The Secular Message of American Christianity

Michael Horton (Christless Christianity, p. 49ff) mentions sociologist Marsha Witten’s analysis of the secularization of American churches (All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism).  Ms. Witten recalls listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, when the mail arrived with a promotional flyer for a new church: “Why not get a LIFT instead of a letdown this Sunday?”

Witten uses this juxtaposition — St. Matthew Passion vs. the flyer — to frame the conclusions of her study.  As Horton summarizes:

While the former is fed by a rich sense of God’s majesty, holiness, and mercy, as well as the genuine struggle of faith, the latter is “optimistic, untroubled, purely mundane,” like any other advertisement for a product.  American Christianity today lives in this contradiction between “the spiritual and the psychological, the transcendent and the pragmatic.”

Horton goes on to distill the effects of secularization, in the context of modernity, on faith in America:

  1. Religion is privatized, its domain shrunk to the realm of private subjectivity.  “Jesus is alive” and “Jesus is Lord” are no longer public statements of truth, but rather self-realized descriptions of personal experience.  The gospel song says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart!” while “Is Jesus Lord?” becomes a question solely related to one’s personal discipleship.
  2. Once privatized, religion is relativized.  Truth is now your truth.  The objective and historical faith of traditional Christianity is suppressed in favor of the sovereign inner experience of the individual.
  3. As a result, religion is assimilated into the culture’s “pragmatic rationality of rules, steps, techniques, and programs for personal transformation and well-being.”

This focus on personal transformation robs from the church its role as witnesses (martyrs) to the majesty of God’s working throughout human history.  Instead, we try to sell Christianity based on how much a personal relationship with Jesus has improved our lives.  Rather than speaking of the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” we commend Christ to others as one who we have found to be personally meaningful in the face of life’s challenges.

Horton: “It is not secular humanists but we ourselves who are secularizing the faith by transforming its odd message into something less jarring to the American psyche.”

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