A friend who called my attention to Mark Lilla’s New York Times essay (about leaving behind his faith) raised this question: Will the Times ever publish a similar essay about a person who comes to faith?
As “my former faith” essays go, Lilla’s “Getting Religion” is well above average. He builds the piece around Billy Graham’s crusade in Queens and the menagerie of anti-Graham protesters the crusade attracted. When Lilla is critical of individuals, such as an unnamed member of A True Church, it’s usually because they reflect some aspect of his days as a zealous convert to evangelical faith during the groovy 1970s: “Mr. True Church is one of those energetic types you find in every evangelical church and prayer group: the amateur scholar. I was surrounded by them in my teens and eventually became one myself. Ours was not a bookish home, and no one in my family had graduated from college.”
His worst misreading of contemporary evangelical culture is in thinking that it’s bereft of serious theology:
A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers — ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it’s strictly self-service.
Lilla is more on target when he critiques the opening act at Graham’s last American crusade:
There was no joy to be felt in Corona Park the night I was there. To my disappointment we never got around to singing “How Great Thou Art.” Instead, two Christian pop bands opened for Graham, playing their own insipid music before the television cameras, as if they were recording an MTV video. When I pulled my eyes away from the visual vortex caused by the screens, I realized that no one was singing along with them; the crowd just watched and clapped. I wanted to shout out the joyful words of Moses: “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation!” (Exodus 15:2). Or the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth!” (42:10). But this was not an evening for the God of Sinai and the Judean desert. Nor was it an evening for the song in every believer’s heart to rise up and draw him lovingly into the mystical body of Christ. Tonight that body was plastered to its seats, each member gazing forward in private, rapt silence. Sixty thousand iPods would have had the same effect.