Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne) $25.99 I was doing a “book show and tell talk” last week with a group of gathered mainline clergy and told them that this will both be the most talked about religious book of 2012 and perhaps the most deserving. I have a half a dozen reasons why I think this is important, even if agreeing with it all isn’t one of them. You know that we commend reading widely, learning from anyone who has something helpful to teach, enjoying the great gifts of good thinkers, writers, and cultural critiques. Diana is all of this and more. She knows mainline churches well, she understands and has some sympathies for some evangelical folks. She has been in rural churches, poor inner city parishes, charismatic congregations, churches big and small. She draws endorsements from high-jinxing radical activists like Shane Claiborne and from gentle Quakers like Parker Palmer. I am not alone in predicting the popularity of this important book as Phyllis Tickle herself, the god-mother of religious book reviewing, says “It is one blockbuster of an analysis that is also a delight to read.” Brian McLaren says “Of Bass’s many excellent books, this is the most substantive, provocative, and inspiring yet…It leads to a powerful finale of sage guidance for the future.”
I hope you know Bass and her important work. She is a historian by trade, a scholar, writer, and church consultant who has studied congregations and has learned to tell their stories, beautifully and well. After years of Lilly-funded research (including a book written, and another edited, for the Alban Institute) she has been telling the good stories of smaller, mainline churches that were healthy and strong, embodying practices of service, hospitality, prayer and mature worship (Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith [HarperOne; $14.99] is the best summary of all that, and I hope you have it. It is one of the defining religious books about congregational life of our time.) That book camped out on a big thesis: mega churches and conservative religion, while they get more press, are not the only sorts of Christian faith expression and not the only sorts of congregational life that is present in early 21st century North American culture. Let’s hear it for the little guys, the liberal churches that are vibrant, the mainline folks with their Henri Nouwen study groups and their dogged work in soup kitchens and their interesting willingness to be inclusive of gays and lesbians, their hospitality and social service. Somebody said that she was, in telling of innovative and robust UCC churches in New England and United Methodist churches down south and Presbyterian congregations in the heartland, nearly describing “emergent churches without the body piercings and tattoos.” That’s a good line, but it isn’t quite true. Christianity for the Rest of Us celebrated pretty normal, ordinary churches, those trying hard to live faithfully, despite declining numbers, often rigid denominational structures, and local communities that are in flux. Since most of us, as a matter of fact, aren’t in healthy, growing, large, conservative churches, she gave “the rest of us” a good pat on the back and a shot in the arm by telling us a bit about ourselves, our history and our future.
Now though, she is less sanguine. “The jig is up” she boldly puts it in her talks. Few institutional hierarchies are healthy, crises upon crisis has worn down many churches, no denomination or religious group’s numbers are even holding steady. When the Southern Baptists declare it a “decade of evangelism” she has said, “you know we’re in trouble.” Christianity After Religion is asking one of the biggest questions to be asked nowadays: what should Christian churches and disciples of Jesus do in this era when so many are “spiritual but not religious?”
I think Diana may have–as many of us do–looked down on that phrase, as if it were cheap, individualistic, silly, almost. (“What?” Eugene Peterson once retorted to a person saying he didn’t like organized religion, “Do you want disorganized religion?” ) No more. She wants to honor that question, take seriously those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot see themselves being a part of a church, realizing that God’s Spirit may be moving in this de-churched yet spiritually hungry generation. Religious historian that she is, she understands a bit about awakenings. She ends the book with a (postmodern?) spin on the first Great Awakening, and brings her interesting angle of vision to bear, relating how that awakening happened and what might be in store for us today, in our lifetimes. I don’t have to tell you that she doesn’t favor preaching “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” again, but it is very interesting, and I think fruitful, to ponder what she does propose.
The book develops in three big parts: several statistic-heavy, fascinating chapters on the end of religion, four descriptive chapters on the new vision of spirituality, and a final few under the hopeful rubric of awakening. I will describe some of this more, later, I hope, but don’t wait for me to weigh in. This is a book that is important to read, a great resource, and a fascinating study.
As Richard Rohr puts it, she is “rebuilding religion from the bottom up.” Perhaps you recall her fantastic book of how folks in different eras of church history understood and practiced their faith called A People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne; $14.99.) In some ways, this book emerges from that delightful, provocative study: how we think about God and God’s work in the world, that is, our worship and our discipleship, our attentiveness to God and relationship to neighbor, is decisively shaped by our metaphors about God. Do you recall how that book ended, the part she said is unfinished, being written, the stream that is flowing into the 21st century? Well, this is her provisional answer to what that might look like. Read any of her books, and find somebody with whom to talk about them. You are going to want to talk about them. You are going to want to underline stuff. And, I hope, you are going to put some big ‘ol question marks next to some parts. What does she mean by that? And what do we do with this? My, my, it is going to be a good year, pondering, debating, and struggling to take seriously what our sister has written in this important new book. Is it true that (as Bill McKibben puts it) “experience, connection, and service are replacing theology as keys to the next Great Awakening”? And if it is so, is that a good thing? Read Christianity After Religion, think and pray and talk.
Here is just a little homily, for friends who don’t appreciate my plug for this book because they don’t agree with her left-of-center theology or her willingness to say that
institutional religion as we know it is waning. I wonder how the Hebrew prophets felt — or, more to the point, how those who were surely threatened by their dire predictions against Israel’s failing religion, felt? This isn’t the place to do an extensive Bible study, but there is no doubt that the prophets disturbed the religious status quo and their theology was considered hopelessly negative and inappropriate by those who thought they here heirs to the covenant promises of Yahweh. Some were even arrested for being offensive, sullying the piety of the religious. I am not saying Ms Butler-Bass is a prophet. I don’t even know if she’s a good social scientist. I am wondering, though, if some who may be defensive about her call to think candidly, and outside the box, might lighten up a bit, lest they face the rebuke of Jeremiah or Jesus, who in no uncertain words reprimanded those who couldn’t stomach hearing that God was doing a new thing.
Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival Leonard Sweet (Waterbook) $14.99 I enjoy telling the story how I interviewed Sweet years ago for an adult ed class I was doing on his work. His thick and world-shaking Soul Tsunami had just come out, and I both read it, and listened to the tremendous audio book. It was the most fascinating bit of cultural analysis I had read in years, and I was very intrigued. I was irked at his too-quick dismissal of linear thinking, and he was bemused by my Reformed and bookish ways. Let’s just say I quoted Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death to him maybe just a few too many times, kept asking how we can not just “ride the waves” of what history is disclosing but shape, or at least help direct those waves. We talked about Marshal McLuhan and I generally showed that I was beyond my pay grade. I like to think our goofy impromptu debate might have inspired him to pull together some other folks to have a better round-table conversation about how the Christian faith relates to culture. Boy, I wish I would have been at those sessions, and am glad they were recorded in a fascinating book, The Church in Emerging Culture edited by Sweet, including Frederica Mathewes-Green, Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Brian McLaren, and Erin McManus (Youth Specialties; $19.99.) Sweet has been one of the main voices in our generation pushing God’s people to energetic contextualization of the gospel, using contemporary containers to carry living water, even if, as this book shows, there is a ton of complexity and disagreement about how to do that.
Sweet has remained a friend and I read nearly everything he publishes. (I believe he wrote the first ever e-book for a Christian publisher, and at the time I thought “well, hrrumph, what the heck is that?” He has another brand new e-book somewhere out there on the ethernet, too, now, I believe.) His books are always rewarding, fun, probing and usually crazy-making in one way or another. His cheery ability to come up with acronyms and acrostics and clever word-plays is seen all over his books—I can’t even imagine what they were like before an editor convinced him to knock off some of the witty shenanigans. Still, acquired taste that he may be, I highly recommend any of his informative, inspiring, playful titles. If you don’t learn something, I’ll give you your money back.
In the last decade he has done stuff on relationships (11, which is a study of 11 Bible characters that stand for certain types of people you should have in your life, and that you should be for someone, just came out in paperback.) He has several on leadership (the latest, I Am a Follower), on being a disciple of Jesus, one on the Holy Spirit, on the church, on evangelism, and a good one about what congregations can learn from Starbucks — although, before you get in a hissy fit about that, he doesn’t say we should simply emulate business models for parish life. Not at all. He has even co-written a novel, sort of am futuristic, theological Indiana Jones adventure romp. All energetically written, creative and commendable in one way or another.
But now, he is back to writing about the hot-wired, image-based, participatory world of social networking, the optimistic take on technology that has been a theme and sub-theme of his best work (I won’t say it is at the center of his work because, as a old-time Wesleyan revival preacher at heart, he would protest if I said anything other than preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ was the center of his work.)
Viral basically plays with his latest acronym: we live in a TGIF world. That is, a world shaped and informed by Twitter, Google, Ipad, and Facebook. Before you dismiss this as a simple invitation for churches to get more spiffy websites (they should) or for pastors to use twitter (ditto) realize that that is only a small part of what this book about social networking is about. No, it is about the worldviews, attitudes, lifestyle habits and cultural ethos of those who inhabit the 21st century glocal culture. He is not the first to notice that the current generation is driven by a desire to know others and be known—hence, the popularity of the most mundane sort of facebook profiles—and he is not the first to wonder out loud what it all means. But he offers a fast-based, multi-faceted, and intriguing account of its importance. As with most of his books, the footnotes alone are worth the price of admission. The reflection and experience questions are also well worth the price of the book. This is an investment in contextual ministry and there are few church folks who wouldn’t benefit from a few hours with this wordy report from cyberspace.
Years ago Sweet introduced the clever adage, reminding us that some are born here–native to the digital culture–and others of us are immigrants to the brave new world of screens and ubiquitous intra-nets. This is not our native tongue, and we are learning it as a second language. So he isn’t just geeking out with other hipster techies, nor is he just waxing positive on the cool possibilities of using media in church. No, he is ruminating pretty seriously on how those of us who aren’t native to the 21st century TGIF culture can learn to inhabit and do ministry in this new google world, where, as somebody put it, referring to our expertise by a finger stroke through google, “the smartest guy in the room is actually in the room.” Or, similarly, he is inviting those who are digital natives to use their skills and sensibilities for God’s glory.
Of course, key to most of what Sweet writes is not the hoopla of the latest gizmo. On the surface he’s all uber techie, all about keeping it current, and he knows about brain studies, laptops and more nifty websites than nearly anybody I know. But not far from his view of ministry is his insistence that Christ wants to be in relationship with us. We are called to be in relationships with one another. Like I said, he’s an old time preacher at heart. He’s friends with the Gaither Trio, for crying out loud.
Here’s a question: Sweet is about renewal and revival, and is well aware of the currents of contemporary culture (he never mocked
the “spiritual but not religious” slogan or the vaguely spiritual vibe in modern music and movies, but saw it as an open door for creative ministry.) But he’s a church-man, a Methodist, at that. What would he say about Diana Butler Bass’s “after religion” book, and what might she say about his? I’ve read ’em both, and commend them both to you. Hold on to your hats — that’s all I have to say.
Exploring Blue Like Jazz: A DVD-Based Study and Resource Guide Dixon Inser with Donald Miller (Nelson) Book only $14.99 // Combo pack book + DVD $29.99 I guess anybody reading BookNotes will know of Blue Like Jazz, Miller’s fabulously written, bohemian story of his faith journey — abandoned by his father, enfolded into a fundamentalist faith, ending up wondering about it all as he hangs out at one of the smartest and most secular campuses in the Pacific NW. Blue Like Jazz has become nearly iconic for a new breed of post-evangelical kids—enjoyed by cynical Gen Xers and their parents, given out to millennials on campus by Cru, used in all manner of coffee shop book groups. To say it is a huge seller and well-loved is an understatement. And now–after a good number of years, a “little project that could” and a book written about it all–it has been turned into a cutting edge, movie, produced by the inestimable Steve Taylor. It premiered at South by SouthWest which, I think it is fair to say, is not too shabby and a good indication that the indie film might be taken seriously.
Well, now, Exploring Blue Like Jazz is a new DVD and study guide designed to explore the book and the movie. The DVD includes fifteen 3 to 4 minute video pieces that are topical discussion starters. Most of the clips are from the just-released new movie (which, by the way, was screened during Jubilee at a classy nearby theater and those that attended were blown away.) Some of the short clips are interviews with Donald Miller, or they are out-takes and “behind the scenes” footage from the making of Blue Like Jazz: The Movie.
This is for anyone who likes the book, is interested in a faithful but bohemian sort of take on life and life’s big question, and certainly anyone interested in the new movie. It is designed, especially for those who have just graduated from high school, inviting them to think through their “emerging adulthood” and help, as they say, “make growing up a little easier.” So it is perfect for older teens and 20-somethings. Exploring… is arranged in five sessions and includes tons of supplemental stuff. What fun — ideal for a sophisticated youth group or young adult fellowship. Here is a trailer for a short promo for the curriculum. Pretty safe, provocative and thoughtful, but safe. Here is a trailer to the movie. Put on your seat-belt.
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays Marilynne Robinson (FSG) $24.00 One of the most prestigious publishers has given us a new collection of essays by one of our great woman of letters, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, essays, and Calvin scholar, Marilynne Robinson. You may have read Housekeeping, an early book happily reissued after Gilead made her famous, or you may have been taken with the slow, good story of Home (which, a reviewer in The Nation, opined, “rendered relationship with a new depth”) which picked up where Gilead left off. Robinson’s essays were released in the serious collections The Death of Adam and, just out in paperback, Absence of Mind. Now, she has a new collection of ten or so pieces, on topics as diverse as cosmology and Moses. She has one on the flamboyant evangelical abolitionist, Oberlin, and one entitled “Imagination and Community” which reminds me of a topic of Wendell Berry. The feisty scholar and novelist Doris Lessing says of her essays that they are “a useful antidote to the increasingly crude and slogan-loving culture we inhabit.” She is serious, dense at times, and a public intellectual well worth reading. Here is one good early review of it that came from the Kansas City Star which explains nicely the various sorts of essays.
How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.95 Yes, you heard it here before: we’ll be calling N.T. “Tom” in no time after he visits here in Dallastown on May 12th when he comes to the bookstore for an autograph session and reception. We hope folks bring books for him to sign and I hope lots of people buy this one. One advance reviewer said this may be his best yet. It is a study of the Synoptic Gospels, and a study of exactly how the theme of the rule of God seen in the Lordship of Christ came to be expressed so convincingly. And how we missed it. This is vintage stuff, important for our project here, as we try to sell books relating faith and life through the lens of the Kingdom of God. Brand new today, this book is sure to be highly regarded, and will, some say, be soon known as a classic. Long live the King! And may the tribe of those who are passionate about the reign of Jesus, rediscovered by a careful reading of the Holy Scriptures, increase! Start here: buy this book, get some folks together and imagine what to do with it all. And come by and report it to the author if you are able, Saturday May 12th at 1:00 pm. Of course we’ll have all his books on sale then, but why wait? Order today.
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