Chicago Sun-Times 3/18/04
By Cathleen Falsani
//From 'The Passion' to The Purpose-Driven Life, superficial God-talk in the
public square is being replaced by complex -- and equally public --
conversations about faith. Could we be in the midst of ...//
About 20 percent of the American public attended services at a house of
worship last week, according to pollsters and statisticians who keep track
of these things.
In the last three weeks, an estimated 15 percent of the American population
has seen Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." More than 44 million
tickets have been sold for the movie depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus'
This week, two of the top five books on the New York Times best-seller
list -- Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Mitch Albom's Five People You Meet
in Heaven -- have strong spiritual themes. Between the two, they have about
10 million copies in print.
A third spiritually themed book, Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life, a
kind of spiritual home improvement guide that shows readers how to
jump-start their faith in six weeks, reigns at the top of the "advice"
best-seller list, with more than 15.5 million copies sold since it debuted
Taking our clues from today's popular culture, the answer to the question
Time Magazine posed on its cover 40 years ago -- IS GOD DEAD? -- appears to
be a resounding "No!"
God on our minds
Standing around the watercooler or in line at Starbucks these days,
conversation is just as likely to turn to the influence of Gnosticism on
early Christianity and whether the apostles spoke "street Aramaic" or a more
formal version of the near-dead language, as it is to whether Tony and
Carmella Soprano can repair their failing marriage and if Larry David is
actually that obnoxious in real life.
A few channels away from HBO -- on CNN, FoxNews or even Comedy Central's
"The Daily Show" -- and in the newspaper each morning, competing factions
wrestle with some of life's most basic questions, including what a family
is, what just war is, what marriage is, what it means to be "under God," and
whether life may be manufactured artificially.
In one way or another, God's name is invoked in the battle to answer each of
those questions. God is in high-demand -- in politics, music, court, film,
books, even to a certain extent in fashion with "What Would Jesus Wear?"
accessories, yoga-inspired haute couture and the increasingly popular "Jesus
is My Homeboy" T-shirts. Ashton Kutcher, Pamela Anderson, Ben Affleck and
Jessica Simpson all have one.
But it's unclear whether they wear their Jesus T-shirts with those
uber-popular red thread, Tomb-of-Rachel, Kabbalah bracelets or not.
Since 1970 -- well before Simpson, Kutcher and Affleck were born -- the
number of Americans who said they attended church every week has dropped
from 38 percent to 25 percent.
And the number of Americans who say they never attend church has risen from
12 percent in 1970, to 32 percent in 2002, according to National Election
To be fair, about 40 percent of Americans today say they have attended
services at a house of worship in the last week. But when that figure is
compared with the actual attendance rates reported by denominations,
pollsters believe, about half of the folks who say they went to church or
synagogue were lying.
Way to go, God!
Church attendance may be lukewarm, but God is hot.
So what's going on? Is this the beginning of collective spiritual revival or
a religious hiccup on the pathway to a thoroughly secular America?
And how did we get here?
"The world is aflame with this theological conversation, some of it
sophisticated and some of it not sophisticated," said Tom Beaudoin, a
theology professor at Boston College and author of the 2000 book Virtual
Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. "I think that's fine.
At least it's going on."
"This is possibly an indication of another stage of public awareness about
the American spiritual quest," Beaudoin, 33, said. "The self-consciousness
in everyday life about discussing religion seems to have lessened at this
particular moment. I don't know what that means in the long-term. But I'm
struck by how common it is for people in their offices and houses and
schools to be talking about 'The Passion.' For me, as a theologian, that's
"Even so, I swear to you that my students are not going out of their way to
get involved in spiritual things or religious things, but all of them have
read The Da Vinci Code, and a great many of them went to see "The Passion"
the day it opened," Beaudoin said.
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said the modern world has denied God
and is always searching for him.
"In a sense, that's what we see right now," said William Schweiker,
professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago. "It seems to
me that there is an unsated awareness that a lot of secular thought and
discourse about fundamental matters in human life has just shown itself to
"What's our sexuality? What does it mean to be a human being? How do we deal
with the scourge of violence and war? These are fundamentally religious and
moral questions," Schweiker said. "One just sees the kind of moral and
religious inarticulancy in the cultural forms and I think a lot of people
are just thirsting for some meat. That's what I think partly caused this
concern to engage in topics that previously weren't allowed in polite
"People are looking for a robust language to articulate both the depths of
these problems and responses to them."
It's true, God really is everywhere
And they're finding it in popular culture. Hence the popularity of a novel
such as The Da Vinci Code, which lifts plot points from Scripture and
religious history, then turns them on their ear, leaving the reader asking
what is true and what's fiction, both in the book and out of it.
"As the official structures of religious life have less sway on the
individual, you're going to find more expression of religiosity outside of
those boundaries," said Scott Thumma, a professor and researcher at the
Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "They
are going to adapt components of The Da Vinci Code whether it's reality or
not. Pieces of those things influence how I think about the Druids or how I
think about the Crusades, whether it's true or not."
Religious institutions are responding to cues from popular culture. Many
churches and synagogues scheduled religious programming in response to "The
Passion" and Da Vinci, and a not-so-small cottage industry of Bible study
curriculum has grown out of The Purpose-Driven Life.
"These are keys, to me, of this desire for a deeper discourse. These are
signs that people want to know, want to understand," Schweiker said.
In response to popular interest in the theological questions about sacrifice
and atonement raised by "The Passion," Schweiker's pastor in Chicago has
been preaching about five theories of atonement in the Christian tradition,
not exactly blithe Sunday-morning fare, he said.
"The fact that you would have that going on in a pulpit is significant. The
fact that many people would even know that Jesus spoke Aramaic -- that's
what I'm saying. There seems to be this moment where people want to
understand the world as complex as it is."
We've got to keep digging deeper
Schweiker is worried, however, that the rising quality of religious
conversation in American culture could be "aborted" and "sent back into our
anemic public discourse" by two forces.
The first, he says, is a reduction of religion to mere personal preference,
a private conviction not open to debate.
"[President] Bush gets up and says, 'I'm a believing Christian,' and there's
no further argument, no further discussion, no desire to articulate what
that means, to defend it, to explain what basic ideas are," Schweiker said.
"Somehow we are supposed to believe that Mr. Bush is a really devout human
being, but in fact he can't articulate or argue his faith. I worry that's
what will happen."
The second force playing against any long-term establishment of a deeper
popular discourse about faith, Schweiker said, is the commercialization of
religion. For an example of this phenomenon, he points to "The Passion."
"Here we have Christianity reduced to 12 hours, the least interesting 12
hours of Jesus' life, religiously speaking," he said. "We live in a culture
that can commodify almost anything. At this moment, people might be longing
for a richer language, a set of ideas to think about their lives, but it
might quickly just be commodified. Then we stick them back in the
spirituality section of Barnes & Noble bookstores, sell them on CDs and
self-help, and they'll be gone away."
"We're in a very important moment," Schweiker said, "one that could very
quickly be swallowed up by these other forces."
In the 1960s, scholars argued that religion was growing increasingly
irrelevant and that sooner rather than later the United States would become
a completely secular nation. What has happened in the intervening years has
proved that secularization theory only partly correct.
The authority of religious institutions has dwindled, and not just for
Christians. American Jewish and Muslim communities are dealing with similar
At the same time as the influence of traditional religious institutions over
their constituents has waned, individual religious quests and personalized
spirituality are flourishing.
Thumma calls this an "era of seekership." Many Americans -- and not just the
young ones -- are perusing the religious landscape and trying to pick and
choose on an individual level what they to believe, like chemists mixing and
matching compounds in a spiritual experiment.
Religious labels getting iffy
Religious labels are growing increasingly relative. While many people will
still give a sectarian answer when asked what religion they are, often they
attach a caveat to their answer.
Something like, "I'm an Episcopalian, but I'm really into yoga and I just
read the Tibetan Book of the Dead."
Or, "I'm Roman Catholic but I believe priests should be allowed to marry and
I've been going to this nondenominational coffeehouse on Sunday nights for
small-group Bible study."
Or, "I was raised Baptist, but my husband is Jewish and we don't attend
church or synagogue, but we just saw 'The Passion.' What did you think about
Some theological scholars and monitors of popular culture wonder if we
aren't in the midst of a Third Great Awakening.
The First Great Awakening in the 18th century and the Second Great Awakening
in the 19th century saw mass waves of spiritual revival and interest in
religion that spawned, variously, new denominations, large-scale social
activismand new modes of religious expression. While they varied in setting
and impact, the first two "awakenings" had a common thread.
"Any time there are these revival periods . . . the old meaning systems
don't make sense for the majority of the people," Thumma said. "There are so
many changes going on in society that the traditional answers don't work.
"In any of those periods of tremendous and societal change, you're going to
see a lot of this vitality. And in some sense, a disconnect from old
organized authority," he said. "I really do think we're in an in-between
stage or some sort of transitional phase, where the religious reality that
will be is not what was."
FOLLOWING FAITH IN AMERICA
92 percent of households own a Bible
59 percent say they read it at least occasionally
37 percent say they read it at least once a week
14 percent say they belong to a Bible study or something similar
87 percent say the universe originally was created by god
81 percent say angels exist and influence people's lives
60 percent say the Bible is totally accurate in all its teachings
41 percent say all people have the same outcome after death regardless of a
person's religious beliefs
13 percent believe the idea of sin is outdated
75 percent of americans say they are Christian, but . . .
50 percent of adults interviewed nationwide could name any of the four
Gospels of the New Testament
37 percent could name all four Gospels
42 percent could list as many as five of the Ten Commandments correctly
12 percent believe Noah's wife was Joan of Arc
Sources: The Gallup Organization 1990, 2000 and 2003; Barna Research 1993,
1994, 1997 and 2000
HOW FAITHFUL ARE WE?
60 percent of Americans say "religion" is "very important" in their lives
41 percent say they have attended church or synagogue in the last seven
days, but various weekly attendance records indicate the real number is
closer to 20 percent
THE NEXT GREAT AWAKENING?
GRAPHIC: The attention being paid to cultural phenomena such as "The
Passion" and The Da Vinci Code suggest we may be in the midst of an emerging Great Awakening. Ashton Kutcher in his "Jesus is My Homeboy" T-shirt.