Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What I'm Reading: American Grace

Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us(October 2010.)

Here is a review that appeared in The New York Times in 2010.

I read this book shortly after it was published - the old-fashioned way, by buying a hard-cover copy. At the time I was a parish priest and found it interesting - there was (as some will recall) a flurry of blogs and articles that grew out of this amazing book, so I was glad to have encountered "the source." In particular, there was and still is a lot of talk about the "nones" - those who in the research done for this book reported having no religious affiliation. (The authors point out that these "nones" are not hard-core atheists; in fact those who declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics are decreasing. The "nones" may well believe in God; it's religion they have a problem with!)

So now I'm technically re-reading it, and really I am having it read to me as I commute back and forth on the Mass Pike -  i.e. this time around I'm listening to an audio recording of the book. I am learning, even at this latter stage in life that it is a good way for my brain to take in information - while I'm an avid reader I think I'm actually a better listener than reader, and it forces me to slow down which is a good thing. (I'm talking about the speed of the recording, not of my car!)

Something else has changed for me: my own context for ministry. When I read this book I was focused on its implications for parish ministry. This time around I'm more involved in the larger systemic questions related to diocesan ministry. The book has implications for both, but one of the things I find really striking, for example, is how important it is to gather actual information about American socio-religious trends and not just anecdotal intuitive "feelings." It struck me today, for example, that the numbers show that by 1990, evangelical mega-churches were starting to decline - following the trend that began affecting "mainline" congregations much earlier. Yet as a priest I experienced a lot of "solutions" being offered even in the late 1990s (and beyond) about how mainline congregations just needed to be more like Willow Creek.  It was argued that if we just ditched the Hymnals and Prayerbooks and projected the liturgy on a big screen and sang praise choruses we, too, would grow. Others argued if we just got more conservative we'd attract more folks. Regardless of one's liturgical or musical or theological preferences, however, the fact is that this decline has more to do with generational and demographic shifts than anything else - and also starting with the 1950s as the "height of American civil religion" as if that were normative, when in fact it was absolutely not.

In a sense, the ripples that came about after the 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s are still playing out. Understanding these social dynamics is crucial to trying to be the Church in this time and place.

It's not a "how to" book. The authors are not even interested in how to revitalize congregations. But as someone who is very much interested in that, I find their work to be crucial to understanding how we got where we are - and why we cannot go back, only forward.