Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Religion is Back

While sitting with a senior government minister in Beijing this past week, dialoguing on Evangelicals and what faith in Jesus means, I wondered what Peter Berger today might say. Back in 1967, Peter Berger, trusted sociologist said that in “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a world-wide secular culture.” (The Sacred Canopy)

The world then believed him. It seemed obvious. The rise of the Enlightenment, European and then North American think-makers made it clear – religion had to go. This wasn’t so much a designed war on religion, rather a gathering assumption that if you gave it a little time, faith and religion would collapse and burn on its own accord.

Nietzsche has told us a hundred years ago – “God is dead. We have killed him.” As university students in the 1960s, professors smirked at those of us with faith, suggesting our time was limited: we were dinosaurs. To add insult to injury, the mop head singers from Liverpool said they were more popular than Jesus.

Yet here we sat in Beijing, at the headquarters of the ministry of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), hosted by General Minister Wang, Director General, an invitation extended to the World Evangelical Alliance. As senior minister, we found his interest in both the beliefs and explosive rise of Evangelicals to be cordial and genuinely inquisitive.

How is it, that this matter concerns him and China? What is happening in the world of religion, and with Evangelical Christians in particular, that causes his interest?

And why is Amity Press in Nanjing about to announce its printing of the 100 millionth copy of the Bible? There simply aren’t enough Bibles to match the demand, not only in a Communist country but around the world. Again why?

Then we traveled to Jakarta, a Muslim country, to attend the World Prayer Assembly, the meeting of some 9,000 Christians, focused not on making money, getting political power or pressing for personal liberties, but prayer. A seeming innocuous, powerless and formless sort of activity. Why do people travel – in this case, mostly from Asia, including some 600 from China – to pray?

For years Christians just couldn’t seem to get traction. Faith was either cloistered behind the walls of private belief or forced to hibernate. Many assumed winter would bring an end to it all.

I remember when the Agnostic’s Club at the University of Saskatchewan invited evangelist Max Solbrekken in for a laugh. It was 1964. Too naïve to see he was swimming among sharks, it wasn’t so much his public humiliation that was damaging. It was the next day, when Christians showed up for class we discovered we’d were now the running joke.

Then the tide turned.

The prevailing underwater currents broke the surface. Those who assumed faith and religious belief would keep private—and that surely any ongoing beliefs would stay out of public discussions of policy and governance—ran into a brick wall. Today, country after country—happily or under duress—has no choice but to put up with faith communities in the shaping of public life.

The collapse of the Iron Wall showed the world the incapacity of eastern governments to contain people, when their foundation was a lie. The moral quicksand of their ideology bankrupted more than finances; it foundered its society so badly that soon citizens of Russia and its galaxy rose up. Faith was back on main street.

No longer hiding behind walls of underground churches or huts of the gulags, faith took to the streets.

But it did so in a curious way. In the west there had been an unspoken conspiracy between secular politics and Evangelicals. As secular ideologies disenfranchised Christian thought having a seat in the public square, Evangelicals believed they had no place at the table. This push-pull effect insured the square was empty of faith. For much of the 20th century, Evangelicals were absent from public life engagement.

Then, we woke up and saw God’s good earth being run by those who not only didn’t believe faith had a place, but were concerted in their efforts to insure it wouldn’t. The alarm that woke us from our slumber was issues we cared most about: education, poverty, family and the sanctity of life from the beginning to the end.

God’s Century, written by Toft (Harvard), Philpot (Notre Dame) and Shah (University of Boston), explodes the myth that secularization was the favored and presumptive worldview that even as it tried to wrap itself around our universities, culture and hearts of hope.

That is not to say that all expressions of faith in the public square are peaceful, as we have seen in Africa, North America, Iran and Asia. Islamization has produced al-Qaeda; Uganda has its Lord Resistance Army, Pastor Jones of Florida does his Qur’an burning, Buddhists in Sri Lanka their killings: fanatics, ideologues, rigid fundamentalists, dictators and political narcissists can seem like they are ruling the religious day.

But the human spirit bubbles up, refusing to be bottled in by “the prediction that religion would wilt before the juggernauts of the modern world.” (God’s Century) Toft, Philpot and Shah argue that during the past four decades, the decline of influence of faith bottomed out and now there is a resurgence across continents, cities, villages, tribes, industries, and among both the rich and the poor.

“Earlier confined to the home . . . it has come to exert its influence in parliaments, presidential palaces, lobbyists’ offices, campaigns, military training camps, negotiation rooms, protest rallies, city squares and dissident jail cells. . . . Once private, religion has gone public. Once passive, religion is now assertive and engaged. Once local, it is now global. Once subservient to the powers that be, religion has often become ‘prophetic’ and resistant to politicians at every level.” (God’s Century)

When Jesus said, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” it wasn’t a signal for his followers to wimp their way out of political stress. He pressed all who call themselves by his name to understand that whatever Caesar claims end up being the domain of the king. Just not the King living in Caesar’s household.

Faith as a constraining and life-giving human reality is back on the front page. It has moved from the cul-de-sac of society to Main Street. It isn’t just that a Minister of a Communist state inquires; people from all stratas seek out life and its meaning. Personal and public faith refuses to be shadowed by secular constraints.

Brian C Stiller
Global Ambassador
The World Evangelical Alliance
May 2012