A Nation of Heretics

Ross Douthat published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics three years ago (2012), but I’m just getting around to reading it. Now I find I can’t put it down.BadReligion

He describes the time of post-WWII America as a quasi-golden era for the Church. Four religious figures exemplified, respectively, the four foremost religious movements of the 1940s and 50s: theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his intellectually stimulating neo-orthodoxy, evangelist Billy Graham and his new brand of evangelicalism, Bishop Fulton Sheen and his warm-hearted Roman Catholicism, and Martin Luther King and his prophetic call for civil rights.

The growth of Christianity in America during this time was truly phenomenal. In 1930, less than half (47%) of all Americans were members of a church. By 1960–in just 30 years–the number had jumped to 69% (22).

But between the 1960s and the current day, explains Douthat, something went seriously wrong:

The Protestant Mainline’s membership stopped growing abruptly in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged. Of the 11 Protestant churches that claimed more than 1 million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965. There were 10.6 million United Methodists in 1960, more than 11 million at mid-decade, and 10.6 million again my 1970 – and it was down, down, down thereafter. The Lutherans peaked in 1968, Episcopalians in 1966, and the United Church of Christ in 1965; by the middle of the following decade, they were all in steep decline. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Lost about 1.5 million members between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. By the 1990s, 60% of Methodist parishioners were over 50, and there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians. (59)

One would think that the decline might have been merely the result of the country becoming more secular. However, the evidence indicates that during the last half of the 20th century the nation became more religious. “Belief in God, an afterlife, and intercessory prayer remained constant or even rose during these years (Americans were slightly more likely to believe in life after death in the 1990s than in the 1960s)” (62).

No, America is didn’t stop believing; rather, its beliefs became skewed. Orthodoxy was replaced with worship of “the god within”, the prosperity gospel and American nationalism. The message of the Cross was abandoned in favor of moralistic therapy. Douthat describes the present spiritual state of the nation thusly:

United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. These faiths speak for many pulpits –conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”–and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.
… This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics. (4-6)

America has always had its share of groups at the margins–Quakers, Shakers, Mormons, and Millerites. Douthat argues that the difference this time is the weakest of the orthodox center. Mainline Christianity wasn’t prepared to handle the pressures of late 20th century: political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, increasing wealth, and the rise of a new cultural elite that considered the Christian faith déclassé.

Douthat is Roman Catholic, and there are places where I would have said things differently. Still, I highly recommend the book.

On the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

Ten years ago this week my world was upended by Hurricane Katrina. Over 1,800 people lost their lives and more than $100 billion worth of property was lost. Katrina was a disaster for the record books, and one for the Keathley family as well. I was just entering my sixth year serving on faculty at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in August 2005 when Katrina blew in and changed our lives.

I remember the moment we learned that Katrina posed a danger. Penny and I were recent empty-nesters and we were out for a quiet evening. We were leaving a restaurant on our way to see a movie when we saw some other NOBTS people eating there. They were headed home, with plans to spend the evening boarding up windows. Katrina, they informed us, had changed course. She was now headed for New Orleans.

We left the city the next day. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast like perdition with a 26-foot surge, and the levees surrounding the city gave way. Like most of the homes on the seminary campus, our house was flooded. Four feet of water remained in it for over a month.

Our home the day we returned. The water-soaked Bible on the floor belong to Penny's grandmother.

Our home the day we returned. The water-soaked Bible on the floor belong to Penny’s grandmother.

Everyone was shell-shocked. NOBTS opened temporary quarters in Atlanta and we joined the school there. The seminary returned to the New Orleans campus the next spring, and at that time I received and accepted a call to teach at Southeastern.

When a catastrophe of this magnitude hits, it consumes one’s life for a while. What will we do? Where we will go? How will we recover? What’s next? These are some of the questions that filled our thoughts day and night for weeks and months. We were counseled to expect to experience the five stages of grief (we did); to share our story with others and to write about our experiences as a way of coping (we did). A forever bond formed between those of us who went through that crisis together. We cried with each other, encouraged and supported each other, and prayed for each other through one of the most difficult times in our lives. Though we would never have wanted or asked for this experience…God used it for good. Now – we thank him for it.

This week seems like a good time to share a few lessons we learned through that crisis.

1. Travel light – we can get by with much less “stuff”. We left New Orleans with just a change of clothes. It is weird to wake up one morning and realize you have basically no material possessions but what is on your back – it was sobering.

Note the mold on the walls.

Note the mold on the walls.

But in a way, it was also freeing. God’s word tells us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Losing our material possessions reminded us how little we actually need and to put our “things” in proper perspective.

2. The hope and comfort of the Gospel shines even more brightly when the outlook is dark. So many people lost everything. Not just homes, but businesses and careers were washed away. But the citizens of New Orleans were amazed when thousands of Southern Baptists arrived with food, chain saws, and work gloves. The teams from Baptist churches and associations didn’t just come to help during the immediate days and weeks after Katrina. They continued to work and serve for months and even years afterwards.

So many helped us during the recovery

So many helped us during the recovery

New Orleans, a city that was at that time 93% non-Baptist, took notice. The opportunities for Gospel witness during those days were phenomenal.

3. God’s grace is sufficient and also humbling. God met our needs and He did so primarily through His people. Penny and I will always be grateful to the many Christians who responded with love, financial support, and a lot of hard work. He even used strangers to bless and encourage us. It was a humbling experience to accept charity from others. But God used that humbling experience to grow our character and teach us to depend on Him more fully.

Hurricane Katrina serves as a marker in our lives; a reminder of God’s sustaining grace and mercy through calamity. Whatever the future holds, we know our Sovereign God holds the future in His good and trustworthy hands. “I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you.” Is 43:2

Cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

Same-Sex Marriage: Five Contras

Southeastern Seminary is blest to have a number of wonderful Gospel-preaching churches in our community. One of these churches is North Wake, where Larry Trotter serves as pastor.

LarryTrotter Last Sunday (08-09-15) Larry began a series on same-sex marriage and gender. His first message presented the “Five Contras” of same-sex marriage. The five contras are as follows:

1. Same-sex marriage is contra Scripture: Larry provides an insightful quote from Sam Storms: “I don’t want to come across as overly simplistic, but the debate in our society over homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage is first and fundamentally about moral authority.”

2. Same-sex marriage is contra worship: note how in Romans 1:21-27 the Apostle Paul connects idolatry with disordered loves–including the disordered love of same-sex attraction.

3. Same-sex marriage is contra love: if certain behaviors are harmful or destructive then love requires opposing those behaviors (1 Cor 6:9-11). We cannot allow the world to shape our definition of love.

4. Same-sex marriage is contra mission: God’s intends Christian marriage to portray the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 5:29-32). Same-sex marriage thwarts this message.

5. Same-sex marriage is contra history: Chief Justice John Roberts declared in his dissenting opinion, “[T]he Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

Pastor Trotter’s sermon models biblical fidelity, incisive thinking, and pastoral sensitivity. I recommend it highly. The audio is found here.

This post is cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com