keeping an eye on the tree and the forest

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Thoughts about Christianity at Christmas


Below is a timely word about some recent sociological works on Christianity that have gained notoriety this year. American Grace (by Robert Putnam & David Campbell) and To Change the World (by James Davison Hunter) both take a look at the effects of Christianity on American culture, highlighting the good and the bad. These are both worth our time and effort to listen and glean from.

Also, Al Mohler recently interviewed Robert Putnam about “American Grace” for his Thinking Out Loud podcast:

Here is the link for the article below:

December 19, 2010

A Tough Season for Believers


Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Happily, for those who need a last-minute gift for the anxious Christian in their life, the year just past featured two thick, impressive books that wrestle with exactly these complexities.

The first is “American Grace,” co-written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, which examines the role that religion plays in binding up the nation’s social fabric. Over all, they argue, our society reaps enormous benefits from religious engagement, while suffering from few of the potential downsides. Widespread churchgoing seems to make Americans more altruistic and more engaged with their communities, more likely to volunteer and more inclined to give to secular and religious charities. Yet at the same time, thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal.

But for Christians, this sunny story has a dark side. Religious faith looks more socially beneficial to America than ever, but the institutional Christianity that’s historically generated most of those benefits seems to be gradually losing its appeal.

In the last 50 years, the Christian churches have undergone what “American Grace” describes as a shock and two aftershocks. The initial earthquake was the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which undercut religious authority as it did all authority, while dealing a particular blow to Christian sexual ethics. The first aftershock was the rise of religious conservatism, and particularly evangelical faith, as a backlash against the cultural revolution’s excesses. But now we’re living through the second aftershock, a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics, Putnam and Campbell argue, in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether.

Their argument is complemented by the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society. Having popularized the term “culture war” two decades ago, Hunter now argues that the “war” footing has led American Christians into a cul-de-sac. It has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.

Putnam and Campbell are quantitative, liberal, and upbeat; Hunter is qualitative, conservative and conflicted. But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.

Bibliophile Truth


Some Things Teachers Should Know


As someone who teaches on a weekly basis and who has been through a lot of classes, I can resonate and learn from this list. From the Chronicle of Higher Education blog “Brainstorm”:

5 More Things Your Students Think You Need to Know

Gina Barreca

Today’s points comes from a former student (UConn, ’09) who wishes to remain anonymous. Now a teaching at a middle-school in Chicago, she asked me to let CHE readers know that she is attempting to follow her own advice.

Dear Professor:

1. You might not realize it, but we notice when you’re angry, distracted, annoyed, exhausted, frustrated, nervous, and/or feeling too lazy to bother paying attention. We think that you should be able to put those emotions aside for the fairly brief time we have you as our instructor in the classroom. You don’t allow us to sleep or cry during class, so why should you be allowed to rant about subjects that have nothing to do with the course? If it’s an amusing anecdote, that’s something we’ll welcome, but if you’re tempted to tell us on a regular basis how miserable your life is, how corrupt the administration is, how misguided the government is, or how disappointing we are, then we’d be happier if you would resist the temptation.

2. You might not believe it, but most of the time we don’t think you are funny and we don’t even understand most of the references you make in terms of your attempts at humor. Only a few people still watch Monty Python and we’re not going to start just so we can understand what you mean by “silly walks” and we don’t know all the Simpsons episodes as well as you do. Please don’t get us started on Seinfeld. Our parents think that’s funny. We don’t. We laugh when you pause because you clearly expect it and we want to make you happy and/or get a good grade by getting into your good graces.

3. You might not want to hear this (again, since others have mentioned it) but we spend all our time looking at you and therefore wish you would take even more time to groom yourselves. If you are teaching with coffee stains on your tie, we’ll notice them and then spend time inventing stories about what happened to cause the stains. Did you have a tiff with your partner that morning? Did you hear something shocking on the way to work and spill your coffee in the car? Is this a tie you wore last week and are these the same stains? Please check your fly and your bra strap before standing in front of the class because we don’t know whether what you’re doing is deliberate or not.

4. You might be surprised, but you make a lot of mistakes. Your hand-outs have errors and your power-point presentations, when you can get them to work, often contain mistakes. You omit words, spell terms incorrectly, or supply conflicting pieces of information. Please make it clear to us whether or not you would prefer to hear about these missteps. We hope you do want your mistakes corrected because you spend a lot of time noticing ours.

5. You might be puzzled, but yeah, we talk about you because we see you several times a week. We tell our friends whether or not you are a good teacher and we tell our parents and their friends the same. You are a big part of our lives and so if you see yourself mentioned on those teaching sites or Facebook or wherever, you should not assume we are weird. It would be strange if we didn’t discuss you. This loops back to the first point in this note, which is that we notice whether you give a damn about your teaching and about your students. You can make us feel like we have a chance at grasping a subject or understanding an idea or else make us feel like we’re as ridiculous, pathetic, and useless as we’ve always suspected we might be. It’s easy to make us feel bad and we talk highly of those professors who don’t take the easy way out.

* Bonus note: You probably don’t think it matters, but smiling when you first arrive in the classroom everyday is great.

Good Time with Sufjan


Kalila and I had the pleasure of seeing Sufjan (pronounced “Sufyan”) Stevens last night at the Orpheum. We both went into the evening very tired and mentally preoccupied. However, we found that the performance captured our attention and succeeded in bringing us to into a different world for a couple hours; a welcome distraction. The show was stimulating for all of the five senses, including the opportunity to sing and dance along at a few points. We felt surrounded by thin 20-something hipsters with skinny jeans and the latest smart phones, but we expected as much. We were glad to have fun.

Here are some reviews: