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Texas Faith: Do we need a Steve Jobs of religion?


The following ran in the Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog on Jan. 4, 2012. Political scientist Matthew Wilson and theology professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.

January 10, 2012

By William McKenzie

In this New York Times essay, which panelist Cynthia Rigby sent along, author Eric Weiner talks about the rise of the Nones, those who polling data suggests are neither "true believers" nor "angry atheists." Nones have no religious affiliation, but that doesn't mean they are turning away from God, as Weiner writes.

The part of the piece that interested me most comes at the last. Weiner offers this provocative conclusion:

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs's creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

With that as the set-up, here's this week's question:

Do we need a Steve Jobs of religion, an innovative thinker who can "invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious?"

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Weiner's call for a "new way of being religious" seems driven in large part by a caricatured notion of the American religious landscape, in which people are either "Angry Atheists" or "True Believers." If this truly were the state of religion in America today, then perhaps a movement of innovation and renewal would be required. In reality, however, this characterization is a false dichotomy. While there are certainly angry voices on both sides of the faith divide -- and these voices are disproportionately featured in our national, media-driven conversation -- the great majority of Americans do not approach questions of faith with rage.

Speaking from personal experience in my own parish community, there is a lot more reaching out to families in need, encouragement of prayer and spiritual growth, and joyful worship than "judging and smiting." I am quite sure that my own church is hardly unique in this regard. Indeed, I suspect that Mr. Weiner would be hard-pressed to find a church where "smiting" anyone is high on the agenda.

Contrary to the assertion in his column, there is an enormous amount of "good religion" out there right now, in the churches that already exist. People of faith are significantly more generous than other Americans (see Arthur Brooks's Who Really Cares), as well as more engaged in the civic life of their communities (see Smidt et al.'s Pews, Prayers, and Participation). I know this doesn't square with the popular image of the believer as ranting, misanthropic fundamentalist, but we are dealing here in reality, not caricature.

This is not to say, however, that most existing religious organizations have jettisoned the notion of truth in the way that Weiner advocates. It is most ironic that in advocating this very post-modern approach to religion, he invokes G.K. Chesterton -- one of whose most famous works, Orthodoxy, is a defense of both the beauty and necessity of religious Truth.

In fact, the life and faith of Chesterton himself is testament to the fact that the way of being religious that Weiner so earnestly seeks -- one that is simultaneously joyful, intelligent, and kind -- does not require the invention of a religious Steve Jobs. On the contrary, it is already being practiced by millions of people in religious communities of various denominations. That their voices and perspectives are often drowned out by those of angry, contemptuous extremists in discussions of faith is no reason to doubt their existence.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins Theological Seminary, Southern Methodist University

Thanks to the character of the American culture and to the Constitution's First Amendment, we have not only the opportunity for some visionary religious leader to arise on the scene but also plenty of great experience with such persons. One could argue that, throughout the nation's history, such revolutionary leaders have emerged to reshape the religious landscape.

Methodists could point, for example, to Francis Asbury who fashioned a new organizational system for religious life in the nascent nation and to people like William Jennings Bryan to nourished the noble concept of Christian socialism early in the twentieth century.

There are plenty of others. Joseph Smith's angelic vision certainly gave rise to something new. But whether it was a new religion or a radically new reformulation of Christianity is still being debated. And Malcolm X contributed a new reformulation of Islam. And Aimee Semple MacPherson gave the land a whole new way for a woman to be a religious leader.

Today, one could argue that the religious life of American is populated with an abundance of entrepreneurs who are creating new visions of religion for those persons who claim "none." Joel Osteen offers one version. Brian McLaren offers another.

The challenge facing us is not how to arouse some new visionary to be a religious entrepreneur. It rather is to discern some way for distinguishing the creative ones from the benign ones and the deeply dangerous ones.

How does one measure whether such figures are offering what is true, noble, excellent, or worthy of praise (to paraphrase the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians)? Shall we count the number of followers that they have, or the amount of money they seem able to raise, or the frequency of their appearances on national television talk shows? Are these quantitative measurements the ones that matter in religious terms?

It is not that we need more religious visionaries. They will arise whether we need them or not. But the real question is how to determine which ones are decent and which ones are dangerous. It has been within the role of religious institutions to measure such things. But we have watched as too many of the religious institutions failed in that task. Clergy have absconded with money, have abused children, and have confused religious truth with political ideologies.

We live in religiously dangerous times. What we need is the capacity to identify the truly perilous leaders among us and distinguish them from the truly salutary ones....