A High Church Prayer of the Day for Low Church Readers

Today I present a formal prayer for all of you out there who are informal in your spiritual life. In fact, this day, December 28, 2012, seems to be a good day to consider how church tradition can aid spiritual life.

Let me explain.

Most evangelicals (though not all) are what we sometimes refer to as “non-liturgical” or “low church.”  This means, among other things, that they are more informal in their worship practices, avoid “rituals,” and do not follow the historic church calendar (with the exception of recognizing Christmas and Easter in some way).  This stems from practices advanced by some Protestants during the Reformation who believed that high church traditions and rituals encouraged a works-based theology and made worship something based on outward actions rather than inward matters of the heart.  Calvinists, Pietists, Mennonites, and Quakers moved in this low church direction while Lutherans and Anglicans/Episcopalians tended to maintain liturgical forms of worship.  (Evangelicalism was born from a blend of Calvinist, Pietist and Methodist impulses).

But let me, as a member of a non-liturgical church (Evangelical Friends) put in a word for the high church tradition.  First, we should remember that while it is true that liturgical practices can become empty routines, the same can be said for low church spirituality.  Second, there are riches to be found in the traditions of Christianity.  Following a church calendar, for instance, can focus our attention on biblical passages that we might otherwise pass over rather quickly.  And reciting formal prayers, written by those schooled in solid theology, can help us articulate matters that we have difficulty expressing on our own.

That brings us to today.  Those Christians who follow a high church calendar mark December 28 as a day to remember the children of Bethlehem whom Herod killed in his deranged passion to eliminate Jesus Christ.  In light of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, it seems especially fitting that we reflect on this event from Matthew 2.

To my recollection, I have only come across one evangelical church that has incorporated this event into their Christmas season.  This church was the Kijabe African Inland Church in Kenya, which included Herod’s slaughter in the Christmas play that their children performed.  That sight of Kikuyu Christian children acting out a slaughter of the boys in Bethlehem suddenly struck me as odd, not because they had included it in their Christmas play, but because I had never seen any other Bible-believing evangelicals in the United States include it.  For whatever reason, most American evangelicals would rather avoid this story at Christmas.  It is, after all, a painful story to recount in a season that we associate with joy, peace and happiness.  And it is difficult to know how to incorporate tragedies such as this in a context of worship.

And here is where church tradition helps us.  By turning our attention to a passage that we are inclined to skip over, and by articulating a prayer that is difficult to express on our own, we can participate in the work of the Kingdom of God in a way that we might otherwise miss.

Even though the birth of Christ brings peace on earth, we still live in a deeply fallen world.  Sometimes, as the Newtown tragedy and Herod’s rage demonstrates, those two realities appear shockingly close together.  So, as we pray for the families in Connecticut who are enduring a very difficult Christmas season, let us also consider the difficulties that beset this world and the source of hope for its redemption.

The version of the following traditional prayer comes from a devotional work by Phyllis Tickle entitled The Divine Hours:  Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod.  Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and resigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. 

Is the United States Secularizing?

There has been a fair amount of press about a study released in October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  That study has found that the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated in the United States is almost 20%, up from 16% just five years ago and up from 7% in 1972.

Does this mean that the United States is get more secular?

Maybe, maybe not.  It depends on what you mean by “secular.”  And we still need more data.  (Academics talk this way sometimes.  I’m an academic.  Sorry about that).

At first glance, the poll seems to be a straight-forward indicate that the percentage of non-religious Americans is steadily growing, and with that trend, Christians are shrinking in size.

But we have to qualify this assessment.

It is important to note that the poll is based on how Americans identify themselves.  This is important because all through American history, there have been sizeable numbers of Americans who identified themselves as Christians, but actually did not behave in any way that would indicate they were people of regular religious commitments.  In the 1950s, for instance, a decade that many consider to be a religious era, many Americans identified themselves as Christians but never or rarely attended church.    In one poll from the 1950s, six out of seven Americans said they believed the Bible was divinely inspired word of God, but over half could not name even one of the four gospels of the New Testament. So it goes for every other era in American history, all the way back to the colonial era.  I can give you evidence from every decade since 1610 showing have a sizable number of Americans who rarely, if ever, attended church.  Regular church attendance may never have exceeded 40% in American history and probably was at about 30% in the years before the Civil War, a level that is pretty close to what it is today.

This should not surprise evangelicals who reflect on this matter.  Evangelicals (as well as many other Christian groups) historically have understood Christianity to involve much more than simply declaring that one is a Christian.  Commitment, discipleship, and a transforming encounter with Christ matter.  That is why American evangelicals have always evangelized other Americans who call themselves Christian.

The Pew study, then, may simply indicate that Americans who never attend church or display any other sort of faith commitment are much more likely to call themselves religiously unaffiliated.  They used to call themselves Christian.  So the recent trend may simply be a more honest assessment of a dynamic that has always existed.

There is one part of the poll that requires more careful consideration, though.  The percentage of religiously unaffiliated is highest (32%) among those who are under the age of thirty.

This might mean that we will have a higher number of Americans who are secular in upcoming years.  What we do know is that younger people today (including those who profess Christianity) have much weaker to institutions of any kind.  They are far more individualistic than older Americans and are much less likely to make long-term commitments.  They pose a very real challenge to the church.

And yet, we also don’t know exactly how these trends will play out as these young adults get older.  Just because they are religiously unaffiliated now does not necessarily mean they will be religiously unaffiliated in the future, though it might.  Marriages among Americans in their 20s are dropping (another indication of their individualism and reluctance to commit to institutions) but many of these young people fully intend to get married (and do get married) as they get older and “settle down.”   Will they also be more likely to make commitments to religious institutions?

We will have to see.

Christmas gift ideas: history books!

This would seem like a great time of the year to recommend history books for you to consider for Christmas gifts.  But this is also a great time of the year for me to be up to my gills in papers and exams that I need to grade.   So for now, I’m just going to make a quick post that directs you to two fine Christian historians, Thomas Kidd and John Fea, to read their recommendations.

You can read Kidd’s recommendations here.   Fea’s recommendations are here.

Oh, and you really ought to read books that each has written about the role of religion and the founding of the United States:  Thomas Kidd,  God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010) and John Fea, Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).






The Real St. Nicholas Had Guts

Cheery Christmas message for the day:   the real St. Nicholas might actually intimidate and unsettle most of us.  I don’t mean intimidate and unsettle in the way many of us were when we were five years old and found ourselves in an department store sitting on the lap of a strange man in a red suit with a fake cotton beard who was asking us questions about toys.  Yes, that was kind of intimidating and unsettling to many young ones.  I mean intimidate and unsettle in a way that shakes us into asking hard questions about what it means to be a person of deep Christian faith.  Intimidated and unsettled in a good way.


Jolly old St. Nicholas….?

Peter Enns calls St. Nicholas a beast.  I won’t tell you more here, because his  post is so good you need to read it for yourself.  You should check out what he has to say about St. Nick and ask yourself if maybe it might be helpful to get shaken a bit this Christmas.







Understanding Your Ethical Conviction that Slavery is Wrong

If you want to better understand how all of us came to hold the conviction that slavery is wrong, you might consider the following claim:

“The abolition of New World slavery depended on large measure on a major transformation in moral perception—on the emergence of writers, speakers, and reformers, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, who were willing to condemn an institution that had been sanctioned for thousands of years and who also strove endlessly to make human society something more than an endless contest of greed and power.

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage, p. 1.


That is quite a claim, when one thinks about it.  How often do unjust institutions get struck down, particularly if those institutions have existed for all of human history and could be found in every region of the world?

I am a historian, so I will give you an authoritative answer:  not often.

For many reasons, then, I think we would all benefit from greater understanding of this historical development.  And so, as a little post-game wrap up to my contest between James Bond and Samuel Sharpe, I’d like to recommend a book.  Like millions of others, you can entertain yourself by watching the new James Bond movie, which is fine, but you should also consider the riches of a historical work that deepens your understanding of the world and how it works.

The book, by David Brion Davis, is Inhuman Bondage:  The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.  After a career of extensive and thoughtful study of slavery, Davis wrote this book to explain how slavery came to dominate the Americas and then how it was eventually abolished.  The story is complicated, but Davis condenses a mountain of historical scholarship into a quite readable form, which is one of the reasons that it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Part of the reason why I find this story compelling is because I believe that the hand of God was behind the abolition of slavery.  Davis does not mention the hand of God in the book.  I do not know what Davis’ religious convictions are and I am guessing that he would not agree with my claim that I can see God at work.  As a rule, academic historians do not try to determine if God is at work in history.  Academic historians do give careful consideration to the human forces that lead to historical change and Davis, who is an excellent historian, does that quite well.

I plan to discuss more of this later.  For now, I would think you might find it interesting to read this book with a couple of questions in mind:  was God at work in this movement?  And if so, how?

Oh, and if you are ever in Jamaica, ask your van driver to tell you about Samuel Sharpe.  I am sure that he or she would be very pleased to tell you about him.