Bondage And Release For The Church
Justification by Success: The Invisible Captivity of the Church, by J. Stanley Glen (John Knox, 128 pp., $6.95), is reviewed by L. John Van Til, associate professor of history, Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Thoughtful Christians, whatever their vocation, will be troubled by this book because it raises some very important questions about the nature of modern society and the Christian’s place in it. The author’s thesis is that the rapidity of social change in modern society has created a new and invisible religion whose central tenet is the exercise and adoration of power.
“The Invisible Religion” traces the origins and development of the new religion, thereafter characterizing its principal features. The religion of power, says Glen, has risen in the modern world as a parallel to the development of industrialism. Indeed, it has emerged as a result of industrialism. Power, the ability to control the lives and destinies of other people, has become an integral part of the industrial process. What began as a relatively simple matter two centuries ago as men increasingly used the contract to order their economic relationships has become very complex in our time. This complexity has been compounded by the fact that the essence of contemporary industrial contracts is characterized by the language of science, technology, and technique. This has been a crucial development because only a handful of experts in these matters can understand what transactions are being executed. The handful of experts, who understand and thus can manage the transactions, are in a position to exercise power in a way that is unprecedented. Others in society, Glen argues, must depend upon this class of experts.
This pattern of power having been established, those without power, or with less power, strive to achieve a higher degree of power. Possession of power becomes an end in itself. The author concludes that this striving after power has become the invisible religion in the modern world, especially in America.
One of the curious features of this new religion is the fact that it has all the earmarks of traditional Christianity. The religion of power worships an invisible god—power. Further, this invisible religion is monopolistic: it has but one object of worship and allegiance—power. Often the practitioners of this religion speak in the language familiar to traditional Christians. “Sacrifice,” “reward,” “punishment,” and similar terms are found in its lexicon. Finally, the new religion of power is like traditional Christianity in that a full knowledge of the ways of the deity (power) cannot finally be known by the practitioners of the religion.
In the chapter titled “The Ecumenism of Power,” the author traces the tendency for power to be consolidated in the modern world. Power tends to pull the various segments of a given field together into a regional, national, or multinational structure. Further, there is a tendency for these several fields to be drawn together into one huge collective unity, becoming an entity that must be characterized as totalitarian.
“The Conversion of the Individual” traces the process by which people are drawn into the new religion, a process that again parallels the traditional Christian understanding of conversion. Glen’s converted person is the same as the “other-directed” and “organization” man who has been written about extensively in the past few years.
In another chapter Glen discusses “Justification by Success.” Once caught up in the new religion, the convert becomes satisfied with his position, status, and the benefits that are conferred upon him. Convinced that he has done well, he achieves a sense of well-being and acceptance and has a sense of being justified by his success. Evidence of this feeling of success may be found in what Glen calls “consumer style.” The religion of power requires a dedication to the consumption of commodities as an end in itself. This is accented by the “Cult of the Present.” If some item or some habit is not in tune with the mood of the present it must be replaced by something that is in tune with the times. Success in the religion of power demands a commitment to freedom, but freedom to live an experimental life. This is a critical feature of the system, Glen observes. The experimental attitude has emerged from the laboratory and “entered the marketplace, the neighborhood, the theater, recreation centers, the church and the home, the bedroom and the private life of the individual.” The effect of this experimental attitude, when applied across the board, is to form an ethic of relativism, reinforced and sanctified by the “Cult of Quantum,” which appears to give an aura of objectivity to things that are obviously highly subjective. If 80 percent of the population engages in sodomy, for example, then sodomy is an acceptable behavior.
In the chapter titled “The Invisible Sin,” the author turns to the question of what is wrong with the new religion. He states immediately that the “real sin of advanced industrial society is invisible sin, corresponding to its invisible religion.” He lists three forms of sin—discontinuity, reductionism, and idolization. Discontinuity refers to the religion’s requirement that its followers be captured by the spirit of presentism; it results in “planned obsolescence,” “contrived scarcity,” and the “unnecessary production of waste in the name of profit.” Reductionism has resulted from a devotion to the Cult of Quantum. Everything may be ultimately defined by some form of measurement. Evidence of this sin is obvious, says Glen, when one considers the number of jobs related to measurement—those of bankers, weighers, packagers, statisticians, data processors, surveyors, draftsmen, check-out clerks, engineers, production managers, and many others. “How much?” has replaced “How well?” Quantity is more important than quality.
Idolization consists of excessive devotion to the Cult of the Aesthetic. It is evidenced in people’s infatuation with gadgets and “the latest thing” foisted on them by the consumer-oriented society. Significantly, Glen sees idolization as a form of social control and manipulation that reinforces the religion of power.
“The Sovereignty of the Invisible Religion” outlines the pervasiveness of the religion of power. Like the God of Christianity, the new god of power exercises influence over the totality of life. Further, it demands loyalty and obedience in the same magnitude.
Glen argues in this chapter one of the main points of the book, that the churches have been captured by this new religion to a large degree. This is evident in the manner in which churches have emulated the industrial society. Like it, the churches have established a bureaucracy, adopted a mood of experimentation, and have become devoted to “style,” especially in the worship service. The churches’ devotion or acquiescence to the new invisible religion is most evident in suburban middle-class churches.
Members of these churches want their church to be just like the marketplace. Typically, they measure the “success” of the church not by spiritual growth, but by the size (quantum) of the budget, the number (quantum) of members, and the entertainment level of worship (Cult of the Aesthetic) achieved by the pastor (salesman) as he tries new ways of worship (experimentation).
In a concluding chapter, “Evangelical Liberation and Renewal,” Glen argues for a return of the churches to their primary purpose—preaching the gospel. He calls for a true theology of liberation that will see people freed from the bondage of the religion of power. To Glen, the theology of Jesus Christ alone can set men free from their captivity to the materialism of the age.
It is not often a critic of church and society packs so much into such a few pages.
Preachers and Preaching in Recent Books
After being told for many years that the church was useless and preaching dead, it is heartening to see that many people are willing to take a second look. The desire to revitalize preaching is a theme that is increasingly under discussion. Leander Keck of Harvard Divinity School thinks revitalization will come with a renewal of biblical preaching in The Bible in the Pulpit (Abingdon, 1979). After a couple of interesting chapters where he takes both conservatives and liberals to task for not being biblical enough, he suggests that preaching will be truly biblical only when the Bible governs the content of the sermon and when the function of the sermon is analogous to that of the text (p. 106). The book is essentially a plea to let historical studies and biblical criticism play a constructive rather than a destructive role in sermon preparation.
Ian Pitt-Watson in Preaching: A Kind of Folly (Westminster, 1978) thinks preaching has fallen on hard times in that the preacher has an authoritarian task but no authority because he can no longer accept the verbal authority of the Bible or the doctrinal authority of the church that ordained him (pp. 2–3). To solve this crisis a person must learn to believe in preaching in order to preach (p. 21). Pitt-Watson then discusses a theology of practical preaching where the “preached word becomes the word of God within a special relationship of person to person and of persons to God …” (p. 62).
Robert D. Young also ponders the identity crisis in the pulpit in Religious Imagination (Westminster, 1979), concluding that as modern-day prophets, preachers should exercise their unique creative insight into what God is doing. This will allow them to speak for God today.
The title Preaching Law and Gospel (Fortress, 1978) reflects Herman Stuempfle’s suggestion for a dynamic sermon. The two great theological focuses of judgment and grace (law and gospel), with a call to obedience, ought to be the essence of every preached message. This will restore vitality to preaching, which is the central mode of communication for the gospel in the church.
The Roman Catholic John Burke, O.P., feels that preaching the gospel is what changes hearts, renews lives, and transforms society in Gospel Power: Toward the Revitalization of Preaching (Alba House, 1978). In this well-written and rather traditional book, different kinds of preaching are discussed with the observation that it is the power of Christ in the message rather than the message itself, or the precise way in which it is delivered, that is the power.
Another aspect of pulpiteering also under discussion is how to prepare a sermon. The Mystery of Preaching (Zondervan, 1978) by James Black is a reprint of a standard work that appeared in 1924. It consists of eight lectures (the Sprunt Lectures, U.T.S., Richmond, Va.) that cover everything from why we preach to Common Prayer. It is refreshingly readable even today and of real substance.
The successor to William Barclay at the University of Glasgow, Ernest Best, has given us From Text to Sermon (John Knox, 1978). “Its purpose is to see how we get from Scripture to God’s message today, how the Word which was once embodied in the words of Scripture may be embodied in the words of the preacher …” (p. 7.) It is an attempt to show how the meaning of the Scripture can be understood in its own situation and then translated into today’s situation without diluting the truth.
J. Winston Pearce is convinced that “the plan is the thing” in Planning Your Preaching (Broadman, 1979). He argues that preparation is of utmost importance for a preacher and suggests different plans to follow: the Christian year, through the Bible, by months, with denominational emphases, and others. It is written in a rather popular style.
Guide for the Lay Preacher (Judson, 1979) by Evan H. Boden is a step-by-step treatment of how to get the job done. It is very elementary and would be of value to someone thrust into a pulpit without any seminary training, but it might make a good review for an established preacher, as well.
Two rather specialized books deal with how to reach specific audiences. Overhearing the Gospel (Abingdon, 1978) is a primer on how to preach to people who have already heard. It is rather densely (but well) written using Sören Kierkegaard as an inspiration. Preaching to Suburban Captives (Judson, 1979) is a somewhat overdrawn attempt to use liberation theology as a model for setting free the captives of suburbia.
Finally, Raymond W. McLaughlin has plunged into the thicket with The Ethics of Persuasive Preaching (Baker, 1979). He confronts the issue of persuasion and all its problems head-on in a very helpful way. He includes a much-needed chapter on the congregation’s responsibility, as well as going over the ethical obligations that the preacher has. A good book.
Trends In American Religion
Religion in America: 1950 to the Present, by Jackson W. Carroll, Douglas W. Johnson, and Martin E. Marty (Harper & Row, 1978, 123 pp., $15.00), is reviewed by Erling Jorstad, professor of history and American studies, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.
The appearance of this carefully prepared work is further evidence of the increasing quality and quantity of scholarly works on religion in America. A few years ago that subject quietly found its way into the world of academic research; now we have two to three dozen important contributions annually.
This book has dozens of graphs, tables, charts, maps, and public opinion polls, all of which are not instantly attractive reading. But, interspersed throughout, are helpful essays by the three authors, plus an afterword by George Gallup, Jr. These offer judicious, provocative interpretations of the meaning of the quantitative data and make the purchase of the book worthwhile.
The work has four major sections: I. Continuity and Change, the Shape of Religious Life in America since 1950; II. Patterns of Religious Pluralism; III. Trends and Issues Concerning the Future; and IV. Gallup’s previously published essay, “A Coming Religious Revival?” Each is based on the printed quantitative data, and while it cautiously avoids reading too much meaning into the statistics, it suggests we can find significant conclusions.
More specifically, using the annual reports of the denominations and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, plus opinion polls, the authors present a plethora of information about membership in the mainline denominations, church attendance and finances, and trends in religious beliefs. What it adds up to is a confirmation of what many of us intuitively suspected (about why mainline denominations are losing members, for example) while drawing some unexpected conclusions about major trends.
For example, sociological factors such as income, level of education, and age clearly contribute heavily to the “shape” of denominations. Again the greatest number of church dropouts have been among youth and young adults (under 30), despite the well-known Jesus revival. Or again a growing number of Americans see religious faith in instrumental terms—what it can do for them—rather than as expressions of devotion and worship. Privatization seems to be here to stay.
Martin E. Marty gives fresh insights into “the career of American pluralism.” After rapidly surveying its historical evolution in this country, he suggests that pluralism will continue to grow for two reasons: the activist trends of the 1960s convinced many churchgoers that they must retain the opportunities for growth in freedom and individuality. Second, Marty shows we are just now beginning to see the fruits of the impact of world religions on American religious preferences. So, while the conservative churches continue to grow (as documented by Dean Kelley) so too does the idea that “all philosophic and religious views were equally true.” Marty concludes that in our time of perilous world conditions the seekers and searchers may stay well within their own tribes rather than revive the ecumenical trends of the previous decade.
Johnson maps out an exciting agenda for “Issues in the Religious Future.” His primary message is that unless churches provide meaning and purpose in their mission they will collapse. Churches must also offer support to the nuclear family, interpret for the new generation the changing values of our society towards work and leisure, utilize but not sell out to the marvels of communications technology, increase the parishioner’s sense of social responsibility, and somehow stay solvent. It is not an agenda for the faint-hearted. But none of the authors suggest that Christianity will be a tiny minority movement by the year 2000, as others have predicted. These writers have collected in one place convincing arguments to the contrary.
The book is written for both specialists and generalists. No long-range church growth group, local or national, should overlook it, nor should sociologists or historians of this subject. The literary style is aimed at the general reader, and we have here a great deal of hard data and sober reflection on which to ponder where we have just been and where we may be headed in the near future. Within 123 pages that is no small accomplishment.
GARRETT-EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary invites applications and nominations for the position of President of the Seminary.
The President is the chief administrative officer of the Seminary and has ultimate responsibility for the formulation and achievement of objectives which carry out the mission of the institution. The complexity of the President’s role requires that the position be filled by a man or woman of diverse interests and abilities. A candidate must be ordained in the United Methodist Church.
G-ETS is a fully-accredited graduate school of theology of the United Methodist Church, founded in 1853 and situated on the lakeshore campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the Chicago metropolitan area. With a student body of 304 and a fulltime faculty of 28, the Seminary offers professional Master of Divinity degrees to students preparing for ordination, Master of Christian Education degrees, Doctor of Ministry degrees for practicing ministers, and, in conjunction with Northwestern University, programs leading to the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees.
The deadline for applications and nominations is January 5, 1980.
Please address correspondence to:
Chairperson, Presidential Search Committee
Post Office Box 1031
Evanston, Illinois 60204
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer.
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