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Pop Christianity

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My grandfather possessed a large library of theological texts. Unable to accept all of Christian doctrine, he pondered their contents in an effort to address his doubts. Like Thomas Aquinas, he refused to relinquish the use of his reason. Like Thomas Jefferson, he did not believe in miracles.

After my grandfather's death, my grandmother gave the books to the Presbyterian Church to which we belonged. Some decades later, the church caught fire, and all my grandfather's books were destroyed.

The minister thanked God for sparing the sanctuary.

For me this narrative encapsulates a shift in American religious thinking. An unexpected and serious loss is viewed only as an act of divine mercy. This kind of illogic was wittily satirized by Mark Twain in his numerous writings on Christianity. In Letter VII of Letters from the Earth, Twain writes:

"It is most difficult to understand the disposition of the Bible God, it is such a confusion of contradictions; of watery instabilities and iron firmnesses; of goody-goody abstract morals made out of words, and concreted hell-born ones made out of acts; of fleeting kindnesses repented of in permanent malignities."

Contemporary Christians easily ignore such contradictions.

The loss of the church library in my anecdote is also suggestive. From St. Augustine to the medieval Scholastics to C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity is rich in interpretations and commentaries on the Bible. Among devout American Christians, who reads these thinkers now?

In the early days of this nation, Calvinism was the predominant form of Christianity. Its deity was remote, incomprehensible, and beyond human appeal. It would have been blasphemous to claim that you had any understanding of his intentions or acts.

Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the most famous American theologian and a man far more erudite than Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, warned his congregation in frightening terms of their ongoing peril. In his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741) Edwards invoked images of storms and floods, declaring:

"There are black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you."

Last year, 2005, saw some horrific storms. First came the aftermath of the tsunami, with its astronomical loss of human life. Then we all watched the power of Katrina, with its ensuing destruction and suffering. Although there has been religious rhetoric aplenty, none of it has resembled the lamentations of Job or the excoriations of Edwards.

For Christianity has changed in America. The remote, inscrutable, and mysterious deity of the Puritans has become hands-on, accessible, transparent, and distinctly pro-American. The commentaries and interpretations of past centuries are read only in highbrow theological seminaries, which most prominent American preachers do not attend. Americans read best-sellers like The Purpose-Driven Life, which assures them that God takes a personal interest in the most trivial aspects of their lives, even choosing the color of their eyes and hair (while neglecting, apparently, birth defects).

I call this phenomenon "Pop Christianity." Like pop music and pop psychology, it is purged of complexities, nuance, and darkness. Pop Christianity looks relentlessly on the bright side of life. In its heaven, there are no clouds, only silver linings.

It turns a blind eye to suffering, like the mass death of the 34 people in St. Rita's Nursing Home in New Orleans--those elderly people who may well have cried out like Job, or like Christ himself, as the waters relentlessly rose around their wheel-chairs.

Like the United States, Pop Christianity claims to have a monopoly on morals and ethics. Those who do not share their beliefs are devoid of good qualities. This obliges them to ignore the misdeeds of their own flock. David Ludwig, the 18-year-old accused of killing his girlfriend's parents in the presence of their young children, was home-schooled in a Christian group. Kansas' s horrific BTK killer was active in his church.

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Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network ( and
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