You say that Christianity in North America and Europe is going through a paradigm change-that a new vision of how to be Christian is emerging. What is it and why is it happening?
Broadly speaking, there are two different visions of Christianity in North America today. The earlier vision is the product of the last few hundred years, especially the last 150 years. This earlier vision of Christianity is literalistic in its understanding of the Bible, absolutist in its understanding of the ethical teachings of the Bible, and exclusivist--meaning Christianity is the only way.
That's the vision of Christianity that the majority of us grew up with, whether we are mainline Protestant, Catholic, or conservative Protestant. But that way of seeing Christianity has become unpersuasive to millions of people--who can't be literalists or absolutists or exclusivists. But now there is an emerging vision, an emerging paradigm.
The conflict between these two paradigms can be seen in many different places. In the second half of the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century we saw conflict over evolution. Thirty years ago the conflict was over ordination of women in mainline denominations, and of course today we see the conflict about gays and lesbians in the church. For Protestants, the two visions have everything to do with biblical authority. The earlier vision sees the Bible as divine product with a divine guarantee to be true. The emerging vision sees the Bible as a human historical product, the product of two ancient communities [Judaism and Christianity]. It tells us what they thought, not what God thinks.
My book has almost an evangelistic purpose--to show that Christianity makes persuasive and compelling sense, that the intellectual stumbling blocks that many people experience with Christianity are unnecessary and artificial and largely the creation of the last few hundred years. I'm persuaded that Christianity, rightly understood, makes sense--and so do Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And they make very much the same kind of sense.
You say the original way of seeing Christianity has become untenable for a lot of people. How do you know this?
Mainline denominations have seen a membership decline of roughly 40% over the last 35 years. But most of the people leaving mainline denominations have not joined more conservative churches. They've simply dropped out. Presumably, a major reason many of them dropped out is that the form of Christianity they learned growing up ceased to make compelling sense to them. If it had made sense, they still would be in the church.
Another example: The vast majority of Americans, according to polls taken in 2002, cannot be religious exclusivists. Only 18% of people surveyed in two different polls taken in 2002 said yes to "My religion is the only true religion." Another example: In a Gallup poll taken in 1963, 65% of the sample were biblical literalists. By 2001 that figure had gone down to 21%.
But hasn't this issue of the paradigm shift, how to make Christianity relevant, been going on for at least 35 years? What is different now?
The shift has been going on in seminaries for over a century. It actually began a couple hundred years ago, but then it was a tiny circle of theological elites. Maybe in the last 10-15 years it's become a major grassroots movement among the laity. If you look at the number of religious bestsellers on the New York Times list, all of them reflect the emerging paradigm, with the exception of the Left Behind series.
Well, mainline denominations stopped losing members around 1993 and since then have shown very modest growth, less than 1% a year, but they're not hemorrhaging anymore. Increasingly, the people left in mainline denominations are very intentional Christians, as opposed to simply conventional Christians.
I believe the appetite for what I call the "emerging paradigm" is very large in terms of the number of invitations that I and other [liberal biblical] scholars get. We all receive maybe three to four times as many invitations as we can accept. And these invitations are mostly from congregations. So I see a strong appetite in the church for a different way of looking at Christianity.