I found this essay on the website ‘Serious Times’ written by James Emery White, the Senior Pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The column is entitled ‘A Land of Swedes’ and reflects on the fact that a growing number of people in the United States are unbelievers. His column attempts to reflect on why this is:
White has some interesting things to say and there is, quite obviously, a great amount of thought that he has placed in this column. I also take issue with them.
He asks three questions.
The first is ‘What is happening?’
His reflection is that the problem of disbelief is not something being inflicted on the Christian Church but something that is actually self-inflicted. It reflects what Christianity is doing to itself. He may be right about that, but I would take issue with the core problem.
His argument is that Christianity has tried too hard to adapt itself to the modern world and has tried to adapt religious beliefs to socioeconomic changes, to new moral standards, and issues with science. He seems to argue that Christianity is selling God short and not standing up for the traditional foundations of the faith.
The problem with his thesis, from my perspective, is that the most public face and voice of Christianity does no such thing. Frankly, the public face and voice of Christianity is quite the opposite.
Think about this one for a moment. Recently Pope Benedict made a journey to Africa and proclaimed that condom usage was not really helpful in the fight against AIDS. AIDS, in Africa, is an epidemic that has swept through and devastated large portions of the continent. Cultural issues, poverty, lack of employment, and such, has factored into some of the issues facing sexual behavior and the spread of AIDS. Condoms have been given to large segments of the population to, hopefully, stop the spread of the HIV virus.
The Pope’s premise was based on abstinence outside of marriage and complete monogamy. It was also based on a long held Roman Catholic discipline of the disallowance of contraception. Under this guidance, if a couple gets married and does not have intercourse before marriage, but the husband has the HIV virus from a previous relationship, he cannot use a condom to project this wife. It is intrinsically evil to use any form of contraception according to Roman Catholic discipline.
Sorry if this offends you, but this is ludicrous as has been this Roman Catholic discipline. When Humanae Vitae was released in 1968 it was seen as archaic and it used Medieval theology science to make its arguments. The arguments were poor in 1968 and have grown worse with the passage of time. Considering that much of the world has a crisis of over population, this discipline becomes not only bad theology but morally irresponsible. Pope Benedict, however, is a public face for much of Christianity.
But it goes further than this. If one reads anything coming out of Christianity these days the topic of conversation is usually about sexual mores. One would get the impression that Jesus spent most of his ministry teaching and preaching about sex. He didn’t. He spoke against adultery and this pretty much covers it. Most of what St. Paul had to say has been taken so out of context that it has made this brilliant writer seem petty and trivial----which is certainly not the case. Christianity is obsessed with sex.
Issues of science and faith also make the news and it constantly appears that much of Christianity rejects much of science. Perhaps, however, it is best stated, that what people see as the public face of Christianity rejects much of science. Much of Christianity has no real issue with science and has synched theology and science together very nicely on many issues. This, however, is rarely the public face.
White’s perception on what is happening, I think, is that he sees a rejection of Christianity because Christianity has been too lax, whereas I see the rejection of faith because Christianity has had a public face of holding fast to things that delve more into superstition that classic Christian doctrine.
What does this mean?
It means that unbelief is on the rise and we are seeing more and more literature coming out pointing out what people see to be absurdities of faith. Bill Maher made a movie "Religulous" in which he mocks religious faith. Maher, of course, uses ‘person on the street’ interviews to ‘prove’ his point. Like most people trying to make a point in one direction, he uses people who prove’ his’ point rather than trying to have a broad view of the opinions of many religious people.
Christopher Hitchens has written a great deal of unbeliever type things and much of what he uses is difficult to argue with. Again, however, he uses what is often what most of the public sees as the ‘face’ of Christianity. Christians are seen as superstitious, anti-intellectual, and often hateful and mean.
What it all means is quite simple. If what most people see as the face of Christianity, remains the face of Christianity, unbelief will grow. For people who equate faith as being superstitious, anti-intellectual, and often hateful and mean, there appears to be little choice unless they see other options.
What can be done?
White does something here that is most disturbing. Most of us ‘preacher types’ will tell you that there are standard stories that have been told by countless preachers over the decades. There is the flood story with the man who resists help, there is the turkey cut in half story told at Thanksgiving, there is the preacher delivering the pork chops story, and there is the guy on the plus sign story. The usage of this as a ‘real’ illustration in this article is dishonest.
But there is a cogent point in all of this. He observes that the United States is a large mission field. Of that, he is correct.
To me the challenge is becoming more and more personal. There is a ‘public’ face that claims to speak for Christianity. I am seeing a need, more and more, for people to stand up and say that there is another point of view on this with Christianity.
Sadly, I understand why unbelief is growing in the United States. Much of what is presented as Christianity is little more than superstition, anti-intellectualism, and mean-spirited. If people see that kind of faith as their only option, they will choose believing in nothing first.
We have to be willing to present a different face and more effective at it.