Don’t be afraid.
Religious life in America is changing dramatically, but for millions of Americans who are searching for faith, inspiration and hope on a daily basis—the underlying spiritual strength of our American culture is alive and well. In a couple of sentences, that’s the wise and helpful message of Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
The timing of this book couldn’t have been better. The majority of Americans, watching the fury on the Religious Right over the Republican presidential nomination in early 2012, are anxiously wondering whether we are seeing another spike in evangelical political clout nationwide. This new book is not about the 2012 campaign, but the underlying message from a middle-American point of view is: Don’t be afraid.
From our author interview coming later this week: As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I asked Diana the very question that millions of Americans are having trouble answering for pollsters, “Given all the changes you’re writing about in this new book, how do you identify yourself religiously these days?”
She laughed, because religious transformation in our culture is the central point of this book. We’re all changing—like it or not. Finally she said, “Can we just say: She responded with a big silence?”
When I pressed her, though, she said, “I understand myself as a Christian who is leaning toward an unknown future and I am feeling a sense of loss. I know we have to leave some things behind in terms of ritual practices and traditions of the Church, but I am also full of a sense of wonder and imagination. What is Christianity going to look like for my daughter? For my unborn grandchildren? I am hopeful. I see the possibility of a Christianity that can be open and fluid and that will no longer be guarded by huge boundaries and barriers set up by human beings to close out so many people. I see a Christianity emerging that will embrace people around the world in love. I hope for a future of healing for our planet.”
Not a bad response on the fly in an interview, hmmm!?! And—if that summary sounds like you, then you already can see why you should get a copy of this book and read it—then share it with friends in your congregation. That uplifting voice from Diana Butler Bass comes through, loud and clear, in these nearly 300 pages of solid research data, analysis and advice to church leaders about ways to adapt to our current transformation in American religion.
Here’s what this is not: This is not another “inspirational” book by a spiritual writer sharing a personal vision of change. There are many fine books in that genre from individual teachers, but Diana Butler Bass is not merely writing a personal manifesto here. She is a highly respected historian of American religious life and a scholar of contemporary religious culture—regularly invited to lecture to conferences, colleges and gatherings of church leaders. By the time you reach the back cover of her book, you will understand the breadth of current research by Diana herself and by a wide array of other top scholars as well.
And this is not another guilt trip from a “church-growth expert,” designed to whack congregational leaders over the head with 10 Things You’re Doing Wrong in Marketing Your Church. That’s neither Diana Butler Bass’s profession nor her intention. This new book is a stirring—and, to be honest, a troubling—look at change in America’s religious life. But we are in the hands of a scholar whose vocation is driven by the hopeful promise that smart and well-informed church leaders can take positive steps.
Why is it so important that she covers the waterfront in current research?
Because we’re not simply relying on Diana’s own conclusions—leaving the reader to guess whether we should trust her. Instead, she fills in the other voices in a kind of panel discussion of top scholars, including as one example the widely known Harvard scholar Robert Putnam (famous for his work on Bowling Alone) and his colleague from Notre Dame David E. Campbell. Together, their latest book is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which ReadTheSpirit also recommends.
Here’s how that writing style works, as this book unfolds. On page 235, Bass explains her own conclusion that, essentially, the evangelical rise to political power in America hit its “Gettysburg” around 1996—and its overall authority and clout has been eroding ever since. Lest readers doubt her analysis, she backs this up with work by Putnam and Campbell. From their research, she writes:
“Putnam and Campbell point out that the number of evangelicals was never as great as portrayed in the press. ‘The rise was real and statistically significant,’ they explain, ‘but it amounted to adding roughly one American in twenty to the ranks of evangelicals. Despite the mountains of books and newspaper articles about the rise of the evangelicals, in absolute terms the change was hardly massive.’ There were many fewer nativists than most of us imagined. The trends revealed something even more surprising. The evangelical rise ended rather abruptly in the mid-1990s when ‘the number of evangelical adherents … actually slumped.’ Thus, Putnam and Campbell make the startling claim: ‘The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was over by the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago.’”
That’s just one point among many raised in this fascinating book. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, and as a religion newswriter for major American newspapers for decades before that, I have always described the difference between “religion” and “spirituality” as the two strands in the DNA of faith. The term “religion” tends to refer to faith as a revelation revealed to us for our acceptance. The term “spirituality” refers to the other strand in the DNA of faith—the quest that each of us initiates every morning to find meaning and purpose in life. The “religion” strand is like an arrow we can envision coming toward us from the gods, revealing faith to us. The “spirituality” strand is like an arrow arising from each of us every morning as we begin our daily quests. If you care to read more on this point: In late 2010, ReadTheSpirit published my analysis of these two terms as “What’s the Future of Religion? Or, What’s Our Future in It?”
I have been reading Diana Butler Bass’s work for about a decade now—and we have been doing interviews through those years. One reason I so heartily recommend her work is that we both write about this thorny question of religion and spirituality from similar points of view. Of course, her interpretation contains her own distinctions, based on her research. We don’t agree on every point. Considering that the Religion vs. Spirituality question is one of the hottest in American culture right now—that’s yet another reason to buy and read her book.
Ultimately, this is a terrific book for small-group discussion. Not only will it spark lively conversations, but there’s an even more important reason to work this book into your congregation’s small-group schedule this year. It’s this: Rather than simply arguing about various opinions concerning change, reading Diana’s new book will give everyone in your community a firm footing on the latest research into these questions. Oh, people still will disagree, debate and question each other—but at least everyone will know the wide array of solid findings that now are available to help us chart the future.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.