Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Phillip Jenkins' _The Next Christendom_ documents the rise of Christianity in the Third World, using demographic projections assuring, or reassuring, that the world is not following the West on the path to secularization. Yet I wonder if it is not vulnerable to this criticism, made by Fr. Edward Oakes in a related context:

Still, when it comes to the tendentious use of statistics, liberals are hardly alone. Christians on the more conservative end of the spectrum can also be seen dragging around the security blanket of Trends and Surveys. One of the most telling examples of this is Dean Kelley's Why conservative Churches Are Growing (1972), a tour de force of sociological argumentation, a book that roughly did for evangelicalism by means of sociology what C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity did for it through apologetics. Are you curious to know why Liberal Christianity is a disaster and why only Gospel-based churches are thriving? Well, Kelly has the answer: the conservative churches know what they believe, they make no bones about it, and they are morally demanding and unaccommodating to the Zeitgeist.

What could be simpler? What more soothing to the anxious soul assaulted by the relentlessly secular vulgarites of popular culture? Thus, soon after Kelly, other Evangelicals picked up the gauntlet, and a veritable cottage industry was born. Scholars like George Marsden and Nathan O. Hatch provided the details, reassuring the conservative faithful that their rejection of Liberal Protestantism was the right way to go.

The latest product of this industry comes from Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, the very title of whose recent book The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy (reviewed in First Things, June/July 1993) pretty much tips its hand. Here statistics are marshalled around such essentially economic metaphors as "market share," "subscribers," "outreach programs," etc. The authors' relentlessly free-market analysis might strike some Christians, even conservative ones, as a bit too much, rather as if David Stockman had signed on as unpaid advisor to St. Paul. But the cause, after all, is a good one: to reassure the faithful. "Not secularization but Christianization," avers the First Things reviewer in summarizing the book, "is the primary religious fact of American life."

The subject of Oakes' article, David Wells, also makes a remarkable comment about the alleged Evangelical Revival:

The vast growth in evangelically minded people in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s should by now have revolutionized American culture. With a third of American adults now claiming to have experienced spiritual rebirth, a powerful countercurrent of morality growing out of a powerful and alternative worldview should have been unleashed in factories, offices, and board rooms, in the media, universities, and professions, from one end of the country to the other. . . . But as it turns out, all of this swelling of the evangelical ranks has passed unnoticed in the culture. It has simply been absorbed and tamed. Aside from Jerry Falwell's aborted attempt from the political right in the 1980s to roll back the earlier victories scored by the left, especially during the 1960s, the presence of evangelicals in American culture has barely caused a ripple.

What an indictment of contemporary Christian evangelization: it maintains the debilitating dichotomy between public action and private religious belief, leaving the wider culture in ignorance of Christ. "He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him."

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