An honest Easter with doubters and the ‘nones’

An honest Easter with doubters and the ‘nones’ April 21, 2014

It’s the first thing people do after meeting strangers in coffee shops and clubs favored by the young professionals now flocking into Austin, Portland and America’s other trendy postmodern cities.

Job one is to define themselves in terms of what they do and what they believe. “I am an accountant,” one will say. “I am a vegetarian,” or “I am gay,” or “I am a techie,” others will reply. Hipsters don’t need to say, “I am a hipster,” because everyone can see the obvious.

“Usually, our identity will emerge as a composite” of these kinds of labels, noted the Rev. Jonathan Dodson of Austin and the Rev. Brad Watson of Portland, in a small book of meditations on the resurrection entitled “Raised?”

“It will have a hidden mantra that goes something like this: I am what I eat, who I sleep with, how I make money, what I wear, what I look like, or where I came from. … If you cannot imagine yourself without that statement being true, you have likely found something that is core to your identity.”

For many Americans that core still includes a religious label, like “I am a Christian,” noted Dodson, founding pastor of City Life Church, which meets in the Ballet Austin complex near downtown. And millions who make that claim, with varying degrees of fervor, will flock to churches this weekend for the year’s one service in which almost all pews are full — Easter.

Instead of affirming a “sentimental” or “mushy” faith on this Christian holy day, Dodson thinks more pastors should ask a blunt question: Do you really believe Jesus was raised from the dead?

If some people confess doubts, that would be good because sincere doubt leads to true faith more often than hidden apathy. This is especially true when discussing the brash claim that has been at the heart of Christianity for 2,000 years, he said. Thus, it’s time to ask lukewarm believers to question their faith and to ask modern doubters to question their doubts.

This blunt approach would be timely in light of surveys indicating that more Americans — especially the young — are changing how they think about faith, including the role of scripture and the need for any ties to organized religion.

For example, the American Bible Society’s recent “State of the Bible” survey found that the percentage of “Bible skeptics” is now precisely the same — 19 percent — as for those who are truly “engaged” in Bible reading and who strongly value biblical authority. The “Bible friendly” segment of the population shrank from 45 to 37 percent.

The 19 percent figure for “Bible skeptics” matched the key finding in a headline-producing Pew Research Center survey in 2012, which found that nearly 20 percent of American adults — the so-called “nones” — no longer identify with any given religion. The “religiously unaffiliated” number was 30 percent for those under the age of 30.

Meanwhile, one common theme in recent surveys is that an increasing number of Americans no longer believe they need to claim a traditional faith, and Christianity in particular, because they no longer see themselves as sinners — especially when discussing doctrinal issues linked to sexuality.

This moral sea change could, for some people, even undercut belief in the resurrection. After all, if the resurrection actually happened, that validates the central claim of Christian tradition, which in turn validates biblical teachings about sin, repentance and forgiveness.

“What ruffles feathers is the God-sized claim” that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humanity, noted Dodson and Watson. This insistence “that we all need an atoning representative troubles our dignity. … In light of recent horror trends, we might be more inclined to believe in a zombie emerging from the dead than a resurrected and fully restored person.”

With doubts and open unbelief on the rise, it’s time for church leaders to face this issue head on, said Dodson. This is no time to duck the central question at Easter.

“In so much of popular Christianity today, people are just nodding their heads and saying they believe all of these doctrines, but this really isn’t having much of an impact on their lives,” he said. “If they actually believe in the resurrection, it should make a difference. … The resurrection matters more than the Easter bunny.”

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