01: Amidst the flood of articles on Pope Benedict XVI and the future shape of his papacy, some stand out for their in-depth coverage. The New Yorker (May 16) magazine published a lengthy article by Paul Boyer going into the complex background of Vatican II and showing how Benedict’s thought has been shaped by the battle between liberals and conservatives over the meaning of the Second Vatican Council.
The struggle continues, but Boyer views Benedict, along with his predecessor John Paul II and many bishops, as securing an orthodox definition of the council, reinforcing an already-growing conservative movement in the church.
The independent Catholic magazine Commonweal devotes much of its June 3 issue to exploring the thought of Benedict XVI. Articles by Joseph Komonchak and Christopher Ruddy suggest far more complexity to Benedict than allowed by the popular liberal-conservative scenarios. Benedict’s conservatism is not so much a return to pre-Vatican II scholastic Catholicism, but rather a strongly Christocentric body of thought necessitating a highly liturgical and countercultural — and thus unified — church.
02: The Postindustrial Promise (The Alban Institute, $18), by Anthony E. Healy, is a rereading of the American religious situation along strongly structural and demographic lines.
Healy challenges “postmodern” accounts of American religion that stress individualism, consumerism, and estrangement from religious institutions, as well as widespread switching between churches. Instead, he asserts that new sociological research suggests that the driving force is post industrialism, causing massive changes in work and mobility and reshaping cities and social networks. In such an environment, religious congregations have assumed a central place in which people establish or reestablish a “cultural narrative.“
But because most congregations are now cut loose from geographic place (no longer only serving the specific communities in which they are located), social networks become the main foundations on which congregations are built, thus tending to make them more uniform in makeup. Healy argues that theological and organizational dynamics do not account for the patterns of growth and decline among churches.
Mainline decline is due more to changes in fertility and marriage among adherents than theological liberalism; evangelical growth is likewise tied to demographic changes in the opposite direction. All of this is in line with Healy’s “ecological” approach, where congregations do not compete as much as complement each other, filling particular niches and meeting certain needs in a diverse society.
03: Nancy Ammerman takes a somewhat similar position to Healy in her new book Pillars of Faith (University of California Press, $21.95), arguing that Americans are rerooting themselves in religious traditions even as congregations diversify and modify those traditions. The book, based on survey and ethnographic research among over 700 congregations from 91 traditions, follows her previous work on congregations, but this time looks beyond these structures to the broader networks and denominations that interact with local expressions of faith.
Ammerman and her research team find that nearly every congregation they studied–even the self-consciously non-denominational, independent churches– had at least one link with an organization that helps them provide for the needs of people beyond their own memberships, and that almost every one draws on resources (such as publications) it did not produce.
Yet these ties to secular and religious parachurch agencies are not replacing traditional denominations as much as complementing them. While there is some erosion of traditional denominational allegiances, particularly in relation to centralized bureaucracies, an attachment to denominational traditions, particularly those with liturgical heritages, was marked among many of the congregations. Interestingly, it is the conservative Protestants (especially those switching from other denominations and those more highly educated) who are more likely to de-emphasize their denomination and claim a more generic evangelical identity.
Mainline Protestants, in contrast, especially among the cradle and highly educated members, retain stronger denominational ties. Another noteworthy finding concerns how the numerous activities and offerings of evangelical churches tend to make evangelicals more involved in the community. In contrast, many Catholics’ lack of involvement in their parishes, outside attending services or Masses, tends to decrease their community involvement.
04: While Healy’s and Ammerman’s books give short shrift to the view that consumerism drives much of religious change, Stephen Hunt’s book, The Alpha Enterprise (Ashgate, $29.95), examines this influential British Christian movement largely through the “marketplace” framework.
The Alpha phenomenon has swept churches in Britain and increasingly in other parts of the world for its classes that introduce the unchurched and nominal believer to Christian basics in a user-friendly and low key manner. The book, based on ethnographic research among 30 participating churches in England, views Alpha as the next phase of the charismatic movement (especially since it is linked to the now defunct Toronto Blessing phenomenon) as it shifts from “signs of wonders” to evangelism.
Moreover, Hunt sees Alpha as the primary way that charismatics and evangelicals have entered the spiritual marketplace with a prepackaged and efficient version of Christianity that tends in the direction of secularization. But he also notes that the program’s adaptive ability distinguishes it from a “McDonaldization” of the faith: it has been reworked in a wide range of contexts — among youth and in prisons, as well as in Catholic and non-charismatic mainline Protestant churches.
Hunt concludes that Alpha is far from a fad and that it has achieved a certain success, though it has resulted in more of an “internal” revival,” bringing those at the margins closer into the center of congregational life, rather than converting the secular and unchurched.
05: Even many critics of the market (or rational choice) theory found inThe Churching of America (Rutgers University Press, $21.95), by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, acknowledged that it was an innovative and bracing account of American religious change and expansion.
The new and updated edition of the 1993 book makes the same case for the importance of pluralism and competition in driving the growth and declines in American religion during the past 200 years. But it also includes a good deal of additional and updated material on black churches, ethnic religious communities, and new statistical information in general. Finke and Stark find among newly free blacks in the 19th century the same dynamic of more congregational and competitive Baptist churches growing while the more hierarchical Methodist denominations fell behind.
A new section on new immigrant congregations, finds patterns of high-commitment congregations among such outgrowing their native born counterparts (such as Korean versus American born Presbyterians). The book also includes intriguing new research on the growth of conservative Catholic religious orders
06: That religious identity has often substituted for ethnicity in American society is vividly demonstrated in Gerardo Marti’s book A Mosaic Of Believers (Indiana University Press, $39.95). Marti, a sociologist and pastor, examines Mosaic, a Los Angeles congregation and leader in a growing network of multi-ethnic and youth-oriented congregations.
Although officially Southern Baptist, Mosaic is very much in the post-modern, “emerging” church mold, though its ethnic diversity (almost divided evenly between Asians, whites and Latinos) makes it unique in still-segregated American church life.
Marti writes that Mosaic’s significance is it’s ability to “reorient identities so that people of various ethnic heritages subdue their ethnic distinctions in favor of one common religious identity…“ But Mosaic did not intentionally seek to become multiethnic, but rather became so through its ministry as a “haven”– for the young, second- and third-generation ethnics, creative artists, and those seeking theological and organizational alternatives to traditional evangelical churches.