Learning to Live with Religion: The Pluralist Imperative

March 30, 2011

Changing the Culture of Protestant Worship: Fourth in a Series

The cultural world of our time provides a promising environment for transforming the worship, congregational life, and outreach of classic Protestant churches. This is one conclusion that can be drawn from a book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge: God Is Back, How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. Although the authors have written a detailed and richly textured text, it is held together by a clear, simple, and persuasive narrative line.

1) Scholars have long insisted that modernization and religion do not go together. As societies take on the characteristics of the modern world, scholars have argued, religion would disappear along with other primitivisms. Europe, home of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernity (and the French Revolution), has been offered as the example.

2) The United States, with its own transformative revolution, has been the anomaly. Not only has this country embraced modernization, but it has also experienced the continuing rise of religion. The authors propose that religious vitality in America has been the result of the separation of religion from political power and the consequent freedom of choice, which have resulted in orientation toward the consumer and in growth-oriented activity by the churches.

3) They believe that capitalism and religion have become an increasingly codependent duo. Capitalism in the economic order leads to mobility, rapid change, and the breakdown of relationships that provide meaning and support. In order to stay with this process, people need communities that provide these qualities, and in the American model that is what churches do. In response to this dynamic, many churches have been transformed. They are thriving because they have learned to present themselves to the young, upwardly mobile middle class. They present a message and pattern of relationships in megachurch assemblies and in face-to-face groups that anchor people in a world of change. These churches are imaginative and aggressive in their modes of communication.

4) This American pattern that binds capitalism and Evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity together has been imported to many places around the world with similar results. Adopting Marx’s metaphor, Micklethwait and Wooldridge say that Americans “are both exporting opium and stoking the demand for opiates.” The impact is especially important in the effect it is having upon Islam around the world. In a section entitled “the pluralist imperative,” they cite the two “preconditions for any serious interfaith dialogue” that Pope Benedict has put forward: “first, accepting religious freedom as an inalienable right, and second, drawing some separation between church and state.”

5) Although the struggle with modernization is taking place in many places around the world, in societies with widely differing economies and relations of religion and political power, the authors believe that the main battle is between Christianity and Islam. They acknowledge the factors that support the “clash of civilizations” thesis, but they believe that the future prospects are much more hopeful.

6) The conclusion to this book bears the title “Learning to Live with Religion.” The authors are persuaded, contrary to many scholars in recent times, that religion thrives in a world shaped by modernization. Therefore, religion has to be taken seriously, especially in societies like the United States. New ways need to be found to include religion in the public square. In a passage that should resonate with many classic Protestants, they recite a passage from John Locke to support their analysis of the way that three freedoms go together: spiritual freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom.

A generation ago, Mircea Eliade proposed that world religions are those that enable people to cope with the terrors of history. Although they use an entirely different vocabulary and study human societies with different scholarly disciplines, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are making the same point. In our time, too, religion is successful when it provides support, safety, and meaning for people who are buffeted by the political and economic tempests of modernization.

One of the puzzles of our time is why classic Protestant churches, many of which came to birth in the United States and in earlier generations developed vibrant life, have now waned in their energies and appeal. The global revival of faith is changing the world, or so our authors declare. Is it too much to believe that this same revival can also transform classic Protestant churches?

In order for this transformation to take place, however, these churches need to offer a theological interpretation of life in our world that makes sense to people. They have to embody this message in art and music that are connected to our time. They need to develop small communities of nurture and support. They need to do significant work in the world. They need to find new ways to present themselves in the religious marketplace. The congregational and liturgical culture of these churches has to change.

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Aggressive Cycling: A “Research Report”

March 24, 2011

“Why do you bicycle the way you? What satisfactions do you derive from this kind of sport?” When people ask me these questions, I haven’t known how to answer other than to mutter a few generalities about feeling alive while traveling places using my own power.

Hoping to find a better answer, I’m spending a week doing field research, bicycling through the southern Arizona desert with a company of people who cycle much as I do. We are doing PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2011, week five.

Sixty-four are listed on the roster for the week; half a dozen are crew and the rest of us are registered cyclists who have signed up for six days of hard cycling. Ages of the company, as reported in the roster, range from 21 through 79, with the average at fifty-six. Eighteen are women, and three couples are riding tandems. Three fourths of the group have bicycled with PAC Tour on other events, some over a period of many years. My roommate this week started with the company seventeen years ago and has a wide and deep experience with how it operates. On this my fourth PAC Tour there are eighteen people with whom I have previously cycled.

PAC Tour attracts a diversified, highly talented group of people. After the first day’s ride (a very hard eighty-one miles), I ate dinner with the chief executive of a state teachers’ pension fund with assets of more than fifty billion dollars, two lawyers, an electrical engineer specializing in magnetic resonance, and a psychiatrist. I was the religious historian in the group. The conversation ranged over the challenges to pension systems because of the current political climate, the functions of physician’s assistants, and the formulas for compensation of people in various professions and occupations. Although we didn’t talk about bicycling, other than to comment on how hard the day’s ride had been (rough pavement, significant elevation gain, and rising wind), our mutual interest in hard core, long distance, aggressive cycling is what had brought us to Sierra Vista, Arizona, for a week of the kind of cycling we all enjoy.

As I talk with people this week, I hope to discover how some of my companions of the road became the aggressive road cyclists that we are. How did they get started as adult cyclists and what experiences or events moved them away from casual and practical bicycling to the highly demanding way they ride their two-wheeled machines on tours like this.

By the end of the week, I hope to have answers to two questions: Why do you bike so hard? What satisfactions to you derive from this extreme sport?

In his book Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities Jeff Mapes reports a conversation with a woman cyclist in Los Angeles. When she changed work (from carpenter to office job) she needed to find a way to get more exercise. A friend suggested that she get a bike. She discovered that she enjoyed it because it allowed her to see parts of the city she had never seen before and it gave her a new sense of freedom. In time, bicycling “became completely addictive.”

My hunch is that many aggressive cyclists have gone through a similar sequence. 1) A person starts cycling for some practical reason. For me, it was to commute to my teaching job when the seminary relocated farther from home than I wanted to walk. 2) Once on a bike, a person discovers new aspects that had not been expected. For me, it was the opportunity to develop an exhilarating and challenging activity to share with a teen-age son. 3) Then a cyclist crosses a line into a new stage, which the woman in Los Angeles described as addictive. For me, the event was our first trip to TOSRV, a two-day, 200-mile event in Ohio with 7,500 cyclists.

During the noon break on the third day of this year’s ride, I asked one of my PAC Tour friends the first question. His answer was that a friend cajoled him into riding a little. Then he discovered that he wanted to ride more than his friend. Then he signed up for a PAC Tour event of hard-core road cycling in interesting places. And before he realized what had happened he was cycling 5,000 miles a year.

The three-fold pattern perfectly illustrated.

“Addiction is probably not the right word,” my PAC Tour room mate, a psychiatrist by profession, commented when I read the comment from Mapes’ book. We agreed, however, that cycling does become deeply rooted in a person’s life patterns. It increases the cyclist’s sense of well-being and becomes an important part of the way that cyclists understand themselves.

Photo at top courtesy of cyclist Susan Reed.


Worshipping God in a Woodstock World

March 20, 2011

Changing the Culture of Protestant Worship: Third in a Series

In the summer of 1969, 400,000 music lovers created “the most celebrated rock festival of all time. Despite food shortages, overflowing port-a-potties and torrential rain,” writes Susan Donaldson James, “Woodstock became a symbol for an entire generation—peace, love, beads and a lot of good music and drugs.”

Most of the Woodstock generation are now “old geezers,” surrounded by children and grandchildren. Some of the extravagances of the festival have gone away, but the attitudes, mood, values, and patterns of that life remain in place.

The question for leaders of classic Protestant churches is this: How can churches with the religious DNA that make us what we are adapt to the Woodstock world in which we live?

Two years prior to the festival, sociologist Thomas Luckmann published The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society, a book which explores the deeper transformation that the festival portrayed. The religious process, Luckmann proposes, is essential to human life. It leads to “the individuation of consciousness and permits the construction of interpretive schemes, ultimately, of systems of meaning.” The religious process leads to the forming of a workable worldview, which includes elements of life and death that seem describable only by referring to a sacred domain with appropriate rituals, meaning-laden stories, and rites of passage.

In most societies, the religious process is entrusted to institutions, such as churches, that embody the society’s central values and meanings. When Luckmann published this book, sociologists of religion were documenting the rapid decline of churches in Europe and America and concluding that religion was disappearing.

Not so, says Luckmann. Instead, religion was taking a new social form in which the sacred cosmos is “directly accessible to potential consumers.”

Rather than being “mediated by primary public institutions,” the religious process is mediated in the private sphere, and through secondary institutions like syndicated advice columns, inspirational literature, and the lyrics of popular songs. “The manufacture, the packaging and the sale of models of ‘ultimate’ significance are, therefore, determined by consumer preference, and the manufacturer must remain sensitive to the needs and requirements of ‘autonomous’ individuals and their existence in the ‘private sphere.’”

Woodstock, according to this way of thinking, was a religious revival in the making, an event that in the twentieth century demonstrated some of the same powers and passions that the Cane Ridge Revival had manifested one hundred fifty years earlier.

The year following Woodstock, the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead published Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap in which she described a radical change that was taking place around the world in every kind of human society from the most primitive to the most advanced. Suddenly people everywhere had become immigrants into a world that was dramatically different from those that any of them had previously known. As is the case in every immigrant generation, Mead concludes, the young must teach the old. She describes three relationships between the generations.

Postfigurative cultures, well-known forebears: children learn the meaning, patterns, and values of life from parents and grandparents. They know how the world will turn out. This is how most societies have operated most of the time.

Cofigurative cultures and familiar peers: instead of one’s elders, one’s contemporaries shape values, patterns, and meanings. In immigrant societies, children learn from other children and the parents of those children rather than from their own parents. Adults today (or so it was when Mead wrote this book) could tell their children that they had been young once and the children had never been old, but the children could say that these parents had never been young in the world they were living in. The parental generation knew only a few of the skills that would be needed in the new world that is dawning.

Prefigurative cultures and unknown children: We live in a new world community. People have lost their faith in religion, political ideology, and science and as a result are deprived of every kind of security. Youth are noncompliant, because the old rules seem nonsensical and unproductive. All are aware of the sense that there is no place where “they can learn what the next steps should be.” In this new culture, Mead declares, ‘it will be the child—and not the parent and grandparent that represents what is to come.”

Our hope, says Mead, is to build prefigurative cultures in which “the past is instrumental rather than coercive.” By being sensitive to the religious dimensions of the Woodstock World, these churches with the old DNA can learn to thrive again.

Together, the older and newer generations can generate a new future—and this can happen in our churches. “We must place the future,” says Mead, “like the unborn child in the womb of a woman, within a community of men, women, and children” where it can be nourished and succored and protected.

This kind of community is what classic Protestant churches can aspire to be.


World’s Smallest Bikeshop

March 17, 2011

A little after 11:00 a.m., Dale Mattson wheels up Foothill Boulevard in Claremont, California, parks his bicycle (with its stuffed-full panniers) off to the side, and opens the door of  The Velo, “the world’s smallest bikeshop.” Reaching inside the door, he grabs his portable repair stand and sets it up on the sidewalk in front of the window that displays his current stock of fixed up bikes ready for sale.

During the next ten minutes, he hauls these bikes outside and stations them on the two bike racks. Only then can he step inside the shop—55 square feet small—to access the computer, display case of mostly used parts, and small collection of classic jerseys available for purchase. The one bike that stays inside is a gorgeous and pricey vintage Colnago road bike with original Campy components.

Last thing out of the shop is the boldly lettered sign Cash for Bikes, “the best merchandizing idea I’ve ever had and key to my business,” Dale tells me.

“And what is that business?” I ask.

“We buy, sell, and trade quality used bikes, parts, and gear. Bring me your bike and tell me how much you want for it. If I like it, I’ll buy it. If we can’t agree, I suggest that they give it to someone in their church or fellowship group. That’s it.”

The Velo is next door to the guest facility that I occupy when doing research in the cluster of theological schools in Claremont. While I was assembling my orange Co-motion road bike, the seat post binder bold snapped, which meant that I couldn’t use the bike until I replaced the bolt. Dale didn’t have one, but he improvised a solution that would last until I could buy a proper binder bolt at the full-service bike shop down Foothill a mile or two.

While we talked, a student from one of the Claremont colleges walked her Specialized knobby tired bike up to the shop and handed Dale a half-inflated tube. Someone at a student-run repair service had tried unsuccessfully to repair a flat. “When I sold you this bike, I told you to bring it back to me if you had any trouble,” he told her.

He installed a new rim strip and after testing the tube to be sure it was air tight he put everything in order and sent her on her way.

Somebody came by with an early Gary Fisher mountain bike in decent shape except for the tires. Dale liked it at the price the owner wanted and bought it. A couple hours of his time, new tubes, and maybe tires, and the result would be a beautiful, solid, modestly priced bike for someone, and a fine return on his investment.

A middle-aged couple drove up in a pickup. “We saw your sign the other day and brought you some bikes to look at,” she said. “We need to clean up our garage.”

Dale looked at the bikes and added them to his inventory. Two were cheap kids bikes that needed work. “I don’t buy, sell, or fix cheap bikes,” he told me. “If people want to get rid of them, I’ll take them and give them to people who are glad to get a free bike they can fix and make work.” A vintage woman’s Schwinn with trailer attachment, however, he was glad to buy at the price they asked. Fixed up and displayed out front, it would be exactly right for someone and a very good profit for the shop.

In his 20s, after working as a mortgage banker, Dale had quit his job and traveled around the United States on his touring bike, using cash he’d saved. In 1995, he leased this tiny space on Foothill Boulevard and went into business, first as “Cash for Levis,” then as a futon shop, then incense, and then mid-century and modern antiques. “I’ve been a junker all my life,” is the way he described himself.

“When I was thinking about getting out of antiques, someone offered me nine dead Schwinns for $50. That was June 2008. On July 19 of the same year I went strickly bikes and opened The Velo.

“In my business, I take a negative and turn it into a positive. Nine times out of ten, there’s no sale. When I can, I send them to a local shop where they can get what they need. The way I do my business takes the competition out of the relationship.”

Coming as I do from Portland, where bicycles are part of the emerging artisan economy and new way of urban life, I am glad to include The Velo on my short list of the nation’s great bike shops.


Jottings from the notebook of an aggressive cyclist

March 10, 2011

Great Allegheny Passage / C & O Canal Towpath

One of the most interesting bicycle expeditions in the country is the off road trail all of the way from Washington, D.C. to the outskirts of Pittsburgh, 335 miles of non-paved, close to level, peaceful cycling. The best way to prepare for a week on the GAP—C & O is to study the TrailBook published every year by the Great Allegheny Press in Pittsburgh and Cumberland. It contains 224 pages of illustrated information about the trail, the nearby towns, American history that has been made along this passage through American history, travel preparations, and facilities and accommodations for cyclists. One of its best features is a splendid, detailed map—with the GAP on one side and the C & O on the other.

When I rode this route in the summer of 2010, I didn’t know about this book and pieced together some of the information from independent study. My advice: By all means get the TrailBook. It will be the best $10 that you’ll spend to make this trip a strong and good experience.

Also advised (or at least suggested): read my columns that describe the trip I made on this trail. The blogs begin on May 26 with a post entitled Bicycling the Potomac River with George .

Women on Wheels–bicycling

Millie Magner is a perceptive, dependable, and interesting reporter of bicycling in the urban context. Her Seattle-based commentary regularly appears on Examiner.com. Her March 9 column “Women on Wheels—bicycling is a perceptive discussion of a topic that should be important to cyclists in cities all across the United States. The first paragraph and link to the rest of the article are posted below.

“According to Susan B. Anthony, “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”   Anthony’s statement seems to lend its truth to this day.  There are efforts currently throughout the world, especially targeting Africa, to get girls on bicycles.  World Bicycle Relief proclaims on their website, “In the hands of a girl, [a] bike is independence, education and economic self-sufficiency. In the hands of 50,000 Zambian schoolchildren, [a] bike is the promise of a better life for entire communities and generations to come.”  However, does this only ring true in developing countries?  What is happening in the rest of the world and right here in Seattle? Continue reading on Examiner.com: Women on Wheels – bicycling – Seattle Bicycle Transportation | Examiner.com http://www.examiner.com/bicycle-transportation-in-seattle/women-on-wheels-bicycling?CID=examiner_alerts_article#ixzz1G9GZ08Cd

Why Do Such Smart People Ride So Hard? PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2011

In a few days, I will join fifty seemingly smart people who will spend a week bicycling up to 100 miles a day in the southern Arizona desert for the fun of it. We’ll be doing week five of PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2011. How could such hard work be fun, some people ask me? Why do you find it so satisfying? I can mutter a few words in answer but have decided to ask a few people to help me come up with a good explanation.

Ten or twelve people on the week I will be riding have been on one or more of the PAC Tour expeditions I have done in previous years. I hope to talk with some of them and make notes on their experiences as aggressive cyclists. If all goes well, these conversations will be featured in forthcoming Thursday columns.

Cycling the St. John’s Bridge (part two)

Mardi Gras was an unexpected half-sunny and warm day in otherwise gray Portland and Vancouver. Since I had to travel to Portland for a dental appointment, I decided to continue training for the forthcoming week in Arizona by doing my Skyline Boulevard route. This takes me over the St. Johns Bridge (see last week’s column).

After last week’s scary ride on the sidewalk, I stayed on the main road where I usually travel. Despite the vehicular traffic that I described last week, I felt safe and secure. Two other cyclists were crossing the bridge at the same time, one going in each direction, both dressed (as I was) in bicycle-specific clothing. They looked to be seasoned roadies. And they were on the sidewalk. To each his own.


The worship DNA of classic protestant churches

March 7, 2011

Classic protestant churches are much like. Each congregation has a strong sense of identity that has developed over more than a century and continues to characterize its worship and congregational life. Most of these congregations, however, remember times when their sense of vitality was greater than now is the case. They hope to find ways of renewing and strengthening their worship, work, and congregational life, but to do so it is necessary to understand the nature of their current diminishment.

These churches manifest a condition that Ronald Heifetz and colleagues describe as the gap between an espoused value and current reality (Adaptive Leadership, p. 18). They order their activities according to theological and cultural principles that have sustained them for generations and led them to their times of greatest effectiveness. Since the 1960s, however, the world around these churches has changed and the patterns of life developed in earlier periods are less and less effective.

Heifetz and his colleagues propose that organizations (such as classic protestant congregations across the United States and Canada) can enter into a period of adaptive change that will lead them to renewed health and effectiveness. This approach to congregational transformation is based on understanding two aspects of the situation in which congregations now exist.

First is for congregational leaders to become aware of the values, relationships, and activities that are central to their core being. Churches have ecclesial DNA, which over time can be rearranged or go through a process of mutation, but which stays with the congregation on into the future. No matter how much a congregation changes, it is the same congregation.

The second factor is the changed cultural world within which the congregation and its people find themselves.  It’s easy enough to recognize that community demographics change over time, and many congregations have found useful ways of adapting their worship, congregational life, and mission as these external conditions change. More challenging is the need to recognize and understand the broad cultural changes that are changing many of the most basic aspects of the social, cultural, and political world within which all of the people live.

Heifetz and his colleagues suggest that organizations that meet their new culture can thrive. They draw the “concept of thriving from evolutionary biology, in which a successful adaptation has three characteristics.” It (1) preserves the DNA essential to the organism’s continued life; (2) it discards, reregulates, or rearranges the DNA no longer useful; (3) it creates DNA arrangements that make it possible for the organism to “flourish in new ways and in more challenging environments” (p. 14).

So what is the DNA of churches of the classic churches that have been at the center of American life, churches on a continuum with Episcopal at the “liturgical” end, Disciples of Christ” at the “non-liturgical” end, and Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational (United Christ of Christ) in between? Here’s my list.

1.     They are variants of the western Catholic Tradition as it was modified during the sixteenth-century Reformation. All of them share a modified theological structure that draws upon the great theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Niebuhr, and Tillich.

2.     Worship is based on the classic Word-Table model, but with greater emphasis upon Word than upon Table. The Bible is central in worship and teaching, preaching is a major component of public worship, and print media (thanks to Gutenberg) and literacy are deeply engrained.

3.     Worship is expressed in a traditional and polished version of the vernacular. Extempore forms of prayer are valued. Congregational singing, especially metrical hymns in place of chanted psalms and canticles, is the major mode of congregational participation in worship.

4.     The intellectual and cultural developments often referred to as humanism, the Enlightenment, and modernism have been embraced and continue to be valued. The scientific and historical world view has been affirmed.

5.     The churches are adapted to the political-cultural patterns of the western nations in which they practice their versions of the Christian faith. They fluctuate between supporting the political system and serving as a prophetic counter voice.

The result is a tight integration of protestant churches and a wide range of human culture. In their worship these churches lift the heart, soul, and mind of a society up to God in prayer.

The serious downside is that these churches become so accommodated to the culture that their transcendence is compromised. Gradually, these churches and the worship the conduct  become “conventional,” to use Tom Schattauer’s analysis, salt that has lost its savor, to use the cryptic analogy from the Sermon on the Mount. For this very reason, these churches find it difficult to deal with the changes that occur in the larger cultural context. People hang on to what is familiar and fail to make the adaptive changes that will allow them to continue to thrive.

What are these cultural changes? More on that next time.


Scared to death on the St. Johns Bridge

March 4, 2011

Once or twice a month, I bicycle across the St. John’s Bridge that spans the Willamette River on the north side of Portland, Oregon. Lots of company! Two lanes of fast traffic in each direction, more than 25,000 vehicles a day, many of them big and in a hurry because this beautiful bridge carries U. S. 30 across the river and connects two of the city’s industrial areas.

On each end of the bridge, which is almost half a mile long, a sign alerts motorists to the fact that bicycles share the roadway. This means that it’s legal for me to assert my rights to the road. And I do, but anxiously.

Pick-up trucks and eighteen-wheelers swing past me by sliding left toward the next lane of traffic. So far, no close calls, no squealing brakes, no loud horns, no harassing shouts.

Now and then I see other cyclists, most of whom are not down on the real road where I ride. They seem to prefer the elevated sidewalks (one on each side of the bridge) that separate the main roadway from the ornate metalwork that otherwise would be the only deterrent to plunging over the side if a vehicle were to careen out of control.

Maybe the sidewalk’s the better place to make the crossing, I have sometimes thought. On this week’s training ride, I decided to give it a try.

The approaches at both ends are well engineered for easy entering and leaving. The sidewalk is about the width of older style bike lanes, perhaps five or six feet wide. It is smooth concrete. At the two towers, however, cyclists have to dismount to follow the sidewalk that twists around on the river side and then get back on their bikes and regain their momentum.

Out of the corner of one eye, I glimpsed the river far below. On foot, it might have been OK, but on my bike 205 feet above the navigation channel I felt squeamish.

On the highway side of the pedestrian walkway, there is no screen or barricade; instead, a sheer drop of about a foot to the traffic lanes, with virtually no shoulder or buffer. Even the slightest loss of concentration or control and cyclists would ride off the edge and sprawl across the roadway. There’s no way for drivers to anticipate such an event and make allowances. The inevitable result is not pleasant to think about.

When I’m down on the real road, mixing it up with the big guys, they can see me up ahead and drift over a little to go around. If the next lane is occupied, drivers—even of the eighteen-wheelers—can slow down until the way is clear to maneuver around me.

On the roadway, I’m anxious. On the sidewalk, I’m scared to death. Where do you think I’ll ride from now on when I cross the St. Johns Bridge?

Note: Although its gestation was longer than mine, the St. Johns Bridge and I were born the same year. For a brief account of its beginning, click here. During a three-year period, beginning in March 2003, the bridge was substantially restored and improved. An interesting account of that project can be accessed by clicking here.