Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of contradictions—and his theology the essential response to modernity.
By CHRISTIAN WIMAN
May 30, 2014 5:30 p.m. ET
When I was a kid growing up in the Baptist badlands of far West Texas in the 1980s, the only serious theologian I ever heard a word about was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was odd in one sense. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran, and his theology was stringent, complex and fraught with a kind of vital void, a meaning in meaninglessness that Christians were just beginning to piece together from the shards of modernism and its tidal violence. By contrast, the sermons I heard in Texas tended toward fire-eyed warnings of the Rapture or clear-cut moral imperatives about fornication (bad) or football (good).
By Charles Marsh
Knopf, 515 pages, $35
bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, NY
In another sense, though, the reference was apt, for Bonhoeffer (1906-45) was Christocentric to a secularly alarming degree, and so were we. He believed that God’s remoteness was woven into the flesh and blood of living existence and that, moreover, “we are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.” For Bonhoeffer, the church must penetrate every aspect of the lives of its parishioners; either it acknowledges and answers intractable human suffering and from that suffering wrings a strain of real joy and hope, or it is simply an easy extension of secularism and thus an abomination. That image of the upright, uptight, Yankee Episcopalian sitting rigid in his pew—God’s frozen people and all that—well, let’s just say that occasionally Bonhoeffer provided our more apocalyptic preachers with some potent rhetorical ammunition.
Plus, his was one hell of a story. There was the little boy with the taste for eternity deciding at 13 to become a theologian. There was the aristocratic, patriotic and astonishingly accomplished family crushed by the country they would have died to save. (The Bonhoeffer family lost four members to the Nazis.) There was the consummate intellectual who, safely ensconced in New York City at the start of World War II, returned almost immediately to Germany because, as he put it, if he did not suffer his country’s destruction, then he could not credibly participate in her restoration.
By that point Bonhoeffer was already well-known, and not simply in Germany. He had written what still may be his most famous book, “The Cost of Discipleship” (1937), which is both bracing and haunting to read in light of the events that followed. (“Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only insofar as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion.”) Faith, Bonhoeffer stressed, could be found only in actions of faith: “Only he who obeys, believes.”
Just about the entire German church, Catholics and Protestants, turned up its belly to Hitler —and was gutted. Bonhoeffer was undeceived from the start. Within two days of Hitler’s ascension in 1933, with storm troopers already in the streets, Bonhoeffer gave a dangerous radio address in which he proclaimed resistance to the Reich and support for the Jews. His sense of Christian responsibility and fraternity would only grow firmer. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing the Gregorian chant,” he said in 1938.
Eventually this gentle, cerebral man became a quite capable double agent, ostensibly working for German military intelligence while he was actually passing information to the nations at war with Germany, as well as helping Jews escape. The pacifist so adamant that at one time he believed all violence was demonic joined a group that launched multiple assassination attempts on the life of Hitler. “Both the no and the yes involve guilt,” Bonhoeffer told one of his anguished co-conspirators. The only consolation lay in knowing that the guilt was “always borne by Christ.”
And Christ—the immediacy of him in other men’s faces, the suffering that was both shearing and shared—was what Bonhoeffer clung to when the Gestapo arrested him in April 1943. For a time his circumstances, aside from the extreme isolation, were relatively mild because of his family connections and because the full extent of his “betrayal” was not known. Writings of all sorts—letters, fragments, sermons, poetry—poured out of him.
A different side of Bonhoeffer’s theology emerged in prison: “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.” His family would eventually find these writings, which gained an enormous readership after Bonhoeffer’s death, a great consolation. Not only did they reveal his strength of character and existential serenity even as things grew truly awful—Bonhoeffer suffered degrading, painful torture and was finally executed in April 1945—but they ameliorated some of Bonhoeffer’s early sternness. They also restored the more mystical side of Bonhoeffer that had made him become a theologian in the first place.
Charles Marsh’s excellent biography, “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” enters a crowded and contentious field. For years the standard life, and certainly the most theologically comprehensive, has been the book written by Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary.” But it is almost 50 years old, it’s a thousand pages long and of course Bethge had no access to any of the information that has been unearthed in the intervening years.
More recently, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, founder of the Bonhoeffer Society and a close friend of Bethge, published “Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance” in 2010. Unfortunately for Mr. Schlingensiepen, his scrupulous and erudite book appeared at almost exactly the same time as Eric Metaxas’s blockbuster, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (notice how the descriptors are amped up for a broader audience). Mr. Metaxas sought to “reclaim” Bonhoeffer, both from a certain strand of liberal Protestantism that reads most attentively from the existential, in extremis late work (my favorite part of Bonhoeffer, I should admit) and from the secular humanists who had, in Mr. Metaxas’s view, sought to praise Bonhoeffer’s courage while purging his Christianity.
Mr. Marsh does not even mention the Metaxas book or the enormous attention it brought to Bonhoeffer. He is a scholar, and Mr. Metaxas is a popular biographer, and it’s possible that Mr. Marsh found no new information in the Metaxas book that he needed for “Strange Glory.” Still, though Mr. Marsh deals quite well with the intractable contradictions of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and actions, he misses the chance to situate the theologian and his ideas more clearly within the contemporary context. A simple preface would have helped.
But he goes about his business quietly and professionally (the notes alone are a treasure of information), and he has a rare talent for novelistic detail—which requires a genuine creative imagination as well as scrupulously documented research in order not to become ridiculous. It’s lovely to read of young Bonhoeffer and his twin sister, Sabine, lying awake at night “trying to imagine eternity”:
When the twins got separate bedrooms they devised a code for keeping up their metaphysical games. Dietrich would drum lightly on the wall with his fingers, an “admonitory knock” announcing that it was time once again to ponder eternity. A further tap signaled a new reflection on the solemn theme, and so it went, back and forth, until one of them discerned the final silence—usually it was Dietrich. And with the game concluded, he lay awake, the only light in his room coming from a pair of candle-lit crosses his mother had placed atop a corner table.
It’s inspiring to almost feel Bonhoeffer slipping verses or notes of comfort into the sweaty hands of fellow prisoners either coming or going from torture. Mr. Marsh is so good at these scenes, so deeply embedded within them, that you almost miss when the bombshell drops.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay.
Well, no, that’s not what Mr. Marsh says, not outright. What he says is that for a number of years Bonhoeffer and Bethge, who had been teacher and student, lived very much like a couple: sharing a bank account, giving gifts under both of their names, traveling together, sleeping by warm fires, and rapturously reading books and playing the piano madly at all hours. Their intimacy was that of lovers, not friends.
There is no question of consummation, nor even the suggestion that Bonhoeffer ever actively sought it. “Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love,” writes Mr. Marsh, “one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.”
But what about Bonhoeffer’s engagement, at the age of 36, to Maria von Wedemeyer, who was 20 years his junior and the first “girlfriend” he’d ever had? Mr. Marsh stresses not only that last fact but also the severe formality between them and their intellectual incompatibility (he had been her teacher—and flunked her!). Bonhoeffer made his proposal just two weeks after Bethge made his own (to Bonhoeffer’s 17-year-old niece) and, according to Mr. Marsh, “took it as a test of his own mettle—his capacity for entering into and sustaining a romance with a woman and thus keeping pace, as it were, with the man who was his soul mate.”
On one level, it’s hard for me to care about any of this. It is possible for a man to fall in love with another man and not be gay. It is possible for a woman to fall in love with another woman and not be a lesbian. Or perhaps in both instances the lovers do warrant the words but in some more elastic and empathetic versions than contemporary American culture—or at least conservative religious culture—seems inclined to allow. Human desire is a complex phenomenon. Just think how much more complex is the human desire for God, or God’s desire for what human love ought to look like.
Still, there’s another way of looking at this. Theology is not a discipline like science, sociology or even philosophy. You can’t draw some stark line between the life and work of the theologian, because in a very real sense the life is an active test of the work. When Martin Luther wrote, late in his life, that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and . . . must be accounted as filth,” and then went on to suggest that the only Christian thing to do to Jews might be to kill them, the comments not only anticipated and almost ordained the rise of Nazism but also seeped like sewage back through the rest of Luther’s truly beautiful work, which can now never have quite the same smell.
And Bonhoeffer? He “became a theologian because he was lonely,” wrote Bethge, who would have known best. That loneliness is woven into the early, Wordsworthian experiences with nature that Bonhoeffer claimed—in a letter from a Gestapo prison—”made me who I am.” It is evident in the conflicted way in which he approached divinity: the awful longing for an absent God, the hunger for the hot touch of an absolute Christ. And one sees it most acutely in the way he pursued an always deeper intimacy with Bethge, who clearly determined the limits of their relationship, finally declaring in a letter that he simply could not give Bonhoeffer the kind of companionship he wanted.
There will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim. For some, it will be more damning to Bonhoeffer’s memory than any anti-Semitic aside that Martin Luther made half a millennium ago. I suspect that’s precisely why Mr. Marsh has written his book with such subtlety and circumspection: He didn’t want this story to be the story. He may be in for quite a shock.
As for myself, I feel both grateful for and pained by the revelation. Mr. Marsh’s evidence does seem compelling—though I think he may underestimate the feelings Bonhoeffer developed for his fiancée. I am grateful because the research casts a different, more introspective light on some of Bonhoeffer’s ideas and inclinations (his extreme need for a community that was bound together both physically and spiritually, for example). I am pained for the same reason: The discovery reveals the rift of emptiness, of unanswered longing, that ran right through Bonhoeffer and every word he wrote.
But this is precisely the quality that makes Bonhoeffer so essential to believers now. He embodies—and refuses to neutralize—the contradictions that have haunted and halved Christianity for well over a century. The same man who once declared that the church was the only possible answer to human loneliness also suspected that we were entering a stage in which “Christianity will only live in a few people who have nothing to say.” The same man who once called marriage “God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time” was almost certainly in love with another man—right up to his dying day.
This is where Charles Marsh’s book becomes truly beautiful and heartbreaking. Though by all accounts Bonhoeffer projected great strength and cheer even in the direst conditions, “fears of oblivion were a different matter,” Mr. Marsh writes; “the worst times were those when the past felt lost forever. ‘I want my life,’ he had whispered [in a poem] in the dark in the summer of 1944. ‘I demand my own life back. My past. You!’ ”
It takes a moment to realize just how poignant and surprising this longing is. Fear, when you are close to death, can be as much about memory as mortality. The fear is that all the life that has meant so much to you, the life that seemed threaded with gleams of God, in fact meant nothing, is unrecoverable and already part of the oblivion you feel yourself slipping into. Faith, when you are close to death, is a matter of receiving the grace of God’s presence, of yielding to an abiding instinct for that atomic and interstellar unity that even the least perception, in even the worst circumstances, can imply. “Lord, that I am a moment of your turnings,” as the contemporary poet Julia Randall wrote.
“Strange Glory” is a splendid book. It counters the neutered humanism extracted from Bonhoeffer by secularists who do not want to admit that his bravery and his belief might have been inextricable. It is honest to Bonhoeffer’s orthodoxies, which were strict, and distinguishes him from the watery—and thus waning—liberal Protestantism that has emerged since the 1960s. And, best of all, Mr. Marsh very properly emphasizes the importance of the volatile, visionary thoughts in the last letters and fragments, which Bonhoeffer himself believed might be his best work.
The multiple Bonhoeffers offered up by competing camps are a chimera. There is only the one man, who was aimed, finally, in one direction. As Charles Marsh (channeling Bonhoeffer) says so eloquently at the very end of his book: “The word of God does not ally itself with the rebellion of mistrust, but reigns in the strangest of glories.”
—Mr. Wiman teaches at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. His most recent book is “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.”
By Matthew L. Higgins
May 14, 2014 10:28 AM
ST. LOUIS (CBS St. Louis) — The complexion of the National Football League changed last Saturday after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted.
People worldwide saw the video of Sam getting emotional on the phone talking to St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher after getting picked, then embracing and kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano.
Sam getting drafted and the kiss were mainly met with positive results, though there were some detractors. Both the Miami Dolphins’ Don Jones and former Mississippi basketball player Marshall Henderson took to Twitter to denounce Sam kissing his boyfriend during the NFL Draft broadcast.
ESPN producer Seth Markman, who oversaw the network’s draft coverage, called it an emotional and historic moment.
“In the end, I am glad our team made the decision we did,” he told The Monday Morning Quarterback regarding showing the kiss on air. “It was a really cool moment to be involved in.”
With the league and the media seemingly embracing Sam, attention has turned to a player that’s not currently playing – Tim Tebow – and raising questions if there is a double standard on how the two were received and treated.
Tebow, who last appeared for the New England Patriots during training camp in 2013, sat out the season after no other team decided to sign him. Despite his previous success, Tebow has been slammed for his play and mocked by some for his Christian beliefs in some media outlets.
Peter Roff, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, wrote in April 2013 that Tebow was treated like a “circus freak” by the New York media after he was traded by the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets.
“Tebow, you see, is a Christian – and is fairly open about. He seems to take the Biblical admonition not to hide one’s faith under a bushel rather literally,” Roff wrote. “He’s used eye black to put scriptural citations on his face on game days. He prays in public and talks about God in an utterly respectful, even loving way. He and his mother appeared in a Superbowl Sunday television ad that talked about the virtues of life and directed people to a website where they could learn more about abortion.
“The secular crowd, New York sports writers included, have never forgiven him for any of that,” Roff continued. “When he arrived at the Meadowlands he was treated more like a circus freak than the guy who helped Denver make the playoffs the previous year and might just be the thing to get the Jets offense in line.”
The New York Times reported in 2011 about the constant criticism Tebow received.
“One columnist in Denver called Tebow the worst quarterback in football,” reported the Times. “Another columnist in Canada labeled Tebow the ‘Kim Kardashian of sports,’ for the intense reaction he elicited. Online, the torrent of mockery and criticism has been fierce. Blog posts included ‘God explains why he let Tim Tebow fail’ and Twitter exploded in hateful vitriol, to which the Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski mused: ‘I believe Tim Tebow isn’t an N.F.L. starter and I want him to prove me wrong because I believe he’s a great guy. Is that allowed?’”
The Christian Coalition of America told CBS St. Louis that there is a double standard of how Tebow’s religious beliefs were mocked compared to how Sam was received.
“I think that there was so much pressure on (Tebow) and that anytime you zero in on someone they can be open to mistakes,” said Michele Combs, spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition. “I do think that the pressure gets to you. I think that a lot of people wanted to see him fail unfortunately.”
Combs stated that there was a bias toward Christianity.
“I just think it’s amazing when someone talks about his religion, especially being a Christian, they are not embraced by the media or the Hollywood elite,” Combs said, adding that Americans do want to see Tebow get treated fairly.
“I think it’s just a certain elite group that has a lot of power and gets a lot of media’s attention,” she said. “I think a majority of Americans would like to see someone like Tim Tebow get the same equal treatment (as Sam).”
Wade Davis, executive director of You Can Play, doesn’t believe that there is a double standard between the reactions of Sam and Tebow.
“I don’t think either one was treated differently,” Davis, the former NFL player who came out as gay in 2012, told CBS St. Louis. “Unfortunately we live in a society where there is no middle ground, you either support or hate someone.”
Davis stated that fans don’t understand the business side to football as to why a player like Tebow is not in the league currently.
“If you sit back and understand the game of football, you will understand why he will be cut,” Davis explained.
Davis also said that he isn’t worried about how his teammates will embrace Sam in the locker room.
“Athletes spend enormous amounts of time with one another,” Davis told CBS St. Louis. “Unlike your normal 9-5 job, athletes move through periods of discomfort much quicker because of the time they spend together.”
During an introductory press conference for the Rams draft picks, Sam said that his sexuality was never a secret.
“Apparently, everybody else makes a big deal out of it,” Sam said. “But my teammates and my school didn’t.”
Sam also said that his focus right now is on football.
“I will always support equality, period,” he said. “But my job is to focus on football and help this team win a championship.”
BY NICOLA MENZIE , CHRISTIAN POST REPORTER
May 1, 2014|8:00 am
The National Day of Prayer, when people of faith across America, and in a handful of other countries unite to appeal to God’s mercy, was organized this year on the theme of “One Voice, United in Prayer,” but, as expected, secularists and atheists want no part of the campaign and continue to push for states to recognize a “National Day of Reason.”
“So that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” reads Romans 15:6, the Scriptural inspiration for the theme of this year’s National Day of Prayer, organized every year since 1952 to “mobilize prayer in America and to encourage personal repentance and righteousness in the culture.”
“When we come to the one to whom we pray and we glorify with one mind and voice the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we’re coming to someone that is not a God we make up, not just a God that we feel suits us and that we’re comfortable with, not one that’s just revered by our own religion or tradition,” explains Anne Graham Lotz, the honorary chair of this year’s National Day of Prayer, in a promotional video. “We’re coming to the one true living God, the creator of all things, the one who came down in human form so that you and I might see Him and know Him and hear Him.”
Lotz adds, “I wonder what would happen if all of us gathered together with one mind and one voice and we prayed and glorified the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?”
Organizers anticipate that millions of Americans will find out on Thursday when they collect at churches, city halls, parks, courthouses, and elsewhere and pray for “the Lord’s healing and renewing power [to be] made manifest.”
“At this crucial time for our nation, we can do nothing more important than pray,” reads a statement on the official event website.
The National Day of Prayer Task Force, the organizer of the annual nationwide event, states that although its efforts are “executed specifically in accordance with its Judeo-Christian beliefs,” the “government-proclaimed day is offered to all Americans, regardless of religion, to celebrate their faith through prayer.”
While an increasing number of participants in National Day of Prayer events have been Americans of various faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and others, one group that definitely will not be joining the May 1 festivities is the American Humanist Association, which continues to successfully push for more states to recognize its “National Day of Reason.”
President Barack Obama, adhering to a protocol started in 1952 by Congress and President Harry Truman, issues an official proclamation on the National Day of Prayer acknowledging Americans’ “freedom to pray and exercise our faiths openly.”
Obama, a Christian, has proclaimed, “Our laws protect these God-given liberties, and rightly so. Today and everyday, prayers will be offered in houses of worship, at community gatherings, in our homes, and in neighborhoods all across our country. Let us give thanks for the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, whether individually or in fellowship.”
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, sees things differently.
“Our government has no business endorsing faith in prayer, which excludes millions of Americans who are good without a god,” Speckhardt told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
“The National Day of Reason affirms our commitment to the separation of church and state while recognizing reason as the guiding principle of our secular democracy, that’s something both religious and nonreligious people can agree upon. More and more people recognize that this is a better option than having government get involved in personal maters (sic) like prayer.”
The AHA and the Washington Area Secular Humanists began promoting a National Day of Reason as a direct challenge to the National Day of Prayer in 2003. The coalition has been lobbying governors, mayors and city councils in various states to officially recognize the first Thursday of May as a National Day of Reason, with Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee doing so last week.
“Whereas, the application of reason, more than any other means, has proven to offer hope for human survival upon Earth by cultivating intelligent, moral and ethical interactions among people and their environments,” reads Chafee’s proclamation, which adds that “it is the duty and responsibility of every citizen to promote the development and application of reason.”
In comparison, Chafee’s proclamation acknowledging the National Day of Prayer, signed three days prior to his one on reason, states in part that “prayer provides peace and guidance in times of crisis and conflict; and … we give thanks for the many blessings and freedoms in our lives, communities, states, and nation, and through prayer seek to renew our dedication to being respectful and productive members of society.”
While Christians and those of other faiths take time to bow their heads or bend their knees in prayer Thursday, atheists, secularists and humanists will be busy “(setting) the right example for how to effect positive change” through food drives, blood drives, and activism.
Lotz, the 2014 National Day of Prayer honorary chairwoman, was unavailable to provide comment to CP Wednesday due to her participation in the annual event kicking off in Washington, D.C.
Her invocation, to be read simultaneously across the nation at noon ET on May 1, was expected to “create a huge wave of prayer, flowing from one coast to the other, illustrating the unity of God’s people and acknowledging His dominion over the circumstances facing us,” according to organizers.
In her prayer, Lotz appeals to God’s mercy and asks for His forgiveness, confessing that “we are covered with shame because we have sinned against You, and done wrong. We have turned away from Your commands and principles. We have turned away from You.”
“So we choose to stop pointing our finger at the sins of others, and examine our own hearts and lives. We choose to acknowledge our own sin — our neglect and defiance and ignorance and even rejection of You. This day we choose to repent,” she adds.
Read Lotz’s 2014 National Day of Prayer invocation in its entirety here: http://www.christianpost.com/news/2014-national-prayer-by-anne-graham-lotz-full-text-audio-118885/
Learn more about the National Day of Prayer, organized by the nonprofit National Day of Prayer Task Force, online: http://nationaldayofprayer.org. Find events happening in your area: http://nationaldayofprayer.org/events/. Watch a live online broadcast of the 2014 National Observance of the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 1 from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. ET: http://nationaldayofprayer.org/2014-national-observance/.
by: Ed Stetzer
The church is not dying.
Yes, the church in the West—the United States included—is in transition right now. But transitioning is not the same as dying, particuarly if you hold the belief that Christianity is represented by people who live for Christ, not check “Christian” on a survey form.
While I believe we need to understand reality inside our ranks, I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire as many are making it out to be. Actually, no serious researcher believes Christianity in America is dying. Not one.
Instead, I believe this current cultural shift is bringing clarity that will assist in defining who we are as Christians, and that is a good thing in some ways.
I have talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating, if for no other reason than to encourage us in our shared mission once again.
In the American context, 2009 was a turning point in regards to the perception of Christianity’s health in the United States. That year, the results of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) caused quite a stir. In its wake were several articles in prominent national publications touting the coming demise of Christianity in America. And Americans bought in.
The ARIS results showed the percentage of self-identified Christians had fallen 10 percentage points, from 86 to 76, since 1990. It also showed that the “Nones”–those who claim no religious affiliation–rose from 8 to 15 percent in the same time period.
Following the release of the results, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The End of Christian America.” Earlier the same year, Michael Spencer–the Internet Monk–penned “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse” that was picked up by the Christian Science Monitor. The settled narrative became that Christianity was in precipitous decline. The sentiment has continued to grow ever since.
An October 2012 Pew Research Study added fuel to the fire, stating that the “Nones” had increased more than five percent in the previous five years alone. A cursory look at the numbers may very well lead people to frightening conclusions, and the numbers are only going to get worse when you look at people who call themselves Christians.
That being said, the sky is not falling. Christians are not leaving the faith in droves, even though some people are screaming that loudly. In many cases, people who once called themselves Christians are simply no longer doing that. That is a different issue, which I explained further in my USA Today column last year.
Most believers likely realize that though 86 percent of Americans checked the “Christian” box on a survey in 1990, the population was not made up of that many genuine followers of Jesus. For many, the idea of being Christian and being American are one-in-the-same. But the church defines “Christian” differently than culture at large, and the distinction is an important one to make.
Around 75 percent of Americans call themselves Christians—they “self identify” as Christians, regardless of how others might define them. I find it helpful to separate those who profess Christianity into three categories: cultural, congregational and convictional.
Now, these are NOT exact numbers, but broad categories. The numbers are different from region to region, but as a whole, the categories might be helpful.
The first category–Cultural Christians–is made up of people who believe themselves to be Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. They are Christian by heritage. They may have religious roots in their family or may come from a people group tied to a certain religion, e.g., Southern Evangelicals or Irish Catholics. Inside the church, we would say they are Christians in name only. They are not practicing a vibrant faith. This group makes up around one-third of the 75 percent who self-identify as Christians—or about a quarter of all Americans.
The second category–Congregational Christians–is similar to the first group, except these individuals at least have some connection to congregational life. They have a “home church” they grew up in and perhaps where they were married. They might even visit occasionally. Here again though, we would say that these people are not practicing any sort of real, vibrant faith. They are attendees. This group makes up another third of the 75 percent—or about a quarter of all Americans.
The final group–Convictional Christians–is made up of people who are actually living according to their faith. These are the people who would say that they have met Jesus, He changed their lives, and since that time their lives have been increasingly oriented around their faith in Him. Convictional Christians make up the final third of the 75 percent—or about a quarter of all Americans.
Interestingly, since 1972 and according to the General Social Survey, the percentage of the final type of Christian in the U.S. population has remained generally stable. On the other hand, mainline Protestantism has declined, but other areas within evangelicalism have grown slightly to offset that loss.
As I see it, the numbers of people who those of us in the church would say are actually committed Christians—those who are practicing a vibrant faith—are not dying off. The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.
The “Nones” category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be “Christian.” They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the “squishy middle,” as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.
As Christians find themselves more and more on the margins in American society, people are beginning to count the cost. While it used to serve Americans well to carry the label “Christian” in most circumstances (think about running for public office, for instance), it can actually be polarizing or considered intolerant now. So for those who really don’t have any skin in the game, shedding the label makes sense.
As the trend continues, we will see the “Nones” continue to grow and the church lose more of its traditional cultural influence. Christians will likely lose the culture wars, leading to difficult times ahead for us. But we do not need to lose hope. This is not cause for despair. It is a time to regroup and re-engage.
Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence, but Jesus spoke of His followers making an impact in a very different manner. He taught that God’s kingdom was subversive and underground. He used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.
As the distinctions between Christians and an ever-growing post-Christian culture emerge, we will have to set aside any nominal belief systems and become active agents of God’s Kingdom. The answer is not found in waging cultural wars incessantly, or in making a theological shift to the left to pacify a culture offended by the gospel. The answer is in all of God’s people, changed by the power of the gospel and propelled by love, moving into the mission field as agents of gospel transformation.
This is no time to panic or exaggerate the situation. As I said in Lost and Found, in the midst of a hysterical panic about 94 percent of evangelical young adults leaving church, “Crises sell books but usually don’t fix problems.” (And, it is nowhere near 94 percent.)
Yes, we need a serious dose of what I write in Christianity Today a few years ago: Curing Christians Stats Abuse.
Facts are our friends, and the facts do point to a cultural change. And, in the midst of that cultural change we do see that American looks more like a mission field. However, what we need is a mobilized—rather than demoralized—mission force.
Bad stats and hyperbole do just that—demoralize God’s people.
Today, we need a mobilized mission force in the midst of this mission field. So, it’s time to time to work for the sake of the gospel, and to live for the cause of the gospel, not run around proclaiming the sky is falling.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.
The hero of the BBC’s religious sitcom is likeable but ineffectual. Christians have to fight harder for their faith
A few years ago David Cameron’s faith was very, well, Church of England-ish. It was, he said, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: “It sort of comes and goes.” More recently the signal seems to have become stronger. Last week, at an Easter reception for Christian leaders, he described Jesus Christ as “our Saviour”. He said that his moments of greatest peace came when he attended church.
He seems to be on a journey. Perhaps the burdens of office have changed him? Perhaps it was the tragic death of his son Ivan five years ago? In the latest edition of Church Times he notes how he has “felt at first hand the healing power of the Church’s pastoral care”.
What the prime minister definitely is, in modern Britain, is atypical. Although the decline in church-going has slowed, and perhaps even halted, the numbers attending an Anglican church this weekend — the most important in the Christian calendar — will be only about 1.3 million. Britain is one of the most secular countries in the most secular of continents. If Mr Cameron shares the peace with his fellow congregants on Easter Sunday it may well remind him of the Conservative party’s members. There’ll be an awful lot of grey hair, walking sticks and adjustment of hearing aids.
If only 1.3 million Brits attend the national Church this Easter then about twice as many tune into the warmest TV portrayal of a Christian minister for years — at least since The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders (once described as “the United States’ most well-known evangelical”). The BBC’s Rev,currently in its third series, is winning plaudits from believers and non-believers alike. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the Rev Adam Smallbone, brilliantly played by Tom Hollander, is a kind man coping in the extraordinarily difficult circumstances of a deprived inner city parish. Like many vicars, he earns only about £20,000 — much less than his qualifications would command in other walks of life. He usually works extraordinary hours, often thanklessly.
Although the first series of Rev fell into the default mode of modern TV drama, nastily portraying evangelical Christians as hypocritical, uncompromising and even corrupt, Smallbone himself is always trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He visits the poor, honours gay members of his congregation and works with the local mosque. He’s also funny and clever. You’d want him as a neighbour or presiding over your loved ones’ hatches, matches and dispatches.
Most of all, he’s honest. He doesn’t hide his struggles with faith and his relationship with God consequently appears more real. Christians often seem afraid to admit doubts and weaknesses but the Psalmists in the Bible never did. Eugene H Peterson’s modern translation of verses 9 and 10 of Psalm 42 could have been written for Rev: “Sometimes I ask God,/my rock-solid God,/‘Why did you let me down?/ Why am I walking around in tears,/ harassed by enemies?’/ They’re out for the kill, these/ tormentors with their obscenities,/Taunting day after day,/ ‘Where is this God of yours?’ ”
In the Psalms and Rev there is a compelling intermingling of faith in God with near soul-destroying exasperation from his followers at what they sometimes have to go through.
But, overall, I can’t really join the plaudits for the show — because ultimately Smallbone is losing. And losing without much evidence of a fight. His church is nearly empty. The nearby mosque raises £12,000 overnight to restore a local playground where, despite great efforts, he can raise only 38p. He is pusillanimous in the face of church bureaucrats who speak like the bureaucrats in the BBC’s other hit comedy of the moment, W1A. Smallbone doesn’t represent the Church militant — determined to prevail against the gates of hell. He has the meekness of Jesus but not the Jesus of Matthew 21:12 — who loved enough to be actively angry when he encountered injustice. The Jesus who kicked over the tables of the money lenders in the temple.
And so this is my challenge to the Church. Most institutions measure themselves in terms of popularity — via opinion polls, number of customers, financial power. Those can’t be irrelevant to the Church. Without some popularity it won’t build support for laws that maintain religious freedom. It won’t have money to fund good works. But popularity can’t be the decisive measure. Jesus may have founded the biggest movement in history but he didn’t win much popularity during his time on earth. Days after he and his donkey were welcomed by crowds into Jerusalem he was betrayed or denied by his closest disciples. He ended up crucified.
Today’s Church should not seek unpopularity but it should worry about the indifference that the real life equivalents of the Rev Adam Smallbone produce. The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas and other hate-filled perversions of the gospel represent the very worst manifestation of the Church. Yet to be liked but ignored, like Rev, is far from ideal.
I recommend a bit of table overturning, but where to start? I suspect many churchgoers would choose the boardrooms of big City institutions. Some would even nominate the Church of England’s General Synod. But where would Jesus go? The blood-soaked halls of the Kremlin? The useless talking shops of the United Nations? The world’s abortion clinics? Or somewhere closer to home? He might visit the golf and social clubs or pubs where modern Britain relaxes — while elderly relatives sit at home, lonely and neglected. If Jesus did return today, he’d be busy and more than a little angry. His modern-day disciples should be too.
Supporters of Jewish shechita and Muslim halal slaughtering techniques argue that secular slaughter is cruel The Times
Vets have renewed their call for ritual slaughter to be outlawed as new figures show that conventional killing methods in abattoirs are 16,500 times safer than religious leaders claim.
Supporters of Jewish shechita and Muslim halal slaughtering techniques, which involve cutting a sentient animal’s throat, argue that secular slaughter is cruel because stunning fails in up to 6.6 per cent of cases. Based on the first official figures released to Parliament about errors in abattoir stunning, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) has calculated, that the correct failure rate is 0.0004 per cent.
Religious leaders reacted furiously to the figures and blamed unobservant vets for failing to notice mis-stuns that happen in slaughterhouses they are supposed to be monitoring.
Robin Hargreaves, president of the BVA, said: “Each incident is recorded and immediate and appropriate action is taken to address any problems. These new official figures reveal that mis-stunning is extremely rare in British abattoirs and expose the myth that mis-stunning is a greater animal welfare problem than non-stun slaughter.
“As veterinary surgeons, our number one priority is animal welfare and that is why we continue to call for an end to non-stun slaughter, which unnecessarily compromises welfare at the time of slaughter. We are pleased that the new figures will help to ensure the debate takes place with all of the facts.”
The claim that mis-stunning is widespread is a key element of this highly emotive debate. When the Government last considered banning religious slaughter in 2004, the campaign group Shechita UK presented a document headed “Response of the Jewish community”. The dossier stated: “It is estimated that 2.4 million of the 26.3 million red meat animals slaughtered in the UK each year are mis-stunned.”
Figures released to Parliament by Jane Ellison, the Public Health Minister, show that routine inspections last year found only nine cattle, three sheep and three pigs were mis-stunned.
The issue flared last month after the BVA president-elect, John Blackwell, told The Times that Britain should follow Denmark by banning the killing of animals for meat without stunning. David Cameron promised in Israel that he would save traditional Jewish slaughter. The law requires animals to be stunned before slaughtering but allows exemption for religious customs.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews claimed at the time: “The number of animals hurt by mis-stunning is approximately ten times the entire number of animals killed for the kosher market.”
About 2,000 sheep and 1,000 cattle a week are slaughtered by the Jewish method. Shuja Shafi, deputy secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, cited figures of between 6.6 per cent and 31 per cent stunning failures that they said had been found by the European Food Safety Authority.
Shimon Cohen, of Shechita UK, said that the new statistics were “woefully misleading”.
He said: “There is a general problem that data on mis-stunning is hard to come by. That is unsurprising because by definition it requires an abattoir to admit some measure of malpractice.
“The sad fact is that we know that vets have very little real knowledge about animal welfare practices in their abattoirs. Vets take one trip per day around the abattoir with their clipboard. They have no resources, inclination or obligation to go more frequently than that.”
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said that religious campaigners’ figures for mis-stunning were “ridiculously inflated, part of a desperate attempt in light of their fervent desire to do anything they can to retain religious slaughter”. The newly released official statistics were “an endorsement of the effectiveness of pre-stunning, which is mandatory because it is thought to be the most humane way of slaughter”.
By ANNIKA HERNROTH-ROTHSTEIN
A short exchange with a priest made me realize that he felt what I feel – the loneliness and isolation of being a religious person in a country where faith and observance is one of few remaining taboos.
Honor Diaries is a movie that tells the story of nine women’s rights advocates.
Now, when you read the phrase “women’s rights advocates,” you might think it’s the kind of movie that liberals would truly appreciate. Sadly, we haven’t seen any evidence of that just yet.
You see, Honor Diaries is about the way that women are abused in countries dominated by Muslims. Therefore, the truth portrayed in that movie is politically incorrect.
And, therefore, you probably won’t be reading about it on too many left-wing blogs or hearing about it much in the lamestream press.
Leave it to Fox News to do the job that the alleged truth-seekers in the rest of the media won’t do. Megyn Kelly discussed the movie on he program the other night.
A retraction for what? Talking about a movie that accurately portrays the hardships that women endure in Muslim countries?
Well, the good news is that Megyn Kelly is no wilting pansy. On her show last night, she notified CAIR, in no uncertain terms, that she’s not retracting anything.
March 24, 2014 11:14 AM
Cardinal Leo Raymond Burke walks on St Peter’s square after a cardinals’ meeting on the eve of the start of a conclave on March 11, 2013 at the Vatican. (credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY (CBS St. Louis) — The Vatican’s chief justice feels that President Barack Obama’s policies have been hostile toward Christians.
In an interview with Polonia Christiana magazine –and transcribed by Life Site News — Cardinal Raymond Burke said that Obama “promotes anti-life and anti-family policies.”
“It is true that the policies of the president of the United States have become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies,” Burke told the magazine.
The former archbishop of St. Louis stated that Obama is trying to “restrict” religion.
“Now he wants to restrict the exercise of the freedom of religion to freedom of worship, that is, he holds that one is free to act according to his conscience within the confines of his place of worship but that, once the person leaves the place of worship, the government can constrain him to act against his rightly-formed conscience, even in the most serious of moral questions,” Burke said.
Burke took a swipe against Obama’s Affordable Care Act over the law’s birth control mandate, saying “such policies would have been unimaginable in the United States even 40 years ago.”
“In a democracy, such a lack of awareness is deadly,” Burke told the magazine. “It leads to the loss of the freedom which a democratic government exists to protect. It is my hope that more and more of my fellow citizens, as they realize what is happening, will insist on electing leaders who respect the truth of the moral law as it is respected in the founding principles of our nation.”
Burke also believes there is hope that abortion will be overturned in the U.S.
“There is hope that the evil anti-life laws of the United States can be overthrown and that the anti-life movement which urges yet more of such legislation can be resisted,” Burke said. “The pro-life movement in the United States has been working since 1973 to reverse the unjust decision of the Supreme Court which struck down state laws prohibiting procured abortion. It is true that the Supreme Court decision stands, but it is also true that the pro-life movement has grown ever stronger in the United States, that is, that more and more citizens, especially young citizens, have been awakened to the truth about the grave evil of procured abortion.”
Pope Francis removed Burke from the Congregation for Bishops last December.
Obama will be meeting Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican on Thursday.