Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
Diana Butler Bass
In this fine volume, Diana Butler Bass begins with sobering news, alerting us to her belief that the end of religion and the end of the church, at least as we have known it, is at hand. The book begins by describing the situation as it now exists for religious communities in general and traditional, churched based communities in particular. Using a variety of traditional and contemporary appraisals, Butler Bass documents that across a wide theological and denominational spectrum Christianity “is struggling in America.” (12) People simply don’t attend church as they once did. Fewer individuals think of their religious identity in terms of a denominational identity. Denominationally-related traditions and churches, left and right of center, are struggling for support. A variety of polls suggest that the number of people who claim no religious affiliation has doubled to fifteen percent in the last five years. Those who do gravitate toward religious reflection often consider themselves believers but not belongers, or perhaps claim to be spiritual but not religious. Butler Bass concludes that amid “increasing religious diversity, American beliefs about God, traditional doctrines, and sacred texts are open to influences from a wider range of sources, experiences, relationships, and faith traditions.” (51) These ecclesiastical transitions lead her to suggest that western societies appear to be moving toward the development of a genuinely “multireligious identity” as individuals and families blend spiritual traditions. Interfaith and multiracial marriages are part of that trend as is the tendency for many persons to link spiritual practices from various faith communities. All this leads Butler Bass to assert that many older forms of the church are “unsustainable and are failing,” (71) a reality that contributes to the decline of the “positive image of religion” in the American public square. (93) Indeed, the book gives extensive attention to redefining religion, affirming religio in more ancient forms that reflect “a warm, reverberating and sustained affirmation of a personal relation to [a] transcendent God.” (98) This is the form of spiritual experience that contrasts with the traditional western approach to religion that is fast disappearing. And the sooner the better, Butler Bass believes.
After outlining the current state of American institutional religion, Butler Bass contends that the news is not all bad. She joins such writers as Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith) and Parker Palmer (Healing the Heart of Democracy) in insisting that a new spiritual awakening lies ahead. Institutional religion is declining, but a renewed spirituality grounded in religious experience is evident throughout the society. She notes that increasingly “in the minds of many, dogma deserves to die.”(112) This does not mean that the role of belief will disappear in religious communities, however. As religion turns to spirituality, matters of belief are transformed “from what to how.”(113)
Throughout the book, Butler Bass links the “how” questions to the power and significance of “belief as experience.” (116). This kind of belief is based less on cognitive speculation or assent to certain systematic dogmas than on an encounter with the divine and a pledge of faithful action. In shaping her thesis, Butler Bass provides an excellent summary of certain classic approaches to the nature of religious experience as evident in the work of Frederick Schleiermacher, William James, Teresa of Avila, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Rene Descartes. These individuals represent theological and philosophical analyses of what James called, classically, the “varieties of religious experience.” Concern for such experiences is evident in the fact that at least fifty percent of the American populace claims to have had some sort of mystical encounter. Thus she believes that many Americans appear to be “returning to the idea of faith as an encounter with God.” (120) Thus the time is ripe to revisit the religion of Jesus that began, not with concern for belief but with a community born of “the inner life, the heart.” (205) This “new vision” involves “relational community, intentional practice, and experiential belief, the sign of a pending spiritual awakening.”
Butler Bass then turns to the possibility that current transitions in the nature and meaning of faith and practice suggest the start of a new awakening. Again, she offers a helpful synopsis of the history of religious awakenings in America from the First Great Awakening to what she believes to be a Fourth Great Awakening. In this she is greatly influenced by historian William McLoughlin’s important analysis, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform,published in 1978. That long ago, McLoughlin believed that America was on the edge of a Fourth Awakening, evident, Butler Bass contends, in a more experienced-based religion, shaped by pluralism, holistic faith, and communal response. She explores the nature of such an awakening, now enhanced by technology and pluralism in ways that McLoughlin never anticipated. She also documents significance resistance to such an awakening, evident in a renewed nativism, often present in certain religious communities that resist the loss of a “Christian America,” Protestant privilege, and what seems the loss of traditional faith. They struggle against responding to transitions in religious life and Butler Bass’ thesis by reasserting the viability of traditional orthodoxy. For Butler Bass, however, the dye is already cast. A new awakening is at hand, “old things have passed away; all things are becoming new.” One can only hope.
Bill J. Leonard, Wake Forest University
Columbia Records, 2012
“Why is there a hole in my bucket?”
That’s Bruce Springsteen, paraphrasing the title of a song from Hank Williams, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” at the South by Southwest music festival this past March 2012. In his keynote speech at that festival, Springsteen traced his musical lineage pointing out his reliance on country music in songwriting, particularly, Hank Williams’ song.
But there is a limit to country music, says Springsteen. It is rarely politically angry and politically critical. Its fatalism, says Springsteen, has a toxic element. Country does not answer the question “why does my bucket have a hole in it?’ Country music doesn’t respond to why lives are broken, and how lives are torn and intricately connected to political and economic systems.
But Springsteen and the E Street Band have, over the decades, taken on the “why” with guitars, drums, horns, and strings in full throttle.
This leads us to Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th studio album. Our country has a hole in it and it’s from a wrecking ball. On the album, Springsteen addresses the hole in our country, the hole caused by the wrecking ball known as the financial crisis, the hole that swallowed up so many of us.
On the album, Springsteen dances between hope and despair, anger and gratitude as he leads the listener through the economic journey, the story, of the current American reality. Wrecking Ball takes on the question of “why,” and it passionately, through image and narrative, names those who wrecked this economy and those who now suffer from the reckless, irresponsible corporate behavior. Not only does Springsteen take on the “why,” he uses image and narrative to bring the “why” alive.
Through the thirteen songs, Springsteen distinctively sings of the peaks and valleys of life, metaphorically lifting up the widening gap between the haves and have nots in American society. The weaving together of image and narrative, narrative and image is distinctly Springsteen and it is nearly impossible for this listener to hear a song on Wrecking Ball and not be taken in by the spectrum of emotions Springsteen elicits.
“We Take Care of Our Own” questions our culture’s conscience—do we really take care of our own? “Death to My Hometown” is a wrenching, angry, burning- from-the-gut Celtic-punk declaration that a hometown can be destroyed in ways beyond war-induced bloodshed and bombs dropping. “Rocky Ground” is a Gospelinfused promise that a new day is coming.
Through the unnamed characters and multi-dimensional images throughoutWrecking Ball, the listener becomes part of the story. The listener’s story and the characters and images who speak to a national narrative become connected, woven together, responsible to each so we are now, together, part of the answering of the question “why?’ Why does our bucket have so many damn holes in it? Why is life so broken and torn?
Why are so many in economic distress when, as Springsteen sings in “Shackled and Drawn”: “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills/It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill/Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong/Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.”
The power of weaving together image and narrative is this: as Springsteen brings the modern situation to life, his songs carry us to that place of aliveness, it animates us, and it reminds us what it means to live. It calls us to action, to create change, to jump on board the train bound for a land of hopes and dreams.
The asking of “why” in Springsteen’s methodology and creative songwriting is relevant to church life, particularly in the creation of liturgy. At Church of the Pilgrims, where I am Minister for Spiritual Formation, we pattern ourselves in the same songwriting methodology when we plan and create liturgy. We take a biblical image, we take the biblical story, and we take the story of our lives and the story of the planet. We weave all of it together in the vast hope we come alive together on Sunday mornings as one body.
Liturgy, the work of the people, isn’t created out of an empty vortex but, like Springsteen’s songs, takes into account the tradition, influential ancestors of the craft, Biblical narratives which expose the human condition, and a theology that emanates, as does Wrecking Ball, out of our sweat, tears, the corner store, and local bar. It’s the intersection of the personal and the political, the stories about exclusion-inclusion politics. This is how people live, according to Springsteen. Lives cross over; people get tangled up, and the answer to “why does my bucket have holes in it” gets lost in the mess. To Springsteen, our lives are all connected, and that connection is hard to make in a modern, post-industrialized world.
Liturgy and Wrecking Ball demand human connections. This is the purpose of both. This is how liturgy speaks truth to power, deconstructs the “why” and imagines a world-made-new. Liturgy, like Wrecking Ball, is a map; guiding people through the complicated lives we are living especially when our backs are smashed up against the wall. Springsteen’s music is liturgy. It’s liturgy for the masses. As an album, Wrecking Ball seeks to heal a wound the size of our national culture. After all, a wrecking ball creates holes, it doesn’t fully demolish, it creates rubble where life can begin again. If a liturgy would be created for the size of our national wound, look no further than this album. Wrecking Ball is liturgy for society’s brokenness and declaration to the powers-that-be that we are alive.
Ashley Goff, Church of the Pilgrims, Washington, D.C.
Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15
2012 Issue 2, Number 2