In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.” Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read. Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.
Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life. It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church. It was giving thanks at every meal. It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom. Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life. Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.
There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me. My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233). It was for damn sure draining my very soul. A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool. If you’re not, cool.” I had had enough.
During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak. No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true. There was something different for me about that place. These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities. But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.
When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before. In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord. Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community. It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry. And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.
By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past. These were not utopian by any stretch. But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order). Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.
Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me. I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins. I recommend it very highly. And I recommend you take your time. It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.