What is the sociological significance of the New Calvinists?

What is a sociologist of religion to make of the New Calvinism?

The New Calvinists, by which I mean that branch of American Evangelicalism that has arisen in the past 20 years centered on Reformed theology and complementarianism (including but not limited to the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd), don’t constitute a majority of Evangelicalism. I’d wager they’re very much in the minority theologically. Yet they seem to have influence within Evangelicalism that far exceeds their size as a group. Time Magazine, after all, called it one of their “10 Ideas Changing the World’ back in 2009- a claim that I met skeptically, particularly in light of the explosion of Pentecostalism in the global south during the same time period. Of all the religious movement in the world, why on earth should the activity of a wing of American Evangelicalism garner so much attention?

So my initial orientation to the question I posed at the beginning of this post was “Nothing worth speaking about”. I had chalked it up to the intrinsic stratification of the Western world (why mention the religious activity of millions of poor brown people when a handful of rich white Evangelicals are making graphic t-shirts?). In other words, the New Calvinism was a fad limited to a wing of Evangelicalism that ultimately was of no sociological significance.

Over the past couple of years, while exploring some literature in the sociology of culture and the sociology of knowledge, I’ve had the opportunity to reassess my position. While my assessment of the mere size of the movement is probably still accurate, my original conclusion couldn’t account for the vast cultural output of the New Calvinism (Books! Conferences! Rap music!), the celebrity status of their leaders or the fury with which they planted boundaries (Penal Substitution! ESV! Chromosme-based requirements for ministry!). Many conversations and shower-thoughts later, I came to the conclusion that the history and activity  of the New Calvinism is best described as a shift in American Evangelical identity. Below I’ve brief sketched some of the theoretical signposts that led to my conclusion (this is not a full argument by any means), in the hopes that it will make some sense of things.

  1. Culture, whatever else it is, is the power to define reality.
  2. Culture can be conceived as a sphere, with a center and periphery.
  3. At the center of cultural spheres are  ‘cultural elites’; they produce culture and command reality-defining power.
  4. New Calvinists are the major culture producers within American Evangelicalism, and have moved to its cultural center.
  5. As the cultural elites of Evangelicalism, the New Calvinists are uniquely situated to wield reality-defining power.
  6. The end result is a shift in the cognitive and normative definitions of American Evangelicalism.
  7. So what is the sociological significance of the New Calvinists? The New Calvinism is the cognitive and normative redefinition of American Evangelicalism to be centered upon Reformed Complementarianism.

I think this can account for a lot of the Evangelical experience with the New Calvinist movement that has occurred in the past two decades. If accurate, it perhaps raises the stakes for those who have seen them as a source of irritation- for they’re not just a movement within a branch of Evangelicalism, but the cultural center of Evangelicalism. The takeaway is simple but broad in its implications: The New Calvinists currently own the power to define Evangelical reality.

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Creationism in America, and what we can know about “Most Christians”

EDIT: Peter has pointed out that I’ve wrongly assumed Dr. McGrath was referring to the United States as the population in question. Regardless, I hope others will find this post interesting.

Dr. James McGrath over at Exploring our Matrix has two new, related posts. The first makes the claim that “Most Christians” do not deny science (i.e. evolution); while the second post acknowledges

“that it is almost impossible to figure out what with precision what “most Christians” think, believe, and practice, without actually asking most Christians…We can take surveys, but do “most Christians” respond to surveys?”.

As it is, both points are at best not entirely correct; the latter is certainly false, and the former doesn’t quite tell the entire story. As someone who studies religion from the social sciences, and who has devoted a good chunk of time to studying creationism as social phenomenon in general, I thought I would take this opportunity to share some basic statistics about creationism in the United States and the use of survey data in the study of religion.

In regards to Dr. McGrath’s first point, the majority of American Christians do not reject evolution, so he is technically correct. However, technical correctness doesn’t even begin to give an accurate picture of how popular creationism is in America today: the following pie chart, hastily constructed this afternoon, shows data from the Baylor Religion Survey’s 2007 wave:


Data:  Baylor Religion Survey Wave II from the Association of Religion Data Archives (www.thearda.com); N=1,214


A (razor-slim) majority of American Christians do not reject evolution- BUT, we can see, a plurality of American Christians DO reject evolution. The latest data from the Pew Research Group suggests that 46% of the American population (not just Christians) are creationists- so as an American phenomenon, creationism is certainly alive and well. A more nuanced picture emerges if we break down these percentages by the Religious Tradition measure used by sociologists of religion:


Data:  Baylor Religion Survey Wave II from the Association of Religion Data Archives (www.thearda.com); N=1,214


Clearly, a different story comes to light when we break down creationist beliefs by the major U.S. Christian traditions. Evangelicals and Black Protestants seem to be driving the popularity of creationism; Mainline Protestants and Catholics are more ambivalent, although not-insignificant percentages of these two groups also reject evolution. This suggests that speaking about what “most Christians” believe is sociologically unhelpful; Christianity in America in its major strands show distinct patterns of belief and behavior, and identifying these traditions is probably the first step to take if one submits to the temptation to generalize.

But how far can we generalize? This is the claim from Dr. McGrath’s second blog post, referenced earlier. Basically, what does survey data tell us? Can we really rely on it to give an accurate picture of populations in the hundreds of millions, like the United States? The observant reader may see that the number of respondents used for the Baylor Religion Survey data that I turned into graphs is 1,214. Surely a miniscule proportion of the population can’t tell us anything about the entire country!

Well….we can. I suppose I can ask you to take my word for it, since survey research is the kind of research I most often engage in. A long post regarding statistical theory would be unhelpful, but here are the very basics:

1. Surveys should be (generally) random, representative samples of the population in question

2. Surveys need to be sufficiently large for the sample to be analyzed with any degree of confidence.

It turns out that as long as (1) is fulfilled, (2) is not difficult to fulfill. A random, representative sample of 1,000 is terrific for most survey research- it’s about the sample size that’s used for public opinion polls that you might see on CNN.  In fact, while we enjoy having large samples to work with, anything over a few thousand or so is not necessary for a lot of sociological research. So a sample of 1300 American Christians, assuming a random, representative sample, can absolutely tell us what all Christians in the country believe within a confidence range of a few percentage points- very precise, in other words. That’s the beauty of survey statistics: we don’t have to ask “most Christians” to discover things about “most Christians”- and we don’t have to worry about whether “most Christians” answer surveys, because we don’t ask “most Christians” anyway!

Most quantitative sociological research on religion is done with some type of survey data analysis. The website where I obtained the data for this post, the Association of Religious Data Archives (www.theARDA.com) has a wealth of sociological data on religion free to use and explore, and includes many tools to make it accessible to those who do not have a statistical background. The data in this post took all of five minutes to collect and gather for graphing, for example.

In sum: Creationism can not be marginalized by appeal to majority rules- at least not in the United States. It is the single most common position among American Christians, distressing as this fact may be to some (myself included). And discovering what “most Christians” believe is, thanks to social statistics, quite reliable and accessible.


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Resources regarding the recent study of Gay Parenting

As reported today in various news outlets:

“A new study finds that adult children of parents in same-sex relationships fare worse socially, psychologically and physically than people raised in other family arrangement.”

via ABCnews.com

As student of sociology, and a keen observer of human behavior, I predict 2 probable reactions to this research:

1. Liberals get their knickers in a twist because of limitations in the study that have already been explicitly addressed and acknowledged by the principle investigators.

2. Conservatives jump on the opportunity to use the findings as a political tool, oblivious to the reality that they’re holding a toothpick but wielding it like its a club.

As predictions go I’m not going out on too much of a limb here. When God was handing out hotlines to the throne room of heaven I was passed over in favor of Pat Robertson, Harold Camping and other luminaries of the church. But I do have an interest in doing a small part in tempering the  unnecessarily heated reactions, from all over the political spectrum, to this research. Dr. Mark Regnerus, principle investigator of the study, works at the University of Texas, Austin, and our departments share some geographical proximity. I’m familiar with his body of work, and he is an excellent and exciting sociologist. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting him and he’s a very nice fellow. He is also a committed Catholic, and I suspect that piece of information about his personal life will be worked over in public as people react to this research. I understand the University of  Texas has been supportive of this study, despite knowing its controversial findings, so good on them. All to say, I expect there will be plenty of deserved attention directed towards Dr. Regnerus in undeserved ways.

Dr. Regnerus is also a contributor to Black, White and Grey, a blog by Christian sociologists (hosted by Patheos, but don’t hold that against them). He’s posted 2 entries in a series on the New Family Structures Study addressing questions and concerns about his research; if everyone read them before reacting to the outcome of the study there would be a good deal less misuse and misunderstanding about the results, but that is obviously too optimistic. My more modest goal is that the readers of Unsettled Christianity would give it a read and be better educated than the average person skimming news headlines. Also I’d like to send some more readers towards the blog, because the posts are generally very good and deserve more attention.

Part 1: Q & A with Mark Regnerus about the background of his new study

Part 2: More Info about the Study on Adult Children of Parents who have Same-Sex Relationships
If more posts in this series appear I will try to keep updating this post. But do visit their blog and spend some time learning about the process of social science research; I expect to have more contributions to this blog along that vein in the future.

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John Piper’s fuzzy logic on natural disasters

John Piper is, by all accounts, an intelligent person, so I remain mystified by the lapses in logic he displays when blogging about natural disasters like  the recent fury of storms in the Midwest United States. As a theologian he’s certainly more legitimate than a Pat Robertson-type figure so I’m forced to take him seriously, and I can appreciate his particular view of divine sovereignty even though it strongly repels me. Personal disagreements with his theology notwithstanding, the sheer failure of rational thinking on this particular subject is what I really find offensive.

Now, Piper doesn’t shy away from the tough questions that his brand of Calvinism raises. This week he admirably took on the question of “Why”: Why, if God executes meticulous and total control over all states of affairs, did he choose to lay the hammer on the Midwest and not somewhere else? From the blog post:

God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.

  • “The wind of the Lord, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and it shall strip Ephraim’s treasury of every precious thing” (Hosea 13:15).
  • The Lord turned the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea” (Exodus 10:19).
  • God appointed a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8).
  • God commanded and raised the stormy wind” (Psalm 107:25).

Via Desiring God


And two years ago, when a tornado ran through downtown Minneapolis:


Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados.

Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41)

Via Desiring God

The obvious point to make here is that none of these scriptures really support the idea that God is the one directing these natural disasters to occur. If it’s supposed to be a deductive argument then Piper is missing some key premises that he doesn’t really explain. Clearly, moving from

1: God caused disaster X to happen in the past


Conclusion: God causes all disasters that ever happen anywhere

requires some logical maneuvering. On the face of it its ridiculous, like arguing that, since I started my car this morning, I am therefore responsible at all times for any car in the world starting.

Alternatively these verses may be meant to provide evidence for the idea that God controls all events that occur in the world, as a type of inductive argument. This really isn’t much better, and probably worse. If these verses attest to occurrences of God’s specific intervention in the world then they constitute exceedingly weak evidence to the idea that God’s control is total and absolute. As another example, pointing out that I know my multiplication tables up to the fours is very weak evidence for the idea that I can calculate any conceivable mathematical problem on the fly.

I know elsewhere that John Piper has explicated and defended his view of divine sovereignty,  so perhaps it is a principle assumed for the purposes of his writing. On the other hand, its pretty clear he thinks these verses support his view, since he clearly presents them in this fashion. But any reader, Calvinist, Open Theist or atheist, should find the logical reasoning  wanting at best.



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John Piper and Masculine Christianity: An Interactive Post for our Readers

An exercise for our readers:

Read John Piper’s recent remarks about the masculine nature of Christianity.

Re-read those remarks, replacing all  instances of “man/man” and “masculine” with the words “Jew/Jews” and “Jewish.”

What do you notice about your results?

What does this imply about the modal logic skills that John Piper possesses, or does not possess?

Show your work.

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Leave Mars Hill alone (Driscoll is fair game though)

This will probably be the last time you see me being complimentary or defensive about Mars Hill Church, but it’s happening.

I’m using this picture because I couldn’t think of a better title for this post, and also because this is the kind of man that sends Mark Driscoll into testosterone-induced rage-strokes.

It’s been a busy month for Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Churches, and bloggers spent countless hours deconstructing Driscoll’s new book “Real Marriage” and the deliciously self-destructive interview with Justin Brierly of UK’s Premiere Radio. And just this week this blog post from Matthew Turner detailing the events leading to ex-Mars Hill member Andrew’s departure from the congregation hit the web; in terms of bad press, this latest situation may be the worst for the Seattle-based megachurch.

I’m not interested in discussing the rightness or wrongness of what happened, for several reasons. First, and most obviously, we have one side of a story that has more perspectives that have not been made public. I don’t want to dismiss Andrew’s experience or his understanding of what happened, but that’s not good enough for me to make a judgment about what occurred. Second, the voyeuristic part of this story strikes me as crass; I felt the same way about the wikileaks-style takedown of Sovereign Grace ministries last year. Gently (ahem) mocking Mark Driscoll’s writing and teachings are fair game; they’re made for public consumption and public engagement. Scrutininzing church documents without context or jumping on a church based on the blog post of a disaffected member is less appropriate, I believe. Third, just as someone who’s studied religious groups I recommend critical skepticism of ex-member’s accounts of their old religion; they tend to be exaggerated in descriptions of grievances, and their accounts are overwhelmingly and inaccurately negative (naturally, otherwise they wouldn’t have left). All to say, there’s not enough solid ground to make me want to wade into that swamp.

What I can offer is another perspective that I hope will be valuable. I want to turn something of a sociological eye on this situation: what reactions did we see? Why did we see the reactions that we saw? I think I’m in a unique position to understand some of the social dynamics of this fiasco. As a native of Seattle, and someone who attended Mars Hill (briefly) in college, I’m familiar with the church and its organization. I still have dozens of friends who attend there. On the other hand, I have a broad internet-based social network of theologically-minded individuals who are decidedly not on the same page as Mark Driscoll. The confluence of these social networks causes my Facebook feed to explode with contradicting opinions whenever these situations come up. In this latest example, I had many people more than willing to castigate Mars Hill for their handling of Andrew’s sin and many others who were defensive about the attention their church home was getting. So for the last week I’ve had box seats for a flame war between two groups of Christians who most decidedly did not understand each other.

I do think that the most interesting reactions have come from two groups, although there are certainly a variety of observers who could be organized in any number of ways. One group is the general anti-Driscoll crowd, the ones who dislike his teachings and behavior, not to mention the influence he wields. The second group are pro-Driscoll/Mars Hill, often members but necessarily so, who are puzzled by the harsh reaction to Andrew’s story. The anti-Driscoll crowd is just that: anti-Driscoll. That is, they often have no idea what life at Mars Hill Church is like, and their only exposure to the Mars Hill empire is through the sermons, interviews and writings of Driscoll.

From these sources they have an impression of Mark Driscoll as a person: brash, controlling, angry, etc. Since Driscoll, and their conception of him, are all they know about Mars Hill, when events like Andrew’s story hit the internet they tend to jump on it: it confirms what they think a church run by Mark Driscoll would look like. Driscoll is suddenly entangled in a story in which he’s not even really a character. The problem is that this situation is not at all representative of life at Mars Hill Church, which looks a lot like any average Evangelical megachurch. But one event turns into a rallying point, and all of a sudden Mars Hill is a cult. Members recoil at this characterization, get defensive and close ranks around their leaders, which of course only serves to embolden the detractors. And then before we know it there’s two angry groups who can’t understand why the other are so hostile.

So, I want to share with both groups some admonishments, using the God-given authority granted unto me in my status as a semi-anonymous blogger on the internet:

To the Anti-Driscoll crowd:

1. No, Mars Hill Church is not a cult. To say so is sloppy and sensationalistic, and laughable to people actually familiar with the church. IF we were to judge the Andrew’s situation based on his side of the story alone, we could surmise that Mars Hill Church’s attempt at church discipline was heavyhanded, although I suspect most of the controversy stems from miscommunication between all parties. But I think people familiar with the church should take umbrage at the accusation that Mars Hill is a cult-the daily life at Mars Hill Church is not different from what you would see at any Evangelical congregation, the people are genuinely seeking God’s glory and a lot of good things happen there. In short, don’t judge what you can’t see.

2. Secondly, Mark Driscoll should be separated from Mars Hill. We should recognize how unfair it is to project our feelings about Mark Driscoll onto his church; it makes it too easy to rush to judgment when we come across stories of behaviors that confirm our assumptions about what Mars Hill is about. Driscoll’s statements are worth engaging because they’re meant to be engaged- but the kind of information we’re dealing with here is tabloid-worthy at best. Its entirely possible (even probable) that this is a case of a church messing up, but if so that’s all it is.

To Mars Hill associates:

1. Understand that Mark Driscoll IS Mars Hill Church to the majority of people out there. The things he says and the way he conducts himself are the only exposure that they have to Mars Hill Church. It’s unfair, but it’s the price of having a celebrity pastor. And Driscoll’s charisma is really what drives Mars Hill’s growth. But understanding this point is essential: people target Mars Hill, but they have really strong feelings about Driscoll. They don’t know what life is like at Mars Hill. They just know how they feel about your pastor. And your pastor is brash and unapologetic; you love him for it, but others are put off by it, and find it dangerous. But these impressions are not acknowledged by members of Mars Hill: you love your pastor, but this often means entrenching around him when criticism flies. I have yet to hear any criticism of Driscoll come from inside Mars Hill, and that is precisely what worries outsiders. Driscoll certainly earns his criticism, and should hear correction, but when it never comes from his own congregation it looks cult-like to outsiders. Face the fact that your pastor is controversial, and don’t deflect that he’s controversial because he preaches truth boldly or whatever the company line is, and work from the inside to change the perception people have of Mars Hill Church. Show that there is a distinction to be made between the personality of Mark Driscoll and the church he runs.

2. There’s a growing population of angry ex-members of Mars Hill Church, and they are vocal. Now, this population is possibly just the natural outcome of church growth; as members increase dramatically so do the number of ex-members and people who had bad experiences. But its also possible that these people are symptomatic of structural and cultural issues that have arisen from within the Mars Hill community. Acknowledge these people and try to understand their disenchantment with their Mars Hill experience. Excommunication and ignorance are not the appropriate response to a more and more visible population- this only serves to strengthen the perception outsiders have of your church family.

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Indiana’s Senate Education Committee sends Creationism Legislation to Senate Vote

Ever notice how all the wrong people are put in charge of all the wrong things? Indiana’s Senate Education Committee, to use as a completely random example off the top of my head, illustrates the point:

From the Indianapolis Business Journal:

The Times of Munster reported that the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee voted 8-2 Wednesday to send the legislation to the full Senate despite pleas from scientists and religious leaders to keep religion out of science classrooms.

The bill allows schools to authorize “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life” and specifically mentions “creation science” as one such theory. Creationism is the belief that the Earth and its creatures were created by a deity.

How do these people get assigned to committees? Do they draw names out of a hat? Is there a Sorting Hat? Is that Sorting Hat an uneducated moron? I’m trying to figure out why 8 of 10 senators on the Education Committee think that the science education of Indiana’s youth would be enriched by “creation science”.

I suppose if it is passed, and “creation science” is allowed to be taught, teachers could spend the bare amount of class time on it. All it takes is five seconds to say “God did it”, and then you can spend the rest of the year teaching the students to do real science.

Here’s an idea. If this bill passes, public school teachers should start teaching Creation stories in science classrooms- but Creation stories from all different cultures. Islam, Hinduism, Nordic, Egyptian…there are a wealth of Creation myths from cultures apart from the Judeo-Christian canon. Start teaching those stories and we’ll see how these Republican anti-science senators react. I imagine it would conflict with some of their ideological commitments.

This is precisely the kind of news that makes a reasonable person bleed from the ears. The students of Indiana’s public schools deserve better.

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God: Now in convenient chart format

Tim Challies introduces a chart detailing the attributes of God as part of his ongoing “Visual Theology” series:

(click to embiggen)

If it’s still difficult to read, Tim Challies has a link to a larger picture and pdf in his post. It certainly gives us plenty of fodder for quibbling about the details (which is what the Christian life is about, after all). I’m not sure why God’s eternity requires him to experience “no succession of moments”, for example- I’m guessing that is the influence of Wayne Grudem, cited on the chart, who has consistently failed to impress me with his grasp of the issues surrounding the philosophy of time and God.

But do give the chart a look. There’s enough code-wording to communicate that a certain theological slant is lurking behind the curtains, but it seems agreeable enough. What looks especially commendable? Any egregious errors?



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