I’ve just returned to the States after three weeks of overseas training in Vicenza, Italy (it sure beats what I was dealing with during the same time last year), and saw that I missed yet another press release detailing yet another study of declining religious practice in Americans. In a wholly unsurprising development for those who’ve paid any attention to higher education, it appears that young Americans are “dramatically” less likely to go to church than previous generations.
Harvard researcher Robert Putnam explains the disparity:
“Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church,” Putnam said. “They have the same attitidues and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues.”
Putnam says that in the past two decades, many young people began to view organized religion as a source of “intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views,” and therefore stopped going to church.
I’ve heard this explanation many, many times and believe it to be true. Ross Douthat puts it this way in today’s Times:
The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.
It is sad that adherence to moral norms that span the entirety of Judeo-Christian history are now seen as nothing but “political conservatism,” and it is a distressing sign that politics has become intimately personal when concepts such as heterosexual marital fidelity are seen as inherently ideological and “Republican.” Yet this is by no means evidence that the church needs to change its message. The role of the church is to bear witness to the Truth (while always acknowledging our human frailty) not to change the message to fill pews.
I’m constantly hearing that the “real” problem with the church is that Christians “just don’t act like Jesus.” This comment often comes from folks who haven’t read the gospels, haven’t studied Christ’s life, and instead only have a vague sense that Jesus was nothing more and nothing less than the kindest person who ever lived. “If only Christians were like that,” they argue, “your numbers would not decline, you wouldn’t face persecution and rage, and our politics would be so much less divisive.”
Writing about the phenomenon of Dan Brown’s novels, Ross gets it right:
Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.
But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s manythriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.
How would things go if we actually did live “more like Jesus”? Would we be more popular? Would our problems melt away? We don’t have to speculate . . . after all, Jesus himself came and lived among us. And he was executed, most of even his most faithful followers abandoned him, leaving only his mother — and a precious few others — to watch him die.
There is no doubt that Christians do need to be more like Jesus. We just shouldn’t be under any illusion that living like Jesus is the path to peace, prosperity, or popularity.