Cover Story

The sixth wind?

"The sixth wind?" Continued...

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

Some preachers also downplay positive changes, sometimes because of the Puritan heritage of preaching about decline, sometimes because Christians have bought into secular media reports that emphasize church problems, sometimes because of political pessimism or beliefs that things will get worse and the Rapture will then occur. And yet, a new book by critic Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, published by the decidedly non-theistic Yale University Press, asks, "Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?"

Eagleton's answer: Nothing else-not science, not reason, not liberalism, not economics-works. He concludes, "If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world."

Another cause for optimism: the growing number of Hispanic and Asian churchgoers. For example, Soong-Chan Rah notes in
The Next Evangelicalism (IVP, 2009) that when he was preparing to move to the Boston area, "Every story that I heard or concern that was raised seemed to assume that the city of Boston represented the worst of a post-Christian region, and that secular humanism had completely overtaken that city."

Rah continues, "When I arrived in Boston I found a very different scenario. I found that Christianity was not only alive in Boston, it was flourishing. . . . In 1970 the city of Boston was home to about 200 churches. Thirty years later, there were 412 churches. The net gain in the number of churches was in the growth of the number of churches in the ethnic and immigrant communities."

Immigration is helping Christianity in America. While many mainline WASP churches move toward theologically liberal irrelevance and therefore lose members who want more than a social club, Asians bulwark urban but theologically conservative churches like Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, and Hispanics do the same throughout the United States but particularly in the Southwest. Some churches, including some mega-churches, have shallow teaching, but the more thoughtful pastors push to go deeper.

The reasons for media insinuations of Christianity's decline are easy to grasp. One is tradition, as the wistfulness of nonbelievers repeats itself in every generation: Thomas Jefferson, Clarence Darrow, and many others have predicted Christianity's imminent end. But another reason is the tendency of some reporters to make erroneous assumptions based on convenience samples. They look at mainline churches and miss ethnic and immigrant churches. They associate Christianity with a particular type of gospel proclamation and political involvement, then note the passing of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy.

Evidence for Christian short-run pessimism does abound. Samuel John Stone's line in "The Church's One Foundation" (1868)-that "with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed"-could have been written yesterday about Episcopalians and others. Warren Cole Smith's A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church (Authentic, 2009) rightly criticizes "Body-Count Evangelism" and calls for churches to emphasize spiritual depth.

But let's look at what is happening to Christianity's opposite, atheism. Alister McGrath documented in The Twilight of Atheism (2004) the 20th-century verdict: atheism weighed and found wanting in Communist countries and many Western ones as well. The popping up of several New York Times bestsellers over the past five years shows that those hostile to Christianity have some discretionary income, but publishing successes do not root out atheism's underlying problem both rationally and emotionally: Atheism denies the glory of God that the heavens declare, and atheism cannot by its very nature offer any hope.

Meanwhile, Christianity's main religious opponents, Islam and Hinduism, can only hold onto their flocks by banning or persecuting missionaries and attempting to restrict discussion. They fear open debate, but Christians can say what John Milton wrote in 1644: "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

In Europe and America, Christianity's opponents try to avoid free and open encounters by using ridicule. Janie Cheaney reported in WORLD's June 6 issue that British literary lion A.N. Wilson has dropped his atheism, but I want to quote his account of why he became one: "Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti. To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy."


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