American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010
The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011
Pause Points: The Mindful Pursuit of Health and Well-Being
Gene Harker and Curt Smith
Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2011
Well, it’s happened at last. The third-largest “religious” group in the United States is “Nones,” people who claim no religious or institutional affiliation. The group is more numerous (17 percent) than mainline Protestants (14 percent). Only Catholics and Evangelical Christians outnumber them.
Who best represents the most religious type of American? She’s “an older African American woman who lives in a Southern small town.” And the least religious? “A younger Asian American man who lives in a large Northeastern city.”
Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace analyzes the findings of two of the most comprehensive surveys ever taken on religion and public life in our country. Their findings contain many surprises:
• Roughly one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point
• Between one-third and one-half of Americans are in an interfaith marriage
• Young people are more opposed to abortion than their parents (but more readily accept gay marriage)
• Most deeply religious Americans believe people of other faiths can get into Heaven
• Jews are the most broadly popular religious group, Mormons and Muslims the least.
Not so surprising, at least to me, are these two discoveries: religious people are better neighbors and more generous in their giving than secular ones, and that young people likely approve of premarital sex, homosexuality, and marijuana use.
A bit discouraging for us preachers is the authors’ point that people are “nicer” not so much because they regularly hear sermons urging them to be but because they chat with friends after service or belong to a Bible study group. “In fact, the statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of a congregation (perhaps through a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone. It is religious belonging that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”
The authors believe America has solved the puzzle of how to practice tolerance in a society of such religious diversity and devotion. “How has it done so in the wake of growing religious polarization? By creating a web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths.”
These relationships build unifying bridges over the religious practices that otherwise would divide us. “That,” the authors conclude, “is America’s grace.”
The Bible’s Benefit
Putnam and Campbell take a hard look at America’s changing religious scene. That change, writes Vishal Mangalwadi in The Book that Made Your World, is not for the best, especially if it means leaving behind our biblical heritage.
I picked up The Book because of Christian Standard’s yearlong focus on the Bible. What could seem more appropriate for this theme than a volume subtitled: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization? That’s the huge claim Mangalwadi makes for our Scriptures. And I found it a welcome antidote to the heavy doses of antireligious reading I’ve inflicted on myself recently in an attempt to hear all sides of some issues.
From time to time, though, I meet a new author who makes me feel good about belonging to the camp I’m in. It’s especially gratifying when my new friend is not from our country but is still able to see something good in the West.
Mangalwadi is such an enthusiastic believer in the Bible’s basically positive impact on the West that I found myself occasionally pushing back. “Here he goes too far. There he claims too much.” And he probably does, but it is not because he hasn’t done his homework. His scholarship is wide and deep. You can sense the influence of the late Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri, where he studied as a young man.
To hear Mangalwadi tell it, the West has become what it is through the Bible’s worldview and its teaching on such disparate subjects as economics, language, morality, family life, technology, science, and more.
As an Indian, he was nurtured by a deeply religious culture. He saw it all up close and personal: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. All that religion did not prepare India to compete in the modern world, however. Why not? Why did it take Bible-believing, Evangelical Christians from England to introduce educational opportunities, to attack India’s stifling caste system, to address issues of corruption, to offer the best in medicine? In earlier centuries the West was barbaric, suffering by comparison with Muslim learning. What made the difference so apparent in more recent centuries? The young man set out to discover for himself.
The change agent, he found, was the authority of the Bible. Even in Allahabad, he discovered, “the Bible was the source of practically everything good in my hometown, even the secular university that undermined the Bible.”
Speaking specifically of education, he asks, “Why does my university in Allahabad have a church, but not a Hindu temple or a Muslim mosque? Because the university was invented and established by Christians. Neither colonialism nor commerce spread modern education around the world. Soldiers and merchants do not educate. Education was a Christian missionary enterprise. It was integral to Christian missions because modern education is a fruit of the Bible. The biblical Reformation, born in European universities, took education out of the cloister and around the globe.”
If Mangalwadi is right about the Bible’s lasting contributions to “the soul of Western civilization,” we have reason to lament its diminishing influence. Perhaps we should pay more attention when someone reminds us “the Bible says . . .”
Now let’s turn from the health of our culture to a culture of health.
Sometimes you know what the doctor is going to say even before he examines you. Then why do you go? Because you know you need to hear him say it.
Reading Pause Points is like that visit. There isn’t much new here. You already know you should love the ones you’re with, fill your mind with the best, bring out the best in others, eat mindfully, exercise faithfully, find peace and relaxation, and connect with your Creator. See what I mean? Those are Gene Harker’s chapter headings. Just good common sense—but common sense backed up by a quarter of a century of intelligent, compassionate doctoring.
The healthiest life, he says, is lived with a careful eye on the future and full attention on the present. In his language, that’s at “the intersection of mindfulness and purpose,” where people are “fully engaged in the moment” while at the same time “considering where they would like to be in the future.”
To achieve that double-vision, he prescribes “pause points,” moments when “we intentionally slow our pace, reflect on where we are, dream about where we would like to go, and experience a whole new direction.”
As I said, nothing much new here.
But like the good doctor he is, Harker wraps up every session with a prescription: Reflect on what you’ve read, dream of what you want, set specific goals to achieve that dream, connect with others who will help you get there (because “well-being is . . . a team sport”), and “enjoy a better, more fulfilling tomorrow.”
He even has blanks to fill in. No vague maybes for this no-nonsense physician. When it comes to our health, he wants results.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.