Signs of the Times

By Mark RodgersDo you hear that sound? Do you feel it? Hold on tight. The sand is shifting under your feet.And the election of Pope Francis was a sign of the times.One out of five Americans are no longer identifying themselves as affiliated with any particular religion or religious community. This is a trend that has accelerated over the past decade, notably among the young. I would assume that most are "spiritual" but not institutionally identified, which is a key marker for Millennials in general.Globally, 84% of the world's population has a religious affiliation, heavily weighted to the East and South. America has always been an outlier (we are still an ocean away from Europe), but it is immigration that has in large measure kept our religiosity high.This shift is especially true with Evangelicals. The mainline has been in decline for decades, but Evangelicalism in its familiar form may have begun to enter its own.However, as the cover of Christianity Today illustrates, something new is afoot. Young evangelicals may be eschewing the old paradigm of “preachy” proclamation and political engagement, but they are replacing it with service and a more subtle way of sharing their faith.And what may emerge is common ground between the Catholic Church’s New Evangelization as embodied by Pope Francis and the New Evangelical agenda led by such voices as Shane Claiborne, Francis Chan and David Platt. There are four areas of that common ground that I see firming up:Both care for the poor and are committed to defending the dignity of all life.Both are inclined to humble service and constructive engagement rather than use of partisan politics to advance the Kingdom of God, while not rejecting engagement with government to promote justice.Both promote what C. S. Lewis called Mere Christianity in a more secularized West, as evidenced by the growing acceptance of the Alpha program in Protestant and Catholic communities.Both understand that need to affirm the creative community within the Church as essential to communication to the culture at large.At Clapham, we have worked in all of these areas, but most notably the convergence of culture and cause. What will emerge in this arena will be “Signposts” different than what has been posted in the past, which may disturb the old, but certainly resonate with the new. In his book Signposts in a Strange Land, Walker Percy reminds us that a good story is “like a good table.”“The parts have to fit,” he writes. “Its truth lies in the way it looks, feels, hefts ... its morality follows from the form and excellence of the thing ... its morality comes from within, follows naturally from its making and is not imposed from without. It does not preach."In closing, I want to raise two well built Signposts that disturb, tell the truth, and do not preach that I have recently encountered. These are the signs of the times that I hope “the next” will have permission to post in our public squares:Earlier this month we saw The Convert at the Woolly Mammoth theatre written by an acquaintance, Danai Gurira, a Christian who also currently stars as Michonne in The Walking Dead, currently the #1 rated television drama in the 18-49 demographic, male and female. The Convert is set at the turn of the 19th Century, when a young girl in Zimbabwe escapes an arranged marriage and is converted to Christianity. The Church, however, is identified with colonial power (and abuses), and she is forced to choose between her heritage and new faith. The outcome is not neat and tidy, as many “faith-based” stories are, and we were challenged in a remarkably good way by its complexity. It is, therefore, much truer to the life that most of us know than what is often represented in content created for the faith audience.The other story is equally “messy” and equally “true.” The book Silence, written by the great Japanese author Shusako Endo, tells a similar story of colonialization and Christianity. In this case, it is an early 17th century Japanese reaction to western influence that cleanses the nation from Catholic presence. The book explores complex cultural and religious collisions that profoundly shaped the future of Japan. Martin Scorsese’s next film is an adaptation of the book, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Benicio del Toro affiliated with the project. There are no easy answers, in fact virtually no word at all from God, to the suffering that is experienced. But the mystery lies in the Silence that shares in our suffering.The sand is shifting, but it may just be uncovering common ground for the common good that we have not experienced before.