“The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America” (Hudnut-Beumler & Silk, eds.)

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We close the week with an interesting-looking new book from Columbia University Press on one of the most noteworthy changes in American religious culture in recent decades: the collapse of the mainline churches. Once the dominant group in American religious life, mainline Protestant churches experienced a dramatic decline in the last generation. Why has this occurred? The new book, The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America, edited by historian James Hudnut-Beumler (Vanderbilt) and religion scholar Mark Silk (Trinity College) attempts to explain. Unlike most treatments, this volume apparently is optimistic, in a way, about the mainline’s future. Here’s the description from the Columbia website:

As recently as the 1960s, more than half of all American adults belonged to just a handful of mainline Protestant denominations—Presbyterian, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and American Baptist. Presidents, congressmen, judges, business leaders, and other members of the elite overwhelmingly came from such backgrounds. But by 2010, fewer than 13 percent of adults belonged to a mainline Protestant church. What does the twenty-first century hold for this once-hegemonic religious group?

In this volume, experts in American religious history and the sociology of religion examine the extraordinary decline of mainline Protestantism over the past half century and assess its future. Contributors discuss the demographics of mainline Protestants; their beliefs, practices, and modes of worship; their political views and partisan affiliations; and the social and moral questions that unite and divide Protestant communities. Other chapters examine Protestant institutions, including providers of health care and education; analyze churches’ public voice; and probe what will come from a diminished role relative to other groups in society, especially the ascendant evangelicals. Far from going extinct, the book argues, the mainline Protestant movement will continue to be a vital remnant in an American religious culture torn between the contending forces of secularism and evangelicalism.

Hudnut-Beumler, “Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table”

9781469640372While on a recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina — home of the Billy Graham Library — I attended Sunday Liturgy at St. Sarkis Armenian Church, founded about a dozen years ago. St. Sarkis is not the only Orthodox Church in Charlotte. There is a Coptic church, at least two Greek Orthodox churches, a couple of Russian Orthodox churches, a couple of Ethiopian Orthodox churches, and at least one Syriac church. The point is that if one thinks of Southern  Christianity as strictly Evangelical, one is making a mistake — though I should point out, in the interests of full disclosure, that the line of cars outside the Evangelical church a couple blocks away was a lot longer than the one at St. Sarkis!

A new study from the University of North Carolina Press, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South, by Vanderbilt University historian James Hudnut-Beumler, describes the Christianities of the New South. Looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In this fresh and fascinating chronicle of Christianity in the contemporary South, historian and minister James Hudnut-Beumler draws on extensive interviews and his own personal journeys throughout the region over the past decade to present a comprehensive portrait of the South’s long-dominant religion. Hudnut-Beumler traveled to both rural and urban communities, listening to the faithful talk about their lives and beliefs. What he heard pushes hard against prevailing notions of southern Christianity as an evangelical Protestant monolith so predominant as to be unremarkable.

True, outside of a few spots, no non-Christian group forms more than six-tenths of one percent of a state’s population in what Hudnut-Beumler calls the Now South. Drilling deeper, however, he discovers an unexpected, blossoming diversity in theology, practice, and outlook among southern Christians. He finds, alongside traditional Baptists, black and white, growing numbers of Christians exemplifying changes that no one could have predicted even just forty years ago, from congregations of LGBT-supportive evangelicals and Spanish-language church services to a Christian homeschooling movement so robust in some places that it may rival public education in terms of acceptance. He also finds sharp struggles and political divisions among those trying to reconcile such Christian values as morality and forgiveness—the aftermath of the mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church in 2015 forming just one example. This book makes clear that understanding the twenty-first-century South means recognizing many kinds of southern Christianities.

Ma and Li, “Surviving the State”

9781532634604Christianity is enduring a rough period in the West. But, as many commentators have pointed out, the religion is booming in Africa and Asia. And, in Asia, China provides an excellent example of the growth of Christianity. According to some estimates, by the middle of this century, China will have the world’s largest Christian community. The rise of Chinese Christianity will no doubt affect the course of the religion in ways none of us can now imagine.

A new book from Wipf and Stock, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China, by Li Ma and Jin Li, both of Calvin College, documents some of the changes. Here is the publisher’s description:

This sociological portrait presents how Chinese Christians have coped with life under a hostile regime over a span of different historical periods, and how Christian churches as collective entities have been reshaped by ripples of social change. China’s change from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, or from an agrarian society to an urbanizing society, are admittedly significant phenomena worthy of scholarly attention, but real changes are about values and beliefs that give rise to social structures over time. The growth of Christianity has become interwoven with the disintegration or emergence of Chinese cultural beliefs, political ideologies, and commercial values.

Relying mainly on an oral history method for data collection, the authors allow the narratives of Chinese Christians to speak for themselves. Identifying the formative cultural elements, a sociohistorical analysis also helps to lay out a coherent understanding of the complexity of religious experiences for Christians in the Chinese world. This book also serves to bring back scholarly discussions on the habits of the heart as the condition that helps form identities and nurture social morality, whether individuals engage in private or public affairs.

White, “Other Worlds”

9780674984295-lgSpiritualism, the belief that the living can communicate with the dead, goes back a long way in America. The nineteenth-century Transcendentalists dabbled in it, some of them, and Mrs. Lincoln conducted seances in the White House. A new book from Harvard University Press, Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions, by Vassar College religion professor Christopher White, suggests spiritualism may be coming back, re-enforced by new scientific theories about the multiverse. These theories, he argues, make spiritualism more plausible. Which makes me wonder, actually: how many of the growing number of American Nones are spiritualists? Anyway, here is the description from the Harvard website:

What do modern multiverse theories and spiritualist séances have in common? Not much, it would seem. One is an elaborate scientific theory developed by the world’s most talented physicists. The other is a spiritual practice widely thought of as backward, the product of a mystical world view fading under the modern scientific gaze.

But Christopher G. White sees striking similarities. He does not claim that séances or other spiritual practices are science. Yet he points to ways that both spiritual practices and scientific speculation about multiverses and invisible dimensions are efforts to peer into the hidden elements and even the existential meaning of the universe. Other Worlds examines how the idea that the universe has multiple, invisible dimensions has inspired science fiction, fantasy novels, films, modern art, and all manner of spiritual thought reaching well beyond the realm of formal religion. Drawing on a range of international archives, White analyzes how writers, artists, filmmakers, televangelists, and others have used the scientific idea of invisible dimensions to make supernatural phenomena such as ghosts and miracles seem more reasonable and make spiritual beliefs possible again for themselves and others.

Many regard scientific ideas as disenchanting and secularizing, but Other Worlds shows that these ideas—creatively appropriated in such popular forms as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the art of Salvador Dalí, or the books of the counterculture physicist “Dr. Quantum”—restore a sense that the world is greater than anything our eyes can see, helping to forge an unexpected kind of spirituality.

Rommen, “Into All the World”

intoalltheworld__33962.1509128445.300.300Earlier this week, I posted about the new Pew Report on Orthodox Christianity, which focuses, in part, on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I argued that the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian communion without colonial associations, is well positioned to do missionary work in Africa, where Christianity is booming. To do so, though, the Church may have to overcome a mindset that views missionary work as something for other Christians. I don’t know too much about the Ethiopian Church, but one often hears expressed, in other Orthodox circles, a reluctance to engage in missionary work–a reluctance that may be more comprehensible to Western Christians when one realizes that such work exposes missionaries to a real threat of murder in many areas where Orthodox live.

A new book from the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Into All the World: An Orthodox Theology of Mission, by Edward Rommen (Duke Divinity School), explores these issues. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Fr Edward Rommen makes the case that it is now time to reexamine the theological underpinnings of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s mission to the world. Globalization has clearly altered the various fields on which missions are carried out. Christians in the West, to their credit, have been actively developing a missional response to these changes. As a result, missiology and missions theology are well established in the academic institutions of the West. However, the Orthodox Church has, in spite of its rich history of missionary activity, been notably absent from these discussions. But now this is changing.

As the constraints of political and religious oppression have eased, the Church is awakening to its own history, but more importantly to its own missionary responsibility. There has been a great deal of fresh activity among Orthodox scholars that can enrich our reexamination of the Church’s mission. So it is now indeed an opportune time to tap into the biblical, historical, and traditional resources of the Orthodox Church and attempt to reformulate a systematic, theological statement of the rationale and goal of mission, to reaffirm the centrality of the Church in missionary outreach, to describe for a new generation the nature of the gospel and the basic content of church education, and to rearticulate the guidelines that should govern our mission work.

New Pew Study on Orthodox Christianity

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Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral, Addis Ababa

 

All this week, I’ll be posting items on Orthodox Christianity, an important but understudied (at least in America) Christian communion. To start, here’s a new report from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” released this month. Orthodox Christianity has relatively few communicants in the United States, mostly immigrants from Orthodox countries and their descendants, as well as a small number of converts, especially from Evangelical denominations. But, globally, Orthodoxy is the third largest Christian communion, after Catholics and Protestants, with a combined number in the hundreds of millions.

Orthodox leaders are becoming increasingly visible in global affairs. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been active on environmental questions. Thanks to an increasingly assertive Russian Church, Orthodoxy is beginning to have an impact in human rights fora like the UN Commission. In fact, even in the US, Orthodox Christians may have had an impact on the last presidential election. At a panel at Fordham University earlier this month, scholar Nicholas Gvosdev pointed out that Donald Trump appealed to Orthodox Christians in places like Michigan–which Trump won with a narrow margin.

The Pew report reveals that although their numbers across the globe are growing in absolute terms, the number of Orthodox Christians has declined relative to Catholics and Protestants. In the Middle East, at least, that decline is explained in part by persecution against Orthodox (and other) Christians in the twentieth century, which continues today. Seventy years of Communist repression in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc also didn’t help. But the report reveals a hopeful resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in former Communist countries.

The report pays a lot of attention to the largest Orthodox Church outside Europe, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (36 million members), one of the five so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches. This is commendable, as people often assume that Orthodoxy is an entirely European phenomenon. Although declining in its historic European home, Christianity is soaring in the global south, including in Africa. In fact, the Ethiopian Church, an ancient Christian body without any colonial associations, may be well positioned to do missionary work across the continent in the coming century.

The report details many interesting facts about Orthodox practice and belief — compared to Catholics and mainline Protestants, for example, the Orthodox are deeply conservative on social issues like gender and marriage — as well as prospects for ecumenism. It will be very valuable for anyone interested in the sociology of Christianity today. (H/T: George Demacopoulos at Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, who served as a scholarly adviser on the report).

Ecklund & Scheitle, “Religion vs. Science”

9780190650629Here is an interesting-looking contribution from Oxford University Press to the sociology of religion in the United States: Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund (Rice University) and Christopher P. Scheitle (West Virginia University). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors conclude, after a five-year study, that media portrayals of an anti-science bias on the part of religious Americans are simplistic. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

At the end of a five-year journey to find out what religious Americans think about science, Ecklund and Scheitle emerge with the real story of the relationship between science and religion in American culture. Based on the most comprehensive survey ever done-representing a range of religious traditions and faith positions-Religion vs. Science is a story that is more nuanced and complex than the media and pundits would lead us to believe.

The way religious Americans approach science is shaped by two fundamental questions: What does science mean for the existence and activity of God? What does science mean for the sacredness of humanity? How these questions play out as individual believers think about science both challenges stereotypes and highlights the real tensions between religion and science. Ecklund and Scheitle interrogate the widespread myths that religious people dislike science and scientists and deny scientific theories.

Religion vs. Science is a definitive statement on a timely, popular subject. Rather than a highly conceptual approach to historical debates, philosophies, or personal opinions, Ecklund and Scheitle give readers a facts-on-the-ground, empirical look at what religious Americans really understand and think about science.

Mullen, “The Chance of Salvation”

9780674975620-lgObservers since Tocqueville have noted the individualism that runs deep in the American character. This individualism extends to religion. Americans see religion as a personal decision, a voluntary choice of spiritual identity. The idea that one would have a moral obligation to adhere to the religion of one’s ancestors, or to a religion one has chosen for oneself but no longer finds compelling, is quite foreign to us. This individualism explains why conversion is comparatively frequent in America — more frequent than in Europe, for example. A new book from Harvard University Press, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America, by George Mason University professor Lincoln A. Mullen, traces the history of conversion in America. Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

The United States has a long history of religious pluralism, and yet Americans have often thought that people’s faith determines their eternal destinies. The result is that Americans switch religions more often than any other nation. The Chance of Salvation traces the history of the distinctively American idea that religion is a matter of individual choice.

Lincoln Mullen shows how the willingness of Americans to change faiths, recorded in narratives that describe a wide variety of conversion experiences, created a shared assumption that religious identity is a decision. In the nineteenth century, as Americans confronted a growing array of religious options, pressures to convert altered the basis of American religion. Evangelical Protestants emphasized conversion as a personal choice, while Protestant missionaries brought Christianity to Native American nations such as the Cherokee, who adopted Christianity on their own terms. Enslaved and freed African Americans similarly created a distinctive form of Christian conversion based on ideas of divine justice and redemption. Mormons proselytized for a new tradition that stressed individual free will. American Jews largely resisted evangelism while at the same time winning converts to Judaism. Converts to Catholicism chose to opt out of the system of religious choice by turning to the authority of the Church.

By the early twentieth century, religion in the United States was a system of competing options that created an obligation for more and more Americans to choose their own faith. Religion had changed from a family inheritance to a consciously adopted identity.

 

“Religions, Nations and Transnationalism in Multiple Modernities” (Michel et al., eds)

9781137592385There’s nothing new about “world religions.” All the great religions are global, with followers across the continents. This has been true for centuries, millennia, even. And yet there is something new in the Internet Age: the ability of individuals to sample religions from wherever they are–to have access to online sources and communities from right where they sit. This new sort of globalization will no doubt influence religion. Whether it will increase the influence of global religions, as they take advantage of communications technology to forge communities across the planet, or decrease it, as people use the Internet to create niche religions for fewer and fewer followers, remains to be seen.

A new volume from Palgrave, Religions, Nations, and Transnationalism in Multiple Modernities, edited, among others, by Patrick Michel of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, addresses the new globalization. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This edited book explores the impact of globalisation on the relationship between religion and politics, religion and nation, religion and nationalism, and the impact that transnationalism has on religious groups. In a post-Westphalian and transnational world, with increased international communication and transportation, a plethora of new religious recompositions now take part in a network society that cuts across borders. This collection, through its analysis of historical and contemporary case studies, explores the growth of both national and transnational religious movements and their dealings with the various versions of modernity that they encounter. It considers trends of religious revitalisation and secularisation, and processes of nationalism and transnationalism through the prism of the theory of multiple modernities, acknowledging both its pluralist worldview but also the argument that its definition of modernity is often so inclusive as to lose coherence. Providing a cutting edge take on 21st century religion and globalization, this volume is a key read for all scholars of religion, secularisation and transnationalism.

Smith, “Religion”

Continuing our sociology of religion theme this week, here is a forthcoming book from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, Religion: What It Is, How It Works, Why It Matters (Princeton University Press). Defining religion is a notoriously difficult task, and this book, by the scholar who came up with the concept of Moral Therapeutic Deism, is bound to be interesting and helpful. The description from the Princeton website follows:

k11200A groundbreaking new theory of religion

Religion remains an important influence in the world today, yet the social sciences are still not adequately equipped to understand and explain it. This book builds on recent developments in science, theory, and philosophy to advance an innovative theory of religion that goes beyond the problematic theoretical paradigms of the past.

Drawing on the philosophy of critical realism and personalist social theory, Christian Smith answers key questions about the nature, powers, workings, appeal, and future of religion. He defines religion in a way that resolves myriad problems and ambiguities in past accounts, explains the kinds of causal influences religion exerts in the world, and examines the key cognitive process that makes religion possible. Smith explores why humans are religious in the first place—uniquely so as a species—and offers an account of secularization and religious innovation and persistence that breaks the logjam in which so many religion scholars have been stuck for so long.

Certain to stimulate debate and inspire promising new avenues of scholarship, Religion features a wealth of illustrations and examples that help to make its concepts accessible to readers. This superbly written book brings sound theoretical thinking to a perennially thorny subject, and a new vitality and focus to its study.

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