Crimes and Misdemeanors 

Barna Reviews Top Religious Trends of 2005 
Saturday, January 7, 2006, 09:18 PM - General
The Barna Group--named for its founder/director, George Barna--is a well-regarded organization that, among other things, does research designed to be of practical aid to Christian churches. It recently issued a report on the top religious trends of 2005. The report identified four church-related trends: 1) "most local churches essentially ignore three critical spiritual dimensions: ministry to children, ministry to families and prayer;" 2) "congregations are rapidly incorporating new technologies into their activities;" 3) a "slow demise of the African-American church community;" and 4) a "changing of the guard among the leaders of the leaders," e.g., from Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. "Pastors Warren and Jakes are at the forefront of a new class of faith leaders whose message and media skills reflect the changing cultural environment in which they minister."

Barna also highlighted four individual-related shifts: 1) "the energizing of evangelicals," a group that comprises only 7 percent of American adults but gets a disproportionate share of media attention. This group tends to be the "most active in evangelism, most likely to read the Bible, to pray, to attend church services, to volunteer at a church, and to engage in a small group during the week, and give away almost three times as much money as do other Americans." 2) an alarming epidemic of "biblical illiteracy" among most Christians; 3) the emergence of a group he dubs "Revolutionaries" who have become frustrated with traditional churches and have "crafted entirely new spiritual environments that draw them closer to God and other believers, without the help of a conventional church. There are well over 20 million adults who are pursuing a Revolutionary faith that is reminiscent of the early Church. They are meeting in homes, at work, in public places – wherever they can connect and share their mutual love for Christ and pursue their desire to be obedient servants of God." 4) the "faith trajectory" of people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are "leaders in the pursuit of new models of faith experience and expression, such as house churches, cyberchurches and marketplace experiences. They are the most prolific practitioners of newer forms of evangelistic outreach, such as Socratic evangelism. They are pioneering language that bridges the gap between postmodern cultural imperatives and first-century biblical principles."

Rome of the West 
Thursday, December 15, 2005, 07:15 PM - Blogosphere

Rome of the West, explains its author, Mark Scott Abeln, "is a web log about Catholicism in Saint Louis, Missouri, which was called the 'Rome of the West'. Topics of interest are the historical Catholic patrimony of our City, the restoration of Catholic culture, manners, and morals, increasing public and private piety, and fostering interest in the fine liturgical arts." Although Mark's profile photo shows him casually clad in a short-sleeve plaid shirt, I never visit the site without feeling that I ought to be wearing a suit and tie. Actually, that's not quite correct. I never visit the site without feeling that I ought to drive to the nearest priest, repent my Protestant background and the whole sad episode of the Reformation, and convert to Catholicism.

One of the best things about the blogosphere is the chance it affords to encounter people and perspectives one would not ordinarily run across. I have known my share of renegade Catholics, recovering Catholics, evangelical Catholics, and Catholics who are Catholics simply because that's how they were raised. But I have seldom encountered a lay Catholic who is one might call "high Catholic;" which is to say, someone for whom the hierarchy, traditions, and liturgy of the Church really resonate. I do not suggest that such people are rare, merely that they're rare in the circles in which I have found myself.

Rome of the West reflects and explains this form of Catholicism with a seriousness rarely found in the blogosphere, where prose styles tend to be off-the-cuff and breezy. All spiritually-oriented blogs are a form of worship. It takes time to create and sustain a blog, particularly if one posts frequently, time is a valuable commodity, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. But until RW I hadn't encountered a religious blog where this thought had occurred to me so forcefully.

Mark has been faithfully plugging away at RW since his first post just over a year ago. Some of his posts deal with societal culture, others with the history of Catholicism in Missouri, especially the Saint Louis area, while still others knowledgeably discuss matters of doctrine and liturgy. All these have some appeal for me except the commentaries on societal culture; these tend to be heavily didactic, full of sweeping generalizations, and somewhat off-putting. But the posts I enjoy the most are those on area churches: their architecture, gardens, shrines, stained glass windows. These are copiuously illustrated with well composed, often compellingly beautiful photos. Mark explicitly believes that material culture carries a wealth of embedded meaning and that consequently, the architecture, grounds, and decor of a Catholic church are intrinsically part of their parishioners' spiritual education. For examples, see:

Shrine of Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne

Photos of Old Saint Ferdinand's Shrine in Florissant, Missouri

Photos of the Church of the Holy Martyrs of Japan, in Japan, Missouri (Interestingly, this was posted on December 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, and for good reason--have a look.)

Rome of the West is a Multicellular Microorganism in the TTLB blogosphere ecosystem, with a link score of 8 and an average of 43 hits/day. That's decidedly modest, just one evolutionary step above the Insignificant Microbe that is Radical Civility. Hopefully its status as a finalist for Best Religious Blog will propel more traffic to the site. RW deserves it.
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Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank 
Wednesday, December 14, 2005, 10:46 PM - Blogosphere

Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank is a group blog that supports Generous Orthodoxy, a network aimed at "Renewing the Center: Beyond Theological Liberalism and Conservatism." GO's main page is given over entirely to a set of epigrams suggestive of its task. Perhaps the most salient of these is one from Hans Frei:
My own vision of what might be propitious for our day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into schools of thought, is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism—a voice like the Christian Century—and an element of evangelicalism—the voice of Christianity Today. I don't know if there is a voice between those two, as a matter of fact. If there is, I would like to pursue it.
The site's introduction page goes on to explain that GO "represents the perspectives of those who are variously called progressive evangelicals, postconservative evangelicals, post-evangelicals, younger evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, and/or left evangelicals"--or to put it another way, Christians who adhere to the evangelical tradition but are uncomfortable with the politics and dogma of the Religious Right.

This feeling is not uncommon among evangelicals. Dave Tomlinson captures it poignantly in the introduction to The Post Evangelical (1995; rpt. Zondervan, 2003):
Most of those who contemplate the possibilities of being "post"-evangelical do so because of a difficulty they find in reconciling what they see and experience in evangelicalism with their personal values, instinctive reactions and theological reflections. For some people the agony created by this conflict is very considerable. . . . One young man, who had grown up in an evangelical home, spoke with pain about the dilemma: "I don't know where to go. I no longer feel I can call myself an evangelical, yet don't wish to be a liberal. What am I?" Other people are more nonchalant about it, like the young woman who told me: "Evangelicalism helped me to begin with, but I feel I've outgrown it now." Arrogant? Possibly, yet she was voicing something which cropped up continually in my discussions with people: the feeling that evangelicalism is supremely good at introducing people to faith in Christ, but distinctly unhelpful when it comes to the matter of progressing into a more "grown up" experience of faith.

What do they mean by "grown up"? Lots of things, but I will just mention the one which is cited most often: the desire to interact on a more positive level with theologies and perspectives which do not come from an evangelical source.

The feeling people have is that such perspectives are only ever mentioned in evangelical circles in order to be promptly dismissed as rubbish or as a disgraceful compromise. "I have suffered twenty years of religious and theological censorship," one person exclaimed. "I have been warned about this and told to keep away from that. I've had enough of it. It's time for me to make up my own mind." (2-3)
Although some people who feel this way simply reject the evangelical tradition, Tonlinson continues, many find that "when the chips are down, [they] quite often discover that their evangelical background still counts for something." (5) The solution, he and others believe, is not to walk away from evangelicalism but rather to reinvent it: "To be post-evangelical is to take as given many of the assumptions of evangelical faith, while at the same time moving beyond its perceived limitations." (7)

That will do for a start, but it's still pretty nebulous. Puzzling out the specifics of post- or progressive evangelicalism is a project that has been underway in patches of the evangelical community for well over a decade. (The Emergent movement seems to be a hub for this activity.) The purpose of Generous Orthodoxy is to facilitate the process: "We are here to provide networking, resources, and information for progressive evangelicals and interested onlookers. . . . Our desire is to help foster a sense of connectedness among progressive evangelicals in the U.S. and throughout the world."

GO ThinkTank, for its part, "is a collaborative blog that is authored by progressive evangelicals in the academy. The goal of ThinkTank is to share resources and foster critical reflection upon the Christian tradition and the wider culture." A lot of intellectual firepower has been mobilized to carry out this mission: I counted 37 contributors listed on the masthead. Most seem to be seminary faculty and students, but the list includes at least one philosopher and one anthropologist.

Though registered only in July 2005, already has a hefty number of posts, most of them discursive and of unusually high quality. For an introduction to ThinkTank's concerns, try two early posts: Two Types of "P" Evangelicals and Post-Conservative Evangelicalism: An Update After a Decade.

The posts on ThinkTank tend to be fairly long and often require you to read even longer posts and essays elsewhere. It's time-consuming but worthwhile for someone like me, who pretty much fits Tomlinson's portrait of an alienated evangelical. I wonder how meaningful it would be to Eric Williams (Ales Rarus) or Laura Curtis (Pursuing Holiness), who seem quite comfortable with their faith traditions.

ThinkTank is already a Slithering Reptile in the TTLB Ecosystem, and credited with sixty links.

Make that sixty-one.
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Ales Rarus 
Tuesday, December 13, 2005, 05:18 PM - Blogosphere

Ales Rarus is the creation of Eric Williams, a 28-year old graduate student in artificial intelligence at the University of Pittsburgh. The phrase is Latin and means "rare bird," more or less. (See Eric's explanation for details.) Latin, indeed, crops up all over the blog. A permalink is "nexus"; the comments link inquires "Habetne nemo opinionem?" until a comment is received. Then it reads "Vox, sola in eremo, annotatit" until the second comment, after which it exults, "Accolae enuntiant." This is either charming or deeply weird. I think it's charming.

Eric himself goes by the nom de blog of Funky Dung, a reference to an obscure Pink Floyd song, and henceforth I'll use Funky Dung as his preferred form of address.

Funky Dung has one of the most complete introductory pages I've seen. And he has something I don't think I've ever seen: a statement of faith. That's completely in keeping with Funky Dung's rationale for blogging: "to "teach in order to lead others to faith" by being always "on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers . . . or to the faithful" through the "use of the communications media." He's been at it now over well over three years.

Although Funky Dung purchased only in July 2004, he had been blogging regularly on a predecessor site since his first post in April 2002. Most new bloggers, unsurprisingly, have an interest in the phenomenon of blogging, and one of his earliest posts dealt with Blog Ethics. Most of his early posts are of the "filter" variety; i.e., here's a-link-and-here-in-a-sentence-is-what-I think-of-it. Such posts can make for pleasant reading if you follow a blog on a regular basis, but you can't dive into the archives, as I've done, and get much out of it. Maybe few others did, either. I notice that in the first year most posts are followed by a forlorn "Habetne nemo opinionem?" (Though to be sure, some of them do in fact contain comments. Go figure.)

Since Ales Rarus is now a Large Mammal in the TTLB ecosystem, with a link score of 242 and 188 hits/day, plainly Funky Dung has developed a following. But exactly when and why that occurred is hard to reconstruct. My sense is that it probably began when Funky Dung began to blend more discursive essays along with the filter posts, for he turns out to be a very capable lay apologist for Catholicism. That, at at any rate, is the quality that most appeals to me about his blog and the principal reason I've transferred Ales Rarus to my blogroll. As a sample, see The Church in the Modern World. There's also this interesting recent comment on a key difference between the most venerable Christian churches and their Protestant, especially evangelical, counterparts:
Churches of sufficient high-ness, e.g., Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and (occasionally and in spite of their struggles) Anglican, see themselves as the One, the Holy, the Catholic, and the Apostolic church advertised in the Creed. Such churches see themselves as occupying uniquely, not merely notionally (as in a agnostic sense) but actually, the place of Ark of Salvation for the entire world. (Parenthetically, this is the "elephant in the room" in ecumenical engagement between Protestants and Catholics. They can find mutual agreement in many things, but this audacious view the Catholic Church has of itself ultimately destabilizes any mutual accord.. . .)

Thus, such Churches consist in not merely the delivery of God's Word to the world, which the [Protestant evangelical] megachurches sometimes do very well, but in the delivery of the Sacraments, i.e., objective, physical marks of grace normatively necessary for eternal salvation, to the Faithful. This latter ecclesial definition was watered down slightly by Luther in his reformation, watered down considerably more by Calvin's, and is rejected out of hand by the heirs of the Anabaptists, which today include nearly all "megachurches" and all their (smaller) fellow Low Church Evangelical Megachurch- Wannabes.
In addition to his blog, Funky Dung has been energetic in the Catholic sector of the blogosphere from a technical standpoint: He hosts, for example, the St. Blogs Parish aggregator. It's still a work in progress and not immune from tampering: When I tried it, the first thing I saw was a long list of links like this one: http:// - www.- sexual - relations. - info/index2530. - html (hyphens added), which in turn led to a porn site. (Indeed, I imagine they all did.)

Funky Dung also has the distinction of being the first blogger, among a number who have back-tracked to this site, to leave a comment. Actually two comments, the second of which asked me to email after I'd written up my reconnaissance of Ales Rarus. So off I go to do so.
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