Review: Losing Our Religion

Losing Our Religion

Losing Our ReligionChristel Manning. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Summary: Qualitative sociological research on the religious category of “nones” exploring the different types of “nones”, the influences of time and place, and the parenting choices around religion “nones” face in raising their children.

Some observers would argue that the category of “nones” as in “none of the above” in a list of religious categories is the fastest growing group on the religious scene. This work extends the growing body of work on this group in two important ways. One is to more finely define the different types of “nones” that fall under this category. The other, and motivating interest in this research, was to explore how “none” deal with the question of religion and religious identity with their children.

The author, who describes herself as one who was a Spiritual Seeker at the beginning of this study but a Philosophical Secularist by its conclusion, confronted the question of how parents who are “nones” raise their children. To explore this question, she began by exploring the demographics of the “nones”and what they believe. Most significant in these first two chapters is a fourfold classification that brings added clarity to the different kinds of people who fall under this category: Unchurched Believers, who identify with one faith but avoid any institutional connection; Spiritual Seekers, who believe in some form of higher being or spiritual reality, often cobbling together various beliefs into their own personalized worldview; Philosophical Secularists, who subscribe to a material view of life and often are highly motivated by ethical considerations; and Indifferents, for whom religious or ultimate questions are irrelevant to the lives they live.

Time and place are significant factors in “none” experience. Many who were brought up in a religious tradition abandon this during college years for a variety of reasons. The critical question is how these decisions are reconsidered when people marry and begin to have children. Do they return to the religious institutions they grew up in, identify with new communities, or make a more deliberate choice to not raise their children in any of these traditions. Some of this is determined by the kind of “none” one is. In some cases this transition forces a clarification of where one stands, as it did for the author of this study. Likewise, some parts of the country, particularly New England and the Northwest are friendlier to those who are “nones” The South is a more difficult place, as are parts of the Midwest.

In her exploration of the parental choices of “nones,” the issue of choice emerges as quite important to understanding the decisions these parents make about raising their children. Just as they have defined for themselves their worldview, often departing from that of their parents, many also believe it wrong to define these choices for their children. While some, particularly the Unchurched Believers return to institutional expressions of their faith, for many, they choose exposure to multiple religions as well as philosophical secularism and allowing children to choose their own path. She also addresses the question of the often touted benefits of raising children religiously, demonstrated signally in the work of sociologist Christian Smith. She argues that the comparisons are often between more and less religious youth and do not considered those brought up in principled secularist backgrounds.

At this point she reveals her anti-religious bias. Generally, I appreciated her openness about her own point of view rather than a pretended neutrality. But here, it seems she sets up the worst examples of religion, and particularly Christianity, against the most commendable examples of secularism and atheism. Anyone can play that game. I could argue that Christians built hospitals, cathedrals and universities, while atheist Marxists built Gulags, colorless tenements, and brutally genocidal cultural revolutions. I think this mars otherwise fine work and indulges in the anti-religious caricatures common among academic elites. But I get that some people really experience these things and don’t want to believe in such a god or practice such a religion. I would not and do not either!

What is valuable in the work is something I’ve long contended, that we should assume at least the same level of thoughtfulness in those of different religious persuasions than ours. This is equally so with “nones” and this extends to the thoughtfulness of their parenting choices. I do wonder if “nones” just as much as the affiliated religious subtly encourage, or at least model the choices they have made, even while upholding choice. I wonder how “nones” would feel if their children embrace a strong religious affiliation, such as fundamental forms of Islam or Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. Time will tell whether, in fact, the religiously affiliated and “none” parents in fact have more in common than they might admit. That could make for interesting conversation!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Month in Reviews: March 2016

Gods that fail

My reading this month went from the Civil War to the civil engagement of how religious people relate to public life. Back to back, I reviewed a fairly unconventional view of church and then a mainstream treatment of church growth. There was a classic on holiness and a recent book on how we experience spiritual transformation.  There was a new edition of a book on the idols of our time as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago. I finished the month with two works of fiction, one set in Anglo-Saxon England, the other in post-Independence India. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews.

Unkingdom of GodThe UNkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. The author advocates a kind of “Christian anarchism” consisting in a repentance from the ways Christianity has been entangled with worldly “empire”. Review.

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel. Review.

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy. Review.

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community. Review.

HolinessHoliness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877). The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church. Review.

Lee's LieutenantsLee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998. Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Review.

FlourishingFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community. Review.

OnwardOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015. Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity. Review.

IncarnateIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community. Review.

covenant and commandmentCovenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review.

Making Neighborhoods WholeMaking Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement. Review.

Gods that failGods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross. Review.

Last KingdomThe Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006. This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred. Review.

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers. Review.

Best of the Month: That is a tough choice! Freeman’s classic Lee’s Lieutenants sets the standard for Civil War history and studies in leadership, Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing is undoubtedly an important new work addressing positively the role religion can play in human flourishing. But I will give the nod to Gods that Fail not only because Ramachandra’s prose is a delight to read but his sweeping and incisive analysis exposes the hollowness of the idols of our time and challenges the church to recognize its own worship of false gods.

Quote of the Month: I was challenged by this statement about coming to terms with privilege in Sami DiPasquale’s contribution to Making Neighborhoods Whole:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

Reviewing Soon: I’m thoroughly enjoying Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns on the Great Immigration of Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970. This changed both the South and the cities of the North. I am in the middle of Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch, and fascinated by the basic insight of the book–that living both strong and weak, with authority and vulnerability is to live well. I also discovered a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. Sitting on my TBR pile is a book on fasting, Forty Days of Decrease, and Oliver Crisp’s new work on Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian.

Don’t want to miss any of it? Then follow Bob on Books for some good reading on good reading!



Review: Tower of Glass

Tower of GlassTower of Glass, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (initially print publication, 1970).

Summary: Mega-wealthy Simeon Krug, creator of the process that produces androids, learns of signals from a distant star and uses his androids to build a tower of glass to communicate. Obsessed with distant life, he is woefully ignorant of the hopes and faith the life he has created place in him.

Robert Silverberg began publishing science fiction around the time I stopped reading it. I may have read a few of his short stories in anthologies, but that was a long time ago. Over time he was awarded five Hugo and five Nebula awards (yes, I know the cover image says four Hugos!). He is one of twenty-nine science fiction writers to receive the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Recently, Open Road Media has re-released a number of his books in e-book format, where I am discovering him for the first time.

Tower of Glass is set in the twenty-third century. It is premised on a relatively depopulated earth from previous wars. Simeon Krug has helped fill this population vacuum and become fabulously wealthy by perfecting the process to create android humans out of vats filled with the basic components of life. Three classes of androids exist in ascending intelligence from gammas to betas to alphas and Krug sells them to serve the remaining human population.

The novel begins with Krug setting out to build a 1500 meter glass tower in the Arctic permafrost to send tachyon signals to NGC 7293. Krug, whose previous efforts to discover life forms in nearby systems have all failed, has learned of cryptic signals in the form of number sequences coming from this ring nebula. He employs a vast work force of his androids under the leadership of his Alpha foreman, Thor Watchman, in an ever more frantic quest to complete the tower, oblivious to the increasing death toll this dangerous task entails. Simultaneously, in a Denver factory he is building a space ship to send more androids in suspended animation to NGC 7293.

While focused on the stars, he is more or less oblivious of intertwined undercurrents with his son, Manuel, and the androids. Like other sons of the fabulously wealthy Manuel is trying to find his own meaning in life beyond inheriting his father’s enterprises. He is in an affair with an android woman, Lilith, while married to Clissa, who has yet to bear him a child. His quest leads him to “shunting” where he exchanges consciousness with five other friends, discovering their most intimate thoughts, emotions, and memories, as they do his.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any, including Simeon Krug, most of the androids, apart from a few political activists, have given themselves over to the religion of Krug. They have created a whole religious system centered around their “creator”, in whom they lodge their hopes that after trials, they, the people of the Vat, will be full partners with the people of the Womb, enabled by their Creator Krug, who they venerate and pray to in secret services in “chapels” all over the world.

Redemption is slow in coming. When Manuel tours one of the factories that gives birth to androids and is deeply disturbed by what he sees, his lover, Lilith, and Thor Watchman see a chance to help their prayers for deliverance from servitude to their human masters. Manuel is cultivated as an android ally, finally learning the truth of their religious belief in his father.

As the tower nears completion, Manuel goes to his father to reveal the hidden religion and intercede for the androids. We approach this plot climax wondering whether any of this was such a good idea and how Simeon Krug will react to his god-hood.

Beyond the android religious rituals, I was struck with a couple other profound echoes of biblical religion. One was the idea of Krug’s tower. Like the tower builders in Babel, Krug builds a tower to reach up to the heavens–literally. We watch a hubristic quest, an obsession really where pursuing a technological chimera that justifies mounting death tolls and sending a ship full of androids toward the blue giant at the center of the nebula in a quest to communicate with life that could incinerate them.

We also see in Thor Watchman a kind of Moses figure concerned with the deliverance of his people from their servitude. Moses’s initial attempt as a young man involved taking that deliverance into his own hands to no good end. I will leave you to discover the results of Thor Watchman’s effort to take deliverance into his own hands.

We also cannot help but consider the implications of crossing the threshold of become “creators” of life, and what that does to both “creator” and “created”. Our technologies are resulting in increasingly life-like and humanoid robots, and our cloning experiments have resulted in viable animal forms of life. This book explores the presumption of control by the creators. It also explores the consequences of what happens when such creations have “self-awareness” and with that longings both for worship and for self-realization. If anything, Silverberg’s story speaks with greater prescience and relevance today than when first published 46 years ago, warning us of the dangers of our hubristic dreams.

[Parent advisory: This book does contain explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse as well as some violence.]


Review: God and Race in American Politics

God and RaceGod and Race in American Politics, Mark A. Noll. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Summary: This text explores the interwoven story of religion, race, and politics in American history, with a concluding theological reflection.

Mark Noll makes the observation in this book, derived from his Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton University in 2006, that we have one of the most enlightened political systems in human history and yet we have failed signally in the matter of race. From our beginnings we accepted the slave trade that treated forcibly seized Africans as cargo that were simply one more asset to serve American interests. After the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, we settled for systemic injustices in the form of Jim Crow laws that a number would argue continue in some form down to the present.

What Noll does in this “short history” is look at the interplay of religious influences, shifting party affiliations and voting patterns and the continuing saga of race in America. As a careful scholar, he documents his narrative with numerous tables on denominational populations and party voting patterns by various states and populations.

He begins by looking at how the Bible was used to argue both for and against slavery. Interestingly, those who were pro-slavery held back from arguing for White slavery, revealing the racial animus behind this issue. In this racial divide he traces the origins and rise of African-American churches who would be a critical factor in years to come in civil rights advocacy. He concludes this chapter (2) with these prophetic words by W.E.B. DuBois:

“This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed….Especially are we surprised and astonished at the recent attitude of the church of Christ–on the increase of a desire to bow to racial prejudice, to narrow the bounds of human brotherhood, and to segregate black men in some outer sanctuary” (cited on p. 59).

The book traces the the failed efforts of Reconstruction (“Redemption” in the South) and the alignments of southern Whites (comprised of large Baptist and Methodist populations) with the Democratic Party while Blacks who could vote as well as northern Protestants aligned with “the party of Lincoln.” He recounts the rise of Jim Crow and the failure of the courts and political processes along with the lack of engagement (and some complicity) of white Evangelicals with these injustices.

Meanwhile, an African-American church was rising in organizational strength and the training of its pastors. Noll traces the antecedent influences on King and other civil rights leaders and how central the religious voice was to this movement.

A significant turning point came in 1964 with the passage of sweeping civil rights legislation under Democrat Lyndon Johnson. A major political realignment began, where the once Democratic white south became Republican, and the Democratic Party became one of northern liberals, mainline Protestants (a declining group) and ethnic minorities while Evangelicals and some Catholics identified with the small government, morally conservative policies of the Republicans.

One fascinating sidelight Noll observes is the emergence of southern Evangelicals on the national stage in this period. Having come out from an apparent identification with racism as a result of civil rights legislation, denominations like the Southern Baptists and figures like Jerry Falwell (and Bill Clinton) gain national platforms.

Noll concludes the book with a theological reflection. He notes the mixed history of Christian complicity with racial injustice and advocacy for civil rights and “the beloved community.” While not justifying the evils, he argues that in Christian theology’s understanding of both human evil and the redemptive arc of the gospel, there are the resources to help us neither be surprised by evil nor the acts of so many who selflessly pursue justice. It is a theology of realistic hope rather than starry-eyed optimism or pessimistic despair.

This is a book for anyone engaged in issues of racial reconciliation or who are trying to understand the complex interplay of religion and American politics around these issues. As in so many things, understanding where we’ve come from is critical to understanding where we are and discerning the road before us. This book can help.


Repost: The Good of Politics (A Review)

I will not be posting new posts for until Monday July 27 because of professional responsibilities. So I thought I would share some “encore” posts from the past year. Today’s is a good follow-up to yesterday’s review on The Religion of Democracy

good of politicsIn our current toxic political climate one might ask the question, “can anything good come of politics?” James W. Skillen would answer that affirmatively. His main contention is that to be created in the image of God means, among other things, that we are political creatures and that political life, along with things like work and family, is part of God’s creation intention for us. It is not a consequence of the fall. Like other aspects of the human condition, political life certainly has been distorted by the fall but part of our call as the redeemed is to bring a redemptive influence into political life.

After laying out the biblical basis for this position in Part One, Skillen goes on in Part Two to survey how the church through history has addressed itself to this question. He covers Augustine’s two cities, the ascendancy of the church over civil government, and the splintering of authority and the two kingdom approach of the Reformers, particularly Luther. Finally he moves to the contemporary scene and the influences of Hobbes and Locke on the American Experiment.

Along the way, he engages the Anabaptist alternative of Hauerwas and Yoder and others that advocates for the kingdom of God as its own political entity and that the church, which is called to peace, should abstain from political engagement which inevitably requires the use of force in restraining evil, including lethal force. He argues that while this may allow the church to maintain its purity, it raises questions about the character of a God who ordains government to restrain evil through the power of the sword. My difficulty with this contention is that these questions are unavoidable no matter whether you are Anabaptist or not and go back to the question of why God permits evil at all. However, like those who would ascribe to some form of just war theory and who take this seriously, he argues that many instances of warfare do not meet this test and should be opposed by Christians.

This last is covered significantly in the third part of the book where Skillen engages the questions of how Christians engage in politics. He explores hot button issues like marriage, family, economics, and the environment. Because this book is an “introduction” he covers a lot of ground. His most interesting sections to me were his discussions of citizenship and the responsibilities all of us have in a republic, and his thoughts on politics in a globalized setting–avoiding nationalism and one world government options while allowing for various regional and other international regimes to deal with the international issues that are inevitable. In this discussion he argues that our situation is not one of a clash of civilizations between country blocks but rather competing claims within many of our countries: secularism, Christianity, capitalism, Islam to name a few.

The one thing I found most impractical was his proposal for “proportional representation” in the House of Representatives of national parties based on voting percentages for each party in elections. What he is trying to do is create a context where parties address national concerns rather than simply being split into electoral base politics. What seems to have a better (though still a long shot to me) chance is redistricting reform that requires districts to make geographic sense and to be demographically representative of a state’s population as far as that is geographically possible. The current gerrymandering of political districts means that one only need cater to one’s base to get elected rather than representing all the people. At least both Skillen and I agree on the problem that makes the House so dysfunctional.

On balance, this is a helpful proposal for how Christians might think about political life and exercise redemptive influence in politics. The most important part of this book is his argument for politics as a result, not of the fall, but the creation. His survey of historical positions is also helpful. His exploration of contemporary issues seemed somewhat cursory, even though he is thoughtful and nuanced. Yet he shows some of the directions Christians might go in pursuing these issues in greater depth.

First posted here July 30, 2014

Review: The Religion of Democracy

The Religion of DemocracyThe Religion of Democracy, Amy Kittelstrom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015

Summary: This book traces the “American Reformation” of Christianity through the lives of seven key figures spanning the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, in which adherence to creed shifted to the dictates of personal judgment and the focus shifted from eternal salvation to ethical conduct reflecting a quest for moral perfection and social benefit.

It seems that part of the American story is that religion and politics have been inextricably interwoven. As I was preparing to write this review, I listened to John Kasich invoke the biblical imagery of “the city on the hill” and many more personal references to faith in his announcement of his candidacy for the President of the United States. Kasich, from what I can tell, represents the reformed/evangelical stream of Christianity in America. This book represented what might be considered the other major stream in American political life, a stream that is less interested in creed, which tolerates a plurality of belief ranging from a Unitarian view of God to a god within to some form of spiritual consciousness that drives a deep personal quest for moral excellence and ethical behavior that benefits the wider society. In some sense, this stream may incorporate any other religious or secular views as long as they are not insistent upon a particular creed. It is a stream informed by the classical liberal humanism of the Enlightenment which in the twentieth century has been transformed into a social and political liberalism.

Amy Kittelstrom describes for us the development of this stream from the time of the American Revolution down through the early twentieth century by profiling seven key individuals and their contribution to what she calls “the American Reformation” and “the religion of democracy”. This latter seems appropriate because it is the kind of public and civil religious perspective that arose out of the New England context that has shaped so many of our political and cultural institutions. The seven figures and their contributions (taken from chapter titles) are:

  • John Adams: The Protestant Moral Ethic and the Spirit of Independence (personal judgment over creed)
  • Mary Moody Emerson: The Culture of Lived Virtue and the Fight against Bigotry
  • William Ellery Channing: Universal Inner Divinity and Self-Culture (Channing was a leader of the early Unitarians)
  • William James: Practical Idealist, Man of the World and the Method of Nature
  • Thomas Davidson, Liberal Freedom, Fellowship and the Socialization of Self-Culture
  • William Mackintire Salter, New Liberal, Ethical Culture, and Social Progress
  • Jane Addams, Social Democracy, Universal Needs, and the Cooperative Road to International Peace

Each chapter explores the life and thought of the particular individual, and their intellectual circle. This latter is especially important because of the intellectual community each of these individuals sought out. But these communities were not simply about ideas, but also the personal more development of each person. Over time, this is transformed to the social and moral uplift of the poorer, working classes, most evident of course in the work of Jane Addams. A common thread throughout is a religious perspective that prioritizes “personal judgment” over external creeds. Some never embraced these. Some, like Adams, formally identified with churches that did while quietly adhering to personal judgment. And some, like Channing and Addams, moved from  Reformed and evangelical roots to embrace this broader liberal perspective.

She concludes by exploring the contribution of the liberal religion of democracy over the last century, in its extension of rights to women, racial minorities, and LGBT persons and believes this will continue to be a potent force in shaping democracy’s efforts to advance human rights.

I believe this is am important study even though I would disagree at a number of points with what I think is the implicit creed of “the religion of democracy”. It exchanges a Triune God of Holy Love for the “god within” and salvation and the obedience of faith for moralism, among other things. Yet, whatever your take on “the religion of democracy” it is important to understand the intellectual hegemony it has achieved, the intellectual community it has fostered, and the public rhetoric of equality, tolerance, pluralism, and inclusion that has captured the American imagination. Kittelstrom’s book is an important contribution to that understanding.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith

Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith
Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith by Sharon D. Parks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the books that higher ed professionals have mentioned to me over and over again with regard to the interest in “spirituality” among college students. So, when a friend offered to lend me a copy, I accepted. For me, there were two significant areas of “takeaway” from this book.

The first was Parks exploration of the developmental stage of “emerging adulthood.” I think many of us assume adolescents just move from adolescence to adulthood and we don’t adequately understand this period in between. Even more, we don’t consider how this developmental stage relates to faith development. We often just worry about keeping people in the faith, rather than understand the changes in thinking processes and perception of the world that are occurring and how these must be constructively engaged. Parks proposes that we go through changes in knowing, in forms of dependence, and in forms of community. In knowing, we move from authority based knowing to sometimes unqualified relativism to probing commitments to tested commitments to convictional commitments. In forms of dependence, we move from dependent or counterdependent, to fragile inner dependence to confident inner dependence to interdependence. In forms of community we move from conventional to diffuse to mentoring community to self-selected groups to an openness to the other. A challenge for many religious communities is that they often don’t move beyond the first or adolescent/conventional form in each of these categories. And if our emerging adults do, no wonder we lose them!

The second takeaway was the critical importance of mentoring relationships in this meaning-making process of wrestling with big questions and worthy dreams. Parks explores not only individual mentorship but also how the higher ed process can be a mentoring process and how mentoring occurs in culture and in whole mentoring communities.

Some wouldn’t find this a problem but the book tends to be more descriptive in broad terms than prescriptive in terms of the specifics that higher ed professionals and spiritual mentors can implement in their work. The second is that it seemed to me that the book proposes more of a “designer faith” that individuals craft with the help of supportive mentors rather than a deepening embrace of one of the established religious traditions. While not disparaging of any tradition, the majority of the models in the books are of emerging adults who are “spiritual but not religious”. This is an increasingly popular “option” but one wonders whether this has the power to sustain worthy dreams over a lifetime. At the same time, the book does provide a needed challenge for all religious leaders working with emerging adults: will you minister and mentor in a way that recognizes the developmental process occurring in the lives of these young men and women? That may be the biggest question of all for these leaders.

View all my reviews

Review: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution

God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the relationship between religion and our national life in the U.S. were a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated”. Truth is, it always has been, according to Thomas S. Kidd.

In this “religious history of the American Revolution” Kidd gives us a highly readable yet nuanced account of our early religious history which avoids either the “Christian America” or “secular state” options. Nothing illustrates this more than the relationship between Baptist evangelist, John Leland and Thomas Jefferson. These were strange bedfellows to be sure and yet both were agreed on one crucial issue, the disestablishment of religion and the promotion of religious liberty for all Americans.

Kidd documents that this passion for liberty, first from the British establishment, and then from any establishment of a particular church was in fact the meeting place between much of the evangelical movement that arose out of the first Great Awakening, and the by and large Unitarian deists and skeptics who were among many of our “Founding Fathers”. Both recognized the vital importance of religion in energizing the rebellion against Great Britain, which accounted for the wide support of military chaplains during the war. Both recognized the importance of religion for the encouragement of sacrifice and public virtue. And both opposed state supported churches that privileged one denomination with tax revenues, and often excluded from public office those unwilling to meet religious tests.

The book also chronicles the fateful concurrence particularly between New England religious leaders and Thomas Jefferson in the statement in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights”. Intended to assert American equality with the British, it also underscored the deep inconsistency within our country of oppressing Native Americans and enslaving Africans. Kidd explores how this piece of our religious history set up a tension not only between sections of the country but even within the lives of people like Jefferson who both trembled at the consequences of slavery for the country and yet held slaves until he died.

What Kidd argues is that the evidence of these early years presents a picture of public expression of religious faith without state establishment of religious institutions. None envisioned the complete exclusion of matters of faith from public life. In fact, the disestablishment of religion was believed to be a vitalizing factor that even contributed to subsequent religious awakenings and the exceptional vibrancy of religion in American life, a fact noted by de Tocqueville. He sums up the agreement between the evangelicals and the founders as follows, “The founders’ religious agreement was on public values, not private doctrines” (p. 254). He warns against things like divine providentialism supporting every conceivable conflict and the kinds of “Christian America” rhetoric seen in some quarters today. Yet none of this argues against the importance of religion in public life, particularly to advance commonly held values.

The only reservation I have here is that this can sometimes smack of a pragmatism that uses religious faith for political ends. While people of faith should be welcomed in public life and discourse, they also need to be watchful for being used (and duped) for political ends inconsistent with their most deeply held principles.

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Review: When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education

When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education
When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education by Julie J. Park
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Diversity and inclusion are big buzz words in higher education circles. Most of the time, efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are university sponsored. What Julie Park does is study the unusual instance where a campus organization on its own initiative pursues a diversity initiative, moving from a mostly white and Asian-American group to one incorporating significant numbers of African-American and Latino/a students. The group? InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at “California University” (a pseudonym to provide anonymity to the group as well as students involved in this study). This book is based on her doctoral research project studying this group.

Beginning in the years after the LA riots in 1992 this group pursued an increasingly deliberate agenda to become more diverse ethnically. Staff leaders took risks, there was more regular teaching on racial reconciliation that grounded this in a biblical rather than “political correctness” agenda, frank and sometimes emotion fraught “Race Matters” sessions were launched, and intentional efforts were made to reach new students across ethnic lines. Julie Park chronicles the up and down difficult journey toward increasing ethnic diversity through a series of interviews with students, staff, and alumni involved with the group during this period.

Cutting across this trend to increasing diversity was the passage of Proposition 209, that mandated “color blind” admissions policies at the state’s universities. This led to a precipitous drop in African-American admissions and a continuing rise in Asian-American admissions. And what she found was that this constrained the InterVarsity’s group to continue to achieve the kind of ethnic diversity it had previously achieved, despite having a multi-ethnic team of campus workers. This occurred both through restricting the pool of African American students from which they could recruit (in one year, only 96 African American students were admitted). It also created a new majority among Asian-American students. This also required a renewed process of aligning vision and strategies to reach students of other ethnicity.

While it is clear that Park at many points is very impressed with the InterVarsity group’s efforts to increase diversity, she also doesn’t flinch at noting their failures and miscues, including a very explosive “Race Matters” session that actually set their reconciliation efforts back, or an instance of “vision creep” where a relaxed focus on multi-ethnic outreach led to a drop in diversity. She gives us a well-written, carefully researched narrative of what it takes to change the culture of a group around race and ethnicity.

This is an important book both for those who work in collegiate ministry and for those concerned with higher education admissions policies. Groups like InterVarsity provide a voluntary meeting place where students can gain a greater vision for relationships across the ethnic lines that we draw throughout American society. If laws and admissions policies decrease these opportunities (which rarely happen in the church or other societal structures), where will they happen? And what should we conclude about the disparity of admissions by ethnicity? That is complicated but one thing is clear, at least to me. We are not operating from a level playing field, which seems to be the assumption of “color blind” laws and admissions policies.

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