God Is Back

POSTED BY: holzapfel

05/27/09


god-is-back-book-depth_small2For the past two hundred years, European thinkers such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber believed that religion was doomed and that God was dead. However, history always seems to surprise us. Few political leaders and academics in the past would have guessed that people of faith and their institutions would play such an important role in the world today. Even the events of September 11, 2001, demonstrate that what is taught in a religious school in Saudi Arabia is important to understand no matter where you live. Additionally, the 2008 US presidential election revealed that religious beliefs are still very important even though the American Constitution requires no religious test for those seeking office (Article VI, section 3 states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”).

One of the latest efforts to understand how and why faith is rebounding in the face of pervasive and profound secularism is John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009). Of interest, Latter-day Saints are mentioned on several occasions (see pp. 18, 19, 65, 115, 124, 229, 233, 350, 357, 371).

The authors describe their efforts as a “long journey” and add, “No doubt [this book’s] overall message will depress many secularists; at times it has depressed us too. Some terrible things have already happened in this century in God’s name. More are undoubtedly on the way.” They conclude, “Unevenly and gradually, religion is becoming a matter of choice—something that individuals decide or believe in (or not)” (372). This model, where choice plays a central role in the decision to believe or not believe, is thoroughly American. Hence, the wave of the future is the American model, in which there is no established state church and people decide on their own what they will believe.

  • The book offers many surprising insights, including:
    “By 2050, China could well be the world’s biggest Muslim nation as well as its biggest Christian one” (5).
  • “Many older conflicts have acquired a religious edge. The poisonous sixty-year war over Palestine began as a largely secular affair. . . . Nowadays, in the era of Hamas, Jewish settlers and Christian Zionists, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has become a much more polarized, sectarian battle, with ever more people claiming that God is on their side” (13).
  • “One poll in 2006—fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet regime—discovered the 84 percent of the Russian population believed in God while only 16 percent considered themselves atheist” (13).
  • “Most [statistics] seem to indicate that the global drift toward secularism has been halted, and quite a few show religion to be on the increase. One estimate suggests that the proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005 and may reach 80 percent by 2050″ (16). However you look at it, faith is more likely to impinge on you than it once did, either because it is part of your life or because it is part of the lives of some of those around you—neighbors, colleagues at work, even your rulers or people seeking to topple them” (24).
  • “The most thorough study of American religious beliefs . . . demonstrates clearly that the world’s most powerful country is one of the most religious. More than nine in ten Americans (92 percent) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit” (131).
  • “Social scientists have produced a mountain of evidence that religion is good for you. . . . Daniel Hall, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has discovered that weekly church attendance can add two to three years to your life, . . . [resulting in] ‘a substantially longer life expectancy’” (146).
  • “Religion also seems to be correlated with happiness. One of the most striking results of Pew’s regular survey is that Americans who attend religious services once or more a week are happier (43 percent very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31 percent) are seldom or never (26 percent)” (147).
  • “Religion can combat bad behavior as well as promote well-being” (147).
  • “Religion seems to provide social bonds. . . . Churches offer a safe place where people can get to know each other and pool information and expertise. They put people with problems in contact with people with solutions” (148–49).

In the end, the authors remind us how wrong past experts have been about God and religion, including Peter Berger, who assured the New York Times in 1968 that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture” (52).


Peace and Quiet

POSTED BY: holzapfel

05/18/09


one-square-inch-silence-w-depth_small1Recently, I visited Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. Powell’s is one of the remarkable independent booksellers in the United States, reportedly the largest seller of new and used books in the world, covering an entire city block and featuring more than one million titles.

As I wandered this famous landmark, I noticed in the author-autographed section Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (New York: Free Press, 2009). The title intrigued me because of my interest in the subject (see my November 3, 2008, posting, “Solitude, Silence, and Darkness“), and I quickly added it to my armful of books. Hempton is an award-winning sound recorder who lives in Port Angeles, Washington, near Olympic National Park—the site of “one square inch” whose sounds and silence he has recorded.

This book tells the story of his epic road trip across the United States to record the natural landscape of America. He filled his 1964 VW van with a decibel-measuring sound meter and recording equipment before starting out for the East Coast. It is difficult to escape the noise of the modern world, as Hempton demonstrates. Even in some of the quietest places in America—our national parks—airplanes break the silence or modern labor-saving devices used by the park’s employees themselves sometimes disturb both humans and animals present.

When he finally arrived in Washington DC, where he met with federal officials to advocate legislation that would preserve natural silence in national parks, he had recorded the sounds, images, and word pictures of some amazing places, including some of the backcountry in Utah (121–56). The book features a CD preserving those sounds.

Certainly, we face noise pollution today. We have to turn the TV, radio, or iPod off if we are to get some peace and quiet. As Hempton notes, “The words peace and quiet are all but synonymous, and are often spoken in the same breath” (12).

Hempton notes the benefits of a quiet, natural place. He suggests that “good things come from a quiet place: study, prayer, music, transformation, worship, communion” (12). He argues that “if we turn a deaf ear to the issue of vanishing natural quiet,” we lose something precious, something irreplaceable (3). He notes, “It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the sounds of the natural environment” (2).

In an interesting insight, Hempton observes, “Wildlife depend on their sense of hearing to detect the approach of predators and will not remain very long in places where it is difficult to hear” (20). Interestingly, he opines, “Only hearing can monitor every direction at once, even foretelling what may lie around the corner” (56). I could not help but wonder if humans struggle to hear the voice of the Spirit, which could warn them of unseen dangers or what lies around the corner, because of the increasing levels of noise that so often seek to distract us from more lofty and noble thoughts and actions. Maybe we do not enjoy such experiences often enough—the natural silence and sounds required to attune our ears to a heavenly voice. Increasingly, competing voices and sounds seek to fill our ears with advice and sounds that keep us away from the things of the Spirit. These voices and sounds are not only seeking to capture our attention; they want to capture our hearts as well.

The Psalmist said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). A timeless truth from the past—it was good advice then and is good advice now.


“The Stones Would Immediately Cry Out”

POSTED BY: holzapfel

05/07/09


When Jesus came to Jerusalem on what would be his last visit, he walked from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. As he did so, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Luke adds, “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).

Stones are everywhere in this rugged land. Not only do people see them everywhere; they walk on them and visit places made out of stone, such as the Garden Tomb or the rock-hewn tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the bedrock where Abraham offered Isaac, now covered by the Dome of the Rock; the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (part of the altar in the Church of All Nations); and the massive Herodian retaining wall of the Temple Mount. I returned this past week from a visit to Jerusalem. Sometimes church bells, the call of the muezzin, and the Jewish Sabbath siren capture our attention—competing sounds floating through the air. But the real story is in the stones.

On my flight to Jerusalem, I read Simon Goldhill’s latest book, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). It helped me in my visit, providing some insights that allowed me to tie together a mass of information and years of experiences in Jerusalem. As I thought about the people I met (guides, tourists, cab drivers, and a host of other people), I realized how often most of us want to see the stories about Jerusalem as “black and white.” However, as Goldhill proves in this well-written narrative, “the city has to be viewed from multiple perspectives if it is to be appreciated” (viii), and the stories are “much more complicated and much more interesting than the stereotypes” (ix).

Instead of producing a chronological storyline, the author provides a look at different places (most associated with rock or stone) connected to pivotal points in the story of Jerusalem. As he tells his story, Goldhill provides some of the “competing narratives” (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) providing their own black-and-white versions of the events (282). He adroitly concludes, “The tensions between the three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] are intently aimed at the holy places, their possession, their guardianship, their symbolic value” (47). In a very real sense, guardianship of each site allows each group to share its own validating narrative.

Goldhill concludes, “Jerusalem has a strange relation to stone” (224). He notes that even “the archaeologists try to make [them] speak” (225). Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is “the inevitable disappointment of the lost, the fragmentary, the unknowable and shattered past” when relying upon archaeology (225).

Not everyone will agree with the sites and stories Goldhill decided to include, but readers will discover that he “tried to tell this story in as simple and as neutral a way as possible” (281). Whether you have visited Jerusalem in the past, plan to visit Jerusalem in the future, or are only interested in Jerusalem, this book is worth a visit—providing a nuanced approach to a complex city. He concludes, “To be in Jerusalem is always to wander in a city of longing, as one seeks to find one’s own place in the layers of history, imagination, belief, desire, and conflict that make Jerusalem what it is” (332).