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.)