Tag Archives: God is Back

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.

God is Back- John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge Part I

Here is the first of several guest posts by diverse authors. This one is by Benzion N. Chinn, former student, who is an ABD in Jewish History at Ohio State. He generally blogs at his own blog Izgad. He reviews God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, which is one of the best introductory books on religion of the last few years. The book written by two journalists from the Economist who provide an easy to read overview of the current state of religion. They show how the secularization theory is dead, but without the technical details of Peter Berger, Jose Casanova, or Talal Asad. The book presents the role of religion everywhere in our lives. Unlike 25 years ago., religion now seems to be a factor in everything. Rather than the ritual, myth, symbol, and mysticism of older studies of religion, this book provides insight into topics of current interest such as religion and politics, religion and violence, religion and media. They view the current champion as the evangelical model that mixes free-enterprise, self-help, and family life. Benzion N. Chinn offers his review in two parts. The first part of Chinn’s review here is a general overview of the book and the second part is on its application for Modern Orthodoxy. So be patient for the second part.

In the course of studying the contemporary religious resurgence, we must step back and review the Enlightenment ideology its presumptive attractions and strengths as well as its defects and disadvantages. If Schleiermacher aimed to reconstruct theology in the wake of the Enlightenment, today we need to reconsider the Enlightenment in view of recent religious developments. They include liberal theology as well as a variety of neoorthodox and existential ideologies. The return to religion may to some extent be rooted in and related to the inadequacies or oversimplifications of earlier thought.
One corollary of this development would be that we should seek to engage not only people who are formally in the field of religious studies but religiously committed people who are reflective and articulate and who would be able to describe in general nonconfessional terms the nature of their commitment, the meaning and impact of their religious experience, the views they have of secularism or other antireligious ideologies. (Prof. Isadore Twersky, Random Thoughts)

The traditional narrative of the Enlightenment was that the Enlightenment came in and defeated the forces of “superstitious” religion. Such a narrative still retains a certain cultural currency (particularly in the hands of the like of Richard Dawkins), but fails to offer a convincing explanation as to the continued success of organized religion in the United States and, even more devastatingly, the role that religion is playing in the modernization of the developing world. I have no reason to assume that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge were familiar with the work of the late Prof. Twersky, but their book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, is certainly an admirable attempt to carry through precisely this charge. It offers a narrative that covers both the Enlightenment encounter with religion and how it continues to play itself out today. Furthermore, the book both challenges the traditional Enlightenment narrative of religion and seeks to understand religion by engaging in a dialogue with its modern practitioners.
The basic narrative of God is Back is one that should be familiar to students of American religious history. While in France (and eventually Western Europe as a whole) a radical version of the Enlightenment, which saw modernity as being in opposition to religion, triumphed, in the United States it was a moderate Enlightenment, which saw religion as the natural ally of progress, which proved dominant. Because of this, today Christianity remains an active force in American politics, while Western Europe has become a collection of post-Christian countries.
This does not mean that the United States was founded as a Christian country. The authors are careful to debunk that myth to show that, in the eighteenth century the young United State was not that different from Western Europe in terms of religiosity. It was plausible that the situations could have been reversed. As to why this did not happen, the 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.

While the authors spend the early part of the book giving an overview of the diverging histories of religion in the United States and Western Europe, the most worthwhile part of the book is when the authors move away from the United States to places like the Philippines, China, South Korea, and Nigeria as they struggle to embrace modernity. This path to modernity is increasingly not one of secularization, but on the contrary an embracement some pretty conservative brands of religion. I particularly recommend the anecdote in the introduction, describing a home bible study and worship session by a group of middle-class Christians in Shanghai.

If there is one central thesis at the heart of this wide ranging discussion of religion it is more than just that organized religion is here to stay as an essential part of the modern world, it is that there is a distinctively American brand of religion that is winning in the battle for the soul of modernity. This is no longer just in the United States; the American model is sweeping across the developing world and is even making inroads in the secular bastions of Western Europe. The basic features of this model are, despite a conservative exterior, a move away from top down hierarchal structures, emphasizing hard theology, toward social communities, with an emphasis on personal experience and growth. This is not just Christianity we are dealing with; the authors spend much of the later parts of the book charting how this model has moved into Hinduism and even Islam.  The authors, furthermore, consider the implications of this shift for the future of Islamic relations with the West. Could it be that American style religion, as opposed to American bombs and American style secularism, will be what brings down radical Islam?

The success of this American brand of religion, across confessional lines, is not contrary to the narrative of modernity or peripheral to it, but at the heart of modernity. Modernity has given us choice, but at the same time has disrupted traditional values and community. It should therefore be no surprise that there would be an attraction to a system that offers a surface reaffirmation of traditional values, the sort of community that modernity leaves wanting, all while allowing one to enjoy the freedom, independence and personal choice that are the fruits of modernity. In the struggle between religion and modernity, the American model allows one to eat one’s cake and have it to.
God is Back offers a general picture of the issue, which, while not particularly innovative, offers a readable and much needed statement as to where we are at today in terms of religion and modernity.