheran hymnody must inevitably reverberate even in the consciousness of individuals whose ties with the Lutheran church have frayed. But we do know a lot about the story of that church in the so-called German Democratic Republic, and in East Germany since then. It is an interesting and somewhat puzzling story.

The ideology of the DDR was an aggressively atheist Marxism. Religious institutions were closely watched by the Stasi. Clergy and active lay people were harassed, frequently arrested, treated as second-class citizens. As a result religion existed in a barely tolerated subculture, tightly contained and periodically persecuted. Because of the exigencies of German religious history, the population of the DDR was mostly Protestant. By the very nature of its pariah status, the Protestant church inadvertently maintained (as it were, preserved in amber) not only a particular religious tradition, but the bourgeois culture with which it had been historically linked. Visitors to the DDR were regularly impressed by the old-fashioned appearance of its urban landscape—socialist neglect had kept away the frenetic modernization of West German cities and towns. But equally impressive was the preservation of bourgeois values and habits, equally old-fashioned by Western standards—not only in the Protestant quasi-ghetto, but especially there. Most Protestant congregations did not actively oppose the regime. Nevertheless, they constituted oases of an older, different culture in the desert of official Communist institutions. Since the Protestant church was the only institution with a degree of tolerated autonomy, it very naturally became the main locale of political opposition in the late 1980s. The regime change was inaugurated by the huge demonstrations that first emerged from the historic Thomaskirche in Leipzig (where Johann Sebastian Bach had been organist). When the regime finally collapsed in 1989, some people spoke of “a Protestant revolution”—prematurely, as things turned out. In the final years of the DDR and the first years after re-unification, a number of church-related individuals, including pastors, became politically prominent. Merkel and Gauck were not the only ones. But the role of the church diminished rapidly in the 1990s. Today the territory of the former DDR and the Czech Republic constitute the most thoroughly secularized region in Central Europe. (The Austrian sociologist Paul Zulehner has described them as two countries in which atheism is the established religion.) Why this is so is an intriguing question, but I cannot pursue it here.

A few years ago I heard a lecture by a historian about the role of the Protestant parsonage in German cultural history. The role was quite remarkable. A disproportionate number of writers, scholars and artists were the children of Protestant pastors. But the Protestant parsonage, the Pfarrhaus, was a focus of education and cultural activity beyond the family that inhabited it, especially in smaller towns and villages. The parsonage radiated the distinctive “Protestant ethic” to which Max Weber ascribed an important causal role in the genesis of modern capitalism—personal discipline, soberness, honesty, a penchant for orderliness. Did all good Protestants live that way? Of course they did not. (Deservedly or not, pastors’ daughters had a reputation for sexual laxity.) Did this ethic have negative aspects? Of course it did. It could be stuffy and stultifying, and its penchant for orderliness often led to a supine respect for authority, any authority. Yet many of the greatest cultural achievements in German history had Protestant, specifically Lutheran roots.

via The Long Reach of the Protestant Parsonage in Germany? | Religion and Other Curiosities.

HT:  Joe Carter


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