Discerning the face and future of the Church at the beginning of the 21st century cannot but perplex us, since we struggle to envision the invisible. But some thoughtful analysts at least give us food for thought by reflecting on certain phenomena or trends that may reveal clues as to what’s happening and what’s likely to come. In An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America (New York: Image, c. 214), Joseph Bottum finds our “moment more tinged by its spiritual worries than any time in America since perhaps the 1730s” (#39 in Kindle). We live in a nation alive with a “spiritual” ferment that eludes traditional denominational (and even Christian) categories. In fact: “We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological. When how we vote is how our souls are saved” (#59). This results, in a peculiar way, from the dramatic decline of the Mainline Protestant churches—“the central political fact of the last 150 ears of American history” (p. 79)—that once dominated the religious life of America, leaving as their inheritance an “elect class” of folks forging “a post-Protestant ethic for the spirit of America” (p. #140). This generally successful, upper-middle-class cadre—what Bottum calls the “Poster Children”—has replaced their grandparents’ Mainline Protestant faith with their own creeds and convictions.
Bottum’s Poster Children are products of the ‘60s, snidely sneering at their elders’ Ozzie and Harriet world. “They are, for the most part, politically liberal, preferring that government rather than private associations (such as intact families or the churches they left behind) address social concerns. They remain puritanical and highly judgmental, at least about health, and like all Puritans they are willing to use law to compel behavior they think right. Nevertheless they do not see themselves as akin to their Puritan ancestors, for they understand Puritanism as concerned essentially with sexual repression, and the post-Protestants have almost entirely removed sexuality from the realm of human action that might be judged morally” (p. 14). And though they do not identify as Protestant Christians they actually demonstrate the inevitable unraveling of the “Social Gospel” proclaimed from Mainline Protestant pulpits throughout the 20th century.
The “Social Gospel,” as formulated by Walter Rauschenbusch a century ago, redefined sin as a social condition needing correction, not a personal evil requiring redemption. Jesus was an inspired teacher proposing social justice rather than a suffering Savior dying to save our souls. Egregious social evils—Rauschenbusch listed “bigotry, the arrogance of power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, the madness of the mob, militarism, and class contempt” p. 37)—require social action culminating in social justice. Rauschenbusch, of course, called the churches to spearhead assaults on such evils, but today those churches are largely empty and invalided. Yet his agenda has been internalized (without any of his theological trappings) by the Poster Children. They effectively embrace “a social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling that they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob” (p. 39). Feeling righteous (e.g. endorsing government programs to care for the poor), not being righteous (e.g. personally giving to charities actually caring for the poor), is the ultimate good.
As the Mainline Protestant churches declined, both in numbers (from 50% to 10% of the population in fifty years) and public influence, some observers thought Roman Catholics would fill in the vacuum. But the “Catholic Moment” envisioned by Richard John Neuhaus seems to have passed and Bottum sees little likelihood of Catholicism replacing Mainline Protestantism as the nation’s core religion. Since Vatican II, of course, the Catholic Church in America has experienced something of its own implosion, acerbated by appalling sex-abuse scandals, and seems significantly weakened in many ways. “Twenty-five years of the prestige built up by John Paul II and Mother Teresa drained away in an instant. And at every moment since, whenever the bishops have tried to influence public affairs, there has been someone ready to remind us of their sins”” (p. 218). Intellectually, there has certainly been some effective work, such as that done by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel and Robert George. And there are certainly numbers of devout and intellectually vigorous young Catholics sustaining the Church, but just as the swallows no longer return to San Juan Capistrano so too the prospects of Catholicism becoming the foundational faith of America seems slight.
Though Bottum’s analysis regarding the future for Christianity in America may be unduly pessimistic, it merits thoughtful reading, especially for its penetrating exploration of the Social Gospel’s deleterious impact on orthodox faith and practice. A published poet, Bottum writes fluently and provides those fresh and masterful figures of speech characteristic of poets. That we Christians feel considerable anxiety when pondering the state of the church goes without saying—and to a degree this has been true for 2000 years. But to explain our anxiety, as Bottum has done, may well help us pray and work more wisely.
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While best known for his magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II, George Weigel has written widely on Catholic concerns. In Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church (New York: Basic Books, c. 2013), he endeavors to show that: “The deep reform of the Catholic Church has in fact been underway for more than one and a quarter centuries. It began with Pope Leo XIII” and was sustained by “the revitalization of Catholic biblical, liturgical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies in the mid-twentieth century. It continued in another, and at least as important, way in the martyrdom of millions of Catholics at the hands of the mid-twentieth century totalitarian systems” and was enriched by the work of the Second Vatican Council and popes Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (p. 2). In process since Pope Leo XIII’s election in 1878, this reform movement embraces much that is good in the secular world, leaving behind many Counter-Reformation distinctives while invigorating the traditions and truths that hallmark it as perennially compelling. Neither the antiquarians longing for a pre-Vatican authoritarianism nor the progressives following the path of Protestant Liberalism provide the reform pattern.
But it has been made possible by the remarkable (and now officially Saint) Pope John Paul II orchestrated what seemed impossible when he was elected in 1978—effectively implementing the decisions of Vatican II without dividing or destroying the Church. He “led the Church into the kind of new Pentecost that John XIII had envisioned, through the experience of the Great Jubilee of 2000; and pointed the Church firmly and confidently into the future, declaring that a ‘New Evangelization’ would be the Catholic Church’s grand strategy in the twenty-first century and the third millennium. That grand strategy has been followed by Benedict XVI, whose pontificate has been one of dynamic continuity with that of his predecessor, whose accomplish may lead history to remember him as Pope St. John Paul the Great” (p. 10). Shedding the fortress mentality that characterized many Catholics since the French Revolution, Evangelical Catholicism sees itself as a “counterculture that seeks to convert the ambient public culture by proclaiming certain truths, by worshipping in spirit and in truth, and by modeling a more humane way of life. Evangelical Catholicism does not seek to ‘get along’; it seeks to convert” (p. 19).
Such Catholicism is countercultural inasmuch as it dissents from the various highly subjective “spiritualities” which stress the individual’s search for God—and of the myriad churches designing programs to entice “seekers”—frequently boiling down to little more than the erroneous notion that “it’s all about me.” Sweetly catering to what Weigel calls “the imperial autonomous Self” is not the Catholic way! In fact, Christianity is all about Christ and what He’s done for us! Christ’s Gospel calls us to repent and believe, to enter into His Kingdom, and to enjoy communion—a “mature friendship”—with Him. Christians tell the story, from the beginning, of God’s search for us. “The conviction that Christianity is a revealed religion is thus the conviction on which Evangelical Catholicism rests: the supernatural gift of divine revelation (i.e., God coming in search of us) is given to men and women so that, by an act of faith that is itself made possible by supernatural grace, they may be set on the path of salvation, which is the glorification of the human person within the light and life of god the Holy Trinity (i.e., our responding to God’s search for us by learning to take the same path through history that God is taking” (p. 28).
In important ways Weigel’s “Evangelical Catholics” have more in common with conservative Protestant Evangelicals than liberal Catholics. They share, for example a commitment to the inspiration and integrity of Scripture. Pope Pius’ Providentissimus Deus and Vatican II’s Dei Verbum reaffirm “St. Jerome’s axiom that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, who is the living center of the Word of God read and the word of God preached” (p. 75). Evangelicals and Evangelical Catholics both call for an oft-radical conversion—a turning away from sin and the “spirit of the age” that encourages it—and sustained commitment to Jesus and His Way, engaging in charitable works. Unlike Evangelicals, however, Evangelical Catholics deeply revere and adhere to the Seven Sacraments of the Church and her liturgical services as the primary means of grace available to us.
“The first criterion of authentic Catholic reform reflects the promise of the Lord to his first disciples: that through him, they would ‘know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ [John 8:32]. This is the criterion of truth: all true Catholic reform is built out from the truth that is Christ and reflects the truths that have been entrusted to the Church by Christ” (p. 92). The second criterion is mission, proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the whole world. Contrary to the World Council of Churches, declaring that “the world sets the agenda for the Church,” reforming Catholics have an agenda for the world: come to Jesus! To rightly blend truth and mission requires nothing less than holiness, the standard by which all the Church’s endeavors must ever be measured. “Holiness is the ultimate antidote to infidelity, fear, and the evangelical paralysis that follows from infidelity and fear. Holiness is what binds together a Church in which centrifugal forces are always at work” (p. 105). “In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council spoke eloquently about the universality of the call to holiness. The Lord himself, the Council Fathers recalled, ‘preached holiness of life . . . to each and every one of his disciples without distinction . . . : ‘You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” [Matthew 5:48]” (p. 257). Consequently: “the first task of Evangelical Catholicism is to foster the holiness of all the people of the Church” (p. 257).
The reforms Weigel envisions involve the clergy—popes, bishops, priests—resulting in a corps of men modeling John Paul II, to whom the author devotes many pages. Priests “must be thoroughly converted to Christ, must be living a life of friendship with the Lord Jesus, and must have shown at least some capacity to invite others to meet the Lord before he can be seriously considered as a candidate for the diocesan priesthood” (p. 139). Seminary training must focus on the “Great Tradition of the Christian faith” summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and persuasive apologetics rather than the critical categories of secular graduate schools. Priests must learn to effectively preach expository sermons reflecting an orthodox understanding of Scripture. “A man who cannot preach well will not be a priest capable of being an icon of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, in the Evangelical Catholicism of the future” (p. 146). Leading the people in worship, the priest will understand himself to be the “servant of the liturgy, not its master, and that he must never think of the sacred liturgy as an occasion for the expression of his charming (or winsome, or glowing) personality” (p. 147). Indeed, the Catholic priest embodies in a special way the Gospel truth that human flourishing comes through self-gift, not self-assertion. The postmodern world celebrates the imperial, autonomous Self; the evangelical Catholic priest lives in the life of an obedient, deeply ecclesial man-for-others” p. 150).
In addition to the clergy, Evangelical Catholics need to reform the liturgy, including music, restoring it to some of its ancient majesty. Religious orders (monastic communities) need serious attention, restoring them to their authentic purposes. The laity (politicians included) needs to participate, living out the Gospel in marriage, child-rearing, vocation. Universities, to deem themselves Catholic, most heed the admonitions of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and recover their distinctively Christian character.
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After serving several years as a Presbyterian pastor, T. David Gordon began teaching “media ecology” courses at Grove City College, only to be diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer and given a 25% chance of survival. Having pondered the sorry state of the pulpit for many years, he was prodded by his illness to share his burden in Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, c. 2009). He laments that “less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon” (#44 in Kindle). They generally fail to make a basic point, rooted in a biblical text, and then propose legitimate applications. This results not so much from the intrinsic ability of the pastors as from “societal changes that led to the concerns expressed in the 1960s to 1980s in educational circles—societal changes reflected in a decline in the ability to read (texts) and write—[which] have led to the natural cultural consequence that people cannot preach expositorily” (#86). American culture has shifted dramatically in the past half-century: “A culture formerly dominated by language (reading and writing) has become a culture dominated by images, even moving images” (#306). Even magazines and textbooks are now packed with images designed to arrest the “reader’s” attention.
Enlisting the aid of Robert Lewis Dabney’s classic Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, Gordon identifies these essential elements of a good sermon: 1) textual fidelity; 2) unity; 3) evangelical tone; 4) instructiveness; 5) movement; 6) point; 7) order. Few of these fundamentals can be found in today’s sermons, Gordon says. This is because to compose a good sermon requires, firstly, the ability to carefully read the biblical text. Unfortunately, few Americans (including those with college degrees) actually read great texts, whether Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot, Dostoevsky or Mark Twain. What reading is done is focused on information rather than literary skill and understanding. As C.S. Lewis observed, modern readers tend to “use” rather than “receive” texts. And, to complicate things, post-modern readers simply read into the texts their own predispositions!
Secondly, composing a good sermon requires, needless to say, composition! And in a world of cells phones (with continuous “texting”) there is hardly a second invested in thoughtfully composing one’s thoughts and skillfully putting words on paper! Talking on the phone easily destroys our ability to write! “The consequences for preaching should be very obvious. Telephone conversations rarely have unity, order, or movement; it isn’t surprising that those who spend more time on the phone than in private written correspondence preach sermons that rarely have unity, order, or movement” (#610). Nor does significant content distinguish telephone conversations. Thus contemporary sermons say little about Sin and Salvation! They generally seek to amuse and gently suggest ways to cope with life’s challenges. Or they may offer moral guidance, staking out positions in the nation’s “culture wars.” What’s really missing is any consistent Christological focus—proclaiming the person and work of Christ, who alone can enable us to cope with life or embody the Gospel (including its ethics).
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Having earlier explained Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon examines another current church quandary in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, c. 2012). In brief, he says we no longer sing hymns because we cannot do so—we’ve lost the musical capacity to do so. Immersed in a world of “pop music,” we no longer know how to either attend to or make good music. Thus the music of the Church (hymnology) developed over the centuries has become as incomprehensible as Latin and Greek; they are “strange, unfamiliar, and inaccessible” (#34). “For nineteen centuries, all previous generations of the church (Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Revivalist), in every culture, employed prayers and hymns that preceded them, and encouraged their best artists to consider addition to the canon of good liturgical forms” (#280). Sadly, he says, this tradition was buried by the cultural avalanche triggered in the ‘60s. Consequently: “My own generation and my children’s generation are—to use the Greek term—musical idiots” (#70)
Illustrating this reality is the centrality of the guitar in today’s worship services. The organ, so basic to church music for centuries, has been displaced (and often removed), giving way to guitar-driven bands singing choruses that express certain sentiments but generally lack content or coherence. Primarily designed to engage the emotions and express personal experiences, “contemporary” church music clearly reflects 21st century popular culture. Notably absent is the biblical conviction that: “Song is the divinely instituted, divinely commanded, and divinely regulated means of responding to God’s great works of creation, preservation, and deliverance” (#202). “Contemporary worship music deliberately attempts to sound like the music we hear every day in the culture around us. It goes out of its way not to sound foreign or different. But if meeting our Maker and Redeemer is different from all other meetings, why shouldn’t the various aspects of that meeting be different from the aspects of other meetings?” (#518).
Gordon sees clearly that this is a deeply theological issue, not simply a matter of musical taste. Indeed, the “dictatorship of relativism” denounced a decade ago by Pope Benedict XVI applies to aesthetics as well as ethics. To sing what we “like” rather than reflect on what is God’s Truth sucks us into the cultural nihilism that defines our world, celebrating a narcissistic self-assertiveness rather than costly discipleship. “Neil Postman rightly said: ‘I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.’ So what is at stake in the kind of religion presented in music that is easy, trivial, light, inconsequential, mundane, or everyday” (#450).
Though there is clearly a polemical edge to Gordon’s treatise, and though he is clearly more musicologically proficient that the general reader (including this one), he does his best to avoid pouring fuel on the fire of the “worship wars.” What he does—and what makes this book worth pondering—is to show how easily contemporary Christians have thoughtlessly embraced a music form that militates against the very foundations of the faith.
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