What might the next century hold for religion?

Although the 20th century has been a challenging one for religion--one in which its irrelevance or obsolescence has repeatedly been declared--the past ten or fifteen years have demonstrated in very concrete ways the strength of the religious impulse. Booming book sales in religion have spoken of a continuing spiritual hunger.

As we enter the 21st century, will organized religion survive, perhaps even become more vital than ever? What will be the key issues facing religion professionals in the next five to 10 years? What will be the role of religion publishers in addressing contemporary challenges and opportunities? These are some of the questions we posed to our panel of distinguished experts.


Seeking More Community

The wide-ranging "seeker spirituality" that has dominated the religious landscape in the decades leading up to the year 2000 will find some moorings and anchor itself during the first years of the new millennium, predicts Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of close to 60 books on American religion. Marty believes that all of those people who say they're spiritual but not religious, who encounter the Divine while meditating or at weekend retreats and who find their "bibles" in the spirituality section at Barnes & Noble are going to start seeking community. "As they mature, they'll find that not all wisdom is born within," says Marty, who is also a Lutheran minister.

This turn away from hyper-individualism and toward community already is happening. "Free-flowing individualists" like Marianne Williamson and Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch still appeal to many seekers, but they are being overshadowed by writers such as Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, who are connected -- if only loosely -- to a faith tradition. "These are people who 'give the church a chance,' although in nontraditional ways," notes Marty. Joining the spiritual writing by these more "moored" writers will be many serious trade books reflecting the widening conversation between science and religion in areas such as cosmology, evolution and the brain, according to Marty.

He also envisions a spiritual "desert" or "wilderness" created by the triumph of the market and economic globalization. "The market has simply won," he says. "But it isn't feeding the soul." To respond to the spiritual devastation created by the omnipresence of market values and thinking, Marty urges deeper philosophical and theological reflection. He hopes authors will address such issues as stewardship, mission and the gap between the rich and poor. "But it will be fatal if it's done in a preachy style. It has to be done by people who've been through it." --Heidi Schlumpf


New Lines, Labels, Literacy

As Phyllis Tickle sees it, developments in American religion offer significant opportunities for religion book publishers. Tickle naturally thinks that way, having been the religion editor for PW from 1991 to 1996. The author most recently of God-Talk in America (Crossroad, 1997) and a contributing editor for PW since 1996, she has just completed work on The Divine Hours, a series of prayer manuals for Christian fixed-hour prayer. The first of three volumes, Prayers for Summertime, will be published by Doubleday in March 2000.

A prolific writer and popular speaker on religion and religion publishing, Tickle predicts that American Protestantism in particular is in for a new look and some new labeling. The old denominational hierarchies are crumbling, she says, and the dividing lines between the various communions within Protestantism are blurring. What will take their place, she believes, is new groupings of believers, like liturgical Baptists or charismatic Episcopalians, who will realign themselves along lines of practice rather than theology. Organizational hierarchies will be replaced by networks of communication, many of them Internet-based and all of them offering a greater role for local congregations.

Such a tectonic shift in American Protestantism opens the door for publishers to offer books and materials about and for the new players in a changed religious landscape. "We are indeed in postdenominationalism, by whatever name you want to call it," says Tickle. " -- Marcia Z. Nelson


The Danger of 'Idolatry''

Like the biblical prophets he has written about, Cornel West is ready to castigate America for its idolatry. The professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Harvard sees Americans enmeshed in a market culture that prefers maximum profit and minimum charity over social transformation and equal justice. So the danger American religion faces is dilution by the values of the marketplace and degradation into the worship of mammon

. "Pecuniary success becomes the center of religious practices," says West, who is equally fluent in the languages of the pulpit and lecture hall. "You might have a little charity on the side, but you basically you have a religion of idolatry."