God is Back —-Part II—-Religious Conclusions and Orthodox implications

Here is the second part of the Guest Post by Benzion N Chinn. It continues from Part I – here. In this part he offers an evaluation of religion as lifestyle coach, and asks about the more intellectual elements. I am less certain about this approach since the book’s point is that 21st century religion is amoral and non-intellectual. Why be religious? It is a good lifestyle, offers meaning, and warm shabbosim.Chinn asks where are the orthodox bikers? In this I think he still bears the limits of the YU ideal.We do not have statistics but there are more bikers than you think- there is Orthodox 12 step for NA, chabad, outreach devoid of torah and mizvot, and as I saw yesterday heavily tattooed Jews worried about the hashgahah on chicken. Finally, the book deals with everything from meditation and spirituality to pentacostals- each part of which deserves its own discussion. Here is Chinn on his own blog has a post “Do some religions make you stupider” discussing one of the playful pages on the book.

Having reviewed God is Back, I would like to follow up with a consideration of some of the implications of its main thesis that an American model of religion, mixing a surface conservative theology with modern notions of community and self help.

On the surface this book is a strike against the New Atheism and their traditional Enlightenment narrative. But before we start cheering in the streets at the coming defeat of Dawkins and company, any serious religious thinker is going to have to sit down with this book and ask some hard questions; are we actually comfortable not just with religion triumphing in the battle for modernity, but the type of religion that is doing so. Is this a battle we can afford to win?

In many respects this book is an ode to Evangelical Christianity, the source for the American model and its most successful practitioners to date. In particular, the new generation of social activist pastors, like Rick Warren and Bishop T. D. Jakes, are given very positive portrayals

Jesus now is a lifestyle couch to teach you how to reach your worldly potential. It is somewhere among the glowing descriptions of Evangelical mega churches, with their comfy seating and sports complexes.

I must admit to having felt slightly queasy. While Evangelicals have certainly proved capable of harnessing modern technology for their own ends, one has a hard time seeing them as having the sort of intellectual sense to confront the modern world in a serious fashion and actually effecting the broader secular culture. These concerns were only confirmed when the authors brought up Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind only to dismiss it as a problem of the past that is quickly being solved. (For this reason I would strongly urge readers to read Noll in conjunction with this book as a necessary corrective.) God is Back is written from a sociology of religion perspective, content to simply describe what it sees, without ever attempting to pass judgment. (Perhaps this explains the willingness to pass on Noll’s concerns. Noll, as someone living within the Evangelical world, does not have the luxury of not concerning himself as to whether his religion is intellectually tenable.)

That being said, the attraction of the American model is precisely its willingness to mix such theological conservatism with tolerance for the individual and downplaying theology in favor of society building. In essence this is an attempt to have one’s conservative cake and eat one’s modernity too. Rick Warren is an excellent example of this with him being caught on both sides of the gay marriage debate. On the one hand, as an Evangelical Christian, he had no choice but to come out and support Proposition 8 yet he likes to brag about his personal friendships with homosexuals and his tolerance for them even to the point of distancing himself from Proposition 8 once it dropped off the map.

Warren along with every leading figure in liberal Evangelicalism have trapped and knotted themselves in finding a politically correct Evangelical response to the question of “is Jesus the sole path to salvation,” saying both yes and no. If Warren and company are going to be representing Evangelicalism then why bother being an Evangelical? Why not simply join mainstream Protestantism and openly consider mainstreaming homosexuality and acknowledging the existence of alternative paths to salvation? That is unless your religious conservatism is simply a pretense to claim some sort of high ground in terms of authenticity.

Looking at Orthodoxy through the lens of the American model puts an interesting twist on the issue of individuality within Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox world is woefully ill equipped, at an institutional level, to offer a place for anyone who does not fit into the doctor/lawyer/accountant living in suburbia model. Where are our Orthodox biker gangs or taxidermist societies? (Academia presents its own set of problems.) I am constantly amazed as to the extent that someone with long hair and shorts might just be a deeply religious Christian. Orthodoxy’s emphasis on a uniform, such as a kippah, closes off this possibility. Part of our problem is that we lack the numbers to serve niche markets. The American model of religion suggests that offering one size fits all systems may not just be bad simply as a matter of promoting conformity, but suicidal. I would also suggest that this might be one more reason why Israel is important. Israeli Orthodoxy has shown itself capable of offering niche Orthodoxies.

I can see two ways in which the American model plays to the strength of Modern Orthodoxy, more so than Evangelical Christianity, at the intellectual level and in terms of ritual practice. The Orthodox emphasis on study gives it an integral intellectual element absent from Evangelical Christianity. (This is not to say that all Orthodox Jews are learned or that Evangelical Christianity cannot produce learned individuals.) Even the authors, while they downplay the threat, take it as a given that the society building of the American model cannot hope to survive, in the long run, without an intellectual component. Now Orthodoxy’s intellectual culture can work against itself, in the short term, by hastening the moment of crisis when the intellectual pretenses of the movement crash against the distinctively anti-intellectualism of the American model.

On the flip side a deep rooted intellectual culture may be just the thing to balance out and cover for such anti-intellectualism. Orthodox practice gives an extra dimension to claim the authenticity high ground, unavailable to Evangelicalism, thus opening the possibility of taking politically liberal positions. An Orthodox rabbi could come out in favor of legalizing gay marriage and even pursue an active “don’t ask don’t tell policy” in terms of homosexual Orthodox Jews.

I certainly accept the author’s premise of the success of the American model and the reasons for it. I am less certain as to whether this is something long term. The inherent tensions, if not downright contradictions, in the American model beg this to be an exercise in the power of unforeseen consequences; the most obvious of them being the American model doing itself in after doing secularism the favor of first eliminating the sort of rigorous intellectual faith that might have been able to stand up to a secularist assault. The forces of faith may not have lost the battle for modernity, but that does not mean that religion have won.

3 responses to “God is Back —-Part II—-Religious Conclusions and Orthodox implications

  1. What I would define as the YU model is a clean cut personality and personal observance mixed with a certain intellectual worldliness. Now this fits very well into the American model. But just as the American model struggles with intellectualism, it also (and this I did not discuss in the review) struggles with a dialectic of being in the system and being outside of it. Evangelical Christianity has handled this dialectic very well since the 1970s (far better than they did in the 50s and 60s). They are able to be both clean cut suburban family values and the “edgy” challenge the system. In this they have been helped by this perception of a “liberal establishment” taking over the media and the university system during the 1960s.

    One of the ways I think we need to be more like the Evangelicals is in our ability to cultivate a counter-culture element in addition to our establishment. I do not see this as talking out of both sides of one’s mouth; rather it is having the baseline stability to experiment with diversity. I personally have no interest in joining an Orthodox biker gang, but I believe we need to get to a place where such a thing would be acceptable. So I think we are on the same side here. I would challenge the YU model as to where do they intend to fit in non-establishment people with their non-clean cut personalities. There are a lot of Jews out there who consider themselves Orthodox or at least would like to be accepted by Orthodoxy, but do not fit into the obvious categories. The Orthodox establishments needs to come to terms with this fact.

  2. You write that the authors are “content to simply describe what it sees, without ever attempting to pass judgment”. I haven’t read the book, but from your two (very informative, thank you) posts here I think it’s clear that the authors do, in a way, pass judgment on the religious life in the US. I think they approve of evangelicalism, and that’s simply because of its success. As you wrote in the earlier post,

    “[T]he authors argue that the lack of strong State supported churches created an opening for niche churches and the sort of religious innovation necessary to thrive in the open climate of modernity. A religious free market forced clergymen to actively seek congregants to fill their pews by catering to popular needs. As the authors openly admit, this thesis comes from Tocqueville; they are merely updating it for the twenty-first century.”

    This sounds like what is called “the religious market model” for explaining secularization, meaning that unless religion be free from state interference and able to compete in a liberal public sphere – and thus need to change and upgrade itself vis a vis competing religious forms – it will fail to draw costumers and go bankrupt (excuse me, fail to draw believers and disappear).

    I am willing to guess this is why the authors are positive toward evangelism: simply because it has succeeded. In an open market, laissez-faire kind of view on religion, that means it’s GOOD. It may be no accident that the two authors are the editors of The Economist.

    On another note, I think you emphasize the importance of intellectualism a bit too much. Evangelism isn’t the most rapidly growing (or simply the only growing) Christian denomination because it’s intellectual, but because it s stress on feeling, on the direct experience of the Holy Spirit. I think that’s what is in demand today, will be more and more in demand in the future, and it’s with that that Jewish Orthodoxy will have to struggle.

  3. 1) Responding to both Brill & Chinn, even if their are Orthodox Jewish biker groups and Orthodox Jewish 12 step groups, then tend to be not integrated into the Orthodox Jewish communities.

    Individuals will go out and have their 12 step weekend or artist event and then go back into their community without a real integration.

    For example most 12 step meetings take place in Churches rather than in synagogues presumably by the decision of those in the fellowships.

    Though interestingly enough, one of the few areas of integration is the professionals integrating their professions (Doctors, Lawyers & Academics, in particular) into the Jewish communities.

    Chinn, a major problem with the YU model is that, in practice, it only works for those already part of its systems. It’s hard for most outsiders to assimilate into their communities. Unlike evangelical churches.

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