Monday, April 13, 2009
In an era of troubled times for print media, NEWSWEEK Magazine published a cover they hoped might stir up the same sort of ruckus TIME provoked back in April of 1966. Time’s jet-black cover back then posed an incendiary question: “Is God Dead?”
Newsweek’s cover last week was also jet black, and rather than posing a question makes a flat declaration on the weekend that Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. With text in the shape of a cross, the popular weekly magazine announces The Decline and Fall of Christian America.
Time’s cover sent shockwaves across the country. But read the full story in Newsweek, and you’ll find that the data hardly supports the conclusion trumpeted so boldly on the cover. Time’s troubling essay back in 1966 relayed the consensus of a group of so-called theologians and philosophers who firmly believed that religion had been eclipsed by a secular society; that the vestiges of religious life in America were hanging by a thread. Cultural traditions were a hollow shell of what they had been in the past, when people needed some sort of god to get them through. Now with science and affluence and enlightenment, the whole tired god concept was fading around the world, according to Thomas J. J. Altizer and his death-of-God theologian friends. They took it to its logical conclusion and declared the death of God. By raising the question as a cover story, TIME gave them and their argument a popular, nation-wide platform.
When I first saw the NEWSWEEK cover, I remembered that TIME story that was published the same year I left for Bible school. Within a few years, the nation was in uproar. There were assassinations, demonstrations, and riots, as though the nation’s social fabric tore in two like the Temple veil. The war in Southeast Asia went out of control, civil rights triggered marches and cities were under siege. National Guard troops patrolled the streets. Campus administrators and faculties yielded to the Students for a Democratic Society. Johnson refused to run for another term, because Bobby Kennedy challenged him. President John Kennedy’s brother was also gunned down, this time in a Los Angeles hotel just as his candidacy gained momentum. If God was declared dead in 1966, by 1968 the nation sank in what appeared to be an irreversible slide into the great abyss.
Newsweek’s timing may well be the last gasp of a print magazine anxious more for survival than illumination. It’s not that I question their research. There are some interesting numbers here. The two that seem to drive the story have to do with first, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians (down from 86% to 76% since 1990). And the second, the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation (up from 5% to 12% since 1988). In addition, the numbers who label themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic” have increased from one million to three point six million. According to NEWSWEEK, Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, fears that “the historic foundation of America’s religious culture [is] cracking.”
The remainder of the lengthy article is a discussion of Civil Religion in America and quotes some of the notables who have commented on the subject. I for one do not share the alarm that triggers a cover that once again attempts to put the Christian faith into a coffin box, pound in the nails and bury it in the nearest available cemetery.
That is not to say that I believe God somehow needs religion in America to hold his own. To the contrary, I’ve always felt that American Civil Religion, which has given a genial tip of the hat to Christian tradition since the beginning, falls far short of biblical Christianity. It’s comforting to think that we live in a religion friendly country; but that’s a far cry from an understanding of true discipleship.
The president of the Southern Baptists is certainly a thoughtful fellow; but to think that eighty six percent of Americans claiming to be Christians back in 1990 is some sort of triumph is to miss a fundamental point completely. And then to lament the increase in folks in America who claim no religious affiliation from five percent to twelve percent over the past thirty years as a tragic calamity is a similar missing of the point.
To me, it was a stunning thing to imagine seventy, eighty percent of this country’s citizens making a claim to Christian faith. I have no idea what that means. All over the world, religion is cultural, ethnic. I just got back from India. I’m told that eighty percent of that nation is Hindu. What does that tell us?
The secular city has been around for a long time. Nominal religion has historic roots. The mythology of religious tradition is a pleasant pastime. But discipleship is something else. Those of us who’ve decided to follow Jesus don’t have a lot of time for or interest in civil religion.
So on Easter Sunday afternoon, I witnessed something that will stay with me for a long time. Our daughter gathered three of her four children (Kate’s too young) around her on a blanket in the sunshine before the Easter egg hunt and told them an illustrated story. The children opened colorful plastic eggs, one at a time from a cardboard egg carton. Each egg contained a hand-held symbol; each part of the story. They passed around the symbol for all to see.
The first was a tiny model of a donkey. It told of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when the crowds (some eighty-six percent, I suppose) rallied around him with palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” And then there was a thorn. And a piece of gauze. And a sponge. And a stone. Twelve in all. Each told something of Jesus’ final week of ministry, which culminated in a cruel execution. And then, a stunning resurrection.
The children (age two, four and six) listened attentively as they opened each successive egg and their Mom explained the Easter story.
And I thought about TIME’s suggestion in 1966 that God is dead. And NEWSWEEK’s declaration that Christianity in America is on its way out.
And I realized something. They don’t know my daughter.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009