Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

One of the questions I raised in my review of John Fea’s book on the American Bible Society was whether making the book so widely available, even more common than Wifi, has undermined its uniqueness:

What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial? Hollywood, after all, lost its glamour when Americans could watch movies not only in palatial theaters but also on television in their living rooms. Perhaps, as well, this riddle is connected to the nationalistic dimensions of ABS history. By linking the Bible’s greatness to American exceptionalism, the American Bible Society was attempting to counter how ordinary the Bible would become through over-distribution.

The recent Pew survey on what people look for in going to church underscores this point. Do people go to church to understand God’s word — because it is in Scripture that he reveals himself — or are they looking for ways to be a better Christian that may or may not involve understanding Scripture? They may say that look for a church with good preaching, but the content of that preaching is not in view in the survey:

“Of the country’s largest religious traditions, evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say they have looked for a new congregation,” Pew wrote. “For Catholics, this may reflect that choosing a new congregation (after a move, for example) can be as straightforward as determining which Catholic parish they reside in, removing the need for a more extensive search. Members of the historically black Protestant tradition move to new communities less often than other Protestants, which may be one reason they also are less likely to have ever looked for a new congregation.”

When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

Evangelicals put slightly more emphasis than historically black Protestants in the style of worship services (80% vs. 76%) and location (69% vs. 62%).

Is that preaching or ministering God’s word or merely the pastor’s thought about religious matters in a sermon?

But if Glenn Paauw thinks Christians need to encounter bigger passages of Scripture than the McNuggets they generally read for personal edification, wouldn’t a worship service or two on Sunday with exposition of Scripture be a good place to start?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

Going to church for the word read and preached is a two-fer — worship your maker and hear his word.

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Blogging is Essential to Being a Christian

That is a conclusion that someone could possible draw from a recent Pew Research Center poll on Christianity in the United States:

The survey shows a clear link between what people see as essential to their faith and their self-reported day-to-day behavior. Simply put, those who believe that behaving in a particular way or performing certain actions are key elements of their faith are much more likely to say they actually perform those actions on a regular basis.

For example, among Christians who say that working to help the poor is essential to what being Christian means to them, about six-in-ten say they donated time, money or goods to help the poor in the past week. By comparison, fewer Christians who do not see helping the poor as central to their religious identity say they worked to help the poor during the previous week (42%).

The same pattern is seen in the survey’s questions about interpersonal interactions, health and social consciousness. Relatively few Christians see living a healthy lifestyle, buying from companies that pay fair wages or protecting the environment as key elements of their faith. But those who do see these things as essential to what it means to be a Christian are more likely than others to say they live a healthy lifestyle (by exercising, for example), consider how a company treats its employees and the environment when making purchasing decisions, or attempt to recycle or reduce waste as much as possible.

Is this circularity (which rivals the motives of credibility) merely a problem of Protestant subjectivity? I don’t think so:

Three-quarters of Catholics say they look to their own conscience “a great deal” for guidance on difficult moral questions. Far fewer Catholics say they look a great deal to the Catholic Church’s teachings (21%), the Bible (15%) or the pope (11%) for guidance on difficult moral questions.

Perhaps most discouraging is how poorly Sabbath observance fares, a weekly activity that winds up ordering all the days so that ceasing from work is possible:

To help explore this question, the survey asked U.S. adults whether each of a series of 16 beliefs and behaviors is “essential,” “important but not essential,” or “not important” to what their religion means to them, personally.

Among Christians, believing in God tops the list, with fully 86% saying belief in God is “essential” to their Christian identity. In addition, roughly seven-in-ten Christians say being grateful for what they have (71%), forgiving those who have wronged them (69%) and always being honest (67%) are essential to being Christian. Far fewer say that attending religious services (35%), dressing modestly (26%), working to protect the environment (22%) or resting on the Sabbath (18%) are essential to what being Christian means to them, personally.

Hearing the Word of God read and preached in the public assembly of the saints? Forget about it.

Reading the Results

Rod Dreher has a Roman Catholic friend who says, “There is nothing more depressing than people who say ‘things are great, couldn’t be better,’ when it’s so obvious that the opposite is true.” In that spirit and for the edification of non-Protestant Western Christians who hang around Old Life, I run down some of the pertinent reflections on Ireland’s approval of same-sex marriage.

Tim Stanley thinks (thanks to our southern correspondent) the church needs to reform herself — especially Irish Roman Catholicism — before tackling the world (maybe even the world’s climate):

And yet there certainly is confusion and muddle – and that’s the second, perhaps bigger thing that Catholics ought to worry about. The mission of Catholicism itself is obviously in need of renewal. Otherwise the Church wouldn’t have lost that referendum.

When I wrote that Ireland had rejected Catholicism, I got a lot of angry replies. Half said, “Good!” (which proved my point). The other half said, “But I’m Catholic and I voted for gay marriage.” This poses an interesting question. Is someone who calls themselves a Catholic yet who publicly rejects Catholic teaching still a Catholic? It’s not just lay Irish who were doing this but priests, too. And across the Western world there are clerics who are actively working to shift Church teaching in a new direction. One liberal Catholic wrote a strong rebuff of my piece for Time Magazine from which I infer the view that Catholicism is something more than just its doctrines – that 4 + 4 can equal 5 under certain special circumstances. What are the roots of this contrarian religious stance?

Ireland offers an interesting answer. There are two stories of the Irish Church. One is the powerful institution that became unhealthily entwined with the state – a state dominated by a single party that used populism, nationalism and corruption to stay in power. It was a Catholic consensus that was conservative in the worst sense: authoritarian, entrenched, out of touch with the real needs. Covering up paedophile abuse was the sickest manifestation of its fascism.

But the other story of the Church in Ireland is of an institution that disregarded a great deal of its teachings and majesty to lurch towards progressivism. A man raised in the Irish Church explained to me that congregants had been told since birth that Catholicism is all about equality, socialism, community, inclusiveness, family. Its liturgical style is represented in exaggerated form by the famous singing priest who broke with the formal Mass to give his rendition of a Leonard Cohen song at a wedding. This is the Church of motherhood: the Church that gives and gives and gives without asking anything of its congregants. It doesn’t really treat them as mature souls who can be spoken to honestly about the facts. It is a faith almost stripped of the less cosy aspects of its teachings.

Michael Sean Winters follows Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s line about the referendum functioning as a reality check and describes what that check should involve:

What does a reality check look like? The first thing the hierarchy – in Ireland and in the United States – should do is have some long listening sessions with young people. Ask them why they support same sex marriage. They are not trying to destroy Western civilization. Most of them are not gay or lesbian themselves. To them, society must be first and foremost about mutual respect and religion should learn to be more tolerant. They are not wrong to think that. It is good Catholic theology. Bishops and pastors and lay leaders should ask them how they seek to follow the Lord Jesus in their romantic and sexual lives. Do they keep religion and sex separate? Do they think God has something to say about the subject? Before preaching to the next generation of Catholics, Church leaders are well advised to listen to them first, and not just to the choir a la Mrs. Clinton, but a real listening session with people who are not hand-picked for their docility.

The second thing the leaders of the Church must do is stop using phrases like “intrinsically disordered” which have been a disaster pastorally and misunderstood theologically. They should have the courage to admit in public what many will admit in private, that the Church’s theology on homosexuality is woefully inadequate. They must stop acting as if knowing this one discrete fact about a person, the fact that he or she is gay, is enough to form a judgment about the whole person. We don’t think our society is justified in sentencing Dzohkar Tsarnaev to death on account of his one, truly terrible act; We should not justify societal exclusion based on one characteristic. The Church at Her best never ceases proclaiming the integrity and dignity of the human person, the whole human person, no matter their choices and their preferences, still less something over which they have no choice whatsoever.

Frank Bruni at the New York Times connects the dots between Ireland and the rest of the Roman Catholic West:

Take a look at this list of countries: Belgium, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, France, Uruguay, Luxembourg and Ireland. Name two things that they have in common.

They don’t share a continent, obviously. Or a language.

But in all of them, the Roman Catholic Church has more adherents, at least nominally, than any other religious denomination does.

And all of them belong to the vanguard of 20 nations that have decided to make same-sex marriage legal.

In fact, countries with a Catholic majority or plurality make up half of those where two men or two women can now wed or will soon be able to.

Ireland, obviously, is the freshest addition to the list. It’s also, in some ways, the most remarkable one. It’s the first country to approve same-sex marriage by a popular referendum. The margin wasn’t even close. About 62 percent of voters embraced marriage equality.

And they did so despite a past of great fealty to the Catholic Church’s official teachings on, for example, contraception, which was outlawed in Ireland until 1980, and abortion, which remains illegal in most circumstances.

Irish voters nonetheless rejected the church’s formal opposition to same-sex marriage. This act of defiance was described, accurately, as an illustration of church leaders’ loosening grip on the country.

Finally, the folks at Commonweal explain gay-friendly Roman Catholicism in the wake of Ireland’s referendum and the recent Pew report:

So what other answers might there be to the question of why American Catholics are so supportive? I have three suggestions and I hope that readers will add more. First, perhaps the fact that Catholics have a celibate clergy that includes a large number of gay men means that the fear bred from ignorance is less likely to be operative than in other traditions. Second, could it be that a natural law approach to ethical questions, that is, that reason should guide our thinking and our conclusions, is bred into the Catholic bone? Third, might Catholics be so imbued with the sacramental principle that they recognize any expression of genuine love to be evidence of God’s presence in the world, and hence to be cherished rather than condemned? In Ireland or here or elsewhere, the actual principal difference between leaders and people, on same-sex issues or birth control or religious freedom or perhaps many other issues, is that the leadership thinks deductively while the rank and file think inductively. Experience trumps ideology, which—strangely enough—is Pope Francis’s consistent message!

Meanwhile, the one with the power to interpret has not spoken, as Stanley notes, “Pope Francis remained silent on the Irish vote during his Pentecost Sunday address.” Bryan and the Jasons are in good company. Perhaps Pope Francis’ silence owes to his residence in Vatican City which is encircled by Italy:

Many people were taken aback this week when Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, called Ireland’s referendum to allow gay marriage “not only a defeat for Christian principles, but also somewhat a defeat for humanity.”­ The reason for the surprise is because the 60-year-old cardinal has been portrayed as being more open-minded than the stereotypical Vatican bureaucrat or the average Church conservative.

“I was deeply saddened by the result,” Cardinal Parolin told the press. “Certainly, as the Archbishop of Dublin said, the Church needs to do a reality check, but in my opinion it must do so in the sense that it has to actually strengthen its entire commitment (to marriage) and also make an effort to evangelize our culture,” he said.

The cardinal’s comments turned the heads of those that believed (perhaps a bit too naively) that Pope Francis had led the Church to adopt a more conciliatory tone in dealing with the so-called culture wars. But it is precisely culture—and Italian culture in particular—that is the key to understanding Cardinal Parolin’s strong reaction.

Italy has remained the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs. At least up to now. It does not allow stem-cell research and has some of the most restrictive legislation concerning other bioethical issues. It does not even recognize so-called “living wills” that allow individuals to refuse life support in cases when they are left comatose.

The Numbers Don't Lie

Actually, they may. But Rod Dreher uses them to introduce some other observations that will continue to miss the brain matter of the Roman Catholic interlocutors who hand around Old Life.

First, Rod tracks Leah Libresco’s further dissecting of Pew’s numbers on Christianity in the U.S.:

If conversions went on as they do today and all other factors were held steady, America would wind up with the religious demographics of the stable distribution.

Unaffiliateds would wind up modestly gaining ground (from 23 percent at present to 29 percent).1 And Christian denominations would drop a little (from 69 percent at present to 62 percent at equilibrium).2

But there would be substantial redistribution among Christian groups, with evangelical Protestants gaining (26 percent at present to 32 percent) and Catholics losing more than half their current share of the population (21 percent to 8 percent).

Why do evangelicals wind up ahead of other Christian sects in this model? They’re better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.

Oh, great. A country of pious Republicans and atheistic Democrats. Let the search for Aaron Sorkin’s America continue.

That demographic reality prompts Rod to ask what Roman Catholics are doing wrong. First, he notes parish life:

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it. Some intellectual Catholics of an orthodox orientation, conceding the flaws in worship, liturgical and otherwise, stand firm on the intellectual arguments for Catholicism. Despite its problems, they will say, the Roman church remains the church that Christ founded, and unlike all other churches (except the Orthodox, who are negligible in an Americn context) it has the Real Presence of the Eucharist at its center. I spoke to a frustrated but faithful Catholic recently who said that despite all the problems at the local level, he keeps going to mass because he believes that is the only place to truly experience Jesus in the Eucharist.

As an ex-Catholic turned Orthodox, I obviously don’t agree with that analysis, but it does make sense. The problem with it is that it does not make sense to most dissatisfied Catholics, as the dramatic Pew numbers show.

Hello (vd,t, Susan, Mrs. W.)!! But it does make sense of the Roman Catholic apologetic strategy. Point to the logic, the history, the paradigm, the writers like Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh. But whatever you do, don’t look at life on the ground in this incarnated world.

And then Rod reflects on the conundrum that updating the church presented to post-Vatican II bishops:

The leadership class of the Catholic Church — bishops, theologians, and so forth — “gave themselves up to modernity just as the real avant-garde was beginning to critique it. They came out of their bunkers with their hands in the air as the enemy was departing for a new battlefield. The Catholic elite of this generation was left to look effete and irrelevant.” In an effort to be relevant to modernity, they surrendered the Catholic distinctives that stood in contradiction to the currents of modernity. Thus while Catholic theology remains intact, the transmission of that theology in the lived experience of the parish — both in worship and in catechetics — has badly broken down. Paradoxically, in many parishes, a worshiper in this most sacramentally-oriented of the major American Christian churches may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because what he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.

So? Protestants are divided. All’s well.

Move Over Paradigm, Make Room for W-w

In response to the Pew report that has Christians scrambling to say it’s not as bad as it seems (an overview is here), Ross Douthat opines that three w-ws compete for outlooks in the United States:

Many Americans still … accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

So where does this leave Roman Catholics who are not squarely situated in the biblical w-w? I mean, if Mark Shea is right and that Protestants don’t have the Bible without tradition or the church, then Roman Catholicism doesn’t fit in Douthat’s scheme of w-w’s. Or is Ross a compromiser who has spent too much time with Protestants and can only think of the Bible as an authority and so needs the true paradigm that only Bryan and the Jasons provide? Or could it be that post-Vatican 2, Roman Catholics in the U.S. are really more at home in the spiritual w-w — “the divine is active in human affairs” (the pope speaks about everything) and “every person is precious in God’s sight” (human dignity).

That leaves evangelical converts to Rome to sweat the details.

Giving New Meaning to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (or to the Call)

One way of finding this meaning is to look at the increase of calls to a communion called the Evangelical Catholic Church.

In the wake of media coverage of Fr. James Radloff’s recent highly public departure from the Roman Catholic Church to seek incardination into the Evangelical Catholic Church as an active priest, the little known denomination had received 80 inquiries from former and current Catholic priests about reaffiliation as of May 6.
According to ECC spokesman William Morton, ECC Bishop James Wilkowski also “has in hand 19 inquiries from Roman Catholic women who have earned their Masters of Divinity Degrees and are considering their options with us.”

Formed in 1997, the ECC allows single or married male and female deacons, priests and bishops; grants “marital dissolution”; encourages divorced or remarried Catholics to return to “the full sacramental life of Catholicism”; recognizes same-sex marriages; and accepts birth control.

This sounds like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of the Roman Catholic world.

(Thanks to John Fea) Then there is news that evangelical Protestants affirm Roman Catholic teaching more than Roman Catholics do. And this has implications for the so-called Religious Right and the ecumenism in the trenches of which ECTers are fond of invoking:

The 2007 Pew Poll found that 42% of Catholics expressed support for same-sex marriage versus 36% of the population as a whole. In terms of trends, 40% of Catholics supported same-sex marriage in 2001 with that number increasing to nearly 60% by 2014. By contrast, only 13% of Evangelicals favored same-sex marriage in 2001 and just 23% approve of it today.

Writing in The Atlantic, PRRI’s Robert Jones gets at the truth behind these numbers: “there is more support for official Roman Catholic Church positions among white evangelical Protestants than among Catholics.” But, as he notes, this isn’t a new trend; it’s the result of a two-decade long effort to cultivate “a new evangelical flock to compensate for the loss of lay Catholic support on cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.”

The real Catholic-Evangelical convergence is between the Republican leadership, the Catholic bishops, right-wing Catholics, and rank-and-file Evangelicals, a coalition that was cemented by Karl Rove with his aggressive outreach to “conservative” Catholics during the Bush administration. But the fact that a big chunk of moderate and progressive Catholics are missing from this coalition continues to be lost on many in the media. It’s as if as long as the bishops are vocal in their objections to progressive polices and someone in the public is making noise, there’s a tendency to attribute it to “Catholics.” How else to explain the PPRI number that only 37% of Catholics oppose the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, when the widespread perception that Catholics were broadly disapproving of it helped gin up early and critical opposition?

I’m sure Jason and the Callers have already factored these numbers into their call.

I'm Brilliant (at least religiously)

The new Pew Forum Poll on religious knowledge in the U.S. is out and generating comments at different blogs. The general theme is how ignorant Americans are. But any American can take a sample quiz and see whether they are that dumb. I took it and it turns out I am smart.

I can’t say that this will send me out in search of a beer to chug or a co-ed to kiss. The questions did not seem all that difficult.

What I do find interesting is the answers on which Americans stumbled the most. Coming in with only 11% (average) correct answers was: “Which one of these preachers participated in the period of religious activity known as the First Great Awakening?” Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, or Charles Finney. Surprisingly, those who identified themselves as evangelical only got the question right 15% of the time. (Hey, if evangelicals actually studied history would they still be evangelical?)

Next in difficulty was the following: ” According to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a public school teacher permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature, or not?” Yes, permitted or No, not permitted. Americans gave correct answers only 23% of the time. (Evangelicals answered it correctly by a rate of 26%; Jewish Americans scored the best with 42%.) This would seem to indicate that the legal difference between teaching about religion and indoctrination is a distinction lost on many Americans.

Finally, the fifth most difficult question (one point behind a question on Job and two points behind another on Hinduism) was this: “Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?” The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ or
The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Here evangelicals scored as well as Mormons (40%), with White Roman Catholics (59%) and Hispanic Roman Catholics (47%) pushing up the averages sufficiently so that 40% of all Americans answered the question correctly.

Rather than revealing how dumb Americans are, these questions suggest that Christians in the U.S. understand an important point of doctrine and practice much better than a fact from church history or the reasons behind a Supreme Court decision. Again, the questions are not on the order of rocket science, but I am somewhat heartened to see that a majority of Roman Catholics and Protestants in America are not ignorant of one of the major points of contention at the time of the Reformation. Maybe Protestantism still lives. (And who says Old Life is always negative?)