Ellenism August 9, 2012

Robert Bellah, in his very well-known Habits of the Heart, opened up a can of church and religion worms when he showed that the evidence pointed us in the direction of increasing individualism and the lack of interest on the part of Americans to participate in community. In his sketch of religious individualism, he created “Sheila” and her creating of her own religion as “Sheilaism.”

Diana Butler Bass, though she wants to emphasize that Ellen is not Sheila, has given us a slightly new version of Sheila in her story of Ellen. Diana’s book is called Christianity After Religion, and Diana is excited about the prospect of the end of religion and the awakening of something new.

Bared to the bone, Diana’s project is that what was thought to be a revival and renewal of the church in the 1960s, and therefore a better Christianity, has turned out to be something entirely different. What is emerging is a spirituality after religion, and by “religion” she means institutionalized Christianity.

The numbers she pushes are the numbers of declining church membership and attendance, and she contends this is not just the case with the mainline but with evangelical and conservative churches. While the numbers of the latter were often touted to point to the bankruptcy of the mainline, the numbers of Americans participating now in conservative churches are on the decline. (If anyone knows I’d like to know why Diana and others are not also using the Baylor Study of Religion, or studies like those of Bradley Wright or Christian Smith, where those numbers — if I understand them aright — are not pointing to decline as much as holding their own.)

Yes, I would agree with Diana in this: in the last generation there are notable shifts, and I would call it a bricolage approach to one’s faith. In other words, Sheilaism is accurate: more and more people are forming their own faith. Ellenism is a form of Sheilaism; Ellenism takes Sheilaism into non-institutional, anti-institutional forms without minimizing one’s religious affection.

Diana’s argument is the argument that Bonhoeffer and Harvey Cox were onto something when they spoke of both religionless Christianity (which Diana needs to define very carefully since Bonhoeffer is on the rise and this expression of his capable of horrendous miscommunications) and the secular city or the death of God and religion. She thinks we are at the end of an era and  on the cusp of a religious awakening and here’s how she describes what is awakening:

This transformation is what some hope be a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and oppression.

In other words, what is awakening is a form of the liberation gospel. People are angry and bored and are pursuing something new. They are fed up with institutional hypocrisy. Ellen, Diana observes, “has, in effect, become pastor, theologian, moral authority, teacher, and spiritual director of her own postinstitutional church” (25). I simply can’t agree with Diana that Ellen is not Sheila; Ellen is Sheila twenty to thirty years later.

There is, she says, a Bear Market in religion.

There, also, the possibility of a Fourth Great Awakening. She thinks it will come through the mainline and through this widespread disaffection with the institutional church.

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  • EricW

    Pastor and author Kathy Escobar and her commenters just wrote this that touches on your topic: http://kathyescobar.com/2012/08/08/re-defining-church/

  • EricW

    Kathy links to ex-pastor and author Jim Henderson’s blog and 8-7-2012 blog post http://jimhendersonpresents.com/church-and-me/

    Jim and the commenters on his post continue the story/thread you discuss here. The falling apart of the church may be more widespread than one thinks, and it may, like some say about the economy, be about to be going over a cliff in the next couple decades.

  • Scott,
    I like your analysis and I suspect you are right, Ellen is Shelia (20-30) years down the road and probably the wish-fulfillment of the a liberal vision. Much to chew on here and I hope to give her book a good read but I also suspect that the demise of the institutional church (with all of its flaws and warts) is premature. The church was in far worse shape in America, for instance, before the first great awakening and marvelously recovered at the awakening hand of God’s Spirit. He is an expert in making dry bones live.

    It is interesting that Bass fails to quote or utilize the Baylor Study, but even it should not be what we look to for hope. If the church needs to change, let it change. If it needs to be reshaped, let it morph. The only thing we must retain is the centrality of Christ as its living Lord and that she observe the “decisions (Gk. dogmata) that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).

    And even if the church in America were to become extinct, a new place will emerge to trumpet the news that the Kingdom of God is near to all men/women everywhere and that all, without exception are commended to repent and believe the gospel. The gates of hell will not prevail over the Church. Jesus will be true to his word and he is still coming to judge the living and the dead no matter what Bass or others think the Church will “graduate” to in their faulty-spectacled view of the Church.

    Thanks for passing on the note to an interesting book.

  • Bob

    If Bellah’s “lack of interest on the part of Americans to participate in community” equates to church attendance, then I’d take issue since one can actively be engaged in vital community without church attendance. I do attend church somewhat regularly, but that’s not “vital community” to me. If, on the other hand, I misunderstand Bellah’s point and he means community in general, well… it’s possible with all of the individualized media, strain on people’s time due to increased work demands, etc., but then I don’t think that’s the whole story because Facebook and social media alone manifest the desire/need for people to connect with others, and sometimes in deeper ways than face-to-face accomplishes at a church meeting.

  • Jim

    “This transformation is what some hope be a ‘Great Turning’ toward a global community based on shared human connection, dedicated to the care of our planet, committed to justice and equality, that seeks to raise hundreds of millions from poverty, violence, and oppression.”

    I recognize that I do not have the context of that quotation at hand but that line scares the bejeebers out of me. “care”…”justice”…”equality” “that seeks”…..Whose care? Whose Justice? Whose equality? And under whose directive?

    Not for me…

  • I’m among those who are attracted to Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” but I wholeheartedly agree that it is exceptionally important to define carefully and remain slow to speak these words.

    You have to admit, it’s nearly impossible not to like Ellen (apart from those who dislike her because of her homosexuality). At least as far as i can tell she is loving, affirming, genuine, and confident without being the least bit arrogant. She appears to have a deeply empathetic heart for the downtrodden and has made it her mission to speak and be life and hope for people who feel their own waning. I don’t think it would be a stretch at all to say that at some point in her life she has met the risen Christ within the selfless love of another person (whether she recognized Him as such or not) and has responded by choosing to return this same love to others in turn rather than absorbing it and using it for her own gain, as so many with her talent would. I can imagine her someday finally meeting Christ face to face and immediately recognizing his voice both as that of every beat down single mom who has burst into tears speaking to her on the phone, and also as the One who enabled her to remain loving under the barrage of scorn from those who judge her, thinking they know Christ now.

    I believe that Christ set in motion an unending chain of events, relationships, ideas, and actions that will someday culminate in the restoration of all things. I won’t claim to know, but just know that I feel, somehow, that a relationship with Jesus can’t be limited to those who know, understand, and believe the literal written words of the bible. Jesus is that which is in all things, before all things, and holds all things together. With his incarnation he sparked an endless string of incarnations in the lives of each who encounters God in tue Love of another and chooses to respond in by believing that they are loved, AND LIKED, by God (or by whatever name they have come to know God by).

    Again, I cannot say that I know this, but only that to the Holy Spirit, and to me, it SEEMS that to know Jesus Christ in a saving way is to (1)see Him (by literal name or not) within the selfless, life-giving, sacrifice (i.e. grace) of another, (2) to recognize that we are undeserving of such sacrifice, and (3) to resist the shame felt in receiving such a display of undeserved mercy by (4) believing that we are actually deeply Loved and Liked by another. If we truly, truly have faith in the Truth of the Love offered then what results is Freedom to stop demanding love from others and a natural overflow of the same kind of love we received.

    Since coming to see the gospel this way I see it everywhere, woven into the fabric of the world. I see it in Every movie, every novel, every song, every action of every person… All of life swirls around the concept of whether we believe And act as if we are loved and liked already or whether we must demand to be Loved and liked by others.

    The Word of God is and always has been that our shame is the result of deception. God’s love has been proven to overpower sin for all. Some add to the Word, by judging, saying “you need to know more, do more, BE MORE than you are to find peace,” while some, like Ellen, give knowledge of God by BEING the Word saying, “I love you just the way you are and I will give everything to prove it to you.”

    Whether this can happen within “religion” depends on whether the religious can be a bit more like Ellen I think.

    I know people, Christians, who won’t watch (and even dislike) Ellen because of her homosexuality.

  • Sorry guys… I think I might need to just start my own blog… The thought train just starts rolling and it’s hard to stop it. : (

  • Daniel

    I wonder if that renewal will be sparked by all the disaffected evangelicals joining the mainline.

  • Daniel – I still have hope those who have begun to see things differently will remain in their evangelical circles and work change by loving from the inside out rather than focusing on switching to another institution trying to make change by preaching a different set of beliefs. It’s not easy, but here’s hoping.

  • Rick G.

    Jim’s comment actually reflects the sentiment of many evangelicals that are dissatisfied with the local church. They see what goes on there and it doesn’t reflect Christ’s teaching in scripture. Millions spent on big buildings to keep ourselves and our kids comfy and entertained. Christ seems to be a footnote on most Sundays (and Wednesdays) — which leaves us wondering ‘Whose church is this anyway?’ There is a bricolage approach among those I know, but they seek the best voices within orthodoxy, not just anywhere.

  • EricW

    @Nate W.:

    In this online excerpt from Bass’ book:


    as well as the Amazon “Look Inside” preview, “Ellen” (beginning on p. 22) is described as married to her husband and a mother. Where did you learn that she was homosexual?

  • PJ Anderson

    Liberalism has never grown a denomination. Liberalism always destroys denominations.

    All of the mainline denominations grew during times where they upheld orthodox confessions and creeds. As they stand today the mainline denominations which are losing members by the truckload have consciously walked away from biblical fidelity and orthodox theology.

    Meanwhile, the evangelical coalition of churches in America and across the world continue to grow. Granted I do admit that many of these churches are simply maintaining. However, the ones which are growing are taking in more members than the declining churches are losing. There is a significant church growth culture going on in these churches. (I am pastor on staff at a church that is seeing 30% growth every year for the last four years.) You cannot renew a denomination by waking away from biblical fidelity and orthodox theological beliefs. (should be fun to see where this goes)

  • LexCro

    I’m with PJ Anderson (#12) on this one. It seems like much of this talk about a new religion/spirituality that is going to emerge after institutional Christianity/religion is merely many liberals trying to baptize and legitimize the failure and instability of the liberal church. It’s very easy to spin undeniable decline as mere moving beyond the alleged institutional clap-trap. It’s very easy to just say, “Hey, we’re just BEYOND you guys.” That’s the mantra of a species of progressivism whose metric for advancement is leaving other ideologies/beliefs behind while heading at mach 10 to who-knows-what. And what of this Ellen-/Sheilaism with respect to non-Western Christianity? Most folks acknowledge that the Church in Africa, South America, and Asia has taken the lead globally. Why aren’t we seeing the emergence of Ellen-/Sheilaism in these places? From what I’ve seen, these non-Western believers–even those with mainline denominational adherence–are rejecting the Western Ellen-/Sheilaism of the West. And these same non-Westerners are rejecting this nonsense because they are clinging to orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) in Christ.

    This not to say that the Western evangelical/conservative wing is all love, luck, and lolly-pops. Even beyond the numbers (whether we’re talking actual decline or holding steady), I think there are some significant problems. Numerical one-up-manship over and against liberals is not King Jesus’ metric for growing in unity, knowledge, and maturity in Christ and attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). Just ask the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7). Dovetailing off of Nate W.’s (#9) comments, there are a category of what author/micro-church leader Brian Sanders call “leavers”. In his book “Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians,” Sanders (self-described leaver), brilliantly fleshes out why faithful followers of Christ are leaving orthodox/traditional churches. According to Sanders, many are leaving churches because staying threatens a vibrant, obedient walk with Jesus (instead of leaving as an expression of personal unfaithfulness to Christ). Sanders casts vision in the form of two solutions: (1) Revolutionary staying in which believers work to be the Christ-driven change they want to see in the Church or (2) Revolutionary leaving in which believers seek the biblical Christ and His kingdom beyond conventional institutions (but not beyond vital, local community!).

    If folks are leaving churches in search of deeper fellowship and mission in, with, and for the real Christ and his Bride, rock and roll. But let’s not dress up unfaithfulness to Christ in a pseudo-revolutionary package.

  • EricW – Wow. Ok. Thank you so much for Alerting me to my bonehead mistake. From the title and all the talk about positivity and love, etc., I assumed she was talking about Ellen Degeneres. I could totally see calling her views “Ellenism” (sort of like “Oprah-ism”?) but I was 100% off my rocker here.

    So, so, sorry for the massive post that must have been endlessly confusing.

  • Scott Gay

    We’re grasping at frontiers here. Douthat’s Catholicism is surely going to benefit from evangelical converts. But few understand the diversity in that culture, its lack of tolerance for evangelical core issues (rebirth, reading the bible with tradition( instead of through), speaking to people in their language, authority in Kingdom(not church or bible). Perhaps many will jump on Diana Butler Bass’s bandwagon. I base my disagreements with her on the research of Jonathan Haidt. Progressives are very clear on caring and fairness. Without them you have much harm and injustice. I’m in no way discounting how unfair and uncaring this world can be, especially without people like her. But their understanding of the binding issues of authority, loyalty, and sanctity are atrocious. They give them lip service( “a global community based on shared human understanding”). Really. I’ll bet you a dollar that after Obama took the oath of office, Oprah got a good glimspe of the weakness of a true liberals weaknesses. If you are weak at loyalty you get betrayal. If your weak on authority you get anarchy(occupiers anyone). If your weak on sanctity you get degradation. The three binding issues are what group selection is about.
    I really do believe Jesus Creed, the outward focused life people are on to something. They are the frontier in the church. Douthat models much after Chesterton. Chesterton over and over again emphasized this outward focused approach. I could give a ton of his references to this. Bass bases much of her model back to Schleiermacher. An experiential model that answers the deep needs of man. He anticipated the truth that our intuitions are fast and motivating. It is the combination that is needed. Outward focused(“love thy neighbor” or “becoming a servant in a serve me world”) and motivating( places that accept new models of spiritual growth or “places of practice” in Diana Butler Bass terminology).

  • SamB

    This is a hugely important issue for me. Others have mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s incomplete writings about religionless Christianity. His life gives a lot of weight to serious conversation about his thoughts about this. I have been slogging through Eberhard Bethge’s biography about Bonhoeffer. (I think Scot has been as well). There is so much there I don’t understand but what I do is utterly fascinating and so relevant to us today. I have really appreciated a series of blogs posted at Experimental Theology concering religionless Christianity. I am going to try to include a perma-link to it here: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/12/letters-from-cell-92-part-6-man-for.html

  • SamB