Book Review: Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Harper One, 2012 (Kindle Edition).
We are already in the year 2012. Diana Butler Bass offers, in her important new book Christianity After Religion, an interpretation of our recent decade which is compelling and troubling. My cultural perception of Christianity in our society remains captivated by the paradigm shifts of the 1980s and 1990s when the Religious Right was popular and had a lot of media attention, our mainline denominations continued their long pattern of disestablishment and diminishment and the mega-church movement was booming. But according Butler Bass, and with some penetrating sociological data, the place of church in culture may have shifted again, significantly, since 2001.
She argues: “the first dozen years of the new millennium have been downright horrible for religion, leading to a sort of “participation crash” in churches of all sorts as the new millennium dawned. In particular, five major events revealed the ugly side of organized religion, challenging even the faithful to wonder if defending religion is worth the effort, and creating an environment that can rightly be called a religious recession”.
Bass argues that
the churches did not respond well to the September 11 terrorist attacks and
many Christians got caught up in the base movement of religious bigotry and hatred.
She writes, “It became hard to
discriminate between healthy, life-giving religion and violent, life ending
2) The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal
3) Protestant conflict over homosexuality: Butler Bass argues that the whole, long, public debate over sexuality in almost all of the large, national churches has seriously undermined our effectiveness for ministry and our standing in our society. “Although some Christians surely felt theologically and morally uncomfortable with the idea of a gay bishop, many more were appalled by the nastiness of the controversy, the obvious politicization of their denominations, the low spiritual tone of the discussion, and the scandal of churches suing their mother denominations over property.”
4) 2004: The religious Right wins the battle, but loses the war: Butler Bass cites a popular and influential recent book on American Christianity to make her case. “In their recent book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell cautiously suggest that the real victory of the religious Rights has been to alienate an entire generation of young people.” In my mind, that is a painful conclusion but my own perception tells me this may be correct. Is this true and accurate? Butler Bass concludes: “The old religious Right may have won some cherished political battles, but in the war over the hearts of their youth they surely lost more than they gained.”
5) 2007: The Great Religious Recession: Finally, Butler Bass argues that when the great economic recession hit our nation at the end of 2008, the churches were too feeble to respond to the massive human need all around. “The economic recession arrived at a moment when churches and denominations were already in a religion recession. The national economic crisis served to weaken embattled religious organizations, further marginalizing conventional faith institutions in a chaotic cultural environment.”
I believe we need a full discussion of these themes. What is happening in church and society? What worldly events are impacting our churches? How are powerful cultural forces influencing the churches? What is the public witness of the Church in our society today? Most of all, Diana Butler Bass’ reflections help us break out of some of the stale stereotypes from the 1980s and reflect in new ways on these important questions. Diana Butler Bass’ new book is important and worthy of careful study and group discussion. Let’s talk about it!