Considering Religion in Post-Constantinian Society

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

One of the defining themes of this blog is the changing nature of religion in modern society. Recent decades have shown us some dramatic changes in terms of base assumptions. The rise of the religious nones, the politicization of the conservative church, the challenges of pluralistic ground rules confronting religious particularities, are but three examples of some of these major shifts. At times, I’ve referred to this as Post-Constantinian Christianity (here’s a post from 18 months ago). Lately, following David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, I’ve been more comfortable with talking about “post-Christendom“.

I recently returned from a week in a literal post-Constantinian society. As a 60th birthday present from my daughter, son-in-law, and grand daughter, Jeralynne and I joined them and Evgeni’s mother for a week in Istanbul. It was a great week. I left with a lot more questions to explore.Europe

I realized how ignorant I am about Eastern Europe. Most of what I learned in 20 years of school was limited to the rectangles on the map to the right. I read up some on issues of Constantinople before and after the trip, but mostly came away with more questions than answers.

Nevertheless, there are some patterns present in both historic Constantinople and present-day Isanbul that provide some hints about the changes we’re experiencing in contemporary religion.

1. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the realm, granting it new legitimacy. He commissioned the Council of Nicaea which worked out details of small-o orthodoxy. In addition to Hagia Sophia (above) he built the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Orthodox church designed to contain relics of all twelve disciples (they never got all the relics). These two issues of policing the borders of orthodoxy and looking to the past are issues our contemporary church know far too well.

2. There was a tendency to see religious expression as a sign of social status. Justinian rebuilt Holy Apostles because it wasn’t “grand enough”. Building great edifices were built partly as personal expression. When he finished Hagia Sophia, he said “I am now greater than Solomon.” This pattern continued, as the mosaics in Hagia Sophia illustrate (the picture below is 11th century Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe giving bags of gold to Jesus in support of the church).

Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe with Jesus

Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe with Jesus

Our contemporary focus on big churches and celebrity pastors has a long history.

3. Schisms and fights over “the real church” are part of this religious history. The tensions between the Orthodox church and “the Latins” (which may have involved much more than religious ideology) resulted in the Massacre of the Latins late in the 12th century. Nearly 60,000 adherents of the Roman church were killed or exiled. Twenty years later, the Fourth Crusade diverted its target from Jerusalem to Constantinople and effectively sacked the city. The resulting weakened empire was incapable of holding off the eventual Turkman invasion, headed by Mehmet II 200 years later. When Mehmet Fatih Mosquecame to power, he replaced most of the churches with mosques (and eventually built the Fatih Mosque on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles).

My takeaway here is that the infighting within the church over who are “real Christians”, who is reformed, who is progressive, who is “Bible-believing”, etc. all weaken the witness of the True Church and leave us at a point where we are weakened in the face of the surrounding culture.

4. Modern Istanbul, especially the part of the city where we were staying, is characterized by secularism. This was part of Attaturk’s intent in creating a secular society. While 99% of Turkey is Muslim and call to prayer is announced from the loudspeakers five times a day, most people seemed somewhat oblivious. I saw a couple of women in traditional dress who turned east at a call to prayer but they were far outnumbered by people simply going about their business. This suggests that there is a strong sense of religious identification that is separate from regular religious practice. If you asked people, you’d learn they were Muslim but it would be hard to tell them from other folks. This pattern of cultural religion is very common to us in America (as my regular rants about polling data illustrate).

In fact, after a week in Istanbul, I came away with the sense that the de facto religion is consumerism. Lots of stores and shops — and don’t get me started on the experience in the Grand Bazaar. But consumerism combined with nationalism may well be a default religion in America (for evidence, just search “Christian responses to American Sniper”).

I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few nuances. And if I were in other parts of the city or the nation, I might have a very different sense of religious diversity. But I’m still struck with the idea that there is much to learn by looking at American religion through the lenses of another culture.

One of my favorite sites was the Chora Church, which had remarkable frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Even though we couldn’t get into the main part of the building, what we saw was stunning. It was some of the clearest illustrations of Christianity’s long theological tradition.

In this illustration of the Trial of Christ, we’re reminded that Jesus stood apart from cultural and political struggles. This is a good lesson for us to remember.

Trial of Jesus
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My Comments at Spring Arbor’s MLK Day Event

MLK-Day-panel-discussion[I’m on a panel at school tonight. We were asked to give a 3-minute opening statement. Here’s mine.]

One of the challenging things about celebrating MLK day is that we have had a tendency to focus on only the parts of the story that make us comfortable – like the last paragraphs of the “I Have A Dream” speech. One person referred to this as the “Santa Clausification” of King. My twitter feed today was populated by the hashtag #reclaimMLK. I want to think about what that means.

I teach the Senior Capstone course for Spring Arbor. It includes a week on MLK as a central figure and I have my students listen to a sermon King gave at the National Cathedral five days before he was shot.

Titled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution”, it draws upon the story of Rip Van Winkle. The telling part for King is that Rip went to sleep with a picture of King George on the wall and woke up with a picture of George Washington.

MLK says we’ve had a revolution in technology, in weaponry, and in human rights. He calls on his hearers to develop a world perspective: “through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”

He says we must “eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that this is the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.”

Notice that he’s not talking about prejudice or racial insensitive comments. He’s talking about injustice.

He says there are things that stand in the way of making progress on racism. First is the myth that we just need time. He responds that change “comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”

The second myth is an “over reliance on bootstrap philosophy.” He observes that our society was more than willing to provide an economic floor for white European immigrants, provide them with land grant colleges, to help them farm, and to provide subsidies not to farm. “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

In addition to racism, we need to deal with poverty. He tells the story of Abraham and Dives the rich man. In one of my favorite King lines, he says that it wasn’t because Dives was rich. “Dives went to hell because he was a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”

Finally, he addresses militarism and specifically the War in Vietnam. He calls us out for being an “arrogant nation”. War, he argued, was “playing havoc on our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Viet Cong solider…while we spend only fifty-three dollars per year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

But King retains hope because “both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands”.

Reclaiming King in 2015 calls for us to avoid platitudes but instead to wrestle with difficult issues – the very same ones he cited in 1968. But not to fear, because God is at work, “keeping watch over his own”.

Resurrecting Power: Reflections on Playing God by Andy Crouch

At a denominational conference twenty-five years ago, I presented a paper applying sociological theory to the question of conflict within the church. (I was surprised to find that they’ve still got it online.) I wrote the paper because I thought sociologists could help pastors understand the normalcy of conflict. But it got little play. All these years later, we still see conflict expressed as matters of personal disagreement and engage in social media debates about when Matthew 18 is applied.

Playing GodIn reading Andy Crouch’s excellent Playing God last week, it struck me that my efforts to help the church deal with conflict were doomed before they started. Why? Because conflict is the outgrowth of a deeper concern: we don’t know what to do with POWER.

Our inadequacy in conceptualizing power lies underneath competition for scarce resources or control of carpet selection. It keeps us from addressing the inherent challenges in Christian celebrities and makes it nearly impossible to have meaningful conversations about church abuse.

As Andy observes in the first part of his wonderful book, we get in this fix because we’ve only considered one type of power. This form of power, written of by philosophers and social theorists, is a zero-sum vision of power. Because power is exercised to maintain one’s control over a situation (by not allowing someone else a foothold) we cannot show weakness or vulnerability. Opponents have to be squelched and obstacles overcome. With all deference to Jean Luc Picard, Andy call this “make it so” power. It reflects the exertion of force to accomplish a desired end in spite of any opposition that might exist.

Then he states his key premise: God is involved in a very different form of power. Rather than being concerned with managing outcomes, the power is unleashed in ways that open up yet further vistas. Working carefully with the Creation narrative, he observes how often the creativity of God results in teeming — varieties of outcomes flowing from creation in all sorts of wonderful ways. The creative power of God is expressed by setting things free to be. He calls this “let there be” power.

But there is yet another step. This is the power that lets lose human flourishing, what he calls “let us make” power. Two things are important in that little phrase. First, the subject is plural. Creative power in collaborative. Second, the verb involves creating something new that exhibits its own creative capacity. He illustrates this latter form through a long analysis of how he works with his cello teacher (I posted this extended quote on Facebook). Creative power of the “let us make” variety is not zero-sum but is generative: new forms of power arise without demolishing existing forms.

All of our critiques of power (absolute power corrupts absolutely) are based on the “make it so” form of power. One of the sad realities of our culture war history of the last 35 years is that the church has been striving for power to change the world on the world’s terms. We seem to believe that if only we can get “those people” to vote right or agree with us or start buying that product that we will gain the upper hand for our position.

A quick aside: the insufficiency of the “exert power” strategy is shown in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (see this post from November). In that book, Hunter critiques Andy Crouch for focusing on creativity (his first book) without paying attention to the institutional structures that provide levers to power. Instead, Hunter wants us to pursue Faithful Presence (but doesn’t really work out how that happens). In Playing God, Andy manages to make the corrective move Hunter wanted and fleshes out Faithful Presence in the process.

Our pursuit of power, Andy writes, opens us up to the problem of idolatry. We create a god that we hope (pray) will provide what we want but it always disappoints while calling for us to simply try harder next time, to give a little more, to pray a little harder. The power of the idol is strongest when we fear it is slipping away (I can write an entire post on how fears of religious persecution illustrate this key point).

One of the really interesting themes that runs through the book is the linkage between “make-it-so power”, idolatry, and injustice. This is true for those on the bottom of a power hierarchy just as it’s true for those at the top (this point was echoed by Alissa Wilkinson, which is what led me to Andy’s book in the first place).

In place of the power of idols, “let us make” power calls for us all, but especially Christians, to see ourselves as icons that reflect the image of the true image bearer: Jesus Christ.

Ultimately the reason for both the work of evangelism and the work of justice is not simply the relief of suffering, whether present or eternal. It is the restoration of God’s true image in the world, made known in the one true Image and Icon, Jesus Christ , and refracted and reflected in fruitful, multiplying image bearers set free by his death and resurrection to reclaim their true calling. Our mission is not primarily driven by a calculation of which suffering, present or eternal, we need to relieve most urgently; it is the fruit of glorious promises that call us into a new kingdom where the world is full of truth-bearing images (84).

Our work as Jesus followers, then, is to become trustees of the generative power around us. This requires personal actions through spiritual disciplines (solitude, silence, and fasting) and it requires collective actions that reform institutional practices (he focuses on sabbath, sabbatical, and Jubilee)

I’ve provided some very small snippets of what is a very thorough and complex argument. But hopefully it’s enough to begin to imagine what church life might look like that could address what I was critiquing in my previous post.

Perhaps church is the one place where our broken pasts, our continual shortcomings, our doubts in the midst of our certainties, our prejudices that separate us, our fears that tempt us to build walls, and our sometimes shaky faith all come together in the raw material of “let us make” power. Where we each are assisting others, regardless of station, in living more fully into what God has created us for.

This is the power that leads to holiness.

“Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

Earlier this week I posted a fictional retrospective from December 2015 on what I thought would be the big religious stories of the year. The first of these had to do with the “Rise of the Dones”: those people formerly heavily engaged in church who were now not attending. Over the next three days, my social media feeds seemed to keep sharing stories that affirmed my supposition.

A friend, a Christian college professor like me, shared a Huffington Post piece from late 2013 on “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore” (his mother, who’s my age, affirmed the critique). Another friend shared this reflection by Alece Ronzino, which sounds similar themes to Addie Zierman’s book I reviewed here last year. Benjamin Corey wrote an excellent pair of articles explaining why he wasn’t fully at home with Progressive Christianity or with Evangelical Christianity. Yesterday I received an e-mail update from Univeristy of Northern Colorado sociologist Josh Packard, who has been collecting data on Dones. His site introduced me to Thom Schultz, who manages a website on Dones.

Whenever I see this kind of convergence of stories in a short period of time, I have two reactions. First, I affirm that that there is something here worth attending to. Second, I try to use my “sociological imagination” to see if can dig deeper as to what it going on.

In the midst of this barrage of stories, I was reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God. He builds the caPlaying Godse for a Christian, creative, view of power: one that is not zero-sum but ever expanding the flourishing of all impacted. I’ll write a more thorough review of this excellent book in the next couple of days.

In the middle of the book, Andy does some sociology. In fact, he offers one of the cleanest explanations of the sociological notion of “institution” I’ve ever read. His chapter should be excerpted for every Intro to Sociology text.

Using the image of football, Andy argues that institutions have cultural artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles. In other words, there are things (footballs, helmets, pads) which have a mandated use. There are places where the things are used (stadiums, vacant fields). There are rules which govern behavior (and systems for enforcing that expected behavior — football broadcasts now have “rules experts” that they call on to interpret what referees are thinking when evaluating those rules). Within the context of the artifacts, arenas, and rules, we have the actual roles people play (spectator, quarterback, offensive guard, strong safety, line judge). He also argues that institutionalization takes three generations (each generation is roughly 25 years) to establish, doing some nifty work with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Nearly everyone interested in the Dones is looking for a way to see them re-engage in the life of the church. In fact, so do many of the Dones. I want to see church be a meaningful experience where people draw closer to God in the midst of a supportive community. That’s my church at the top of the page and I have a vested interest to see people in that congregation who are free to be who they are as a part of the Body of Christ.

So it seemed natural to attempt to use Andy’s handles for institutions to try to make sense of what’s going on with the Dones. It’s easy to see how arenas have changed: many follow the megachurch model and have flashy sound systems, projection units, auditorium seating. One can see shifts in artifacts as we move from hymnals to choruses and from Bible studies to popular author video series. However, more fundamental are the changes in the rules and roles.

I wanted to be able to do something really cute with Andy’s three generation hypothesis but I can’t quite make the numbers work. I would still argue that the rules started shifting around 1980 and it may have taken a generation and a half for us to begin to recognize that those rule changes were dysfunctional. Let me quickly explore four changes.

The Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979 and operated throughout the 1980s. In its wake we found a sense that real RefereeChristians were those who held the “right” views (in both meanings of the word). This meant that part of the refereeing involved figuring out who was inside and who was out. If you were one who disagreed with the dominant view, it was a tough place to stay.

Willow Creek began meeting in the mid-1970s with a new set of operations: organizing services around reaching the unchurched. This meant changing the arena and the artifacts to reach a whole new group of “spectators” who were otherwise being missed. This is a commendable goal, but as it expanded to other settings, the role of faithful multi-generational member became harder to identify. (The Wikipedia page linked above lists the age based ministries at the church, the oldest of which is college aged.) As the focus on being “seeker sensitive” expanded, it left less room for the long-time churched.

At about the same period, popular preachers drilled home that being a Christian required absolute discipline (with little instruction on what that meant). I remember sitting in an adult Sunday School class on New Year’s Morning in the mid-80s where the teacher was talking about the discipline shown by football players in bowl games (didn’t talk about their off-field behavior) and challenging us to show that kind of discipline in our faith. All I could think of was that it was New Year’s morning and I was in Sunday School and that wasn’t enough. If the roles defined are beyond normal reach, people will disengage rather than continue to be yelled at. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are a bit of an anomaly but may be the exception that proves the rule — if you want to watch a pastor “tell it like it is” as a spectator, that may work for you but many others will leave.

Pee Wee FooballFinally, the over-professionalization of ministry roles has limited the space for “normal people” to be involved. The preaching pastor has his “teachings”. The worship leader manages the praise team to achieve a desired end. The children’s pastor makes sure that kids are entertained and learn valuable lessons. (It’s tempting to spend time on the death of sandlot football and how they have been replaced by Pee Wee youth leagues — same over-professionalization).

The result of these various shifts in institutional culture over the past generation and a half is that the role of congregant has shrunk in both importance and task. If it feels like people are spectators, it’s because that’s what the rules call for. If we want something else, we’ll need to rethink some institutional arrangements.

Maybe we could begin by making some rule changes that create space for creative engagement on the part of everyday followers of Jesus. If the arena was designed to make them the center of cultural activity perhaps the Dones would realize that they have far more to offer to the Body of Christ.

They haven’t given up. They just don’t want to play in the current arena. We should change it for the better.

Looking Back: Religion in 2015

December 2015

I spent some time looking over what I’d posted on this blog over the past 12 months in anticipation of one of those “best of” posts everyone is doing. I did learn how much the three themes of evangelicalism, higher education, and sociological theory showed up on the blog and how some of each were among my most viewed posts.

Then I thought about doing one of those “most important stories of 2014″ especially after reading this post from Christianity Today. It asked four figures to list their pick for “best news” of 2014 that would shape evangelical life. Their responses were relations between evangelicals and Catholics (Geoff Tunnicliffe), WorldVision abandoning their same-sex marriage policy (Eric Teetsel), Ebola doctors and We are N awareness (Sarah Pulliam Bailey), and persecution breaking the reins of prosperity gospel (Russell Moore).

While I don’t have major quibbles with most of these (I have a hard time with the WorldVision thing), I immediately wondered what else was missing. What would others have responded? How would they articulate their choice? What sort of factors played into their perspective of what constituted “best news”?

Rather than adding my retrospective on what was important, which has the kind of safety found in Newsroom scripts retelling events long past, I thought I’d stick my neck out and write next year’s retrospective a year early. So, following in the tradition of Edward Bellamy, I pretended it was December 2015 and I could reflect on the major change stories in religion (especially American religion as it’s what I know best).

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. The Rise of the Dones: While much of the focus in recent years has been on why millennials have fallen away from church in somewhat large numbers, this was the year when the evangelical church really woke up to those previously faithful members who just stopped participating. This was captured in research by Josh Packard and colleagues. These are individuals who are theologically orthodox and would show up as highly religious on a number of survey questions, but simply don’t attend church much anymore. They’ve heard it before and are pursuing other avenues for spiritual fulfillment. This group helps explain the significant gap between religious identification and church attendance in America as well as the increasing financial challenges for local congregations.

2. Pope Francis make life more difficult for Evangelicals:  His Holiness continued the housecleaning begun late in 2014, shaking up the internal organization of the Vatican and calling those in leadership not to see themselves as better than others in their flocks. This included some extremely strong words about the embrace of materialism and what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. Suddenly, the evangelical pastor asking for heightened levels of loyalty, a huge staff, lots of speaking opportunities, and large houses wound up in stark contrast to public images of what it means to be truly Christian. In addition, the pope’s openness to dialogue on the role of women, treatment of those outside the faith, and embrace of science made it increasingly difficult to take hard-line stances on social issues (even where simply quoting scripture worked in the past) unless one was willing to denounce an immensely popular spiritual leader as being an accommodationist.

3. Concerns over Race in America bridged theological barriers: As 2014 ended with sharp divisions on issues of race, it was religious figures from across the theological spectrum who began to seriously address the key questions. Prior separations between Calvinists and Arminians, between millennial bloggers and evangelical figureheads, between mainliners and evangelicals began to break down, at least for a time. There was a strong sentiment from African-American conservatives and young white progressives that one’s station in society shouldn’t be dictated by race and class. There was a dramatic increase in the number of voices willing to admit that something was wrong and that we needed intense theological and sociological conversations. This change put the evangelical church in the center of significant social change based not simply on secular values but imbued with a strong vision of God’s Kingdom at work.

4. Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage allowed real dialogue within denominations on marriage: With more states taking steps to institutionalize same-sex marriage on purely secular grounds, it created the situation where denominational groups could no longer treat the topic as an abstract proposition. Increasingly, people within local congregations were in same-sex marriages recognized by the state (and their employers). Churches held fast to self-determination on marriages within the church and there remain stark differences on the role of married, sexually active, gay clergy. But the societal shifts allow for real dialogue within major denominational groupings. While the year ended without any particular working consensus, earlier concerns about schism seemed to be avoided. One of the interesting positive outcomes of the shift was a real discussion about the role of family, commitment, fidelity, and affirmation of the image of God in all that had been sorely missed in “traditional family” discussions.

5. The splintering of the Evangelical voting block: As the pre-primary campaigns began to take shape in mid-2015 in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, the old value-voters block of conservative evangelicals didn’t materialize to the extent that it had in the previous three presidential cycles. This was a result of three factors: more millennials involved in the political process, the inability of leading presidential candidates to speak to evangelical theological concerns, and shifts in major political issues from social concerns to economic concerns. Issues of abortion and treatment of the elderly were still highly valued, but other issues of immigration, family policy, minimum wage, and the social contract showed significant diversity of thought even among evangelicals. Candidates could no longer simply depend upon Christian voters guides carrying the day.

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Some of this may be simply pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part. On the other hand, all five of my scenarios are based on a reasonable sociological reading of things already in play in late 2014. I invite you to tag this and come back to it in twelve months — I’m sure I will.

Ralphie is a Millennial Evangelical: Reflections on A CHRISTMAS STORY

Sometimes I let this blog get too ponderous, theoretical, and otherwise academic. I’m trying to enjoy my Christmas break but it takes awhile to break out of normal school rhythms. Last December, I wrote on some well known Christmas classics (Charlie Brown Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street) and tried to mine them for some new insights about sociology, evangelicals, and popular culture.

I’ve been thinking all year that there was probably something to be learned from A Christmas Story (1983) — Jean Shepherd’s reflections on growing up in Hammond, Indiana in the 1940s told in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. I decided to re-watch our copy before TNT started their 24 hour marathon showing tomorrow. I noticed that it really hasn’t aged well. Too many of the vignettes are loosely connected and didn’t manage to convey the humor and pathos I remembered watching it with our kids every year. But it still tells a story that may help us understand the changes going on in the current “millennials and church” conversations.

If somehow you’ve missed the story up to now, it’s all about Ralphie. As he and his family are approaching Christmas, the primary thing on Raphie’s mind is “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle”. It has a compass in the stock and everything. It’s the kind of gift kids dream of. But absolutely everything and everyone stands in his way, constantly telling him “you’ll shoot your eye out”. He has good friends, lives in fear of neighborhood bully Scut Farkas, has a father who swears and wins Major Awards, and a mother who is doing all she can to keep the family happy.

There’s a lot more. If you’re interested, it will be on TNT 12 times between 8:00 Christmas Eve and 8:00 Christmas night. Maybe you can catch it then.

Even though the story was written in the 1960s about events in the 1940s, it struck me that Ralphie as we’ve known him is a millennial. He shows up in the early 1980s and his story is full of millennial angst. Since it’s been on cable television every year since 1988, an entire generation has grown up with Ralphie and his quest for the Red Ryder.

RalphieConsider Ralphie. He grows up in this family that thinks it’s cute for him to wear his bunny pajamas he got for Christmas. What he wants is to be the sharpshooter who saves the world from evil. He lives in fear and awe of his father, who can’t see how his frequent profanity has influenced his son to become quiet fluent in cuss words (including THAT one). His father wins A Major Award (the infamous leg lamp) that he places in the front window for all to see. He’s proud of his achievement but is the only one who doesn’t know that the lamp is an embarrassment (which is why the wife “accidentally” breaks it).

Ralphie wants one thing. The one thing that would make him cool and accepted in his own terms. But every authority figure he meets seems bent on crushing his dreams. He tells Santa that what he really wanted was a football until he gets his courage up to tell what he really wants (and then Santa tells him he’ll shoot his eye out).

The neighborhood bully represents the fear of evil. A running bit throughout the movie has Ralphie and friends running from Scut Farkas to avoid the inevitable fight. One of the friends inevitably gets cornered until he cries “Uncle” and the others watch from a distance. Until the day when Ralphie can’t take it anymore. Suddenly he attacks Scut, swearing a blue streak while landing punch after punch.

In short, Ralphie feels trapped by his neighborhood, by his family, by the gap between his expectations and dreams and the conventional expectations. He has dreams but feels like they may never come to pass without something shifting. If they all understood what he’d do to protect the family against Black Bart, they’d all be forever in his debt.

Of course, at the end of the story (spoilers ahead for the two of you who don’t know how it ends) he gets the BB gun. He takes it outside to try it out and manages to have a BB ricochet and nearly hit him in the eye. It was just as they’d all said. Except that his mother keeps his secret and cleans him up. He pursued his dream and it almost went wrong, and yet he found his own way forward. In that moment, he finds his independent voice that isn’t defined by his family, neighborhood, and social structure.

This is where today’s millennial evangelicals find themselves. They’ve gone out into the backyard to try out some approaches that the authorities said were too risky. But they’re doing so with courage and abandon. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they are willing to stretch beyond past limits. Just like Ralphie, they love their family (even when they embarrass them). But they have a commitment to Christian faith to live out and simply pray that their families and churches make room for them.

On Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life

I recently read Christian Smith’s new book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford University Press, Sacred Project2014).  Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame (and will be speaking for Spring Arbor’s Focus series in March). His work is well known in sociology of religion circles and he is one of the principal investigators on the National Survey on Youth and Religion.

Sacred Project is a different kind of book than his more empirical work. A footnote in the introduction spells out his strategy: “this book can be read as ‘a sociology-of-religion of sociology-as-discipline’ (p. x).” Smith is using Durkheim’s work in a very specific way, so it’s good for me to paint a quick picture before getting to the substance of his argument.

Emile Durkheim’s work in Elementary Forms focused on the beliefs and practices of Australian Aboriginal tribes (based on fieldwork by his nephew). It’s “elementary” because it is the most simple and primitive approach (at least according to Emile). It’s a clan organization with a divided sense of time: there is origin time and everyday time. The origin time in populated by spiritual beings/animals (which is why it’s called animism) who work out the creation narratives. Everything else in everyday time is a recreation of the origin time. The rituals the group engage in are representations of that time that is sacred, “that is, set apart and forbidden”. But Durkheim’s analysis concludes that the sacred realm is a reproduction of the group’s social order and that the outcome of the everyday rituals is to guarantee fealty to the group’s values. A related element is Durkheim’s work is that such tribal societies deal with deviance and rule-breaking by what he called repressive law — violators were excluded from the tribe.

It is in this narrow way that Christian Smith is talking about a Sacred Project in sociology. Like the origin time for the aboriginals, there is an overarching story that binds sociology and a system of ritual practice that reinforces that story on a regular basis. The actual sacred story is rarely if ever examined.

For sociology, Smith argues, the sacred vision is one of a particular form of society. It’s not just that sociologists use certain methods or introduce specific concepts in their sociologizing. It’s that they do so in service of the larger sacred goal. How he outlines that goal takes on different forms throughout the book. Sometimes, he is fairly objective in describing an unexamined vision of the world sociologists share:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (pp. 7-8, italics Smith’s)

I’m more comfortable with the first half of the formulation than with the second. Sociologists do share a vision that perhaps can best be stated as critique: we’re concerned about exploitation, about the contingencies of birth, about dynamics of social inequality. In short, the dynamics of structures and patterns within the larger society that unduly rob some of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a shared and unexamined notion that our ideal sociological world wouldn’t look like that.

But he also conceptualizes the Sacred Project in words that sound far more pejorative:

We might say that it stands in the modern-liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist “tradition” (p. 11, italics Smith’s).

He traces the development of American sociology from its Chicago days to its current state and seems to suggest not only that all of these descriptors are connected, but embraced by the discipline. Some of them are directly contrary. It is undoubtedly true that sociology has had a bias for those left behind within society — from Chicago’s Polish girls to contemporary issues around race and criminal justice.

Smith reviews recently published books at ASA meetings, themes in contemporary sociological journals, or major assumptions underlying conference themes. He spend a chapter doing a remarkable critique of the leading Intro to Soc textbook (Macionis), suggesting that the tripartite structure of theory groups (structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction) works to a) show conflict theory as preferable to order theories, and b) to legitimize the social constructivist assumptions of modern sociology. Another important critique is that research gets repeated that seems to match the default assumptions of the Sacred Project even when it’s been critiqued long in the past.

These patterns, it seems to me, have a great deal to say about the institutional structures of the sociological enterprise. How does one get to be an intro book author or reviser? Which books get reviewed by major publications? Perhaps to get a book noticed by an editor one has to pick up one of the victimization themes common to the book exhibit. What I’m suggesting is that the sociological analysis we’ve all gotten used to can be turned back on sociology.

Another layer to this is also evident in Smith’s argument. He recognizes that the patterns he describes don’t reflect the biases of most sociologists but do speak to elites. They also are represented within the major doctoral programs and promotion-tenure processes in competitive sociology departments.

A key element of the book has to do with the way conservative sociologists have been treated in the discipline. He spends most of a chapter reviewing the Mark Regnerus saga from 2012 (Smith wrote a defense of Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education). There are very real issues of research being used for or against certain prescribed positions and sociology is not better off for such exclusion. This is where Durkheim’s repressive law comes in. Take a position outside the established view and risk exclusion — figurative at best, career destroying at worst.

This isn’t an isolated argument. Just today, I saw a report from a group of social psychologists describing the theoretical problems arising from a lack of political and ideological diversity. My friend George Yancey has regularly been researching issues of ideological discrimination within academe.

So I’m left agreeing with Smith in part and disagreeing in part. Sociology does seem to take default positions, evident in textbooks and research presentations, that there is only one idealized vision of how the world should work. Even though there is far more diversity among sociologists in general than there is within the elite echelons, those of us calling for a more complex position are somewhat deviant (this is especially true for the sociology of religion subset).

And yet I’m not as troubled by the various labels described in the second quote above. Sociologists, especially Christian sociologists, are rightly concerned with issues of inequality, of diminishment, or power abuse. Not because we blindly adopt an enlightenment rationalist vision. But because we’re pursuing a Kingdom vision. It is a sacred drive but it’s a different sacred project than Christian Smith describes. It’s one that takes God’s restoration of creation as its telos.

One more thing: he ends his book with an appendix describing what he calls Critical Realist Personalism. In this view, which I really want him to unpack further, he wants us to explore the complexity of causal forces in the social structure. More importantly, he wants not to focus on autonomous individuals but “persons”. Rather than drawing on Enlightenment images, he wants to draw on Aristotelian interconnectedness. This approach also is consistent with basic Christian theological assumptions.

In the end, while I certainly agree with much of Smith’s critique, I am more optimistic about the alternatives. There is a great deal for students to pursue even without the biases he’s worried about. It’s a Sacred Project truly worth pursuing.

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