Monday, April 27, 2009

More religiously unaffiliated, but many are open to religion

On the one hand, the New York Times reports that "More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops" and that "that those who claimed “no religion” were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years. Nationally, the “nones” in the population nearly doubled, to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990. In South Carolina, they more than tripled, to 10 percent from 3 percent." Some of the new atheists are a kindler, gentler form:
In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public’s stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering “Free Hugs” from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”

On the other hand, U. S. News & World Report notes that the religiously unaffiliated are actually rather open to religion:

The Pew report also provides a striking new portrait of those religiously unaffiliated Americans, the fastest-growing segment of the American religious landscape. The report finds that religiously unaffiliated, widely considered to represent a dramatic spike in avowed secularists, are actually quite open to religion and that only a minority feel that science disproves religion.

Just like Protestants who left their denominations, religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to have grown disenchanted with their particular congregations or clergy than with religion per se. "Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups," the report says. "Most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group."

Maybe the grass is always greener. People raised in church give up on it, while those raised without religion gravitate toward it.

The U.S. News article also notes that "There are now 8 million nondenominational Christians, according to the Trinity report, up from 2.5 million in 2001." Another sign that we've moved into a post-denominational era.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Random stuff: "This I Used to Believe," false international adoptions, etc.

Okay, in the midst of Earth Day, TV Turnoff Week, the 10th anniversary of Columbine, Susan Boyle (wahoo!) and other stuff filling the news, here are a few things that struck me recently:

"This I Used to Believe" on NPR's This American Life. My wife and I are NPR junkies, and often have "driveway moments" listening to various shows or articles. Last weekend we sat in our garage for at least ten minutes to finish listening to the second segment of this particular episode, which was about how different people changed their minds about what they believe. The segment was about a woman, Trisha, a lapsed Catholic who had lost her best friend to cancer at age 32. She somehow got in touch with a conservative Christian football coach who felt called to talk to her about God. What was fascinating was that they played parts of their actual phone calls together, and we as listeners could eavesdrop on his attempts to witness to her. What was sad and frustrating was that he kept trying to give rational argumentation to prove the existence of God, and and he just wasn't connecting with her. Trisha said later on that she didn't want to be argued at; part of her really wanted to believe again, but she just wasn't there - primarily because of the question of why her friend died of cancer. A good illustration of the limitations of apologetics and the need for listening to people's felt needs for comfort and companionship.

"The Lie We Love" by E. J. Graff, from Foreign Policy - a heartbreaking article about international adoption. Many adopted children are not orphans. Many have been kidnapped, stolen or purchased from their birth families. Some excerpts:
As international adoptions have flourished, so has evidence that babies in many countries are being systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families. Nearly half the 40 countries listed by the U.S. State Department as the top sources for international adoption over the past 15 years—places such as Belarus, Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, and Romania—have at least temporarily halted adoptions or been prevented from sending children to the United States because of serious concerns about corruption and kidnapping.

In reality, there are very few young, healthy orphans available for adoption around the world. Orphans are rarely healthy babies; healthy babies are rarely orphaned. “It’s not really true,” says Alexandra Yuster, a senior advisor on child protection with UNICEF, “that there are large numbers of infants with no homes who either will be in institutions or who need intercountry adoption.”

So, where had some of these adopted babies come from? Consider the case of Ana Escobar, a young Guatemalan woman who in March 2007 reported to police that armed men had locked her in a closet in her family’s shoe store and stolen her infant. After a 14-month search, Escobar found her daughter in pre-adoption foster care, just weeks before the girl was to be adopted by a couple from Indiana. DNA testing showed the toddler to be Escobar’s child. In a similar case from 2006, Raquel Par, another Guatemalan woman, reported being drugged while waiting for a bus in Guatemala City, waking to find her year-old baby missing. Three months later, Par learned her daughter had been adopted by an American couple.

One American who adopted a little girl from Cambodia in 2002 wept as she spoke at an adoption ethics conference in October 2007 about such a discovery. “I was told she was an orphan,” she said. “One year after she came home, and she could speak English well enough, she told me about her mommy and daddy and her brothers and her sisters.”

A few quick book plugs: I just read through Andy Marin's Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community. It's a tremendously helpful read. Andy is a straight married white Christian guy who has lived in the midst of a GLBT community for the last decade, and he describes himself as "the gayest straight dude in America." If you have GLBT friends and don't know how to interact with them, read this book. If you are GLBT and fed up with reactionary conservative Christians, read this book. Andy shows how all of us, gay or straight, Christian or not, can move beyond the conversation-stoppers and build real mutual relationships.

And N. T. Wright's new book Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision just came in from the printer (just in time for the Wheaton Theology Conference last weekend, where we sold a boatload of them). This book began as a response to John Piper's objections and grew into a full-blown treatment of Wright's take on justification. I'm about a third of the way through it right now, and it's extremely well done. If you've been following recent discussions on this topic, regardless of where you sit, this book is essential reading.

And on the lighter side: The Atlantic ran a piece about world leaders on Facebook (image here). Has items like "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the group People Who Always Have To Spell Their Names For Other People." And here's a Facebook news feed summarizing Jane Austen. Funny stuff, like: Fitzwilliam Darcy is proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. It is not going well. :-/

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"I'm going to kill you."

Just read this in Bart Campolo's April newsletter. Thought it was well worth passing along.
Dear Friends,

I often tell people not to ask me for statistics, because in this work all the statistics are bad. Ask me for stories instead, I say, because even in the worst of times I always have a good story. Whether it is one of my own or comes from someone else doesn’t really matter to me anymore. What matters is that it rings true. Like this one I picked up on a visit to Philadelphia last week, which was first told to psychologist Jack Kornfield by the director of a nearby rehabilitation program for violent juvenile offenders:

One fourteen-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After the first half year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor (in jail) he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.

Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job.

Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?”

“I sure do,” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.”

“Well, I did it,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother he never had.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Star Wars, Twilight and Easter

This Good Friday, Josiah and I watched Star Wars Episode I, which he hadn't seen yet. (We of course introduced him to the Star Wars movies in the correct order; we worked through the original trilogy first a few months ago.) Then we watched Episode II on Saturday. I know these prequel movies are fairly weak compared to the original trilogy, with insufferably cheesy dialogue at times, but they've grown on me somewhat over the years. I welcome them as more opportunities to revisit the galaxy far, far away.

Also this weekend Ellen and I watched the movie version of Twilight, as well as all of the bonus features. I thought the movie did a good job of capturing the style and mood of the books, with appropriate romantic tension, suspense and danger. It's been a few years since I'd read the first Twilight book, so I went back and started rereading it to refresh myself on the details.

Oh, and there was Easter Sunday too.

I found myself caught between these various narrative worlds this past weekend. It struck me that watching Star Wars makes me want to be a Jedi. (I already have a blue Force FX lightsaber.) Watching Twilight makes me want to be a vampire. That would be cool. But reexperiencing the Easter story doesn't necessarily make me think, "Oooh, I want to be a disciple. That would so rock."

I know I have a propensity to want to inhabit whatever world I'm vicariously experiencing at the moment. When I read Chaim Potok's classic My Name Is Asher Lev a few years back, I totally wanted to be Jewish. When I saw Rent last week, I really wanted to live in that New York arts community, where everybody bursts into song as a narrative soundtrack to life events. So it probably makes sense that I wanted to be a Jedi vampire this weekend. Except that it's Easter, and I should probably have been reflecting more on what it means to follow the resurrected Jesus.

I think that in some ways, those of us who are overly familiar with the Christian story need to reenter it through other portals. When I read the Gospels, it's not surprising anymore - it's a bit been there, done that. We know how the story goes. But when I do a mental pop culture mashup between Christianity and something like Twilight, then things get interesting again. Because when I watch Twilight, I'm hit by the sense of longing for the beloved, the willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of another, the desire for eternal life, issues of ultimate purpose. The tagline for the movie is a great theological question: "When you can live forever, what do you live for?"

So I don't feel too bad about watching vampire movies or Star Wars while celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Thinking about them together is actually more interesting than contemplating any of them on their own.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Perfect storm and Holy Week

I haven't posted much recently not because of a Lenten fast but because the past few weeks have been something of a perfect storm. I had a two-week modular course (on problem-based learning, and we teased out some fascinating possibilities and implications for PBL in theological/seminary education), and this overlapped an in-house work seminar that I directed. Plus my wife was out for two separate business trips, and last week our kids were off from school for spring break and my in-laws came to visit for a few days. This past weekend Josiah and I volunteered at a Chicago 2016 Olympic bid event (and got free T-shirts!) and then went to the Adler Planetarium to watch galaxies collide (he was a little nervous afterward about an asteroid hitting the Earth). Last night Ellen and I saw the touring company of Rent (which had two original Broadway cast members). And today is Elijah's 4th birthday! And now it's Holy Week, and we're leading worship for our Maundy Thursday service (but don't have any responsibilities for Good Friday, Saturday vigil or Easter Sunday morning, thank God).

This is probably a good as time as any to report on my Lenten experience. Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection, self-examination, repentance, confession, etc. Some of that did take place in good and unexpected ways, but I'm a bit sad to say that the crush of life and the timing of events prevented this Lent from being overly meditative or contemplative. I did find myself to be less compulsive about Facebook, and I did cut out a lot of unnecessary reading (whether of library books, blogs or news sites).

One thing that I hadn't originally planned on but in retrospect was a good thing was that I read a recent "new atheism" book that I picked up at the library. I was thinking about this during my problem-based learning course because non-religion is now the fastest growing religious demographic. On the one hand this presents a "problem" for the church, but on the other hand, I think the new atheists raise great questions and problems that Christians need to grapple with to greater satisfaction. I would encourage pastors and church leaders to read through at least one such atheism book and give it a charitable read, not immediately with an eye for apologetic argumentation but rather to listen and understand where their irreligious friends and neighbors are coming from and what legitimate concerns and objections they might have about Christian faith.

Of course, my personal perfect storm is nothing compared to the storm that Jesus experienced this week. If you're an avid Facebooker, you might appreciate this clever and astute "A Facebook Passion" that walks through Holy Week through Jesus' Facebook profile and news feed (HT: Eugene Cho). Samples:

- The Disciples have taken the Which Messiah Are You? quiz: The Disciples are a Righteous Warrior: Messiah will triumphantly enter Jerusalem, lead the Jewish nation in a bloody slaughter of the infidels, and rule the world with an iron rod.
-- Jesus is downright uncomfortable.

- Jesus has taken the Which Messiah Are You? quiz: Jesus is a Suffering Servant: Messiah will usher in God's Kingdom of Shalom through radical self-abandonment and vicarious suffering for his beloved people.
-- Judas does not like this.

- The High Priests have given Judas a gift: 30 Pieces of Silver.

- Andrew created a new photo album: Hanging in the upper room with JC.

- John is sitting next to Jesus at dinner.
-- Jude thinks John would make a really attractive woman.
-- Peter is it just me, or does anyone else think John is a total brown-noser?
-- John don't hate me because I'm beautiful!
-- Dan Brown is thinking John is really Mary Magdalene.
-- John does not like this.
-- Mary Magdalene does not like this either...Maybe if I break a whole bottle of really expensive perfume and give Jesus a really good footrub, people will put this whole "John is Mary" rumor to rest.
-- Judas wants the money back he gave Mary for the perfume.
-- Dan Brown is writing.