c. 2006 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) As if we could forget, Pope Benedict XVI’s comments about Islam have reminded us that religion enflames passion. His brief remarks quoting a 14th-century emperor who criticized Islam as fundamentally violent set off a series of protests in the Muslim world _ including church burnings and, perhaps, the murder of a Roman Catholic nun in Somalia.
At first, the fury of the Islamic response angered me. After all, there’s nothing like trying to prove your faith is nonviolent by engaging in violence. However, a less noticed religion story _ not about Islam, but Christianity _ made me pause and rethink my original response.
The story focused on Christian youth movements, especially a new documentary called “Jesus Camp.” The piece reported on both the film and a growing radicalization of Christian teens, including interviews with students comparing their own religious fervor to that of al-Qaida. The correspondent assured listeners that the future of Christianity will be more dogmatic, rigid, and intellectually narrow because of the revival in evangelical churches _ a resurgent crusader religion.
“Jesus Camp” already appears to be a challenging film. However, I worry that it will tempt viewers to stereotype an entire religious tradition on the basis of extreme pieties. Although they make for an interesting movie, movements like those depicted in “Jesus Camp” hardly represent the wide swath of American Christianity.
Yes, evangelical Christians are a large group _ making up roughly a third of the population. But they are not the only religious group in town.
Approximately 25 percent of Americans identify themselves as mainline Protestants, not evangelicals. For the last three years, I have spent a lot of time with these other Protestants as the director of a research project on mainline churches (Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian). These traditions do not garner much press (unless it is negative) and go about their business without fanfare. They exist as American Christianity’s quiet quarter. They may be quiet, but, as I discovered, they are anything but boring.
What I found is a religious awakening in the Protestant mainline, a new sort of spiritual vitality that is reinvigorating many old churches. It’s not the sort of revival depicted in “Jesus Camp.” Rather, mainline churches are reconnecting with ancient Christian spiritual practices of song, prayer, contemplation and theological reflection.
This revival focuses on hospitality, healing, forgiveness, diversity and justice. They are not interested in theocratic government, doctrinal uniformity, intelligent design or saving America through the GOP. They are interested, as Protestants have always been, in lives bathed in God’s grace and gentle goodness that make a difference through service to others. They’re on a pilgrimage, not a crusade; rather then slaying those they meet along the way, they reach out to fellow travelers.
I call this faith “Christianity for the Rest of Us,” those among us who are appalled by the extremist religion in the headlines. After studying this mainline renewal, I still have no idea how many people identify with it, but I know that the phenomenon of faithful-but-not-nasty Christianity is more widespread than imagined.
Mainstream Christianity, despite all premature reports of its demise, is alive and vital. I suspect many Americans will rejoice that Christianity really can be about love and hospitality, not fear and judgment. Christianity is not “Jesus Camp.”
And that brings me back to Muslims. In the media, we see only “Jesus Camp” Islam. What if most of Islam is more like mainline Christianity than it is like Jesus Camp? There must be hundreds of communities that practice the quiet faith of hospitality, prayer, healing and justice taught by the Prophet Muhammad.
Is there “Islam for the Rest of Us?” I certainly hope so. If there is, those of us who practice “the rest of us” sorts of religion need to get together. In dangerous times like these, our quiescence allows our crusading brothers and sisters to shape the world. The time is ripe for faithful pilgrims to put a stop to the violence.
KRE/JL END BASS
(Diana Butler Bass is the author of “Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith” (Harper, September 2006). She can be reached through her website, http://www.dianabutlerbass.com)
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