Archive for January 4th, 2010

Recently, I’ve been making my way through Alistair McGrath’s book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. The book is an account of Protestantism starting off from the Reformation. The main premise of the book is that the radical idea proposed by the Reformers, whether intentionally or unintentionally, was that individuals could interpret the Bible for themselves. McGrath explores how this idea has played historically and through different regions of the world. I’m not done with the book yet, but so far, there have been several fascinating insights.

This morning while I was reading, I came across the following paragraphs regarding the vast variety of Protestant churches.

It is not unfair to suggest that the Protestant vision of the church unleashes a Darwinian process of competition and survival in which maladapted churches are gradually eliminated and what survives is better suited to the needs and opportunities of the day. Using an essentially economic model, Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark argue that the European state churches have created a religious monopoly, leading to a radical restriction of religious options for its people. In marked contrast, the United States offers an open market of religious options, with none either sanctioned or restricted by the state. Commitment to organized religion is higher in countries such as the United States because religious pluralism encourages market responsiveness to the religious consumer. In Europe, they argue, the institutional churches have seen little purpose in identifying and meeting the needs of their parishioners.

If Iannaccone and Stark are right, Protestantism flourishes in the United States on account of open competition, which forces churches to take the needs and aspirations of their members seriously. In contrast, the privileged position of state churches in Europe has often led to the entrenchment of outdated approaches and attitudes, and above all a neglect of the religious consumer by leaders who are often wedded to the convenient certainties of the past. In America, competition encourages religious entrepreneurship and vitality. As Steve Bruce, professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, points out: “Free-market capitalism explains why Americans are rich; free-market religion explains why Americans are church-going”.

I find McGrath’s explanation of the “free market” nature of Protestantism to be sort of fascinating. Perhaps it’s because I have heard so many writers and speakers use this type of explanation in a derogatory way. In fact, I’ve probably done it myself a few times. So what’s your take? Is some amount of “natural selection” healthy in the landscapes of American Protestantism? Or is this simply McGrath putting a positive spin on a bad situation?

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I think we need a new topic.

I’m tossing back and forth which one of these quotes to put up first because both are wonderful and revealing in their own way. One of them will be a thought for the day, the other will serve as a segue for a short post I will put up later this afternoon. Both tell me something about being judgmental (an icky, gross word); both are patently myopic. And they both come from the January/February 2010 issue of Modern Reformation magazine. Here’s the first, written by Annette Gyson who is an editor at a ‘Christian book publisher’ in Grand Rapids. She is commenting, in conclusion, on the book Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be:

This is an excellent book, one that all Christians would benefit from reading. Emerging Christianity does ask some valid questions, ones that should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, their own answers draw from sources other than Scripture. Like Jude in the New Testament, DeYoung and Kluk remind us that our comfort in life and in death is the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (40)

It may not appear to be much, and maybe it isn’t, but that one word ‘unfortunately’ really bugs me for some reason. I know we’ve been down this road before, but let me ask the obvious question: Is it unfortunate?

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