What was life like for those living during the time of Martin Luther? Is Western Civilization on the eve of another Reformation? Modern society certainly indicates, at the very least, that people are speaking up and speaking out.
In the United Kingdom a rapidly increasing number of people are flocking to the “emerging churches.” Led by people like Peter Rollins (How [Not] to Speak of God) and other renegade pastors, these “churches” meet in bars, at skate parks, and other profane places. The theology of the emerging church takes a postmodern approach to Christianity and conceives that institutional churches have lost the true meaning of the Christian faith because people are too focused on following prescribed, meaningless rituals. Instead, emerging Christians sit together and read the Gospels and talk about Jesus the Christ.
Across the Atlantic in the United States, scholars, theologians, journalists, and ordinary people are launching their own assault on mainstream Christian practices. In his 2011 controversial book Love Wins Rob Bell indicts “traditional” Christianity on the charge of using the concept of Hell as a means of social control. Accept Jesus, or you go to Hell. Complete this Christian checklist, or you go to Hell. Go to church, or burn in Hell. This notion, Bell argues, runs counter to the crux of Christianity, which is that love wins because God’s love is infinitely more expansive than the box in which we place it, along with Heaven, Hell, and our own narrow conception of God. Bell goes even further to say that Hell will be empty because God’s grace extends into Hell itself.
Theologians from many of the divinity schools have entered the fray. In her book Almost Christian Kenda Creasy Dean, a theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, argues that teenagers practice a “mutant form” of faith called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and that conventional American churches and their members are responsible for its cultivation. “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American Dream,’” Dean writes, “churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization.”
Andrew Sullivan published an article in Newsweek entitled “Christianity in Crisis.” In it he argues that Christianity has been destroyed by modern culture and the American Dream. He urges Christians to embrace Jesus, not American, get-rich evangelism. People’s priorities have become mixed up, Sullivan asserts: fundamentalist Christians support the torture of terror suspects and oppose homosexuality and abortion despite the fact that Jesus said nothing about these matters.
In 2012, Ross Douthat came out with Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, in which he writes that “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” Indeed, Joel Osteen, the mega-church pastor who insists that God wants you to be happy, healthy, and rich has published a new book awkwardly entitled Everyday a Friday.
In many ways, religion has become a dirty word. People now take “religion” to mean organized Christian churches--along with their scandals, hypocrisy, and backward and fading traditions. In 1999 a Gallup survey asked Americans “Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious?” 54% responded that they were “religious but not spiritual.” By 2009 only 9% of Americans affirmed such a statement.
Is Western Civilization overdue for another reformation?