Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Americans Really Believe by Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark is known for sacrificing a lot of sacred cows when it comes to beliefs about religion and especially Christianity. In his previous books he has used reasoned statistical analysis to make a case that Christianity didn’t become huge because of Constantine’s conversion and subsequent legalization, but rather through normal evangelism through urban social networks in the Near East and Mediterranean, it grew to a formidable size all on its own and became the dominant religion of the people. He has also offered a strong case apart from supernaturalism that Monotheism and Christianity in particular are the true forces behind the rise of Western Civilization because they both led to a rationally progressive mindset coupled with values such as industry and justice. In What Americans Really Believe, Stark derives his insights from the Baylor University Survey of Religion, the last serious study (2005) that has been done in decades. And as in his other books, Rodney Stark once again ‘debunks’ some widely held beliefs about the Church and Christianity in America. Here’s a quick survey:

  1. Churches are not declining just liberal ones.
  2. More people attend Church today than they ever did at any point in American history.
  3. Americans find churches that require high levels of commitment in their membership the most attractive.
  4. Atheism is not really growing in America just media attention to Atheist authors.
  5. Megachurches do foster high commitment and personal relationships.
  6. Church attendance and religious commitment give women and particularly their daughters far more options in society than feminism does.
  7. College educated skeptics are statistically more inclined to believe in UFO’s and the Lochness monster than those who attend church.
  8. Evangelicals are not on the move to take over America politically. They are less likely to be involved in political activities than liberals or even non-religious people.

Obviously much more is covered in the book and some issues are completely neglected, but all in all some much needed and helpful information. In a period of waning economic fortune, it’s good to see the outlook for the church as an American institution is in much better shape than we previously thought.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Lesson from American Idol

I used to be mildly embarrassed to admit it, but now that American Idol’s fastest growing viewing demographic is people my age, I guess it is safe to come out of the closet and say I like the show. Come to think of it, it was my generation that cut it’s teeth on Ed Sullivan and The Gong Show and so perhaps it is a more natural fit than I realized. I like American Idol for a lot of reasons, but more than anything else I love the show because of judge Simon Cowell. I know that Simon is the producer of the program and partly famous for being the caustic and smug brit that we expect him to be, but he is extremely nuanced in his understanding and feel for performance and the music business and usually tells the truth we overly nice Americans won’t say. Remember, we’re the people who tells little Johnny “he can be anything he wants to be if he works hard at it” or “everyone is a winner at our grade school”. Or you’ve got the public school teacher telling the parents “Johnny is showing real promise in this area” because they’ve already done 13 parent-teacher conferences today and they don’t have the energy to tell his parents he should probably join the Navy and learn a trade because he’s not university material. I find Simon’s unvarnished truth at times very refreshing. If a performance was bad, he will call it an unmitigated disaster or not worthy of a karaoke night at a low-end club in Reno. The three other judges in the competition will criticize but usually with too much tact and generosity and hence the performer is not moved to tears like they are when they get Simon’s approval which is obviously more meaningful because it means something. I think there is something from American Idol we all ought to learn and that is our young people need to be told the truth with regards to their talents and aptitudes. Life is way too precious to waste pursuing that for which we have no talent and it is an act of love to steer a young person in the way he/she should go. It’s okay to have a childhood dream but if every boy in my neighborhood had lived out his dreams there would have been hundreds of baseball players and no doctors, teachers, musicians, or even baseball watchers to fill the bleachers. It takes all of us to make the world go around. God makes all of us for a certain purpose and destiny. Your destiny will be confirmed by your abilities and affirmed by people other than yourself. Listen to them and be glad even if they sound a bit like Simon at the time.