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A Summary of The Transformation of American Religion – Alan Wolfe


I read it because it is often cited along with James Hunter’s To Change the World, a book on culture to which I refer often.

Where Hunter looks at how the church, in its distinctive liberal, conservative and Anabaptist expressions, tries to change society and culture, Wolfe looks at how culture has changed religion (looking primarily at Jewish, Catholic and Protestant religious communities). As a non-believer and non-theologian, Wolfe’s analysis is of one looking from the outside in.

“Sociologists a few decades ago predicted the decline of religion in modern societies, but in the most modern society of all religion has neither declined nor advanced; it has been transformed.” Hence, Wolfe is sympathetic to religions and aware of their prominent place within American society.

Yet, he affirms, “American popular culture is both amazingly indifferent to those seeking to shape its direction and astonishingly competent at absorbing and transforming anyone who tries.” From the book jacket, it states that “God has met and struggled fiercely against American culture – and the culture has won.”

Wolfe begins with worship, stating that it no longer centers on God but rather on the self: the self’s experience, relationship to the divine, development and general good feelings.

He then looks at fellowship, which he thinks has moved from being denominational to being anti-institutional. The effect is a free-agent moving from denomination to denomination and to non-denominational and para-church gatherings, looking for that which best meets the individual’s needs.

Concerning doctrine, Wolfe says that it is no longer central to faith communities. Doctrine is liberalized, making it more palatable for the surrounding society. Where commitments are made to doctrine, they are mostly superficial and adherents rarely know the rational for the doctrine or are able to engage with countering ideas. Often, there is belief without a specified content of the belief.

Tradition. Conservative religious communities may continue to commit to traditional forms, but the locus of applying tradition is not in the “handing down” but in the “picking up” of what the individual wants and how they want. Generally, traditions succumb to American innovation that seeks to be familiar and welcoming to potential converts.

In his chapter on morality, Wolfe talks about how conservative doctrine marginalizes women. Yet, the actual practice in their faith communities is less misogynistic and more empowering of women. While sexual promiscuity and divorce rates are the same if not higher in religious communities, sexual practices are shaped by the religious communities – although in ways that view sexuality positively (as opposed to Church Fathers like Augustine or Puritan beliefs). That is to say, morality is redefined. Because of its success in adhering to its moral requirements, Wolfe treats the Mormon Church in this chapter, stating that it too may be more influenced by surrounding society as it grows out of its Utah bed. While he is skeptical of calling it causal, Wolfe also mentions religious communities engaging in helping poor communities and the holistic change that occurs in these communities. Finally, Wolfe cites a study in which religious adherents were more honest than their non-religious colleagues (signs of the impact of faith on behavior) and other studies that show that they are just as likely to cheat and more hypocritical (signs of behavior irregardless of faith).

Wolfe surprisingly laments the loss of conceptualizations and vocabulary for sin because he understands the social costs of not naming and aspiring to high ideals of conduct. He sees the crux of the problem shifting from offense to God to the destruction of the human. He sees the loss of sin in its homiletic usage as preachers do not want to sound judgmental but rather positive. He sees the replacement of sin with psychological notions of dysfunction. Thus, response isn’t repentance or penance but rather therapy.

Wolfe goes on to discuss “witness,” by which he means the sharing of one’s faith with non-believers. He notes how conservative Christians have moved from fire and brimstone preaching to the sharing of faith by their lifestyle or by service to others. While there may be increased timidity in the face of society, where there is willingness to share, it is not judgmental. In this way, the evangelist, like a good salesperson, is asking less from the potential convert and offering more. Wolfe also looks at the changing demographics caused by urban sprawl, which make the public spaces, where interaction occurs with potential converts in the city less secure, and greatly reduces space for interaction outside the city. Finally, using the Christian television and music industries as examples, Wolfe describes how in employing the media of the world (i.e. radio, movies, etc.), Christians gain notoriety and finances but loose their Christian identity – what Wolfe calls a Faustian pact.

In his chapter on identity, Wolfe discusses Islam, its ability to preserve the religious identity of its adherents while also changing its religious practices in the American context. Wolfe here also describes how immigrant communities, typically from Asia or Latin America, are conservative and stable, aspects which meet deep needs of volatile migrants. Some convert to Christianity upon arrival in America, describing their new faith as enabling to their becoming good Americans. For second-generation immigrants, conservatism is not as important and many turn to charismatic and para-church expressions of Christianity. Where Islam is being preserved by its immigrant adherents and Christianity discovered, Buddhism is drawing Americans. However, Wolfe describes this as an Americanized Buddhism that is more psychological, more meditative and organized more like churches and that is not wholly condoned or accepted by Buddhist immigrants. Looking at the broad sweep of American identity, Wolfe believes that religion, in light of immigration policy, can no longer be a central and unifying feature of American identity, which raises questions about pluralism, tolerance and social cohesion. (Written in 2003, Wolfe’s optimism for increased religious tolerance, while perhaps true, did not anticipateTrumpian exclusive nationalism.)

Wolfe concludes by advocating for ongoing religious practice in society, albeit with lower expectations as it shifts in conformity to American democracy. Wolfe also chastens liberals who quickly write off religious communities as close-minded and unable to engage intellectual debate, suggesting that they make room for democratic discourse, for their voice and practices, even when they are not agreeable. Pragmatically, Wolfe advises that society give less credence to what believers say (which may be dogmatic and exclusive) and more to what they do (which is typically moderate and more shaped by the surrounding culture than not.)


Recent Reading

A little exercise for young theologians by Helmut ThielickeHelmut Thielicke A little exercise for young theologians – a good little book to give young students a healthy perspective on studying. I wish I had read this 15 years ago.

Richard Rohr Falling Upward – I was told not to read this book until I was “older”, so I waited and read it for my 40th birthday. Some may struggle to get beyond his existential reading of Scripture and his use of other faith traditions, but it is full of wisdom.



Richard Rohr From Wild Man to Wise Man – Again, lots of wisdom and much healthier perspective than most of the stuff I’ve read on manhood.

Ken Shigematsu God in My Everything – This book was a gift to me by Jennifer Seo, new Word Made Flesh staff to Sierra Leone, of whome Shigematsu is pastor. It’s a good introduction to creating a Rule of Life and contemplative prayer practices for those engaged in a busy world.


David Jensen Graced Vulnerability – A Theology of Childhood – This is one of my favorites. It is an advocate theology for the child, looking at child in theological perspective and what that means for children in a violent world. I will be posting reflections from this book later.

Emilie Griffin Clinging – A book recommended by friend Becca Gray. A book that makes you want to pray.



Richard Behr Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite – A good telling of Ceausecu’s rise and fall.


Miroslav Volf A Public Faith  – Volf is one of my favorites. Much of this book’s ideas are found in his book on Allah. The middle section is a great alternative to Niehbur’s Christ and Culture. Volf outlines possibilities for a democratic context. It is difficult for me to imagine them working in a totalitarian state.

Scott Morton Funding Your Ministry – a bit sexist and ethnocentric; difficult for me to accept the presuppositions; but contains helpful charts and planning sheets



Jim Collins Great By Choice – A continuation of his previous books, raising some good research on business management success.


Wendell Berry What Are People For? – helpful to read together with the previous two that assume competition (winners and losers); Berry helped me to focus again on imagining a world of community and sustainability and delight.



Bill O’Reilly Killing Jesus – I suspected to find a Jesus co-opted by contemporary American right-wing politics, and, in the end, this is what happens. The book is basically a telling of the Gospels’ birth and passion narratives with some historical context. Still, by carefully excluding any of Jesus’ miracles and especially by excluding Jesus’ teaching and public ministry, not to mention the resurrection and ascension, and by avoiding any reflection on whether Jesus is related to the divinity or what Jesus’ life says about God, O’Reilly sets Jesus up to be used as one sees fit. There is no reflection on God’s kingdom and its contrary nature to kingdoms of the world (which is ironic, since, although he fails to bring out the overt political implications of Jesus’ death, the cover claims O’Reilly to be “the most talked about political commentator in America). Likewise, there is no discussion of ethics, and there is no demands on the reader after interacting with these historical events. O’Reilly sets Jesus up to be domesticated. For example, the author credits the expansion of Christianity to Constantine’s acceptance and legalization of the faith – although Christianity was expanding in contradiction and in spite of Caesar’s opposition. O’Reilly then puts “Jesus” in the mouth of his heroes, as if employing the name of Jesus automatically validates the person citing him. He is cited by George Washington, who baptizes war and killing in the name of Christ. A citation of Abraham Lincoln follows, which also joins dying on the battlefield with weapon in hand with the dying of Jesus who refused weapons and killing. O’Reilly makes a step in the right direction by evoking Martin Luther King’s call to love enemies – though the authors don’t mention non-violence or the very clear difference between King’s death and those of military soldiers that were cited previously. And O’Reilly concluded with Ronald Reagan’s comments on Jesus – a sad attempt to subjugate Jesus to support his own political agenda and to sell books.

Catalin Raiu Ortodoxie, Postcomunism si Neoliberalism – some good, some not as good reflections on Romanian society and culture.

What Kind of a Reader are You?

Oh no, this graphic by Laura E. Kelly is really damning to me and my friends know why:


Embezzlement in the Church

This is an excellent article on tithing in the Church by my pastor, Ray Mayhew. He compares contemporary Christian giving to the generosity of the Church in history. Embezzlement: The Corporate Sin of Contemporary Christianity?

Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational”

I just finished Dan Ariely’s interesting book Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. The book is about certain, often unconscious, factors influence our decision-making, even if they are illogical. Here’s a summary:

Chapter 1

We buy and make decisions in a context of comparison.

Chapter 2

In our act of situating decisions in context, we apply arbitrary coherence to our choices. One choice becomes the anchor price (the price we consider paying for something) by which we compare other options. (See the TedTalk below.)

Chapter 3

We choose something that is “free” even if it is not the most economical deal because we believe that we have nothing to lose by taking the “free.”

Chapter 4

We differentiate in our behavior between social norms and market norms. For example, when we pay for something (market norm), we legitimize our consumption (even if it is extreme or immoral); when we receive something freely, we self-moderate our consumption (because the good is seen as social).

Chapter 5

By attaching monetary value to work, we detach work from social norms.

Chapter 6

When the primal part of our brain that is related to survival (fight-flight, hunger, thirst, sex, etc.) is aroused, we make decisions that we otherwise think we should not make.

Chapter 7

Even though it is not in our best interest, we predictably procrastinate and struggle with self-control (primarily because there is no immediate gratification attached to undesired tasks).

Chapter 8

We estimate the value of our own possessions to be much higher than what others estimate them to be.

Chapter 9

Choices drive our curiosity, and curiosity, generally, has negative repercussions on decision-making.

Chapter 10

We perceive reality through what we expect or desire reality to portray.

Chapter 11

Paying a higher price makes us feel like we are getting a higher quality product, even when the product is a placebo.

Chapter 12

Trust – a crucial component of the economy and society – is easily degraded (causing a reflex of mistrust towards marketers and politicians).

Chapter 13

We tend to lie/cheat a little – even if it does long-term harm to ourselves (like diminishing public trust) – except when we are conscious of moral commitments (like the Ten Commandments) at the time of the temptation. (I would like to see Ariely’s experiment in this chapter using W.W.J.D? My hunch is that it would be less effective than the 10 Commandments because it is vague (W.W.J.D? is determined by the questioner).

Chapter 14

We rationalize dishonesty, but less so when we deal personally in cash transactions.

Chapter 15

Our economic behavior is sometimes determined not by acquiring that which pleases us but rather by that which makes us look good or unique in the eyes of others.

I’ll let you read the book to better understand how these behaviors influence our irrational decision-making.

Hell: Not Just a Place in Michigan

Last week I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and Francis Chan’s piggyback book Erasing Hell. Although I have not read the blog hype about Bell’s book, I did order the books to find out what all the commotion was about. Since I’m unfamiliar with the blog debates, this may be repetitive.

Because Bell’s book made New York Times best-seller, I expected to discover something new. I didn’t. So, I surmised that the timing of Bell’s discourse must coincide with a lot of people’s own struggles with questions about eternity.

Let me start with some problems I have with Bell’s presentation. I feel like he over-emphasized one’s “freedom” and one’s “choice.” Bell depicts human freedom as the result of God’s love, which I agree with. But it seems counterintuitive to propose that God’s love wins when I have the freedom to choose what I want.

I also think that Bell takes “restoration” out of its biblical context and imposes his own categories of hell. He offers Origen as an example of a Church Father who promotes the reconciliation of every person and thing, but the Church condemned this idea as heresy.

I disagree with Bell’s reduction of resurrection to the earth’s life-cycle. Resurrection in the New Testament is an interruption and a completely new experience of new life without death.

I do appreciate Bell’s interpretation of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 and his explanation of inclusivism and universalism. But he came across, to me at least, as being quite ambiguous. He presents these views sympathetically without explicitly siding with one of them.

As for Chan’s book, I appreciated that he didn’t simply write a rebuttal to Bell’s book but rather wrote a more extensive discourse on hell in which he also criticized Bell’s thought. I appreciate that Chan leaves open the question of eternal suffering versus annihilation. My main critique of Chan is that although he claims to be open to rejecting the familiar teaching on hell (pg. 16), his a priori commitments to his particular view on hell are evident throughout. I have the impression that he was choosing and interpreting texts through the lens of a Reformed-styled satisfaction theory of atonement.

Chan detracts from his argument by misconstruing Bell’s position (pg. 24 – though he clarifies by caveat in the endnote). I do appreciate Chan’s correction of Bell’s depiction of hell as the “garbage heap” and the appropriation of this metaphor. But throughout Chan repeatedly fails to account for the literary devices of hyperbole, parable, or the apocalyptic genre in which certain references to hell are depicted. Apart from these minor issues, I see more problematic Chan’s belief that hell is a motivation for Paul’s mission and his fideistic approach to God’s reasons for hell. Paul himself declares that he is compelled by love (not hell). And although God’s ways our higher than our ways, this is primarily an exposition of the cross and not a blanket to cover up all the ways i which we don’t understand God. I am a hard-sell for propositional affirmations that are not substantiated by reason especially where we can find in Scripture pointers to the reasoning and effects of hell and not merely an ignorant appeal to mystery.

I am unsatisfied with the (albeit different) assumptions of both authors about salvation and judgment – concepts that merit further articulation when addressing ideas on hell. Although both books are readily accessible for popular readership (especially Bell’s), I think that they needed to bring a more scholarly treatment to the subject – as done by other authors like Sanders’ No Other Name and the Counterpoint’s publication Four Views On Hell.

In comparing both books, it seems that Bell is emphasizing God’s love (and love wins), while Chan accentuates God’s power (saying that God does what He pleases and gets what He wants, otherwise He’s not powerful – pg. 30). Placing so much stress on the ability of God to win all of creation through God’s love may carry echoes of grace, but Bell risks sacrificing the justice accomplished by God by placing victims in front of their perpetrators. On the other hand, Chan stresses God’s sovereignty so much that he skirts the responsibility that human beings bear for their actions.

Both authors draw an apophatic line. Bell resists determining what hell is and who is in hell. Chan resists determining why God judges and how God passes the judgment of hell on people. Here I find myself much closer to Bell than to Chan, and I think that this is one reason why the spirit of Bell’s book is more inviting and attractive. I find many advantages in the indeterminacy of a theology of hell, leaving room for questions rather than speculation.

The fullest depiction of God’s judgment that we have seen up to this point in human history is Jesus on the cross. There, God chooses to absorb our violence, atone our sin, give us forgiveness and reconcile us rather than judge us and separate us from God’s Self. Evidently, God doesn’t want to be God without us. This is how God judges: through His cross.

By leaving the question about future judgment and hell open, we are less likely to create hells on earth. It is a truism that human beings are conformed to the images they worship. Those who established inquisitions and torture chambers justified their actions by claiming that they were following God by saving the soul and destroying the evil flesh. So too we, like the disciples, often call down fire from heaven in a heartbeat when we cry for “judgment” – and this in the name of God!

Here too is the dangerous rub of power and theologies of hell through which the powerful claim to secure heaven for themselves and hell for others. Listen to the words of N.T. Wright:

I think that Leslie Newbigin in his book the Open Secret sums it up nicely:

“The full number of the Gentiles will be gathered in and all Israel will be saved.” This text from Romans has a universal ring to it. Paul’s vision is truly cosmic and universal. His earlier description of Jesus as the new Adam also points in that direction. “As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all” (Rom 5:18). And yet the same time Paul can say of himself that he must exercise the strictest self-discipline “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). It seems to me that the whole nature of the gospel requires us to maintain this tension and not to try to resolve it either by a rationalistic universalism which denies the possibility of finally missing the mark, or by increasingly fruitless arguments about who will and who will not be saved.  When Jesus was asked the question about whether few or many would be saved he declined to answer it but sternly warned the questioner to strive to enter the narrow door that leads to life.  There is a kind of confidence that leads to complacency, and there is a kind of anxiety which leads to selfish efforts to save oneself. It seems to me clear from the whole New Testament that the Christian life has room both for a godly confidence and for a godly fear.  The contrast between these is not a contradiction.  If I know that God in his limitless grace and kindness has chosen and called me to be a bearer of his grace for others, my trust in him will not exclude the awareness that I could betray his trust in me, and that very awareness will drive me closer to him.  This is a deeply personal relationship.  It excludes, I think, the kind of rationalistic universalism that I referred to.  It also excludes, I think, any temptation to set limits to God’s grace, or to write off any human being as beyond God’s redeeming love.

Kenneth Bailey on 1 Corinthians

I just finished reading Kenneth Bailey’s Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. I have loved reading Bailey’s other works on the parables of Jesus and, especially, the Prodigal Son. In the book Bailey takes up Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. The strength of Bailey’s reflections on Paul is his analysis of Paul’s rhetoric. His identification of Paul’s use of chiasms and Paul’s appeal to Isaiah and Amos enlightens and clarifies anyone’s reading of 1 Corinthians. Although Bailey’s commentary isn’t as quite as informative (he primarily follows Thiselton and Fee), his autobiographical asides from experiences in the Middle East are jewels hidden throughout the text for the reader to discover and to sense the power of Paul’s letter for contemporary disciples in the Mediterranean and beyond.

Jesus the Temple: the best book I’ve read this year


Perrin’s book Jesus the Temple is excellent. He follows the thought of N.T. Wright, for whom Perrin was a research assistant. Wright places Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God in its first-century Judaic context, arguing that the coming of the kingdom of God means the return from exile. God inaugurates the return from exile through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The signs of the realization of the return from exile are the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the restoration of the temple, the flowing of the Gentiles to Jerusalem, and the renewal of creation. Wright points out that we see these signs in Jesus’ defeat of the enemies of sin (through forgiveness) and death (through resurrection), in the temple being redefined as Jesus’ body, in Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles (and their incorporation into the people of God post-Pentecost), and in Jesus’ resurrected body as the first-fruit of the new creation.

Perrin takes up this theme, focusing on the restoration of the temple. The Jewish temple was not only the heart of worship but also the place of economic assistance for the poor, of social recognition, and of political confession. It was the place where Israel placed its hopes and from which it derived its national identity. But the temple was profaned by, inter alia, being constructed by human hands, by the corrupt administration of its priests, and by the defilement of the Gentiles. So, it functioned as a penultimate sign and anticipation of the true temple, which would bring together heaven and earth, God and humanity. Perrin argues that Jesus saw himself and his movement as the decisive embodiment of Yahweh’s eschatological temple.

Perrin describes how Jesus was not alone in developing counter-temple movements. The sects behind the Qumran and the Psalms of Solomon, as well as John the Baptist shared characteristics that set them against the temple and in anticipation of a new temple.

In Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, Perrin says that we see the most public expression of Jesus’ critique of the temple elite and their offenses toward the poor and the temple. It also is an announcement of Jesus’ establishment of a new temple in which he is its messianic high priest.

Perrin also links Jesus’ exorcisms and meals with the restoration of the temple. By defeating demonic powers, Jesus affirms that there is an alternative power to the temple. By dining with sinners, Jesus is not defiled but rather brings forgiveness, a power claimed through temple acts. Through these actions, Jesus and his followers constitute a new locus of the divine presence.

Another Jewish expectation that preceded the restoration of the temple was tribulation. Perrin argues that Jesus understand the period of tribulation as being well underway during his lifetime through the apostasy of Israel’s leadership, Herod and its temple aristocrats. Jesus bore this tribulation through persecution, torture and execution. And Jesus followers, the new temple built around the Cornerstone, continue to experience the tribulation as the temple is constructed.

One perspective I greatly appreciated was Perrin’s demonstration of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor as a function of his larger calling to be the eschatological temple. The temple aristocracy embezzled monies and then offered high interest loans to the poor. Thus, the financiers increased the temple landholdings and held the poor in an increasing cycle of destitution. The condition of being poor was not simply an economic, social or political status but also a theological reality. By thrusting those on the economic margins into disinheritance, the priestly rulers were in effect gerrymandering the boundaries of true Israel and forestalling full return from exile.

As high priest Jesus inaugurates Jubilee, which means not only an exile-ending release for the poor but also a prerequisite for proper temple worship. Jesus’ ministry among the poor, therefore, is ultimately grounded in his calling and introducing of a new temple. In the new temple, possessions are shared, almsgiving is redemptive and forgiveness entails economic debts, satisfying not only the immediate needs of the destitute but also giving them the ability to break the cycle of debt and poverty.

Jesus’ modeling and inviting to voluntary poverty and renunciation are not only for radical redistribution of possessions and diminishing one’s social status; they were also signs of the priestly calling (signifying the landless Levites).

Perrin also deals with the understanding of the temple in the early church and their connections and continuity with Jesus’ earthly ministry.

I highly recommend the book.

Delivering Happiness on the Backs of the Unhappy

I recently read Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. Tony is the CEO of Zappos, an online shoe-seller. Hsieh seems to be a entrepreneurial genius. While a student at Harvard, he founded an internet company, which he later sold to Microsoft for millions. Then he invested in Zappos, which became the largest online shoe-seller and eventually merged with Amazon.

Hsieh’s book portrays a fantastic model of building a company by building its culture around its values, economic drivers and vision beyond the company. It seems that he has been able to engage cultural displacement and the lack of collective identity by developing a tribal identity for the corporation, its investors and its customers…without being corporate. The book also provides great examples for recruitment, interviewing, staff development and succession planning.

Hsieh primary presupposition is that you can create a work culture of happy people, and, as a corporation, you can value happiness more than profit, which in the long-term will mean higher profits. So, says Hsieh, if someone calls Zappos and wants to know where they can order a pizza in the middle of the night in their city, Zappos phone agents will try to help you out – even if you aren’t buying shoes.

While I find the idea of promoting happiness over profit refreshing, I ultimately don’t see how Hsieh or Zappos delivering what it promises. Sure, paying clients may sense happiness when they receive a surprise gift of flowers from Zappos, and Zappo employees may sense happiness as their company invests in their professional development and encourages a happy environment, and Zappo investors may sense happiness as they receive a return on their investment, all the while believing that they are bettering the world. But what about the shoe maker? Stories continue to come out about shoe corporations, like Nike or Adidas, exploiting their workers in countries likeHonduras,El Salvador andIndonesia. Does the happiness of these workers matter to Zappos? Is happiness reserved for the wealthy who can purchase via the internet and forgotten for the poor who suffer the brunt of corporate outsourcing?

“Delivering happiness” seems to be a clever sales ploy but, by failing to recognize the unhappiness of those who produce their goods, it is deceptive. Happiness, delivered on the backs of the unhappy, is no happiness at all.

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