Some weekend miscellaneous thoughts

Some weekend miscellaneous thoughts December 3, 2011

Yesterday I had a one-on-one lunch with sociologist Peter Berger.  He invited me to lunch with him to discuss Calvinism. We had a very good discussion for about 90 minutes. I’ve known of Berger’s work in sociology of knowledge and secularization theory for many years and was delighted to meet him and talk with him. He feels as I do about Calvinism (at least five point Calvinism). He’s Lutheran and, by his own admission, somewhat liberal theologically. I did my best to inform him about the social significance of the “young, restless, Reformed” movement among evangelicals–something he was not aware of (at least not thoroughly familiar with). I had the opportunity to ask him something I’ve long wondered about: Why give up the secularization thesis about modernity and its effects just because religion seems to be making a come back? My own view is that much of the religious resurgence is quite compatible with secularity in that it does not seem really to affect people’s lives all that much.  For example, evangelicals experience divorce just as often as do non-Christians. Is there a “secular Christianity?” (I’m not talking here about Bonhoeffer’s meaning of that.) I think so.  Many churches that experience explosive growth seem not to inculcate the idea of costly grace (now I’m talking Bonhoeffer) in their adherents. The members seem to live pretty much like their non-Christian neighbors. My question is, is the giving up of the secularization thesis an example of bean counting? Are sociologists simply counting frequency of church attendance, etc.? Perhaps and perhaps not.  But as a theologian looking more deeply into issues of discipleship and belief, I’m not all that impressed with the alleged resurgence of religion in America.

This week a brouhaha has broken out over a Baptist church in Kentucky that banned interracial marriage.  That is, the Free Will Baptist Church passed a rule that interracial couples could not join the church. The secular media are having a field day with this–another opportunity to bash Baptists. an AP article published in the local newspaper (with the byline Dylan Lovan) attempts to explain Baptists and utterly fails.  Just a little self-education via the internet could clear things up. First of all, Baptist churches are autonomous; Baptist denominations are not really denominations but conventions or conferences or associations. The most they can do is expel a congregation and that takes time. But the media seem to be blaming the National Association of Free Will Baptists, if not Baptists in general, for the racist attitude and action of that single rural congregation in Kentucky. The media people frequently display their ignorance about religion. This is another example. The article also dares to comment on the Free Will Baptists, suggesting they are a minority among Baptists. Here’s the direct quote from the AP article: “Free Will Baptists trace their history to the 18th century. They emphasized the Arminian doctrine of free will, free grace and free salvation, in contrast to most Baptists, who were Calvinists and believed Christ died only for those predestined to be saved.” Well, at least the writer spelled “Arminian” correctly! Why was this written in the past tense? That’s one puzzling thing about it. But also, it fails to mention that the FIRST Baptists were Arminian or at least synergists. Thomas Helwys and John Smyth and their followers most definitely were not Calvinists. The “particular Baptists” came later. I don’t know that anyone really knows the statistics regarding what “most Baptists” believed about predestination and free will at any point AFTER the mid-17th century when particular (Calvinist) Baptists came on the scene. Personally, I doubt there was ever a time when “most Baptists” believed in the whole TULIP scheme.

This past week I watched a really good movie–Sarah’s Key. It’s available on DVD now. I recommend it highly to those who have a high tolerance for drama about suffering children and the holocaust. Once again I came away from watching it wondering how anyone can believe that God planned, foreordained and rendered certain the sufferings of the two children in that movie. Of course, it is only a movie; it’s not even based on real events. However, events like it surely happened in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s–many times over. It’s a very sad movie, so I suggest keeping a box of tissues nearby as you watch it. But the acting is good, the plot is great, the emotional impact is powerful. And some things in it are historically true–such as that most Jews in Paris were rounded up and kept for a long time in a soccer stadium without working facilities, edible food or medical care. They were taken from there to various concentration camps where most were killed. The French police cooperated and acted as agents of the SS and Gestapo in all this–something the French government has expressed regret over.

One line in the movie especially hit home to me. An American woman in Paris is conducting research into French participation in the holocaust. A young French woman who works with her says something very disparaging about her near ancestors who did these things or at least did not speak up for the Jews of Paris as they were being taken away. The American woman says “Would you have acted differently?” The young French woman is stunned into silence.

This is the problem with making the holocaust unique. Some months ago I reported on a holocaust conference I attended where a young Israeli woman expert on the holocaust (she is somehow connected to Yad Vashem) condemned one speaker for using the word “holocaust” for other massacres in history–including the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem by Herod. She called him a “holocaust denier.” The problem with this habit is that, while it seems to bring special attention to the holocaust and its intention is to prevent another one, it actually undermines the prevention of another one. IF we say the holocaust is unique, then we are implying that it could never happen again.  The people who did it were simply monsters, not normal human beings. While there’s some truth in that, it can be taken too far and often is taken too far. Yes, of course, there were unique aspects to the holocaust, but to set it aside as completely unique so that anyone who compares it with other massacres and genocides in history is a “holocaust denier” could have the unintended consequence of setting it up to happen again by deluding people into thinking THEY are incapable of doing things like that.

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  • So what did Berger say to your question?

    • rogereolson

      He thinks the secularization thesis has been undermined if not disproven by the religious resurgence of the last half century.

  • Some good thoughts. Thanks.

  • What was Peter Berger’s response to your inquiry? I don’t know whether there is an authentic resurgence of true religion in America or not, but I do know that some conceptions of American Christianity (such as the idea that Christians have the same or higher divorce rate as non-Christians) are simply misconceptions. I recommend a book by another (Christian) sociologist, Bradley Wright, whose recent “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media” kind of goes along with the point you make in the second paragraph above as well.

    • rogereolson

      My statistic about evangelicals and divorce came from the pages of Christianity Today. Sorry, I don’t remember the exact issue. I’m sure a lot depends on how one defines terms like “Christians” and “evangelicals.” Perhaps if you narrow “evangelical” down to something considered “AUTHENTICALLY evangelical,” well, maybe the divorce rate isn’t as high. But my point still stands. Across the board, church-going people who CONSIDER THEMSELVES “born again Christians” experience divorce as much as non-Christians. Don’t make me dig for the statistics; this one has been reported numerous times in Christian publications. Berger thinks the upswing in church attendance and participation and especially the surge in sheer numbers and sizes of churches falsifies the secularization thesis.

      • Ben

        I went to Anderson University (“Christian”), and it could be argued that a new peek in their numbers better represents secularization, as it would mean more church-goers getting (atleast partially) secularized.

        Btw, I don’t get much time for blog reading. thanks for making it worth the while. I look forward to checking back.

        And thanks for taking a stand on such an important “nonessential”.

      • Sorry. I certainly agree that many times people who call themselves Christians do not live as Christians ought. I wasn’t trying to contest that. But I do think Christians get a bad rap sometimes from questionable statistics.

  • Jeff


    “For example, evangelicals experience divorce just as often as do non-Christians.”

    This oft repeated canard simply isn’t true. See statistician Bradley Wright’s work.

    • rogereolson

      Why don’t you quote it here and cite the book and page number? I’ll be happy to be corrected, but this statistic depends much, I assume, on how one defines “evangelicals.”

      • Jeff

        See John Umland’s reference below. The statements are more applicable to “self described Christians who attend Church once a week or more”. Their divorce rate is significantly below that of non Christians. So… my apologies for correcting you wrongly! I’m sorry.

        One of the problems with Barna is that to stay in business they have to constantly dredge up new crisis that we simply must drop everything to respond to.


        After a while, their constant “the sky is falling” drumbeat becomes silly.

  • Hey Roger. Interesting post regarding the berger stuff and secularization. Is the thesis really proven wrong? i suspect it is a matter of how you define all of these words. However i tend to agree that though externally the evangelical church looks alive and well, is there still a massive number of people who are into “therapeutic deism” and not a more theologically formed and practiced based Christianity?

    It seems to me that it would be a hard thing to quantify these kinds of inquiries with a sociological survey. I am interested to hear more about this conversation with Berger.

    • rogereolson

      You’re right. The secularization thesis would be hard to prove wrong. My approach is theological; Berger’s is sociological. So, he could be right sociologically and I could be right theologically. I actually agree (surprisingly, I guess) with Mike Horton about the prevalence of “Christless Christianity” in America.

  • Steve Rogers

    Maybe it is true that evangelicals divorce less than non-evangelicals. The big questions are do they sin less, and do they harbor judgmental attitudes toward those who sin differently than them?

    • rogereolson

      Those are important questions, but I’m not sure how they could be answered with any definiteness.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger wrote: “Some months ago I reported on a holocaust conference I attended where a young Israeli woman expert on the holocaust (she is somehow connected to Yad Vashem) condemned one speaker for using the word “holocaust” for other massacres in history–including the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem by Herod. She called him a “holocaust denier.” The problem with this habit is that, while it seems to bring special attention to the holocaust and its intention is to prevent another one, it actually undermines the prevention of another one.”

    But it seems to me that many Christians actually look forward to another “Holocaust” (some even gleefully) in their teachings of eternal conscious torture in a so-called hellfire. QUESTION: Do we really believe that most of those non-Christian Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust are divinely destined to another one even worse than Hitler’s?

    • rogereolson

      I would say–only if they choose it (like anyone else who goes to hell).

    • Ivan A. Rogers

      Does this sound like Jesus? “Believe in me or else I’m going to roast you in the fire like those Christmas chestnuts!”

  • Brad is a fellow blogger with you on Patheos now. His series on divorce can be found here, , and subsequent posts. CT interviewed him on his first book which included this research at . They ended up giving him a book of the year award for it.
    God is good