A Book Worth Reading



     Over the years, I’ve kept a lengthy page on the wall of my study to record the steady drop of the men women and children who participate in the United Church of Canada. As most of you know, it has declined each year since the late 1960s. It now seems that the church headquarters — fine people that they are — are not inclined to provide the information it provided in the past. In any case, I’ve retained the essays of my past. Hence I quote a brief opening paragraph which does have the membership: “The sample reveals the year after year descent. In 1925, the United Church of Canada was formed and its membership was 609,729. For the next 40 years, the United Church grew and grew until the 1965 membership struck its highest: one million, sixty two thousand and six. Sorry to say, it slowly dropped and dropped until the last official report I could find was in 2016: 423,717. (Given that decline led me to write: “You can imagine how descent simply leads to further descent…”)

       I’m certain that is now the trend. In any case, I’ve looked beyond the issue of numbers, to see if there are options, even in our decline. I don’t say that the book I have just read is truly an option, but in any case, it’s encouraging and very well worth reading and reflecting on its strong perspective, which reveals itself in the title: The Triumph of Faith. It’s written by Rodney Stark, an American theologian, with his Ph. D, who has received awards several times for his books and has been President of the Association for the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion. So be it. To give you a sense of where he stands I quite like this first brief quote: “Believe it or not, the world is more religious than ever before.” He backs it up. How interesting, given the sliding attendance of most of Canada’s major churches.      

      Given the limit of my deadline, let’s look at the quality of the theology and the dimension of reasoning in the book, The Triumph of Faith. For one thing, the metaphysical issue which Rodney Stark explores is one of deep importance, given the fact that churches and synagogues are both under difficulty—the decline in attendance and even respect — as we see in the dreadful sexual activity that has  wounded young men for eternity. Others are reflected in simple rejection. For example, Jonathan Davis – a middle aged musician in California – stated his view that is widely held in today’s musical culture: “I don’t believe in organized religion and a whole bunch of Catholic priests tried to molest me… telling me I was gay and that I should go home with them..” Yes, it’s terribly unfortunate for serious theological students, but it is a wide attitudinal expression on all sides.

     I’m not opposing or even criticizing Dr. Stark’s fresh perspective, but I do recognize the ever increasing secularity in both Europe and North America and many other countries. It is a high wall.  Years ago, enlightened young people — those in university — were open to basic theology as they would be for primitive sociology. It was as routine as Sunday School. Today, such perspective views are subject to critical thought and although it all can be wrong, it also can be right, or partly right. It recalls the opinion of the late great industrialist Malcolm Forbes who, rather than dismiss an opinion said, “Being right half the time beats being half right all the time…” In theological terms he is close to being right.

   One of his highly engaging references is in the introduction which has a a title I sincerely affirm: “Confounding the Secularization Faithful.” His intelligence is most evident throughout, for example in the chapter just mentioned he writes: “The world is not merely as religious as it used to be. In important ways, it is much MORE intensely religious than ever before; indeed it is far more churched….” That’s an engaging observation but the numbers in Canada’s largest Protestant Churches do not affirm attendance and membership as I read the statistics. He also assures us he will be objective in terms of decline. “I will not shrink from reporting on the dark side -– on how religious enthusiasm too often generates religious hatred and terrorism……”

     There is little doubt that Professor Stark is highly insightful and, while he is a conservative in biblical scholarship, I emphasize, that he is a scholarly conservative. In my perspective that is legitimate. I read his book with considerable respect for one fact: the author is a genuinely intellectual conservative. Surely we can accommodate that without superficial judgement when, if you read it thoroughly, you’ll realize its insight and intellectual validity. (After all his Ph. D is from the University of California, an institution with a very high rating.) At times in the book, he is more liberal than I thought at the beginning. In the chapter “Religious America,” he writes,   “young evangelicals are becoming liberal, especially about sex!  The media responded joyfully to the news that, compared with their elders, young evangelicals are likely to have more liberal attitudes on same-sex marriage, premarital sex, cohabiting and pornography. There have been many reports that younger people are abandoning evangelical denominations because they have taken the liberal side in the ongoing culture war,,,” I’m a bit surprised with that particular reference. Oh well…  It’s a book well worth doing two things: reading it, then reading it again.  I will. For sure.        



    (Dr. Stark began his career as a newspaper reporter. Following his service in the US Army he was a student at the University of California where he received his Ph.D. He then held appointments as a research sociologist at the university’s Survey Research Center and at the Center for The Study of Law and Society.)                                         

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