Religion in general -- but Christianity in particular -- is in a period of upheaval.
Diana Butler Bass, a religion scholar whose expertise is Protestantism, puts it this way in her compelling new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening: "What was is no longer."
Anyone with even a slight interest in matters spiritual knows this is not news. For a decade and more many voices -- from academics such as Harvey Cox to Emergent Church gurus such as Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Tony Jones -- have been describing the exciting and sometimes troubling turmoil within Christianity.
The effort to be faithful and relevant in the 21st Century has driven church leaders not only to books such as Bass's new one but also to seminars, Webinars and, eventually, to their knees.
So if you've been well tuned into all of this angst and spirited exchanges and study in recent years, you won't find anything shocking in Bass's new book. But you will find here an excellent summary of what's been happening, why it's both necessary and important and some thoughts about how to face the future with hope.
Bass reclaims old "awakening" language here to describe what she senses to be happening now:
"I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being, to borrow a phrase, 'born again.'"
This is what she calls "The Fourth Great Awakening," a term with deep historical references to the "Great Awakenings" that occurred in this chronological order: 1730-'60, 1800-'30 and 1890-1920.
Bass doesn't cry out in anguish about the changes Christianity is experiencing, nor should she. The death of Christendom in Europe -- and its slow demise in the U.S. -- is, in the end, a good thing for the church. It means that the church need not be in charge of the world any more and need not be in direct collaboration with the political rulers. The church, instead, can serve its proper role of court jester, standing on the sidelines and pointing out the ways in which society in general is losing its moral way -- and then offering some solutions rooted in eternal values.
In an increasingly pluralistic country -- one in which a growing percentage of people are detached from institutional religion and declare themselves "spiritual but not religious" -- Christianity can take its place as a force for good, for peace, for harmony without seeming to be in cahoots with the powers that be. (I wish all our politicians understood this.)
What I find especially reassuring about what Bass has to say is that she understands the responsibility of Christians to share the gospel with the world -- the good news that Jesus proclaimed, which is that the reign of God is dawning and everyone can experience that at least partially today. Christians proclaim the gospel both in word and deed, offering small demonstration projects to show what the reign of God will look like when it finally comes in full flower. Bass writes:
"Instead of waiting around, we can display awakening in our lives, churches, and communities. We cannot bring the kingdom with this awakening, nor can we make Isaiah's ancient promise come true. (See Isaiah 2:2-4). But we can embody some of its ideals and precepts more fully in this world. We can love God and neighbor better. Every spiritual awakening seeks to make visible, even if only in some incomplete way, God's dream for creation. . .This awakening will not be the last in human history, but it is our awakening. It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just, and loving."
If you've been dozing through recent decades of churning change within American Christianity and want to catch up on what has been happening, this is a good place to start. Then read McLaren, Tickle, Jones, Danielle Shroyer, Doug Pagitt and others.
You don't want to sleep through this awakening.
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CASTRO-ING BREAD UPON WATER?
Speaking of great awakenings, has Fidel Castro had one? News reports suggest that when Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba next month, Castro will rejoin the Catholic Church. If so, he'd go from In-Fidel to Fidel-ity, right?
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P.S.: The Greater Kansas City Disciples of Christ Regional Ministry of Leader Development and Leadership Training for Church Leaders has scheduled what look to be two excellent seminars coming up. One will feature my friend Glenn Carson, the other Malinda Spencer, who works for Heartland Presbytery. Glenn is president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and will lead a seminar on Saturday, June 2, called “Calling All Disciples: Leadership Lessons from the Lord’s Table." For a pdf describing that, click on this link: Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerJune2012. Malinda is our presbytery's resource director for Christian education. She'll lead a seminar on Sept. 29 called “Best Practices for Christian Education” and “Support for the nearly childless church.” For a pdf describing that, click on this link: Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerSept2012.