God refuses to retire

Saturday, February 7, 2009

David M. Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, explained what he called "the secularist thesis" to a group of students recently. The thrust of the thesis is this -- as societies progress, religion should become less important. The secularist thesis has proved true, Greenhaw explained, only in western Europe. Everywhere else, including the United States, the reverse is reality: Religion is more important as societies advance.

God refuses to retire.

A book of essays is just out titled "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't 'Get' Religion." William Schneider of CNN wrote this: "On the national level, the press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn't 'get' religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction. The press is not necessarily contemptuous of serious religion -- it's just uncomprehending."

What Schneider writes parallels my own thoughts and life experience. What commentators often call "the mainstream media" are not so much against Christianity or the other monotheistic faiths -- they simply don't understand them. What you don't understand, you tend to dismiss, ridicule and ignore. An example: Watching the most recent presidential campaign, a viewer might have been tempted to think that the only people of faith eligible to vote were of two distinct groups: either Roman Catholic or "born-again" Christians. While coverage in print media and on the Internet tends to be more nuanced, there is an unfortunate tendency to put all Christians into one of those two boxes.

No. 1 -- it is possible to be both Catholic and born again. Two boxes of impassable separation are an artificial and incorrect construct. Being born again, or more literally, "born from above," is an indication of being born in a spiritual sense. As Jesus explained it, to be so birthed is to be "born of water and the Spirit." (John 3:5)

No. 2 -- there is only one box for Christians. The box, however, has many slots inside. There are the aforementioned Roman Catholics, by far the largest single Christian group. There are evangelical Christians who are members of religious denominations. There are nondenominational evangelical Christians. There are mainline Protestants -- Presbyterians, United Methodists, Lutherans, just to name a few. And within the slots, there are often smaller compartments. For example: if you're Lutheran, are you Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod or ELCA? There are also Eastern Orthodox Christians. But if you are Orthodox, are you Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, et al?

This diversity in Christianity is matched by the variety within Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstruction) and in Islam (Sunni, Shiite, Sufi). There are, of course, people of faith who do not identify with any of the three Abrahamic religions. President Obama, who has shown such a deft touch in his comments about faith, made a jarring reference to "nonbelievers" in his inaugural message last month. There are rational and intelligent people who do not belong to any faith group -- but they believe in something, even if that "something" is the power of human reason.

Through it all, despite it all, God refuses to retire.

Terry Mattingly, author of one of the essays in "Blind Spot," indicates that editors and news managers need to hire reporters who take religion seriously or at least, as he put it, "be willing to learn the music." If reporters don't start doing this, he suggests, they will continue to miss a vast dimension of the story of humanity.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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