Looking back on the year in articles, a few themes emerge. First, evangelicals received a lot of press with respect to politics in general and the environment in particular. Second, atheism went on the offensive. Third, the conversation regarding the relationship between “Christ and Culture” continues.
Evangelicals, Politics, & the Environment
Much of the press on evangelicals and politics is (mis)informed by problematic assumptions and poor data. A refreshing exception this past year was Walter Russell Mead’s article God’s Country? Evangelicals and Foreign Policy published in Foreign Affairs. There are and will be quibbles over the article, but it is generally a smart and well-informed piece that avoids the common errors. The Pew Forum recognized the article by holding an event with Mead and respondents (read transcript). The Institute for Global Engagement also recognized the article by devoting an entire issue of the Review of Faith and International Affairs to responses to Mead’s article. (Those articles are not available on-line, but the Review may be found at your local Christian Study Center.)
Regarding Christians and the environment . . . the latest development is a collaboration between leading scientists and evangelicals, which can be found at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. There you will find a variety of resources in the form of pdf documents, including a concise (one page) “call to action” signed by folks like Cal DeWitt and E.O. Wilson, and a longer (20 page) transcript of the meeting. Students may also be interested to learn about the Evangelical Youth Climate Initiative. See, for example, the video Inconvenient Christians.
Meanwhile, across the pond, 100 persons from 20 European nations met in the European Parliament for the second congress of the European Christian Political Movement–a network of Christian organizations across Europe, including political parties, social service organizations, and think tanks. See also an excerpt from Jim Skillen’s remarks at the meeting.
Inspired in part by the perceived specter of theocracy, atheists published books more strident and “evangelistic” in tone. Given our interest in the “permanent things” that transcend the controversy du jour, we have largely avoided this topic. Alas, the “new atheism” emerges as one of the biggest “religion news” articles of the year. The conference Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival drew best-selling authors such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and received a lot of press (see, e.g., the NYT’s A Free-for-All on Science and Religion).
Harris and Dawkins have generally taken such a beating even in the secular press that we feel no need to weigh in at length. See, for example . . .
- H. Allen Orr, A Mission to Convert, New York Review of Books
- Sam Schulman, Without God, Gall is Permitted, Wall Street Journal
- Terry Eagleton, Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, London Review of Books
- Gary Wolf, The Church of the Non-Believers, Wired Magazine
Christians have had a field day critiquing and reacting to all of this. Some of the Christian reviews have been quite thoughtful–e.g., Marilynne Robinson’s piece in Harper’s Magazine, Hysterical Scientism. Unfortunately, many other reactions have been, well, reactionary. The problem is that when Christians enter into the culture war’s game of tit-for-tat, they lose sight of one very important point: Dawkins and Harris are not typical atheists. Many–perhaps most–of my friends are atheists (or agnostics). They are all (ok, almost all) quite ordinary persons. Just as Christians rightly complain when secularists take Jerry Falwell to be typical of religious believers, so too would it be wrong to take angry, strident atheists like Dawkins to be typical atheists. So, lighten up, and invite an atheist classmate or colleague to lunch. Ask them what they care about most, and they’ll probably talk about everyday things–their future or their family–i.e., the same things people talk about after church. Dawkins and Harris are selling enough books that they can’t be ignored, but don’t take them too seriously. (POSTSCRIPT: Alan Jacobs makes a similar point in his column The Know-Nothing Party: How should Christians respond to ill-informed attacks?)
For the record, there is nothing wrong with criticizing religion. Or, more accurately, nothing wrong with criticizing religions (generalizations about “religion” are almost impossible.) Christians ought to be the hardest critics of Christianity and ought to readily acknowledge all accurate criticisms of the tradition. That said, has anyone noticed that those who accuse religion in general and Christianity in particular as being the source of violence in history have no disciplinary training in history? Historians specialize in complexifying or “problematizing” our understanding of history, moving away from simplistic understandings to more nuanced understandings of the past. Hence the recent emphasis among social historians on race, class, and gender–i.e., including those who were left out of earlier accounts of history. The “New Atheists” (and, as many have pointed out, there’s really nothing particularly new here) provide historic narratives that are simplistic to the point of reductivist. Perhaps history should be left to the historians after all.
One of saner voices on the topic of science and religion that got some airtime this year was that of Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God. Collins was featured in a cover article in Time Magazine, Reconciling God and Science. Collins and Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich were also interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday.
Christ and Culture
G.K. Chesterton said he appreciated the invitation to speak at a conference on education since the topic was so broad that he could really speak on anything at all. The same might be said of “culture.” And so we mention two other notable and much-discussed articles that don’t fit anywhere else:Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, and Matthew B. Crawford’s essay in the New Atlantis, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”
More importantly, one of the brightest parts of the year in articles was the Christian Vision Project. It is hard to select favorites, but suffice it to say that with contributions from the likes of Tim Keller, Miroslav Volf, and Lauren Winner, among many others, there is plenty of good reading here.
A century from now, I suspect that religious historians will look back on this moment in time and focus not on the debate over science and religion, nor on evangelicals and politics, but on a story that gets very little mainstream press: the rapid spread of Christianity in the “global south”–Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This is the focus of the Christian Vision Project articles in 2007. There is no telling when the mainstream media may “get religion.”
If you enjoyed these articles, watch for more like them on the Articles and Reviews section of this site. With the help of students, 2006 was the first year we posted articles. We hope you enjoyed them. Please feel free to let us know if you have any comments or feedback on this section of the website.