25 in the 2000s: religious stories

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Sunday, November 29th, 2009

25 in the 2000s: religious stories

this is part of an ongoing series called 25 in the 2000s. if you want a bit of information about the series, you can find the introduction here.

it seem as if the last 10 years have been a particularly explosive and salient time in the world of religion. from a new pope to the brazen use of religion in political campaigns to the culture of islamic suspicion since 9/11, religion has been at the forefront of conversation and headlines. in the following list, i’ll talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the decade in religion.

25. Westboro Baptist Church. fred phelps and his legion of crazies in topeka, kansas have been around for several decades, but it’s over the last 10 years that they’ve soared to the top of the headlines for their anti-gay picketing as well as protesting of deceased soldiers’ funerals. as the homosexuality debate within the church increases, we’ll only see more of their sad antics.

24. Christian Publishing Bestsellers. it’s difficult to talk about american christianity, particularly, in the last decade without talking about the christian book publishing frenzy. from the left behind series (and subsequent awful films) to the prayer of jabez to anything by joel osteen, christians couldn’t get enough of cheesy, watered-down theology in book form. sure, we had moments of light like don miller’s blue like jazz, but that was a bit of an oasis in the desert of bad.

23. Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy. in 2005, the danish newspaper, jyllands-posten, ran 12 editorial cartoons largely depicting image of the prophet muhammad. to put it lightly, muslims weren’t that fond of the cartoons, leading to protests, violence in the streets, burning of the danish embassies in syria, lebanon and iran and eventual death threats.

22. Faith Based Government Programs. one of president bush’s hallmark domestic policies was the formation of the white house office of faith-based and community initiatives in 2001. of all the blunders that bush orchestrated, this initiative was actually successful, as he realized the financial and numerical power of the faith community in the united states. in 2009, president obama chose to continue the program.

21. Lakeland Revival/Todd Bentley. also known as the florida healing outpouring, this 2008 revival—originally intended to last 5 nights—lasted for over six months. led by evangelist todd bentley of fresh fire ministries, it was estimated that over 140,000 attended and 1.2 million watched online. on its own, the revival was a big story, but it became even bigger when abc’s nightline ran a report detailing bentley’s false healing claims, finances and criminal history.

20. Christian Music Goes Mainstream. the aughts were the best of times for christian music and the worst of times. sadly, the worst of times may be ultimately more fitting, but certainly, when it was good it was good. from p.o.d. to switchfoot to flyleaf, christian music has regularly found its way onto mainstream airwaves and the rotation at mtv. in a spiritually charged culture, it’s become less difficult to make it big.

19. Jeremiah Wright. former pastor of trinity united church of christ—the obama family’s home church in chicago—reverend wright became a lightning rod in the 2008 presidential campaigns due to his inflammatory statements such as “god damn america” and the “united states of kkk america”. famously, wright’s remarks led to obama’s speech titled, a more perfect union.

18. The Rise of Scientology. in the mid-50s, l. ron hubbard—founder of scientology—launched project celebrity in which he targeted celebrities to convert to scientology in order to become prominent disseminators of the religion. it worked. and in the last decade, these efforts have been particularly in the forefront with the likes of tom cruise and john travolta singing its praises. the greatest scientology moment, of course: “matt, matt, matt, matt…you’re glib.”

17. Postmodernism/Relativism. it’s difficult to overstate the impact of postmodernism on today’s religious landscape. cultures shift and american religious culture has decidedly shifted toward relativism in which all religions are equal in truth (or non-truth) value. all in all, though, i’ve consistently said that postmodernism is quite possibly a good thing for christianity, as long as the church understands it and reacts properly.

16. Saddleback Church Presidential Debate. regardless of whether you like or dislike rick warren and saddleback church, it’s certainly a monumental moment in our nation’s history when a presidential debate is held at a church—or any religious establishment, for that matter—and centers around issues of faith. now, unfortunately, the “debate” wasn’t really a debate and the questions were pretty softball, but it was still a big moment in religion and politics.

15. The Rise of the Megachurch. speaking of saddleback, the impact of the rise of the megachurch can’t be overstated. saddleback alone has been responsible for mass copycatting across the united states and when you throw in joel osteen’s lakewood church, ed young’s fellowship church and willow creek, the effect is only duplicated that much more. don’t get me wrong, there’s been some good stuff from all the aforementioned churches, but certainly, the megachurch mentality has also done some damage to the american church psyche.

14. Mother Teresa’s Season of Doubt. nearly 5 years after her death, mother teresa’s diaries were published and some fascinating and somewhat shocking revelations were discovered. no one knew, but for nearly 50 years, she struggled with what she described as great emptiness in her spiritual life. her life and ministry were plagued with doubts and uncertainties about her life’s mission. it was a great reminder that even the giants of the faith experience intense seasons of doubt.

13. The Rise of the Christian Blogosphere. much like mainstream culture, for better or for worse, the blogosphere has given way to the culture of “everyone-has-a-voice.” i view this as largely a good thing, whereas the powerful are no longer in control of the conversation. there’s a wealth of information, insight, criticism and speculation out there concerning religion. while certainly the blogosphere has always paved the way for some good ol’ wars of words, it’s been largely a great thing.

12. A New Pope.in 2005, the world mourned the loss of one of the most beloved pope’s, john paul II, and watched as pope benedict XVI was elected as the new leader of the catholic church. while there is certainly quite a bit of grandiosity and excess to the election of a new pope that i find sad and off-putting, it is certainly a sight that i found myself glued to via nearly every news outlet on television and the internet. benedict has brought a new era of conservatism, so his election had an immediate theological impact on the world’s largest religious group.

11. 9/11 and the Islam Fallout. little more can be said about the impact of 9/11, but one of the realities is that it brought the world of islam to the forefront. sadlly for our islamic friends, it brought forth, more or less, only the worst aspects. in a single moment, a group of extremists hijacked (seriously, no pun intended) a religion and (likely) forever changed the american perspective of it. while there were pockets of american empathy toward islamic arab-americans, there have been much greater areas of suspicion and disdain.

10. Jerry Falwell. in 2007, the world lost one of the most controversial, bombastic, fundamentalist, in-the-news, fear-mongering pastors it ever knew. there’s plenty to say about the founder of thomas road baptist church, liberty university and the moral majority, but his remarks about the 9/11 tragedy may best summarize his gift to the 2000s:

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

09. Ted Haggard. “pastor ted” was the founder and former pastor of new life church in colorado springs, colorado, founder of the association of life-giving churches and leader of the national association of evangelicals. annnnnnnd, then he had an affair with a gay prostitute and smoked some meth. the proverbial shit, indeed, hit the fan. haggard was certainly demonized by all sides, but i have to say, after watching the documentary, the trials of ted haggard, i felt deep sympathy towards a man who is clearly repentant and continuing to fight demons.

08. The New Atheism. over the last decade, there has been a national conversation, following a series of best-selling books and media spots, that has been called the new atheism. led by authors such as sam harris, daniel dennett, richard dawkins and christopher hitchens, their plight to remove religion from the public consciousness has gained quite a bit of traction in the light of christian hypocrisy, scandals and the perception of islam following 9/11.

07. The New Calvinists. oh, the new calvinists. my friends….. led by the likes of john piper, mark driscoll, matt chandler, al mohler and even ed stetzer (to an extent), this group has looked to restore “correct doctrine” while doing church in modern, relevant ways. some of the hallmarks of this group are militant doctrine, regular attacks on anyone connected to the emerging church (though they’ve co-opted the term in some situations) and extreme conservative political stances that are equated to biblical standards. which brings me to my next point…

06. The Emerging Church. in the late 90s, a group of young pastors—including tony jones, doug pagitt, chris seay, mark driscoll and brian mcclaren—gathered to talk about the shifts happening in american christianity. after a couple fallouts and a bit of splintering, emergent village formed and began to reshape the way many “emerging” christians viewed scripture, the church and god himself. since that time, many “denominations” of emerging churches have since been named, but regardless of the splintering, the impact continues to grow and mutate.

05. The Joel Osteen Effect. dubbed “cotton candy theology”, joel osteen’s message is as fluffy as his mullet and cheesy smile. BUT, let me not downplay the immense effect he’s had on christianity in the last 10 years. for better or for worse, osteen is one of the leading voices in the american christianity consciousness. his book are little more than self-help books, but they’ve caught like wildfire and can assuredly find their way to the top of the new york times bestseller list with each release.

04. The Passion Of The Christ. christians are desperate for heroes. and they found one in 2004’s the passion of the christ director mel gibson. the guy who womanized throughout the better part of the 80s and 90s—not to mention played mad max—was now the poster child for all that’s good and holy. the intense sensationalism and controversy surrounding the movie easily made it one of the top religious stories of the past decade (and beyond). the movie, despite all the aforementioned swirling issues, was actually a well-made and well-directed movie.

03. Catholic Priest Sex Scandal. one of the sad realities of this decade is that you cannot talk about it without bringing up the catholic priest sex scandal. after millions of dollars of legal settlements and under-the-table priest-shuffling, the catholic church has faced an intense amount of deserved shame. many were to blame for this fiasco. the evil of the actual molestation is at the root, but the many people who helped to cover this up and turn the blind eye were of equal blame.

02. The Homosexuality Debate. another sad reality of the past decade in religion is the intense and ongoing homosexuality debate. in the first half of the decade, george bush and karl rove devised a plan to rally their base, campaigning on a traditional interpretation of marriage. what occurred was that the evangelical population bit and the church found itself engrossed in a hotbed of political and religious debate. it has only intensified since now that various denominations have visited the issue of gay clergy. ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of the debate is that it really stems from a certain political stance and was then co-opted by a particular brand of christianity. i’m not suggesting that this conversation doesn’t have a place in the church (it does), but the tone and vigor of debate should be very, very different. which brings me to #1…

01. Christian = Republican. karl rove deserves an award. he deserves a shrine or a monument. no one in the history of politics have been able to pull off such a great and sweeping coup as what happened when karl rove, george bush and the republican party convinced millions of evangelical christians that one of the pillars of christian expression is voting only for republicans. to vote for a democrat is to vote against your god, your scriptures and your conscience. amazing. for decades, many christians actually sided with democrats (like my ultra-conservative grandparents), but the elections of 2000 and 2004 changed the game for a very long time. the trickle-down effect is that, now, in order to be a doctrinally-sound, morally-upright christian (shall i say, a new calvinist…), you must despise barack obama and any policy he propagates. you must put abortion at the top of your sins list, or, at minimum, gay marriage. you must vehemently oppose anyone who doesn’t want to throw out all the immigrants. you must wave the banner of war and the death penalty. these things, of course, are at the heart of christianity and, subsequently, republicanism.

so there you have it. there’s the list. what do you think? i’ve certainly missed some big stories. what are they? i’ve, no doubt, ranked some things too high or too low. what are they? help me to flesh out and “correct” my list.

see you in a few days with my next list: technological innovations.