Jesus the Boomer?

A columnist for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank, has recently posted a pre-election op-ed with the headline: “Baby boomers, you’ve done enough; it’s Generation X’s turn.”

The columnist’s invective is strong and spot on. While much of his fire is aimed at Donald Trump, much the same could be said of fellow baby boomer Hilary Clinton. As Milbank says: “Boomers, coddled in their youth, grew up selfish and unyielding. When they got power, they created polarization and gridlock from both sides. Though Vietnam War-protesting boomers got the attention, their peers on the right were just as ideological, creating the religious right.”

Beyond the harsh condemnation of the baby boom generation, Milbank offers a an insightful categorization of generational patterns that “repeat over time.” And jesustheheresy.com asks the question: could there have been a similar patterns of intra- and inter-generational conflict much earlier – for example, dating to the time of Jesus’ sojourn two millennia  back?

Generational Patterns

Consider first the four generational descriptions offered up by Milbank:

  • The Civics – most recently epitomized by those termed as the Greatest Generation, born in the first 2-3 decades of  the 1900s, serving on the front lines in World War II and building the post-war America of Leave it to Beaver.
  • The Adaptives – a much smaller cohort coming of age during the Depression and World War II, also known as the Silent Generation. 
  • The Idealists – aka today’s Baby Boomers born amid the great population explosion of 1946-64.
    Note: Donald Trump was born in 1946; Hilary Clinton in 1947.
  • The Reactives – today comprising the group known as Generation X, a much smaller cohort in numbers but now with the task to “clean up idealists’ messes.”

Milbank observes that idealists  are responsible for previous messes throughout American history. Idealistic generations led us into the U.S. Civil war, followed by a similar generation leading into the Great Depression, and with the latest incarnation of idealists giving us everything from civil disobedience in the 1960s to the financial collapse of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession.

But our columnist also offers hope via the next up-and-coming generation of Millennials. If history repeats itself, it will be today’s twenty-somethings who will take the helm as the next installment of Civics, building on the clean-up by Gen X of the now fractured American polity.

What Generation Jesus?

Can the American experience be translated back into the era of 1st century Palestine? Consider the evidence that Jesus’ generation may serve as a remarkable forerunner of today’s baby boomer set:

  • Start with The Civics – some of the greatest builders and power players the world has ever known – Caesar Augustus, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Herod the Great – all born between about 63 and 83 BC. Just as the Civics of the last century produced leaders of great good (Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Marshall), so this generation also produced those of great evil (as with Hitler and Stalin). Much the same could be said of the Civics that preceded Christ.
  • Then look for the Adaptives – a relatively silent generation then as well as more recently. Examples of persons born from the 50s to 20s BC include the conservative Jewish philosophical leaders Shammai (a counterpoint to the older and more liberal Hillel), Johanan ben Zakai (a primary contributor to the core text of Rabbinical Judaism after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD), and Philo (Jewish Hellenistic philosopher). Another born with this generation was the man who would become Emperor Tiberius during Jesus adulthood (and who retreated from the rigors of imperial governance for the isle of Capri after his own mid-life crisis).
  • Now we come to the Idealists – persons born from about 20 BC to the first decade of the common era – including Jesus, Jesus’ mother Mary (at the older end of the same generation), the disciples, Paul the apostle, and the birth of the Jewish zealot movement.
  • Finally, there are the Reactives – those born up to about 30 AD including King Herod Agrippa II (respected by Paul) and the Roman General and future Emperor Vespasian (who initially led the fight to suppress the Jewish insurrection against Rome starting 66-67 AD).

As is potentially the case with today’s Millennials who follow in the footsteps of America’s Greatest Generaion, so there was a new round of Civics born in the Mediterranean region in the decade of the 30s (about or just after the time of the crucifixion of Jesus). Examples are Luke (the writer of a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles), Josephus (Jewish general turned historian), and Emperor Titus (son of Vespasian, conquerer of Jerusalem and acclaimed final builder of the Roman Coliseum).

The Road Ahead

Despite strong condemnation of today’s baby boom generation, columnist Milbank concludes as bullish on prospects for a better world – as the reins of leadership and power are inevitably transferred from “narcissitic” boomers to Generation X and then the Millennials.

But just how rosy is that future? Yes, America patched up the wounds of the Civil War over the decades that followed. And, after another generation of idealists led us into the Great Depression, a world war pulled us out – establishing American preeminence that only now is beginning to fade. In both instances, the case can be made that the U.S. ended up better than before – despite the pain and suffering in-between.

But there is a darker scenario to consider – the experience of the 1st century AD. Rome fared well but first century Judea did not survive its spell of what Milbank terms as “hyper-partisanship and polarization and gridlock.” Rather than solving their own problems, the cities of Judea and Galilee were destroyed and the population dispersed – waiting nearly 1,900 years for the long awaited re-establishment  of a Jewish state in Israel. Two millennia earlier, the ultimate idealist – Jesus of Nazareth – saw it all coming in advance but stepped aside for history to take its own course.

As an American nation and as a global community, we may get lucky again – survive, heal and rebuild from the nasty divides engendered by the Clinton-Trump campaigns – not to mention all the rocky battles ahead. A positive outcome is by no means assured. The downside risk is that this American experiment fails; that democracy is proven as not sustainable. The Gen X’ers may start but not finish their clean-up of Boomer inflicted wounds on each other and the nations. Millennials will never get their chance to rebuild anew. And the world will be the worse for it.

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Where Are The Christians (Part 2)?

Yes, it’s finally time to take on Part 2 of our blog titled “Where Are The Christians?” As research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has demonstrated, the Christians of today aren’t where we might think. Unlike a century ago when two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, there is a different story-line today.

Western civilization no longer has the monopoly on Christianity. As summarized by Pew, today’s “Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.”

That’s the good news. For the first time in human history, the gospel is reaching into every nook and cranny of the globe – in fulfillment of the Great Commission.

But in our last post, we also outlined the bad news which is two-fold: a) the cradle of Christianity has been left behind; and b) former centers of Christianity as in Europe are increasingly nominal in their faith and practice.

Three possible reasons were advanced for this conundrum:

  • Christianity is a religion of the poor
  • God intentionally wills the action to keep shifting
  • The Church has misunderstood the Commission, making Christianity unsustainable wherever it has taken root

Let’s examine each of these, in turn.

A Religion of the Poor

This argument, as summarized from the last post, is that as people become more affluent and cosmopolitan, they see less need for God. While appealing intellectually, this argument is not well supported by the history of the Jesus movement.

Despite claims that Jesus’ roots in Galilee were impoverished, the evidence suggests otherwise. During his sojourn on earth, Galilee was well populated with multiple urban centers, burgeoning empire-competitive industries, and increasing manifestations of wealth. Just a stone’s throw from Nazareth, Sepphoris was destroyed at about the time of Jesus birth and rebuilt as the capitol of Galilee during his boyhood – a possible place of employment for his earthly father Joseph.

As a young man, the capitol shifted to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee – another major construction project. Jesus relocated a few miles north to Capernaum – renowned for its global fishing prowess and business activity for some of his earliest disciples. The so-called “Jesus boat” found and now museum-displayed represents sophisticated mortise and tenon joinery, not the work of unsophisticated country rubes.

In Jerusalem, Jesus had (a few) friends in high and wealthy places – like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. His movement was supported by women of means, including the wife of the king’s steward.

We find a similar story in Paul’s evangelization of the Roman world. Paul was himself both a Jew trained by the top teacher of his day and a Roman citizen. He took his message to the most important and wealthiest cities of the empire – including Antioch, Corinth, Athens and Rome. Those who heard him and responded were a wide range of urbanites – ranging from slaveowners to slaves,business owners to laborers.

The message of Jesus has fared best when carried forth by persons and communities representing all walks of life – from the least to the most favored. Where the message has faltered has been in places like Europe where the favored elites abandoned even the pretense of faith. Or in the US where academics schooled in places that were founded to train pastors have transitioned to become bastions of agnosticism and atheism.

Is this disconnect inevitable or is it the result of something else? If Christianity is to again become relevant in the cultured west, it needs to again compete for the minds and the pocketbooks of the elite as well as the marginalized. For the urban cores as well as the suburbs and rural types. It’s happened before and can again. Read on.

God Moves On

This argument is that God may intentionally will the action to keep shifting. Christianity transitions from its initial home in the Levant to Rome to western Europe to North America – and now to the southern hemisphere. Hearts initially receptive to the gospel inevitably become hardened – as people and nations turn to other priorities. And God looks for greener pastures for the flock of tomorrow.

While this path seems to be borne out by the evidence of history, there remains the question as to whether this course is inevitable. Can the cycle of sin to faith to backsliding be broken? Is Christianity sustainable?

The answer is maybe yes. But this depends on first understanding the third and final reason for Christian demise.

The Church Misread the Commission

When Jesus commanded making “disciples of all nations,” he wasn’t asking for nations of Christian robots. No as he himself states, Jesus came not to bring peace, but division – even in his own church. As iron sharpens iron, so the church can sharpen itself and maintain its competitive edge, but only if heterodoxy is prized over orthodoxy.

The first three centuries after Jesus’ resurrection were ones of extraordinary church planting and growth – despite imperial opposition and persecution. A key reason was that no single entity controlled the entire movement. There were great and healthy debates over issues ranging from the deity of Jesus to the determination of how to re-integrate those who apostatized during periods of persecution to the question of which books belonged in a New Testament canon.

This free-market of Christian belief and practice came to an end in 325 AD with the Council of Nicaea and a church creed imposed by imperial command. The inevitable outcome was a 1,200 year slide into monopolistic mediocrity – in matters both spiritual and material.

With Luther and Calvin, there came the prospect of renewed diversity. However, as each nation (or region) adopted its own state religion the practical on-the-street outcome was continued monopoly. And when these state monopolies came into unbridled conflict, the result was attrition by armed conflict ending in two world wars. Religion was rightly perceived as part of the problem, not the solution. So Europeans while nominally Christian have essentially walked away from any day-to-day interaction with their God.

America has had it slightly better, so far. When Puritanism got too overbearing, Roger Williams could go next door to Rhode Island, start a Baptist congregation and become the father of American religious liberty. The Catholics got their piece in Maryland. And Pennsylvania, while nominally Quaker, offered a little something for everybody.

This perhaps explains why committed Christians retain a stronger hold in the U.S. than Europe. However, with the late 20th century collapse of mainline Christianity, there is now little effective check on an ever more fundamentalist bent that runs from any urbane assumption of secular as well as spiritual responsibility.

Where to from Here?

The hypothesis advanced by this discussion is that the only way to not only build but sustain Christianity is to embrace diversity over uniformity, heterodoxy over orthodoxy, market competition over monopolistic mediocrity. Putting Christianity back into the urban fray.

How might this play out across the globe? A few ideas:

  • In Europe, reminders of the intensity of a Christian past can be found in art – each painter investing his own take of the truth. Rediscover and value the diverse messages behind the art. Making God relevant can again be invigorating, even fun. And encouraging a greater mixing of Protestant, Catholic, and offbeat Christian expression within the borders of each nation-state.
  • America needs mainline churches that can capture the imagination of Millennials, putting God back in the marketplace. Giving their fundamentalist and pentecostal brethren a reason to again compete – bringing us all back to re-examine scriptural truth.
  • With a pope of their own, South America perhaps epitomizes the ability for a seemingly ossified Catholic church to reinvigorate – partly with the help of pentecostal influences in and outside the church. The challenge will be to keep a good thing going – without reverting to winner-take-all theology.
  • Burgeoning Christian movements in Asia bring needed new blood and new perspectives to the faith – but with a need for participants east and west to revel in rather than stifle multiple and heterodox streams of Christian practice.
  • And the Levant could again benefit from the civilizing effects of greater toleration of religious and cultural diversity – among varied strains of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian expression.

Conflict, not peace. That’s the name of the game. God’s game – for our gain. An internally competitive church brings out the best in Christian faith. There is greater opportunity for God to personalize his gifts to the talents and needs of each individual and faith community. We compete in love and mutual respect – with resulting unity in the God of our salvation.

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Where Are the Christians?

Where are the Christians? Not where you would think:

  • As of 2010, the U.S. stood at 247 million Christians, most of any nation in the world. #2 is Brazil, followed by Mexico, Russia, the Philippines, Nigeria and China.
  • The only European country currently in the top 10 of Christian nations is Germany, at #8 with 58 million. In 1910, Europe had about 2/3 of the world’s self-professed Christians. Today, only a bit over one-quarter of all Christians globally hail from the Euro continent. Today, China claims more Christians than any European country except Russia.
  • The Global South accounted for only about 18% of all Christians in 1910; 100 years later this emerging region of the world represents almost 61% of all Christians. The South also now claims a Catholic Pope as one of their own.
  • The Global South includes places like South America and Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa today has over 500 million Christians (up from less than 10 million in 1910) and almost as many professing Christians as all of Europe.
  • The middle eastern cradle of Christianity accounts for less than 1% of all Christians globally. Less that 4% of the residents of this region call themselves Christian; the overwhelming proportion are Muslim.

Who says this? These statistics are the result of research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in a 2011 report titled: Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.

Where are Xians (graph)

All together, there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world today. However, those who call themselves Christisns today make up not quite one-third (32%) of the world’s population – down from 35% in 1910.

With 1.1 billion adherents, Catholics account for just over 50% of all Christians globally. They are followed by traditions of Protestants (37%), Orthodox (12%) and other Christians including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists  (at just over 1% each).

Good News or Bad News?

Are these changes good or bad for the Christian movement – now two millennia old? The good news is that Christianity has come closer to achieving the Great Commission of Jesus – to preach the gospel to every nation. Christianity now truly extends into almost every nook and cranny of the globe.

The bad news is two-fold. First, the cradle of Christianity has been left behind formerly Christian-dominated nations like Turkey (the churches of Asia Minor founded by Paul the Apostle), Palestine (centers of learning led by the theologians and historians such as Origen and Eusebius), Egypt (home to those who gave Christianity the books of the New Testament and the Nicene Creed) and Algeria (birthplace of St. Augustine). This cradle has since been upended by other religious movements (primarily Islam).

Second, it appears that numbers do not necessarily equate to intensity of belief and practice. Europe still nominally accounts for over one-quarter of those globally who call themselves Christians. But as we all know, the Christianity of Europe is largely just that – nominal. A cultural and social artifact.

God Moves On …

The evidence of the last 2,000 years clearly indicates that Christianity is not sustainable as a place-bound religion. Areas of the world once known for their faith have moved on to other gods – both spiritual and secular. And we are left to wonder why.

Three possible reasons come to mind:

  1. Christianity is a religion of the poor. As has been famously attributed to Karl Marx, “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Once the Christian work and social ethic takes hold, the poor become the middle class and religious expression fades in favor of materialism, the welfare state, and/or intellectualism that sees no need for God.
  2. God intentionally wills the action to keep shifting. Perhaps this is due to divine retribution for sin. The torch is passed from the Hebrews of the Old Testament to the Greeks and Romans of the New Testament because Jesus “came unto his own and they received him not.”  Any people eventually turn their minds from spiritual to other priorities. The Hebrews followed after other Gods; the Puritan ethic of New England in the end favors work over enforced religious zeal. 
  3. The Church has misunderstood its Commission, making Christianity unsustainable wherever it has taken root. Jesus came to bring not peace, but division – even in his own Church. What God wants is heterodoxy, not orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the “winner take all” approach of Christendom since the 4th century has meant that the new regime always comes at the expense of the old. The early churches of Asia Minor (Turkey) give way to western Europe to North America and now to South America and Africa.

For a clue as to which reason appears most salient, tune in for the next installment of this blog.

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