Saturday, April 02, 2005

The End of Christendom?

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere
--T.S. Eliot

Eliot captured the post-war situation with astonishing prescience. The shift from close community to scattered was already underway by World War II. After that war it caught on in a newly prosperous America with a vengeance. And it dispersed not just communities, but families; which meant it dispersed churches.

It didn't seem so at first. Church attendance in America following World War II set record highs. The percentage of the population which attended church rose to levels literally never seen before in America. It's popularly considered that the levels simply went back up to what they had been in some near, or distant, past. But studies showed the church attendance was actually higher, and has never been remarkably high in America.

And now, as Juan Cole (who is, for my purposes, simply a convenient source for numbers on this) points out, the number of people who even consider themselves Christian in America, is on the decline. Far from being the dominant religion in society, Christianity is on the way to being marginalized. Although it is still a long way from that problem. Still, it is no longer a "Protestant" culture; and that is the issue.

Protestantism, far more than Roman Catholicism, depended on the culture for its identity. Luther's reforms caught the fancy of German princes feeling their power and a new sense of inependence. As Protestantism spread, it took on the aspects of the culture it spread too: "dour" Scots took to Calvinistic Presbyterianism, while Norwegians and Swedes took to Lutheranism. A broad brush view, to be sure, but the essentials of each culture shaped the church it took on and made its own. Thus we had "Christendom," as criticized by Soren Kierkegaard; where one is simply born into a church, and no spiritual, or indeed even religious, conviction seems necessary.

And it wasn't, because the culture held the church together. But when that culture changes, when the homogeneity of the neighborhood and the community is changed, what then? When not everyone goes to church at the same hour on Sunday morning, and some don't go to church at all, and children gain more and more independence, the culture tha buttressed the church is no longer able to hold things together.

Social Security made some of this change possible in our day; but even the concept of "teenager" played a role. Look back in literature, and try to find the idea of "teenagers" anywhere in, say, the 19th century. A period for huge novels of sweeping scope encompassing persons in all walks of life and all ages from birth to death; and yet where does one find the modern-day "teenager"? The first reference to it I can actually think of is J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo Baggins, who is said to be in his "tweens." And that's from a mid-20th century fantasy tale. The idea was current enough, and prevalent enough, for Tolkien to include it, if only as a sly joke, but a distinctive age of development between childhood and adulthood, is a fairly recent phenomenon. And it brought with it a new sense of autonomy; one reinforced by the changes in technology Eliot identified as so crucial.

"Teenagers" became, in the 20th century, quasi-adults. They were expected to work outside the home, to hold jobs, perhaps even to drive, if not own, a car. And that made all the difference. The family unit that travelled together on Sunday morning, could suddenly split up; physically and socially, children could claim autonomy from their parents. So at one end, the pool to draw from began to shrink; at the other end, it began to grow. And the result was the younger members of the church felt less and less inclined to participate in the life of the church, a church which suddenly found it could not change with the culture. The church could not change, because it could not adjust as rapidly to the idea that "young people" should have a voice in church affairs. As the young grew more "rebellious," or simply independent, their parents grew less inclined to release any authority to them. With their new autonom, then, they just left. They abandoned church altogether.

And when they returned, often as adults with children, they returned to the church they had left as teenagers, with the same people still firmly in charge, because the generations started living longer and longer; and never gave up their reluctance to let go of church power. But the reluctance was not just a hunger for power; it was a sense of loss, too. The culture that had supported the Protestant church for so long, was gone. Gone were the blue laws that kept stores closed on Sunday; gone for were 40 hour work weeks that left spare time for church softball teams and Wednesday night activities, and leisurely Sunday afternoons. Gone, too, was the notion that church was important simply because it was important, or because of some social (or even religious, though rarely) duty. Gone from the world, but not necessarily from the church.

And so churches adapted: either they became "contemporary" in their worship, and tried to compete with the entertainment industry the Baby Boomers had grown up with (and made possible), or they withdrew into a shell of amber, preserving "the best" of their "traditions." Except those "traditions" were often the preferences and peculiarities of a particular congregation, until "We have always done it this way!" became the only reason for keeping the church open at all.

In other words, the churches segregated along generational lines, and the generations became almost incomprehensible to each other.

These are generalizations, of course, and broad ones at that; but this is why "mega-churches" are always Protestant, and always non-denominational (or at least very congregational, that most Protestant of Protestant church forms) de facto if not de jure. The "mega-church" is a perfect reflection of modern American culture: it is loud, it is popular, and it is aimed at an audience. It's another roadside attraction, promising not so much salvation as entertainment, not so much meaning as simply belonging. And thriving not so much on what it provides, as what it promises to provide: mega-churches rise and fall on personality (the man, invariably, in the pulpit), and advertising. One of the largest and most popular here in Houston (its pastor has a best-selling book out, no less), exhibits billboards which proclaim: "We Believe in You!" Which even a militant atheist has to admit, has precious little to do with Christianity. Yet this mega-church claims to be a Christian church. Clearly is it Christianity that is being marginalized; but from the outside, the mega-church resembles our collective vision of the Church Triumphant.

Which is what most Americans of a certain generation remember: the Church Triumphant, the world after WWII when all Americans attended the (Protestant) church of their choice. And as the culture changed, that church was supposed to remain in place. But it couldn't; its culture, was the world's culture. Inexorably, the two were drawn apart, until now, they are barely on speaking terms.

This is the fate of "Christendom," which is not necessarily the fate of the Church.

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