For The Someday Book

Book Review: Christianity After Religion

Posted on: March 15, 2014

Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass, HarperOne, 2012, 294 pp.

Christianity after ReligionThe ever-wise Diana Butler Bass continues her quest to root out the spiritual lives of contemporary Americans and the ways that local churches are helping, hurting, or just left out of them. Christianity After Religion unfolds the next chapter of the work she began in The Practicing Congregation (2004) and continued in Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006). Those books examined what was happening among mainline congregations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Christianity After Religion moves beyond what’s gone wrong and what’s going right in churches, and starts to posit what comes next after the rapid upheaval of the last several decades.

Bass describes a radical transformation underway in the practice of Christianity, triggered by a crisis in legitimacy. The crisis in legitimacy means that “large numbers of people question basic aspects of meaning and life.” (47) The basic questions–What do I believe? How should I act? Who am I?–are not being answered in a meaningful, satisfactory way by religion as it has been known and practiced. The compelling sense of believing, behaving and belonging has slowly eroded from contemporary Christianity. Bass traces the ways that believing, behaving and belonging have faded, leaving us with a faltering religion and the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” segregation.

While the decline and crisis of legitimacy have been unfolding for decades, the first dozen years of the 21st century have been especially brutal. Bass identifies this as the “horrible decade” with a precipitous decline in religious participation and a “religious recession.” She cites five triggers for this horrible decade:

  1. September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks: When religion was blamed for the attacks
  2. Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal: When religious leaders went from most trustworthy to least trustworthy professionals
  3. Protestant Conflict over Homosexuality: When Christians were mean to each other and especially mean to LGBT people
  4. Religious Right Win in 2004 Election, but Lose a Generation: The reelection of George W. Bush felt like a victory for the right, but it alienated an entire generation of young people who associated Christianity with ugly politics, power and exclusion
  5. Religious Recession: Studies document that only 20% of Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in “organized religion.” Participation declines rapidly. (76-83)

These have been the exact years of my ministry. I was ordained in the spring of 2001, and I have never known another decade of ministry. This is what it’s always been like. However, when you add it up like Bass does, it looks pretty bleak.

However, Bass is not bleak in her outlook. Not at all. Instead, she pronounces that this discontent is actually “a deeper longing for a better sort of Christianity.” (87)

What the world needs is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection–these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely. (96)

The root of religion is “religio,” to reconnect–to claim the “and” of faith and practice.

What I appreciate most about Bass in this book is that she doesn’t stop there. In fact, she’s just getting started. She begins to chart the course of the new Christianity that might emerge–what it will look like, how it will feel, what it will embody. She returns to each of the fundamental questions of believing, behaving and belonging and offers a perspective on how they will be redefined and how we can begin to engage that work. For the work of believing, she shifts the question from “What do I believe?” to “How do I believe?” and “Who do I believe?” Those changes make room to explore issues of authority, meaning and authenticity. The work of behaving shifts attention to practices of faith. While habit used to be sufficient, we must now return to bigger questions of “what” and “why” we engage in worship, prayer, service and other practices. Bass writes,

Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and what will be. Spiritual practices are living pictures of God’s intentions for a world of love and justice. (160)

Our attention to behaving must focus on intention (the practices that will intentionally give shape to my life in faith) and imitation (the practices that imitate Jesus and the saints). The work of belonging, then, is the fundamental work of identity. Who am I? Where am I? Who am I in God? Our sense of identity is in flux, moving away from old familial and geographic identifiers and toward a more fluid understanding that “I am my journey.” (178)  Our spiritual journey then becomes a sense of discovering who we are in God and through God, in relationship to God and one another.

After describing the new questions of believing, behaving and belonging, Bass proclaims that there needs to be a “great reversal.” For the last 500 years, since the Enlightenment and Reformation, we have put belief first in the order of faith, followed by behaving and then belonging. It is time to return to the original order: belong, behave, believe. First we belong to a community, then we take on the practices of faith. The sense of belonging (identity) and behaving (practicing) are what evoke believing. (203-204) The final section of the book outlines this transformation as a Fourth Great Awakening, and draws some of the outlines taking shape.

Christianity After Religion is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve read dozens of books about the decline of the church, the need for transformation, the causes of the collapse and what we should be doing about it. None of them compare to the depth of insight, wisdom, description and prescription found here. I finished reading it about six weeks ago, and I’m already feeling the need to read it again. It is a book to study, revisit and use as a lens for seeing contemporary ministry and religious life. I think every religious leader should be reading this book, talking about it, and finding ways to interact with it in their ministry. This book contains what may seem like depressing information about the demise of religious life as we’ve known it in our lifetimes. But it rings with hope at every page. There will be death, to be sure–but God holds out the promise for a resurrection, more beautiful and brilliant that we could have imagined. Thank you, Diana Butler Bass, for helping to roll away the stone.

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1 Response to "Book Review: Christianity After Religion"

[…] Strout’s prose was beautiful from beginning to end, but there was one section I want to record, because it speaks to my professional life (and to a couple of the books I just reviewed here and here). […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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