Broadman & Holman
James Sire's fine book The Universe Next Door, first published in 1976, was a response to a generation's run from religion. Many students brought up in mainline churches were finding preaching meaningless. It seemed that the demise of Christianity predicted by Clarence Darrow in 1925, after his big oratorical victory at Tennessee's “monkey trial,” was not far off. Judging by the drift on university campuses, biblically faithful churches would soon be rare. Propelled by swirling winds, bright students were drifting toward faithless beliefs such as-to cite the subjects of three of Sire's chapters-naturalism, nihilism, and existentialism.
By the turn of the millennium, though, much had changed. Despite decades of mockery by media and academia leaders, Christianity was retaining some grip on 85 percent of Americans. For many that grip was tenuous, but with two generations educated largely from the perspective that God has nothing to do with history, literature, biology, or other subjects, surveys still showed an overwhelming majority of Americans believing that we owe our existence to God, not time plus chance. What's more, within Christianity adults were moving from Bible-doubting to Bible-believing churches in a wave so unmistakable that even the New York Times acknowledged in a headline, “Conservative Churches Grew Fastest in 1990's.”
What about the young, the early twenty-first-century equivalent of the students Sire reached in the 1970s? Colleen Carroll's recent book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy notes that many people in their twenties and thirties want to be able to profess a faith. Those who have grown up in homes broken by divorce and “a feeling of being saturated by greed, sex, and all the decadent forces in our culture” are harkening to churches where they don't have to say creeds with their fingers crossed. During two decades of teaching at the University of Texas, I've seen some of that among my own students.
Curiously, few journalists have written about the way Christianity has survived and even thrived. Imagine a person sentenced to death by numerous tribunals and then shot by a firing squad, hanged by the neck until dead, fried on an electric chair, poked with a lethal injection, and guillotined. What if after all that he was still alive and even able to pick up his head and reattach it to his neck? Wouldn't that be the story of the year? Yet the big story of Christian endurance in the last quarter of the twentieth century was right in front of thousands of American journalists, and virtually all missed it.
Reporters have also missed most of the international story. In the largest country geographically, the Soviet government spent most of the twentieth century teaching atheism to schoolchildren and persecuting adults who would not go along. Nevertheless, at century's end Christianity was roaring back in Russia and the Ukraine. In the biggest country by population, fifty years of force-feeding atheism to adults and children could not wipe out theistic yearnings. At the end of the century Christianity was stronger than ever in China, despite repeated government efforts to wipe it out.
Some bright students are concluding that the grass is greener in theological yards that once were far away but are now next door. Buddhism is attracting those turned on by the mythology of zen or the radiance of the Dalai Lama and his struggle against oppression. Hinduism has sunk deep roots since the time a generation ago when Hari Krishna devotees first danced along the Boston Common. Judaism, particularly in its Orthodox variety, is attracting some Jews who were highly secularized and others as well. As we will see, each of these religions generally receives more favorable press coverage than that offered concerning Christianity.
Islam also is growing, helped along by the surprisingly favorable treatment accorded it in the press and in schools. _A recent report from the American Textbook Council entitled “Islam and the Textbooks” concluded that “on significant Islam-related subjects, textbooks omit, flatter, embellish and resort to happy talk, suspending criticism or harsh judgments that would raise provocative or even alarming questions.” For example, the primary historical meaning of jihad-according to Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor emeritus who is America's most distinguished scholar of Islam-has been the requirement “to bring the whole world under Islamic law.” Yet the most-used world history text, Prentice Hall's Connections to Today, merely tells students that jihad is an “effort in God's service” such as an “inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace.”
The number of Hindus in America has increased during the past thirty years from 100,000 to almost a million. The number of Buddhists has similarly climbed, and perhaps five million Muslims now live in the United States, up from about 800,000 three decades ago; America may have almost as many Muslims as Jews. Religions that once were exotic in America are now next door, and pressures to clothe “the naked public square” will now come from not only conservative Christians but from others as well. We have come out of an era, unusual in the history of the world, where many intellectual leaders boasted of nakedness.
I grew up in that era and for a while dressed up in nakedness. At age thirteen I turned against my early instruction in Judaism and declared myself an atheist. For the next decade I remained one, before going through three years of transition that ended with my becoming a Christian at age twenty-six. Twenty-eight years later I remain one, but from my committed position I'm still interested in the paths others take. Some academics claim that an agnostic or atheist is best equipped to study religion because he will not be favorably inclined toward one or all of the beliefs he examines. And yet, just as my partial color blindness does not mean that I am objective about colors, so the lack of belief does not leave a person neutral about belief. Analysts who believe that the billions of people with some religious faith are pitifully deluded are not the best equipped to take faith seriously.
The pattern of this book is simple: I have tried to describe the practices of theologically conservative Judaism (chapter 1), Hinduism (chapter 3), Buddhism (chapter 5), and Islam (chapter 7) accurately and then show the various ways that I have personally encountered and evaluated them (chapters 2, 4, 6, and 8). The word conservative is important because each of these religions has (to make an analogy to constitutional interpretation) its strict constructionist and loose constructionist wings, made up of those who believe the scriptures of their religion must be followed closely, and those who take those scriptures as useful starting points but feel free to ignore or change instructions or practices that contradict typical beliefs and practices of modern society.
Chapters 1, 3, 5, and 7 emphasize the beliefs and practices of the “strict constructionists” for two reasons. First, contrary to what secularists expected, the conservative wings of these major religions are all growing faster than the liberal wings and increasingly asserting themselves. Second, the strict constructionists by their strictness stand against many modern trends and thus have belief and practice more distinctive than the loose constructionists who tend to go along and get along.
Chapters 2, 4, 6, and 8 vary according to the nature of the religions. Chapter 2 emphasizes history because that is crucial within Judaism. Chapter 4 examines the workings of the caste system, a crucial theological and social component of Hinduism. Chapter 6 looks at the way Buddhism has played out in today's most populous Buddhist country, Japan. Chapter 8 examines the connection of theology and politics within Islam in a world where terrorism and totalitarianism still create a regular diet of bad news.
The last two chapters then show what typical U.S. press accounts have made of this complexity, with many good and bad examples that University of Texas students and I have examined over the past few years. I want to thank the many students, from a variety of religious faiths, who have prodded my thinking. They have grown up in a land of choice, and sooner or later they will all have to choose.