Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Liberal = Dying?

Quite a bit of buzz around the blog universe over Ross Douthat's recent New York Times article, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"  The article seems to have been sparked by the recent meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops in Indianapolis and its clear trajectory while the church is in massive decline. The article captures what is very apparent in the seminary world right now, that liberal doesn't sell very well.  

A former colleague of mine who went to Princeton in the seventies used to joke that all the professors he had were ex-fundamentalists angry about how stupid they used to be and whose primary goal seemed to be to get the students to become just like them.  I don't think Princeton is like that at all any more, but it reminds me of a seminary I recently heard of where some professors don't even go to church. Not a good sign for a place whose job is to train ministers.

But lest I feed the fire too much, I should make it clear that fervor and truth are two different things.  Truth doesn't always sell very well either.  What sells is self-interest, and pleasure stands at the very center of self-interest, including excitement and fervor.  If people are angry, then what will sell is an opportunity to vent their anger.  If people are scared, then what will sell is a place of safety. And it will always be the perception of safety that sells, not necessarily the reality of it.

So what do you think?  What "sells" in a church and how does that connect to what is true?


Scott F said...

Certainty sure sells. I read a blog post recently (sorry - can't remember where) arguing that to some extent Calvinist super-star preachers are selling certainty. If God's ways are not Man's ways then certainty is unwarranted. humility is as appropriate in belief as it is in other areas of Christian life. Unfortunately, humility is a tough sell.

John Mark said...

Maybe liberal churches need to find something angry to sell, and thus strengthen their sagging attendance numbers. I'm sure there is something out there for enough people to be mad about; they just need to tap into it. Perhaps their problem is not doctrine but poor marketing.

Ken Schenck said...

Zealous atheism seems to be selling pretty well right now.

Joel Byer said...

Ken, I would like to hear further insights from you about the liberal/angry issue. It does seem from anecdotal evidence that many liberals and out and out atheists come across as mainly angry.

Also in regard to the "certainty" issue, it seems to me that as we mature in Christ, we are to be more certain about fewer things, and less certain about more things. While the number of things that we are certain about may dwindle, those few things left should be held with greater certainty than ever. Would you agree?

Bob MacDonald said...

Our little parish has grown and there are lots of children. We are a high-church with a full liturgical tradition. Nothing is dumbed-down. The imagery needs unpacking, Biblically and liturgically. There is no lack even of young university students and PhD's to teach the children. We do need some younger choral singers - especially tenors and basses.

The mistake that offends me within the trends I have noted in Canada is the sense that someone off the street should be able to understand the moment they come into the building. So hymns have been ungendered, poetry of the past raped from its writers. Liturgies have lost both creed and confession/absolution and have suffered experiments that are sometimes banal. One might as well have the seven rays rather than the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit.

There is difficulty beyond this, of course. I could be accused of obscurantism or elitism. But what happened to our knowledge of the canonical texts and original languages? The problem started long before the '60s. (Note Westcott's complaining tone in his Hebrews commentary in 1889.) The 60s are more a consequence of European wars and the wars a consequence of the lust to power aided by technique.

::athada:: said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
::athada:: said...

This is fascinating / hopeful / troubling. Thanks.

While the ancient-future "movement" might send a few Evangelicals to high-church, more liberal institutions, it's small compared to the demographic crash (exceptional churches proving the rule). As Phillip Jenkins has noted, African, Asian, and Latin American spirituality will take the reins in the 21 c.

In the meantime, I think there are great opportunities for WASPs to incorporate & submit to their Anglican, Catholic, and Methodist immigrant brothers and sisters. I've come to know a wonderful Liberian family at the Episcopal church I've been attending. Sure, he makes the sign of the cross in the liturgy, he'll have a pint with me at the brewery, and do other "typical" Episcopalian things, but he also has Evangelical bumper stickers, Bible-bowl Scripture-memorizing children, and a faith that has been an inspiration for us WASP-high-church lifers.

Come to think of it, we've never even discussed issues of gender and sexuality. I would guess his might differ significantly from the priests and lay leaders, but somehow we are one body, and we drink from the same cup.

::athada:: said...

All that to say, it's not easy. The local Sudanese Anglican community has had some issues with leadership at the parish they have shared space with and are packing their bags.


John C. Gardner said...

It seems obvious that many evangelical churches have been impressed with the prosperity gospel, and there are angry remarks about our president(I am a social conservative Christian and somewhat skeptical about both political parties). I have also heard critical remarks about Catholocism and Lutheran liturgy. We need to be more civil in our discourse while still speaking the truth.

::athada:: said...


It's sad to see how strong Evangelical suspicion is of Catholics, Orthodox, and mainliners. The reality is that we all are 90% in agreement in the core issues. Though I guess if your "core" stretches out to 100s of doctrinal fine points that isn't the case. A little church history and ecumenical field trips would do all the churches a whole lotta good, instead of dissecting the latest Christian best-seller.

I do have to say that suspicion of Catholics (and their theology) is at least a consistent line of reasoning for many Evangelicals. On the contrary, I feel that (where the rubber meets the road) most conservative Christians care more more about the political/cultural angle than the theological. Case in point, widespread acceptance of 2 Catholics and a Morman for the last 3 GOP presidential candidates, while a Protestant sits in office. "Revealed preferences" I believe it's called.

[Not wanting to steer thread into partisan griping - sorry - just an observation]

John C. Gardner said...

Positively, I have noticed a decline in hostility or anger to Catholics in areas such as abortion, same sex marriage, etc where common ground can be found. I also think that many in the pews are not educated to be able to discuss theological or other matters in a civil, knowledgeable manner. I myself am concerned about cultural Christianity and American civil religion.

::athada:: said...

After reading, this article is more disturbing that I thought. Be raised in and still in a couple of these mainline traditions, it seems spot on.

Who can forge the middle way between shallow, politically co-opted fundamentalism and a wishy-washy spiritualized pseduo Democratic National Convention? I'll be there.