The Decline of Evangelical American Christendom, or, a Short Book Review of Alan Kreider's "The Change of Convserion and the Origin of Christendom"
I finished reading Alan Kreider’s The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom last night, just a scant few minutes before reading John S. Dickerson’s Op-ed in the New York Times, “The Decline of Evangelical America”. It was an interesting order of events.
Kreider examines how the church fathers wrote about and thought about the process of conversion through the first three centuries of the church prior to the Edict of Milan in 313. Leaders such as Cyprian, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, and John Chrysostom all viewed conversion as a process of change. For a catechumen interested in joining the church community, this process was ritually articulated in four stages that included numerous behavioral ”scrutinies”, imitation of Christian brothers and sisters who served the poor, dynamic teaching on the teachings of Jesus, the Creeds, and the Lord’s Prayer, and spiritual cleansing brought about through exorcisms. In this process, as Kreider notes, the early church attempted to inculcate the re-socialization of an alternate community. Furthermore, this process was intentionally order to first change one’s behavior, then one’s beliefs, then one’s belonging (catechumens were not allowed to join the church community in the celebration of the eucharist until the day of their baptism, an Easter-morning experience that culminated the catechetical process).
Though this process sounds strange and rigid to modern ears, it is stated that the early church grew at about 40% per decade for its first three centuries (Stark).
Of course, this process began to shift after the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Though he later submitted himself to the church’s four-step catechetical process, it was a truncated one that began to serve as the model for conversions to come. Because of the growing influence of Christendom, whereby everyone was already “Christian” simply be one’s ethnic identity, the conversion process took on elements of coercion, an abbreviated catechetical process, and stratified visions of religious dedication (i.e. the conversion process was co-opted by monastics who saw second baptisms as a way of dedicating oneself to the religious life). Where, only a few centuries earlier, Constantine eventually submitted himself to the catechetical process meted out by the church, the Frankish king Clovis was baptized with no catechetical instruction and while clad in his warrior’s helmet. “Fast food” conversions became the norm.
According to Kreider, Christendom carries certain characteristics that determine a common belief, a common behavior, and a common belonging that are often tied in with national interests. In America, some of these characteristics aren’t so bad (the significant achievement of artists and intellectuals, for example); but other relics are ugly and unworthy, “among these, approaches and institutions that subject people to the control of Christians. Especially as the millenium approaches (the book was penned in 1999), many Western Christians have succumb to a nostalgic prescription for the future in which God, working through revival or renewal or reevangelization, will once again bring about a world that Christians can rule” (100).
North American Christianity has the opportunity to grasp onto some of its “old ideas” for the sake of its future, especially in a time when North American is becoming post-Christendom (but not post-Christian). Among these old ideas Kreider offers the following: a dynamic missiological thinking toward bondage and addiction (something that Justin, Cyprian, Augustine, and Chrysostom had a lot to say about); a prophetic “looking under the surface” (a practice done well by Justin in his uncovering of the addictive power of the late second century Greco-Roman culture); conversions that change behavior as well as belief and experience (as Kreider notes, the early Christians were relatively unconcerned with psychological experience, but heavily emphasized the radical shift in one’s sense of belonging - one’s affinity and allegiance was to a new society and a new people), and the formative power of the four-step catechetical process (which is currently being revitalized by Roman Catholics in their RCIA process, the Rights of Christian Initiation for Adults).
Cue Dickerson’s article. Dickerson states that American Evangelicalism is in decline because it’s no longer plausible or acceptable to the broader culture, and though this is lamentable, we need to find new and invigorating ways to be the church in the coming future. Thanks to Kreider’s analysis, I can see this decline is likely happening because of Christendom’s decline in America, not specifically Christianity’s decline. The two have too often been joined at the hip, and by God’s grace, are finally being rent from one another.
Unfortunately, Dickerson sounds like your typical evangelical pastor in this article - “guys, we just need to lean on God’s grace and forgiveness…” - offering church-speak advise that lacks almost entirely in practical content. Perhaps he should read Kreider and the Patristics and attempt to “get old” in content and practice.
This is intense.
I finally caught the embattled Radiolab episode “Yellow Rain”, in which host Robert Krulwich explores a Hmong refuge’s claims of a mysterious - and poisonous - lethal mist that allegedly killed many of his fellow Laotians.
It turns out to be a classic East-meets-West tale: the Hmong, Mr. Eng Yang, tells the story of vegetation, livestock, and human beings being persecuted and killed, with a toxic yellow rain having some sort of mysterious role in the murders; Krulwich presses Yang on whether he actually saw the yellow rain falling, or whether he simply witnessed the aftermath of death and destruction. Emotions rise, Yang and his family feel ambushed, and the interview comes to a sudden, emotional halt. The wrinkle in the story? A Harvard scientist who “proves” that what is thought to be Soviet chemical warfare (i.e. the “yellow rain”) is, in fact, only bee feces.
Both Yang and Krulwich are trying to tell a story here what is true, and it’s fascinating to see the ways two cultures go about it, for what becomes clear is how complicated the truth-finding process is, especially when it is executed between people of two different cultures. Krulwich is a journalist and is simply trying to explain the yellow rain phenomenon - “did anybody ever actually see the yellow rain fall from an airplane? Is there any evidence to substantiate Yang’s claims?” Yang, on the other hand, is trying to tell a broader story of persecution, death, and the plight of his people - his people have been devastated, his leaders have been silenced, and nobody in the Western world seems to care.
The interesting point of contention (for me, a Western white bread kinda guy) comes when Krulwich seems unable to separate the truth claims being made about the yellow rain from the larger story of persecution experienced by Yang and the Hmong people (Krulwich said Yang and his family were attempting to “monopolize” the story, a comment he later apologized for).
Anyway, it’s totally worth listening to.
From Clay Shirky via my friend Brad: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. It’s a long read, for sure, but it’s an interesting take on the task of online ed being taken up by Stanford, MIT, et. al.
And yet, my question: isn’t education more than unfettered access by the masses to free information? If so, what is it? It would be helpful for the Futurists if they were able to better define and stick to what they think education really is.
A great article here from the Guardian that looks at the ways technology is impacting various spheres of culture (education, books/publishing, health, farming, retail, and technology itself) today, and anticipating how it might shift the future world. There are a lot of good quotes in this one, including this one on tech and teaching:
“Teachers, she says, will have an entirely different job in this new world. “You don’t need a teacher who knows everything when you can go onto the internet. The revolution is not the technology, it is the changing role of the teacher to make the most of the technology.”
This is a fantastic way of describing how educators could possibly live in the grey area I described in one of my previous posts. The old model of “teacher imparting information while students sit and ‘learn’” is toast, and entrenching ourselves in either of the polarized camps - “Kids Can’t Learn Anymore!” “Teachers are Antiquated Luddites!” - is an unhelpful way forward.
Technology in the classroom, if executed well, can enable a role paradigm wherein teachers teach learning and not simply concepts. Tech seems to have initiated a more intuitive way of thinking and learning (want proof? Watch a 13 year-old play Bioshock for the first time…); why not pick up on this type of intuitive learning in the classroom? It would seem to help students choose to work independently or with a team (and all the collaborative aspects that go with that choice), to learn as they go and build off prior foundations, and to seek both the “whys” and “hows” of education. If teachers are able to shift their pedagogy here and adopt a “guiding” model of educating, it could potentially lead down a helpful path of formation on behalf of the students.
Via Poetry and Scotch via McSweeney’s:
“Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from “possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency” to “practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics” to “unabashed grave-robbing.” Given such appraisals, perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that several Central and South American countries recently assembled to enact legislation aimed at permanently prohibiting his entry.
Moreover, no one on the committee can identify who or what instilled Dr. Jones with the belief that an archaeologist’s tool kit should consist solely of a bullwhip and a revolver.”
Some of the stuff on McSweeney’s is brilliant. I wish I could write like that…
This is a fascinating article. A few observations:
*IMHO, there is no doubt theoretically that “technology” possesses a certain shaping power and character that affects the ways teenagers think and act; what is lacking, it seems, is empirical evidence of this. As this article suggets, a long-term longitudinal study would benefit this discussion since, you know, we can’t draw definitive conclusions without “empirical” evidence (sarcasm).
*One of my pet-peeves with modern journalism is the over-simplification of terms; “technology” in this article seems to mean everything from Apple products, video games, the internet, Google searches, and smart phones. It would benefit everyone involved if writers would simply define their terms rather than opting for generalities.
*I am fascinated to see how the debate will play out between “antiquated”, frustrated teachers (“Kids lack critical thinking skills and have zero attention span!!”) and “cognitively-changing”, tech-savvy students (“Grapes of Wrath is, like, the suck…”). Both groups seem happily entrenched in their version of the story.
*Comments like this drive me bat-shit crazy:
““What we’re labeling as ‘distraction,’ some see as a failure of adults to see how these kids process information,” Ms. Purcell said. “They’re not saying distraction is good but that the label of ‘distraction’ is a judgment of this generation.”
What, exactly, shall we call it then? Educational Interference? Cognitive Interruption? It doesn’t always have to be a “judgment” to call a spade a spade - kids are being shaped in a negative way by technology. Attention spans seem to be shortening, written compositional skills appear to be declining, and students are showing a decreasing ability to think long and hard about a given problem. An empirical study would likely only confirm what we know indirectly.
So to ask teachers on a mass level to adjust their lessons in order to “fit” the way their students’ “process information”, in my opinion, would be to substitute one of the ultimate points of education - formation - for efficiency and control. We put our kids (and ourselves) through schooling because we want them (and us) to be formed cognitively, intellectually, psychologically, philosophically, and virtuously. To substitute this shaping process for one that is characterized by distraction, efficiency, and shorter attention spans would be a big mistake. Neil Postman made a career out of pointing out this fallacy, and it appears, perhaps educators and students would benefit from a fresh reading of him (in paperback OR Kindle!).
I’m not sure why, but I’ve been rooting for Marcus Lattimore since he busted six ligaments in his left leg last fall as a sophomore running back for South Carolina. He worked hard, came back this year as junior, and was killing it before having his knee go Frankenstein on Saturday.
Maybe it’s because this is the sort of feel-good, work-hard narrative that Americans drink up like a morning coffee, but I really want to see this kid come back. He has his redshirt year left, and doctors think he will recover from this gruesome injury.
As an aside, YouTube sporting injury videos and anything having to do with the Alien movie franchise fall into the proverbial “don’t-wanna-look-but-absolutely-cannot-help-myself-from-looking” category for me.
“Catholic or Protestant, or which variety of Protestantism: the particular theology is less important in 2012, for many Christians, than a church’s style of worship or its politics. Typical for many of his generation, Mr. D’Souza, it turned out, had journeyed from one religion to another, disregarding boundaries that once mattered.”
Though this article is all over the map, it demonstrates the fracturing of denominational identity that appears to be endemic in America today (at least according to pundits and Pew studies alike).
I still don’t know how to think about this topic. One’s position on the loss of denominational identity is usually implicitly tied one’s desire for restorationism (i.e. the degree to which one thinks the church needs to move from its Constantinian roots to a community that looks something like the New Testament church); and while there are aspects of denominationalism that are lamentable (i.e. the high levels of sectarianism that would discourage a Baptist from marrying a Methodist, as pointed out by the author), there are beautiful aspects of it that offer believers and seekers some of today’s most sought-after treasures: identity, purpose, and rootedness.
But, whatevs: Evangelicals rock that sick electric guitar.
This is a fine piece of history on the Book of Common Prayer. I continue to be amazed at the ways Christian faith inspired the language, the history, and the story of Western civilization.