Wednesday, May 23, 2012

End of religion as we know it?

Diana Butler Bass

I've been watching --- in the context of Diana Butler Bass's newest book --- the near-viral spread since last weekend of a clip from the Rev. Charles Worley's Mothers Day sermon at Providence Road Baptist Church, Maiden, North Carolina. Fascinating stuff.

Worley, in the clip, proposes from his rather tasteful pulpit that "lesbians, homosexuals and queers," as he calls us, be gathered up, fenced into large enclosures and left to die. Apparently he's been at this sort of thing since the 1970s --- in an audio sermon clip dredged up from that era he reminiscenses about the good old days when homosexual people were hanged from white oak trees.

The latest in Christian love, some would say, although many realize that Worley is not necessarily representative of the faith tradition he claims to represent and that it's due only to the the wonder of communications technology that the rants of an insignificant independent Baptist preacher have spread far and wide. But many don't. and that's the catch.


Butler Bass's new book, "Christianity after Religion: The end of Church and the Birth of a new Spiriual Awakening," was published in February --- and you'll have to read it, if interested, to understand fully what she's saying. A church historian rather than a theologian, she's a Methodist turned Episcopalian. Many identify with her writings; traditionalists --- well, no.

Her premise is that the United States is nearing the tipping point of a fourth "great awakening," similar in some ways to earlier awakenings that swept the nation, commeincing during the Revolutionary War era, and shaped religion in America as we know it. An awakening is not a revival, which involves refreshing tradition, but a revolution --- that in some sense sweeps the old away as traditional institutions --- in this case institutional religion --- crumble. Butler Bass sees the flight of younger people from traditional religion as perhaps the most significant indicator.

The awakening commenced in the 1970s, Butler Bass contends, but accelerated to top speed after "four shocks and a crisis" during the opening decade of the 21st centery. The "shocks," roughly in chronological order, according to Butler-Bass:

1. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, followed up by relaliatory wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, also in a sense "holy wars." This associated religion with violence in the minds of some.

2. The sex-related scandals that began to rock the Roman Catholic church shortly thereafter, linking institutional religion and abuse.

3. The installation of V. Gene Robinson, a partnered gay Episcopal priest, as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, which highlighted the divide among Christians concerning LGBT issues and linked religion with incivility and meanness not so much because of the debate but because of how it has been conducted.

4. The 2004 election, when Christian evangelicals essentially "won" the battle for political ascendancy they had been fighting for years with the election of George W. Bush, but --- according to Butler Bass --- may have lost the war because of the now-embedded perception that institutional religion and politics are inseparably twined.

The crisis that capped the shocks, according to Butler Bass, is the ongoing economic recession which, she contends, is driving faithful from the church rather than toward it, citing trends observed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.


In the Butler Bass context, the Rev. Mr. Worley's remarks can be seen as an extension of Shock No. 3, which linked because of technology before a broad audience --- whether accurately or not --- the institutional church with great incivility and meanness. And Worley's sermon actually is kind of a double-whammy since it also serves to reinforce stereotypes elsewhere in the country about perceived ignorance in the South.


Butler Bass's premise is not necessarily a pessimistic one --- at least for those not deeply intrenched in the traditional institutional church. She sees a more authentic Christianity emerging, perhaps carrying the best of the traditional church with it, and blending into an emerging spirituality that has the potential to benefit from the best from many other traditions.

Personally, I'm ready for the revolution. But is it really coming? God knows.

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