Monday, December 10, 2007

Evolving societies

I had a hazy knowledge of this story; something about Texas and textbooks and evolution. It clearly doesn't reflect well on Texas, but that's another matter. I also run across a lot of comments by people who assert that religion is the problem in America: and that it is a barrier to critical thinking, or that Europe is more "advanced" because it is no longer as religious as America, etc. To call such views ignorant is, of course, charitable. They are as poorly informed as the people who promote "creationism" or "intelligent design." But the views of Creationists and others are not championed merely because such people are convinced their religious attitudes are important. They are championed precisely because those attitudes are no longer dominant.

Fundamentalism is not a response to modern times so much as a product of it, as Martin Marty has noted. The same can be said of Creationism and "Intelligent Design." Both schools of thought are a response to change, to what is perceived as radical change which is beyond the control of the adherents to such thinking. Consider the situation of "Sunday School."

When I was a child, attendance at Sunday school was not optional, it was mandatory. Even my cousins who didn't attend church were dropped off for Sunday school. The historical irony was lost on me at the time, because Sunday school began as a way for children of working class parents in Scotland to get an education, in the days before universal public education. As public education slowly took over that function (a microcosm of the shift in social attitudes about the importance of religion in Europe, and a contrast with the continued importance of religion in America), "Sunday school" began to take on a role once zealously guarded by parents: religious instruction.

In Protestant circles, it was the family's (read: father's) duty to instruct the children in the doctrines of the family's church. That role was slowly ceded to the church via Sunday school. So, by my childhood, Sunday school was where we learned the "Bible stories" like Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Jacob's ladder, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale. I don't remember even the most conservative churches of my childhood being concerned with the teaching of evolution (which we learned in school): they taught the Creation story, the school taught Darwin, and nobody objected to the separation of these spheres. What has happened since? The decline of the importance of Sunday school.

Mega-churches probably offer Sunday school in the format I grew up with. But today I know many teenagers and younger children who are "church orphans" because Mom is divorced and spends her spare time at church, a place the kids don't want to go. Or the children's lives are so regimented and filled with activities (mimicking their family's lives) that they barely have a Sunday morning a month to set aside for worship, much less Christian education. I've been teaching college and high school for 5 years now, and every year I have students, especially from private, non-church schools, who have never heard of the Garden of Eden, or Noah, or even Jonah and the Whale. There is a cultural loss there (how do you read European literature without knowing the Christian stories?), but what has more clearly happened is a loss of cultural identity, of cultural homogeneity. It was once the family duty to educate children in one's religious beliefs. Then we turned that over to the church. But now that we no longer feel compelled to take our children to church, some people want to look to the state to fill this information gap.

Which, of course, is not the state's function at all. Enter the pseudo-science of "intelligent design." In the interest of fairness, I should also point out that in the 25 years since I left graduate studies in English, the Bible went from being "sacred literature" to simply being "literature," and I teach selections from it in a Norton anthology with nary a peep from anyone about desacralizing holy writ. The shifts in perception have actually been quite tectonic, without the least tremor on the surface.

So what we are seeing is not the return of the "Dark Ages" (a misnomer anyway, but that's another complaint, idn't it?), but the last flush on the cheek of a dying age. Church in America is actually becoming increasingly irrelevant as it either disappears into a gathering of grey heads, or as a place where you are told how wonderful you are and the 7 steps or keys or what-have-you for how much better God wants to make you be (I was looking at Joel Osteen's latest book, and comparing it to his first book. This one offers "Seven keys to living with joy and peace." His first was "7 steps for living at your full potential." Clearly it's all about 7; which is so much easier than 12, I'm guessing.) There's everything modern American about that, and very little which is Christian (a friend tells me she's watched Osteen's sermons, and he gives the same one over and over again. Well, it's made him rich....). I've said before this is primarily a good thing, as it will ultimately strengthen a church which needs to cut its ties to the society it finds itself in; but that, too, is another matter for another time.

In the meantime, as Auden noted about the nativity of Christ, we Christians have an apocalypse to prepare for....

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