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on February 28, 2012
Most Americans are aware that recent decades have been a time of change in religious belief, behaving, and belonging. Most who read this blog have some knowledge of varying aspects of these shifts. Few people understand how the many trends are linked and fewer still grasp how this looks within the context of church history. Diana Butler Bass draws on her rich experiences as a researcher, consultant, subject matter expert, and perpetual student of the topic to craft a book that is sure to become the starting point for conversation in the academy, the church, and even in the many communities that together comprise our culture.

Christianity After Religion is a three part story that is designed to be read sequentially:

*Part 1, "The End of Religion," considers the changes within the framework of decline of traditional measures, primarily focusing on the last decade. Rather than simply recounting polls and popular opinion, Diana Butler Bass explores the deeper issues they suggest. (Readers will identify with their own life experiences while simultaneously better understanding the religious world in which they live.)

*Part 2, "A New Vision," captures the many and varied efforts to reshape Christianity for the future. These efforts have been underway for decades yet clarity, much less unity, remains elusive. Butler Bass proposes that new visions must end the centuries old approach of believing, behaving, and belonging in favor of the more ancient order: belonging, behaving, and believing.

*Part 3, "Awakening," moves from possibility to practice by arguing that the current experiences are a Fourth Great Awakening. By way of comparison with the first three Great Awakenings, the fourth seems enough like the previous to warrant the label yet dissimilar enough to warrant being considered the Fourth Great Awakenings (plural) or the Great Global Awakening to note its spiritual emphasis and impact on multiple religions.

While I regularly recommend books to specific people, I rarely recommend a book to everyone. As one who often writes and speaks about the decline of the mainline and the larger issue of religious change, I know that this topic is of incredible importance to those within the church (and those within the traditional structures of their religious traditions) and of incredible interest to those who are spiritual yet exist primarily or exclusively apart from the dominant religious structures from previous generations. Wherever you are on your spiritual and/or religious journey, I encourage you to read this text. If you engage it fully then discuss it with others, you will find many benefits including an enriched perspective on your experiences, a better understanding of the experiences of others, and an increased willingness to live your faith fully in the present while making time to glance at the past and look into the future.

So What?
The change is not just past or future; it is now. It is being performed today and every day. Diana Butler Bass explains:
The new global Great Awakening is not contained by the stage of the local Congregational church, in small groups, at camp meetings or tents, or at Pentecostal tabernacles or progressive political meetings. The awakening is being performed in the networked world, where the border between sacred and secular has eroded and where the love of God and neighbor - and the new vision of belonging, behaving, and believing - is being staged far beyond conventional religious communities. Although churches seem the most natural space to perform spiritual awakening, the disconcerting reality is that many people in Western society see churches more as museums of religion that sagred stage that dramatize the movement of God's spirit (p. 258)
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on February 17, 2012
If I didn't have a sermon to write I would have finished this one in one sitting. I've liked all of Diana's book, but this one takes her to new territory and explores issues that are at the heart of what I'm about in ministry. The historical framework about awakenings she uses provides a helpful perspective on what is going on in the world today. It presents an incredible challenge to those of us, like myself, who have spent their lives in the church, but see the need now for something far different from what we have been and been about. It's in no way a "how-to" book, but it is ultimately an extremely practical book - one that will provide the insight and perspective needed to work on the how-to's in whatever setting we find ourselves.
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on January 17, 2013
This author makes several interesting points about the recent shifts in American religious affiliation, but quickly devolves into a hypocritical tirade against conservative Christians, and conservatives in general. I'm neither politically or religiously conservative (I'm not even Christian), but I expect a little intellectual integrity from an author of Mrs. Bass' standing.

On several occasions she lampoons the religious right for their mixing of religious and political beliefs, but then goes on to do the same with her own beliefs and holds the result up as something completely different. Apparently we are supposed to accept that Christ identifies with modern, elitist liberalism while being offended that conservative evangelicals claim Christ's blessing upon their narrow dogmatism.

It's strange that so much of the book revolves around politics. The author seems incapable of separating them from the religious sphere - so much so that she calls the Tea Party a religious movement. Again, I'm not a conservative. I don't like the Tea Party's brand of social conservatism. At the same time, I'm willing to state my differences of opinion with their policy choices without blatantly inventing nonsense about them. What shocked me most was where on page 251 Mrs. Bass equates the Tea Party (who have never, as far as I know, committed violence) with terrorists, African religious fundamentalists who kill homosexuals and torture children, and religious dictators, among others. You can disagree with somebody as much as you want, but such accusations are truly absurd.

She also goes on to quote a friend as saying that "This is the worst version of religious and political hatred in American history for at least one hundred and fifty years." Tell that to the African Americans who suffered under the disenfranchisement Jim Crow and terror of lynching campaigns. A comment like that can only come from somebody completely out of touch with reality. That Mrs. Bass could repeat it in good faith is beyond me.

This isn't to say that the book doesn't have any merit. It does, but all of its finer points come toward the beginning. The rest is a sad exercise in the pot calling the kettle black.
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on May 15, 2012
I gave this book a 5 star rating even though I would recommend skipping the Eight Chapter if you are not of a liberal persuasion. The information presented in the book and the author's presentation of it is excellent. My problems with Chapter 8 are strictly personal in that I would have preferred a deeper analysis of the tanking of the spiritual revival of the 60 & 70's than the superficial political treatment it received and I believe that the Author is too optimistic about the current spiritual state of the Country. Again this is strictly my opinion based on my own understanding of the world we live in and in no way is meant to detract from the wonderful job the author does in explaining the situation the modern church finds itself in. I am amazed that she is welcome in mainline denominational churches considering her message.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone trying to attract people to their church with the one caveat that they should probably skip Chapter 8. This is a must read for anyone in Church leadership and differences in theology should be put aside to obtain the benefit of hearing what God is saying to us through Mrs. Bass.
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on July 23, 2012
Bass's book is really helpful in explaining where our nation is currently in Christianity, esp in the US, but also around the world in other religions. I was especially intrigued by her discussion of the great awakenings, and how the one we saw from 1960 to 1980 was interrupted by a fear-based fundamentalism ('75-95') that was erroneously considered an awakening but was actually a reaction against one. Although she speaks primarily about Protestantism in the book, her analysis mirrors the current dilemma of the Catholic Church perfectly. The Church was evolving during Vatican II and the reforms seen right after it, and then, with the last and current pope, has reverted back to a bizarre fundamentalism that is driving parishioners away in droves. The trouble is the "fundamentals" are not fundamental to Christian spirituality any more than terrorists are fundamental to Islam. They are mere dogma, words, political stances, protectionism. For a Christian surely fundamentals are how we treat one another, our experience of Christ. She says there is less war between religions and more inter-religious warfare within each faith between those who would move deeper into relationship with Christ and those who are reacting against the awakening. She says there is a current awakening starting in 1995 and that spiritual leaders today need to help transform people's fear of change to urgency and courage. She gives practical advice about how to do that.
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on April 1, 2012
Don't be afraid. Religious life in America is changing dramatically, but for millions of Americans who are searching for faith, inspiration and hope on a daily basis--the underlying spiritual strength of our American culture is alive and well. In a couple of sentences, that's the wise and helpful message of Diana Butler Bass's new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

As a longtime journalist covering religion in America, I have been reading Diana Butler Bass's work for about a decade now and we have been doing interviews through those years, as well. If you are drawn to her books, I also highly recommend A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story and Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith.

In preparing to cover her new book as a journalist, I asked Diana the very question that millions of Americans are having trouble answering for pollsters: "How do you identify yourself religiously these days?" She laughed, because religious transformation in our culture is the central point of this new book. We're all changing--like it or not. Finally she said, "Can we just say: She responded with a big silence?"

When I pressed her, though, she said, "I understand myself as a Christian who is leaning toward an unknown future and I am feeling a sense of loss. I know we have to leave some things behind in terms of ritual practices and traditions of the Church, but I am also full of a sense of wonder and imagination. What is Christianity going to look like for my daughter? For my unborn grandchildren? I am hopeful. I see the possibility of a Christianity that can be open and fluid and that will no longer be guarded by huge boundaries and barriers set up by human beings to close out so many people. I see a Christianity emerging that will embrace people around the world in love. I hope for a future of healing for our planet."

That's not a bad response on the fly in an interview! And, if that summary sounds like you, then you already can see why you should get a copy of this book and read it, then share it with friends in your congregation. That uplifting voice from Diana Butler Bass comes through, loud and clear, in these nearly 300 pages of solid research data, analysis and advice to church leaders about ways to adapt to our current transformation in American religion.

Here's what this is not: This is not another "inspirational" book by a spiritual writer sharing a personal vision of change. There are many fine books in that genre from individual teachers, but Diana Butler Bass is not merely writing a personal manifesto here. She is a highly respected historian of American religious life and a scholar of contemporary religious culture and is regularly invited to lecture to conferences, colleges and gatherings of church leaders. By the time you reach the back cover of her book, you will understand the breadth of current research by Diana herself and by a wide array of other top scholars as well.

And this is not another guilt trip from a "church-growth expert," designed to whack congregational leaders over the head with 10 Things You're Doing Wrong in Marketing Your Church. That's neither Diana Butler Bass's profession nor her intention. This new book is a stirring (and, to be honest, a troubling) look at change in America's religious life. But we are in the hands of a scholar whose vocation is driven by the hopeful promise that smart and well-informed church leaders can take positive steps.

Why is it so important that she covers the waterfront in current research?
Because we're not simply relying on Diana's own conclusions, leaving the reader to guess whether we should trust her. Instead, she fills in the other voices in a kind of panel discussion of top scholars, including as one example the widely known Harvard scholar Robert Putnam (famous for his work on Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community) and his colleague from Notre Dame David E. Campbell. Together, their latest book is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which I also recommend.

Ultimately, this is a terrific book for small-group discussion. Not only will it spark lively conversations, but there's an even more important reason to work this book into your congregation's small-group schedule this year. It's this: Rather than simply arguing about various opinions concerning change, reading Diana's new book will give everyone in your community a firm footing on the latest research into these questions. Oh, people still will disagree, debate and question each other. That's the fun of small-group discussion. But, at least everyone will know the wide array of solid findings that now are available to help us chart the future.
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on February 13, 2015
Very, very interesting reading. She writes very well and knows her subject. Religion is in decline, she notes, but spirituality is in ascendancy. What is the evidence? What are the implications? Bass tells all!
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on December 16, 2012
Everyone is talking (about this book), so I just had to go out and buy it. To my mind, the title itself was a red flag. Christianity IS a religion. So, when you look at it closely, the title does not make sense, nor, sadly does much of the rest, despite the fact that I probably agree with many of Bass's assertions about the crisis/upheaval in the Church. I admit that may sound paradoxical, but there you have it. I do think that Christianity is in the wane, but besides the slipshod historical 'analysis', Bass's conclusions trend to the superficial. What surprises me is the number of people that I admire/respect who find this book to be so insightful--undoubtedly because the author has tackled a subject that is on many people's mind. But as far as representing a contribution to addressing the issue, I suggest that the book is about on the level of what one might find in a Time or Newsweek cover article: catchy but not very deep, something that is epitomized by the author's extended analogy between mainstream (and mega) churches and corporate industry. As always, there is a kernel of truth in the observation, but caveat emptor when it comes to drawing significant conclusions.
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on July 11, 2012
If I could give one book to my friends, within and outside the church, this is it . This is the book that names this "awakening" in which we find ourselves. Much has been written in the last decade or so about the changing scene but this is the one that gives us some clear historical data, and a cogent interpretation of that data. I imagine many in the institutional church will fear this book, which is one reason it's so important. This is about the revival of Spirit in our times, and the locus of revival doesn't look quite like your grandfather's tent. These are not easy times, but now, after reading Diana's newest, and I believe very best book, I am filled with new hope.
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on May 22, 2012
Are we in the midst of a great spiritual awakening? Reports from the churches might suggest otherwise, but there is other evidence that despite the apparent decline being experienced by institutional religious entities, there is great interest in spirituality. The New Atheists have tried to gain a foothold, but their message of a godless world appeals only to a few. Science has its place, but seems not to answer all humanity's questions. But, the same is true for older forms of religion. While people aren't giving up on God, growing numbers of people, especially among the younger generations aren't convinced that churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples can fill the spiritual void they're feeling. Thus, the fastest growing religious groupings today are known as the "spiritual but not religious" or as "nones."

There have been a number of books and studies that address this issue. Many of these authors believe that we're either on the verge of a spiritual awakening or we're in the middle of one. As a historian, I'm cognizant that it's often difficult to truly gauge something transformative while you're in the middle of it. We can look back and see signs of change happening in the 16th century or the 18th century and deem these to be times of reformation or awakening. During such moments, old forms give way to new forms, or at least radically changed forms, but are we at such a moment? Only time will tell.

Among the persons exploring this moment of transition is Diana Butler Bass. Diana is a trained historian, so she's also aware of the dangers present in speaking too definitively of what might be transpiring at the present moment, which is why I much prefer her analysis to that of Harvey Cox or Phyllis Tickle, for instance. At the same time, she has been studying the trends and conversing with people who are experiencing this period of change. As a result of these conversations and studies, she has written a series of books that have proven helpful to many, especially those of us in the mainline Protestant tradition, to get our bearings and find new ways of being present in the world spiritually. In her most recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana suggests that we are in the midst of a spiritual awakening in which the movement is away from the conventional institutional and clergy-focused religion toward a more open and expansive spirituality. She writes that "where Christianity is vital, it is not really seen as a "religion" anymore. It is more of a spiritual thing" (p. 7). Attendance at worship services is down significantly, but interest in spiritual things is on the rise. Evangelicals have done well of late, but even they are experiencing some difficulties.

In Diana's estimation we're experiencing a religious recession and an awakening at the same moment. Making use of the work of William McLoughlin, she notes that endings can also be beginnings. An awakening is not the same thing as a revival. An awakening is a movement of "cultural revitalization that `eventuate[s] in basic restructurings of our institutions and redefinitions of our social goals'" (p. 29). In this view, we are experiencing the fourth such awakening in American history, and have been in this mode since about 1960. McLoughlin believed that we would see a move toward more experiential and pluralistic forms of religion - and that seems to be the case. Diana goes into great detail on what awakenings look like and how they will change the world in which we live, especially the increasing loss of legitimacy accorded our institutions.

Part I of the book is focused on analyzing our situation. It is followed by a lengthy section entitled A New Vision, in which she focuses on three aspects of religious/spiritual life - believing, behaving, and belonging. In the world of religion, we start with beliefs (doctrines), move to behavior, and then when we believe and behave, we belong. In other words, after you pass the tests, you can be part of the community. In this new period of awakening, we are seeing what she entitles "The Great Reversal." The starting point isn't affirmation of doctrinal standards, but belonging to the community. From there we move to behavior, which she defines in terms of practices that we learn in community, and finally, we believe. Belief in this reversal isn't necessarily affirmation of doctrines, but trusting of one's life to God. It is a much more relational vision of faith. In previous books Diana has placed great emphasis on spiritual practices, and does so again here. These practices are intentional acts such as prayer, fasting, hospitality, that develop character. In this model of spiritual life, we learn by imitation or apprenticeship, rather than by participating in programs (it's hard to let go of the idea that programs are the solution). Experiencing God's presence is the goal, rather than gaining an intellectual understanding of the nature of God.

The final section is entitled Awakening, and in it she lays out her vision of the future of Christianity. Composed of two chapters, the first of which is entitled "The Great Awakening," Diana returns to the matter of a fourth great awakening. In the first chapter she contends that we're moving from the dogmatic (externally driven) to the romantic (experiential/internally driven). Although there is significant push back against this change of vision, such that conventional religion will continue on for some time, the old forms are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the people. Diana makes it clear that she is not only attracted to this new vision, she is a practitioner. Having emerged out of traditional evangelical Christianity, she welcomes this new world of spirituality that is both pragmatic and open, an awakening that she believes is the first true global interfaith awakening. In the final chapter - "Performing Awakening" - Diana speaks of the ways in which we too can embrace and join in this time of spiritual change. We too can live into the practices that draw us toward the divine. As the old saying goes, "come on in, the water's fine!" There might not be a program to adopt, but there are steps to take if we're going to join in this new awakening. We must prepare, practice, play, and then participate. As we lean the story of faith, that story will, through spiritual practices, form our story.

This "Great Global Awakening" that she is describing, and prescribing to a degree, "is a matter of big questions - belonging, behaving, and believing - rightly reordered to enliven the heart and empower people to transform the world" (p. 265). Will we, she asks, embrace this move of the Spirit, or will we resist it? The future of Christianity depends in large part how we answer this question.

This is an important book and as with all of Diana's books, it's a good read. If you are a pastor of a Mainline Protestant Church, especially one that has a long history, you may also find this book to be a difficult, or better, a frustrating read. Unlike her earlier book Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, this book is less hopeful about the future of Mainline Protestantism. There is much here that speaks of spiritual experiences, that we as church can embrace and try to bring into our practice, but I found myself wanting more. Perhaps that's the point - I have to go figure out how the church will exist in this new reality, but I find myself wanting additional help. In conversations with other pastors of churches like mine who have read the book, there is a similar desire for more help. We want a follow up book, one that is not just more hopeful, but will take into account our realities - aging members, facilities, and realities. It's one thing to start a new congregation, but what about those congregations that have been around for eighty or a hundred years? How do we honor this heritage as we move into a new era? Zwingli destroyed organs at Zurich. Henry VIII plundered the monasteries. They changed the dynamics, but the ripples continue to be felt today. So, how do we take our churches into this world when they have been wrapped up in conventional institutional religion for so long?

As I read this book I'm in agreement with much of Diana's analysis of the current situation, but I'm not as ready to embrace the full "program" of this global awakening. Although I am very active in interfaith work - it is a passion of mine - there may still be too much of the conventional in my own person to jump in with both feet. I am, it would seem, part of that great company of people who have abandoned religion as usual, but find the idea of being "spiritual but not religious" less than enticing. I am, and I expect many others (including Diana) are part of the great company this both religious and spiritual!

I invite you to read the book, to engage it, to critique it, and to recognize that whether this is a fourth great awakening or not, we are in a period of immense religious and spiritual change, and Diana is an excellent guide to the territory. In the end, we must decide how to respond.
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