Religion Today

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Rites of Liberty

"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

"Liberty" is the watch-word this week for two of America's major religions. The Jewish Passover began on Tuesday, which celebrates Moses' liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt more than three millennia ago. On Easter, Christians observe Easter, which features the Christian belief of Christ's liberation of humans from death and sin.
Although observed in religious terms, Passover is really a celebration of nationhood, for it commemorates God's actions in freeing a group of slaves from Egypt and then forming them into an independent people under Moses' political and religious leadership.
Even as it tells the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, Exodus 12 interrupts the tale to describe how the Passover should be celebrated, namely, with a family-based, evening meal with the two main dishes of unleavened bread (matzah) and a lamb that was specially slaughtered that afternoon. In the Exodus story itself, the blood of the slain lamb, placed on the door frame of each house, saves the first-born Israelites from the angel of death who is punishing the Egyptians.
Christianity took the Passover rite and transformed it for its own purposes, making the remembrance of a people's national formation into the unification ritual of a new religion.
According to Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22, Jesus' Last Supper is a Passover meal. It takes place on the evening following the Passover lamb's slaughter, and these gospels make a point of indicating that the disciples took special steps to prepare for the Passover meal earlier that day.
In this story, the bread which Jesus takes, breaks and gives thanks over is the unleavened bread of the Passover meal. Interestingly, Jesus indicates that the bread "is" his own body. Whether this is understood literally or symbolically, the bread points to Jesus' sacrifice of himself which is about to take place. Note it is the bread, and not the sacrificial lamb, with which Jesus identifies.
Jesus also takes the cup of wine and identifies it as his blood. In the Passover meal, blood refers to the blood of the slaughtered lamb that saved the Israelites from death. So even though there is no explicit reference to the sacrificial lamb in the Last Supper, Jesus uses the elements of the Passover rite to identify himself as the future sacrifice. In doing so, the story becomes the basis for the central identification ritual of Christianity, known as Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Jesus transforms Judaism's central formation rite into Christianity's main membership ritual.
John's Gospel tells a different story. According to its time frame, the Last Supper takes place the night before the Passover celebration. Now some modern Christians see this as a contradiction and go to great lengths to argue (unsuccessfully) that the two stories actually take place on the same night. But this exercise hides John's point, for he has a different message about Jesus and the Passover.
John's story portrays Jesus as the actual Passover sacrifice. It is only in John 19 that a soldier pierces Jesus' side to ensure he is dead rather than breaking his legs as he had done to the other victims. John says in verse 36 that this was done to fulfill the Scripture passage, "None of his bones shall be broken." This passage cites Exodus 12:46, where it is not a prophecy about Jesus but instructions about how to eat the Passover lamb.
Identifying Jesus as the Passover Sacrifice is not unfamiliar in the early church. First Corinthians 5:7 portrays Jesus as the Passover lamb and concludes "Therefore, let us celebrate the festival [of Passover]." The Passover ceremony recalling the Jews' past liberation from slavery thus becomes Christianity's present liberation from sin.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Counting Christians

"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

When the Pew Research Center released its study last October of the world's Muslim population, most American newspapers treated the news calmly, essentially reiterating points from the report.'s Oct. 12 story was typical. Leading with the headline, "Nearly 1 in 4 People worldwide is Muslim, report says," the report emphasized that most Muslims live in Asia (60 percent), that the Hindu country of India has more Muslims than all but two countries in the world, and that China has more Muslims than Middle Eastern countries such as Syria.

One point that appeared in many newspaper and online reports but did not appear in the Pew study was the number of Christians in the world. They indicated the world's 1.57 billion Muslims may constitute 23 percent of its population, but that the 2.33 billion Christians make up 33 percent of the population.

This information seems to have been included to reassure Christians that they need not be alarmed because "our religion" is biggest.

Why would Christianity's first place in the "size sweepstakes" be comforting? Is it just a matter of: Our side is biggest, so our side is best? Should we cheer for Christianity "winning" in the same way we cheer for our favorite sports team?

Or perhaps this information should be viewed in deeper, more theological terms. For some, Christianity's top rank indicates God's plan of providing all humanity with Christ's salvation is doing well. Its large size indicates the plan is making real progress; Christianity is the biggest and therefore the best game in town, so to speak.

But before anybody cheers for Christianity as the top-ranked theological squad, they should hesitate. Many Christians do not consider all branches of Christianity valid. Many Christians only view only their own brand of Christianity as acceptable. Some accept one or two of the other branches, but not all of them. They see the others as incapable of offering salvation.

These Christians cannot take all 2.33 billion Christians as a good thing, for they do not count them as Christians. So here are the numbers of the different branches of Christianity. These are the best numbers currently available and I offer only the five largest.

Roman Catholicism is the largest at 1 billion members; in fact it is the world's largest religious organization of any kind. Taken together, Conservative Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostalists come in second at 305 million. The Eastern Orthodox churches (including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts and even the various Monophysite churches) are third at 240 million. The so-called Mainstream Protestant churches (including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians) follow closely with 233 million. Finally, the fifth largest branch of Christianity is one most Americans have not even heard of, the 110 million members of the African Indigenous churches.

None of these branches of Christianity by itself is larger than Islam, or even larger than Sunni Islam. This observation has theological implications, as well as demographic ones.

On the one hand, if a Christian believes that only their branch of Christianity provides salvation, then God's plan is doing poorly, not even bringing in as many members as its closest rival religion, and less than half of all people who call themselves Christians.

On the other hand, if a Christian is ecumenical, as many are, and believes that other branches of Christianity lead to salvation, then that is a recognition that much of that branch's specific theological beliefs are unnecessary for salvation. The beliefs focus on matters of this world, but not the heavenly one. They form a way of organizing believers into a social body and guiding their way of life (e.g., morality, worship, aspects of daily life), but are not needed to determine one's state in the afterlife.

So the way Christians react to simple demographic information reveals something about their view of the success of God's plan of salvation.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A New Kind of Worship

UW Religion Today Column for Week of March 7-13: 
"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

It's 9:30 on a sunny Sunday morning. As I enter the church -- a huge converted warehouse in the suburbs of Houston -- my head begins to throb. As my eyes adjust to the dimmer light of the entry hall, I realize that the throbbing is the band going through its warm-up routine. The bass player certainly plays in a hard-driving style.

I step into the sanctuary for the full effect. The cavernous room is dark, lit by too-few spotlights moving slowly around the room. I find my seat, a fancy folding chair in the middle of the hall, about 10 rows back from the stage. Glancing around, I realize that there must be more than 300 people here, but the room is only about three-quarters full. I nod a greeting to the people next to me; the guitars are too loud for speech.

The room suddenly goes silent. The stage lights up and a youngish man in jeans and T-shirt bounds into view; apparently, he is the pastor. With a patter belonging more to a rock concert than a church, he introduces the band to the congregation's (crowd's?) loud cheers.

As the players launch into the first number, everyone stands. Four songs later we are still standing. Most of us are swaying or dancing to the music. The lyrics are generally Christian: One song was about Jesus, another the ups and downs of the Christian life, a third about prayer. But this is no namby-pamby music. These Christian rock-and-rollers are hard driving and don't turn down the volume.

After the fifth song, the T-shirted man reappears. He leads cheers and applause for the band, followed by a prayer. The congregation respectfully listens and concludes with a group Amen.

As we sit down, he begins speaking informally about how humans are created in God's image. (After 10 minutes, I realize this is the sermon.) He makes two points. The first explores how Christians should live their lives "in God's image." Since this is the first Sunday after the earthquake in Haiti, the second point discusses how Christians should protect and support the Haitians in their time of need; after all, the Haitians are also created in the image of God.

When he finishes the band fires up again. As they play their final number, lights appear over the heads of the standing crowd; these are not cigarette lighters but the "Candle app" on people's iPhones.

When I leave the building at 10:30 blinking in the morning sunlight, I feel as if I have just spent an evening at a rock concert. Do I feel as if I have been at a worship service? I'm not sure. But the twenty-something and thirty-something people around me certainly act that way. Some chat in small groups, while others visit tables set up to inform congregants about church activities. The kids make a beeline for the cookies and punch. It could easily be the informal "coffee hour" at any church.

This rock-and-roll church, known as the Loft Church, is an outreach of the more staid mega-church around the corner. The idea is to reach out to younger, un-churched families by creating a worship style more familiar to them. The hope is that after staying with the Loft Church for a while, they will transition to the more typical worship style of the main church.

It is clear that the plan's first stage is successful. People are attending the church and the evangelistic activities of the ministerial staff is bringing people in. The alternate form of worship keeps them coming back. But the jury is still out on whether these new members will decide that they would be more comfortable in a more traditional worship service.

The excitement generated by rock-concert worship does not necessarily lead to toward the calmness of sitting in pews and listening to more talking and less music. It certainly does not ready them for placidly singing centuries-old hymns instead of rocking in the aisles.

But can a rock-and-roll church be a long-term commitment? Will people who joined it in their 30s still find it appealing in their 50s and 60s? We will have to wait and see.

For more information about the Loft Church, go to

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at To comment on this column, visit