Religious stories dominated the news in 2015. From ISIS to the legalization of same sex marriage to the decline of church involvement throughout America to the church shootings in Charleston, SC, religious events—or events that occurred in religious contexts—dominated the headlines over the last twelve months. So much so that it’s hard to narrow down all that happened in religious news in 2015 to a Top Ten list, but I’ll give it a try. In light of the lasting impact almost every item on the list is likely to have on Christians I’m calling it, “For Christians, 2015 Was a Year of Living Dangerously.”
Number One. The martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians. On February 15 the Muslim state ISIS released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach. The victims—all men—had been abducted a few days before and their murders were explained as retribution for the alleged kidnapping of Muslim women by their church. That was of course a lie. The real reason was that the men were Christian. They were Egyptian migrants, working in Libya in order to feed their families. The act was universally condemned and the 21were immediately recognized as martyrs by the Coptic Church as well as Christians around the world. Their deaths galvanized world opinion against ISIS and its persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East.
Number Two. The legalization of same sex marriage. When the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision legalizing same sex marriage on June 26, it was a revolutionary moment. Their decision overturned the convictions of every major religious tradition as well as the practice of all recorded history by judicial fiat. Marriage now can be whatever five judges say it can be. The re-definition of a foundational social institution will have lasting implications for the nation, especially regarding evangelical churches. At a point in the near future, churches and leaders who hold to biblical authority will be at odds with the government if they refuse to perform same sex marriages.
Number Three. The Charleston church shootings. Dylann Roof, 21, a white supremacist from Lexington, SC, walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC on June 17, pulled out a handgun and murdered nine people attending a prayer meeting. He said later his purpose was “to kill black people” in the hopes of igniting a race war. Charleston’s black community responded in precisely the opposite direction than Roof expected. In a display of grace that captured the attention of the nation and world, the victims’ families demonstrated a true spirit of forgiveness. What happened next was almost as remarkable. SC Governor Nikki Haley led the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House—a long standing bone of contention between whites and blacks in the state—in a reciprocal signal of reconciliation. In a time of racial animosity throughout America, South Carolina showed a way for blacks and whites to live together in peace.
Number Four. Violent Islam confronts the world. While the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not embrace violence as part of their religion, 2015 showed just how far a smaller number are willing to go in service to their convictions. The jihadist state called ISIS dominates portions of Syria and Iraq and actively practices the worst forms of violence as they try to expand their influence. Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya are devastated because of violent Islamists. Terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Jeemah Islamiah in Southeast Asia kill and kidnap innocent victims in service to their vision of Islam. In Paris on November 13, seven young Muslims murdered 130 men and women in the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. Here in America, 14 people were murdered on December 2 in San Bernardino, CA by a Muslim couple. The world is finally coming to understand what Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington called “the bloody borders of Islam.” What he meant was that wherever Islam comes into contact with other cultures and religions, a high probability of violence exists because of the nature of the religion.
Number Five. Pope Francis continues his shakeup of the Roman Catholic Church. In only the third year of his pontificate, Pope Frances is leading his church in new directions, with no sign of slowing down. His vision is for a church more devoted to the poor and marginalized and less concerned with religious ceremony and rigid doctrinal positions; more concerned with service to the world than expressing judgments on it; more focused on prayer than on political power. He has embraced positions on the environment, capitalism, interfaith dialogue and marriage that have put him at odds with more traditional Catholics. Pope Francis’s Christmas message this year captured his unique spirit:
In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential. In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God’s will. Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer.
Number Six. Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner becomes the poster child for the transgender movement. Olympic gold medal winner Bruce Jenner’s well documented journey from male to female has become the most visible expression of a much wider movement. Today, transgenderism is a central feature in almost every facet of American culture—popular imagination, political decisions, legal precedents, business practices and the role of traditional religious convictions. Blogger Rod Dreher describes the scale of the change this way:
The trans movement represents this idea’s apex: if we can free ourselves from basic biology and anatomy, then truly we have become gods. “I am that I am” is no longer confined to Exodus 3; it is the mantra of the willed self freed from all external barriers. There is nothing beyond the subjective, the personal, the therapeutic, because all that matters is how I define my own self, my own existence, and my own gratification.
The redefinition of sexuality from “given” to “preference” reveals a profound shift in the understanding of personal identity. The practical implication for Christians isn’t just moral—although that’s an obvious point. The deeper area transgenderism points to is the idolatry of the self.
Number Seven. The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This story might have flown under the radar, if for no other reason than the more high profile events happening during the same time. But I included it on the list because the nature and tactics of its opponents are a chilling reminder of the opposition the evangelical church faces if we hold to our biblical convictions. Here’s what happened. On March 26 Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the bill into law after both chambers of state government passed it. In essence an extension of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, the law protected individuals and businesses in the event that their religious convictions were compromised by federal law. The ominous aspect in all this wasn’t that there were critics who claimed the law allowed for bigotry against homosexuals—in today’s America that’s the background static that distorts any civic dialogue—but the varied special interest groups, private and government, that lined up in lockstep against Indiana. Eli Lilly and Company, Apple, the NBA, Warren Buffet, and Paypal are just a few of the many major companies and figures who publically opposed the bill. Numerous state and local government agencies across the country boycotted travel and conferences to Indiana. Many other celebrities came out in opposition. The popular hashtag #boycottindiana was everywhere. In the end the state political leaders gave into the pressure and revised the bill, effectively eliminating the protection it was originally written to provide. The cabal of big business, vocal celebrities, other government agencies and influential leaders across the country was successful in enforcing its moral vision on a sovereign state government. Indiana’s experience is a graphic example of the complex and powerful forces at work to discredit America’s traditional moral order.
Number Eight. The release of the Planned Parenthood abortion videos. Through the course of the year an investigative group calling itself The Center for Medical Progress released ten videos it had secretly filmed of interviews with regional leaders of Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider. The videos apparently revealed the selling of aborted baby parts on the open market. A firestorm of protest erupted and led to calls from religious leaders and many politicians for further investigations and the withholding of federal funds that support Planned Parenthood. The controversy then took all too predictable directions, with Planned Parenthood making counter allegations of their own regarding the videos; liberal politicians rallying to the cause of unlimited abortion all the time for everyone; and, finally, the new 2016 federal budget that continues the same levels of support for Planned Parenthood and has led to cries of betrayal from evangelicals toward the Republicans in Congress for caving on an issue of such obvious moral gravity. The momentum toward personal freedom as the new religion seems at times like this to be almost insurmountable.
Number Nine. The Benedict Option as response of biblical Christians to the new America. Benedict of Nursia was the fifth-century Italian who is considered the father of western monasticism. As the Roman Empire fell apart, Benedict gathered a group of like-minded men around him and established the great monastery at Monte Cassino. He later wrote “The Rule of Benedict” that became the how-to book for Catholic monasteries throughout the world. Benedict discovered what others before him had learned. In a time of cultural disintegration, faithful followers of Jesus had to withdraw from society in order to preserve their own faith. The monasteries he founded–as well as those that followed–saved Christianity and western civilization. As the culture around them disintegrated, groups of committed Jesus followers found a way to preserve their faith and their Christian culture.
The American church no longer has the option of transforming American culture. At least, not in the sense we once did. We have no voice or presence in modern America that allows for societal transformation. The Benedict Option calls for churches to stage a strategic withdrawal from the culture in order to get our own houses in order. So that we can on the one hand become authentic communities of holiness and grace and on the other hand, when the time and circumstances are right, move out strategically into the culture, forming new communities of holiness and grace. The Benedict Option—not always called by that name—is taking place across the country, in venues as varied as secular university campuses where Christian students choose to live in their own communities; in urban centers where Christian families live together as they serve the poor; and in rural churches as people from across the country relocate so they can connect with like-minded Christians.
Number Ten. America’s declining interest in religion. The Pew Research Center in November published its latest study of America’s religious beliefs, and the results were both encouraging and discouraging, depending on where you stand on religion in America. On the plus side the new numbers show those who count themselves as “Religious” are more religious as a group today than they were seven years ago.
But the study had bad news regarding the overall state of religious interest. The new numbers show the percentage of “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) in the total population continues to grow from Pew’s previous survey in 2007. In fact, it has accelerated. From the 16% the last study revealed, the new number of Nones has grown to 23%, a 7 point or 44% growth in seven years. That’s a huge increase in a short time. America is becoming a secular nation at a much faster rate than anyone would have thought possible.