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Dissertation Summary (for the curious)

Friday, February 10th, 2012

For those of you who are curious and interested—and I suspect the number will be relatively small—below is an expanded version of the handout I distributed at my proposal hearing that explains the focus of my dissertation research in a nutshell.

The Edwardsean Isaac Backus

Relevance of the topic/Contribution
First, and most specifically, this research will add much needed depth to our understanding of Isaac Backus himself. For over a hundred years, the little attention paid to Backus has focused almost exclusively on his efforts to secure religious liberty for Baptists and other Christians before, during, and after the American Revolution. Historians have largely ignored his writings in defense of Calvinism and his acclaimed church history of New England. I trust this research will push historians to consider Backus in light of his entire corpus. In doing so, I believe they will discover Backus was a holistic and creative thinker whose views on history, theology, and religious liberty each informed the other. More specifically, I will show that it is Backus’s reliance upon the theology of Jonathan Edwards that holds these issues together. My hope is that historians in the future will speak of Backus as an important Baptist theologian rather than simply as a political activist.

More broadly, this research will contributing to our understanding of Baptist history and theology in general. In the most popular surveys of American Christianity, Baptist figures such as Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland are typically lumped together as cobelligerents for religious disestablishment with little consideration for their fundamental differences in theological perspective. This research will help identify the important differences between these figures. There is still a great deal of work to be done in the historical development of Baptist theology. I hope this research will provide the perspective of a sympathetic outsider and bring attention to the need for other outsider historians in Baptist studies.

There is a growing historiography of the legacy of Jonathan Edwards among Baptists. This research will begin to flesh out the ways Edwards’ theological perspective was adopted and adapted by Baptists in the Revolutionary period and beyond.

Finally, I trust this research will be of value to contemporary pastors and lay people involved in conversations about the Baptist theological heritage. It will be an honor to contribute to efforts such as Founders Ministries as they strive to explore the theological origins of the Baptist movement in America.

Thesis Statement
Isaac Backus understood his position regarding the separation of church and state as organic to his overall theological framework, which was essentially Edwardsean Calvinism. Backus did not consider his positions on disestablishment, baptism, ecclesiology, or clergy qualifications innovative, but simply the logical end of the New England Protestant vision for Christianity in America that began with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In each of these issues, Backus appeals to the person and work of Edwards to establish his continuity with American Puritan tradition.

Major conversation partners
The major interpreters of Isaac Backus and his legacy were Stanley Grenz and William McLoughlin.


  1. Introduction: Historiographical survey and biographical sketch
  2. Backus as Student of Edwardsean Calvinism (emphasizing Backus’s tracts on Calvinism)
  3. Backus as Biblical Interpreter
  4. Backus on Religious Liberty (emphasizing Backus’s tracts on disestablishment)
  5. Backus and the Baptists as Heirs of the American Puritan Tradition (emphasizing Backus’s church history of New England)
  6. Conclusion: Significance and implications of research

Religious Lives of Twentysomethings, Part 3

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

This past semester my students and I have been educating each other. I’ve been introducing them—at warp speed—to the major world religions. They’ve been candidly expressing their perspectives on faith, religious practice, and what any of that might have to do with their daily lives. In two previous posts, I summarized a few common themes—some surprising, some not—that emerged from their written reflections in the course. Below I comment on how their responses have thinking about ministering to the enigmatic twentysomething.

Know why they’re coming.

Even though we know we shouldn’t, many of us still consider attendance a victory. If they show up at church, we think, it’s because they’re looking for something only the church can offer. Maybe. My students’ responses make me think we need to find out why people come to church. The reasons might surprise us.

For example, many of my students expressed an interest in having their children in church (or temple or synagogue), even though they themselves are not “believers” of any sort. For them, religious service and education are a great means of instilling a sense of tradition and a moral foundation in kids. In other words—and this is the important point—adults may not be attending our churches because they believe they’ll find something of value there for them. They may be attending only for their children’s sake. And not because they want their kids to come to saving faith in Jesus or learn to hear God speak; rather, they want them to be nice people, good citizens. And they figure church isn’t a bad place to start.

I was speaking to a rabbi recently, who expressed this phenomenon in interesting terms. He said his sense was that after World War II the focus of religion in America became pediatric—church is valuable for kids, not grown ups. He suspects many people still feel this way.

Practically, this has a couple of important implications. First, it might be why some people are resistant to volunteering in church programs. Why don’t adults want to serve? Because they aren’t in church to gain anything—much less to invest anything. They just want you to teach their kids a few valuable principles for good living. Second, it might help our ministers who work with children and youth to expect that parents won’t be involved in their children’s spiritual lives. It may be that parents expect their kids to derive all the benefits of church from Sunday morning and midweek programs.

Activism is not the cure.

If we don’t consider church attendance a victory, then we do tend to consider involvement in programs a sign of a vital Christian faith. According to my students: not so. I have several students who actively lead in religious youth programs or education but do not consider themselves religious. Ultimately, they are looking for a way to serve, and the church provides that. But I get the sense they’d be as happy serving through a community agency, if one offered them the same opportunities.

It’s popular to point out that the Millennial generation is activistic. Churches are eager to capitalize on that impulse to get them involved in ministry. I understand the instinct. But we can easily be led to believe that a busy body is indication of a saved soul. This is a big mistake. The question to ask may be, Who are they eager to serve? Christ or the community? These are not, of course, strictly distinct. But if someone wants to serve the community but has no interest in serving Christ, then they aren’t interested in “Christian service.”

Go deep.

Very few of my students could identify any way religion might impact their daily lives, specifically their future personal and professional goals. Even the students who consider themselves committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers. They could point to superficial things—like wanting to be married in their church, which meant they had to marry a fellow Christian—but couldn’t go much deeper than that.

This is troubling. I suspect some will blame preaching and teaching that doesn’t focus on life application. But I’m not so sure. I wonder if the problem is actually too much emphasis on the practical. Evangelicals have had a tendency for the last twenty years or so to distill the Scriptures into five principles for happy marriages and three promises for raising great kids. If we spoke of the Christian life more in terms of the inner life—spoke of the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation, of the pursuit of godly virtue, spiritual gifts and fruit, etc.—if we truly focused on growing Christians, and not just good citizens, maybe our young people would have an easier time identifying how their faith affects the rest of their lives.

Those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I’d love to hear yours.

Read part 1 and part 2

Religious Lives of Twentysomethings, Part 2

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

In a previous post, I described a few trends I noticed in student responses to prompts about the role of religion in their lives. In that post, I listed the commonalities that came as no surprise to me. Here I list a few recurring things I did find surprising.

Plan to have children in religious services/education.

Regardless of their religious background, a majority of my students expressed that they planned to take their children to church (synagogue, temple, etc.) or have them attend religious education. This was true even of students who do not consider themselves religious. They liked the traditions, they said. Or they want their children to have a strong moral foundation. Or they want their children to be baptized or bar mitzvah. These students weren’t concerned, necessarily, that the content of the faith be true; it seems they simply want their kids to share memories and a heritage they themselves were raised with.

Don’t need to believe to serve.

Half a dozen students or so wrote that they were currently leaders in a youth group, Sunday school, or some sort of religious organization (like Muslim Youth), but that they did not consider themselves religious. One girl is planning to major in religion and then go to seminary so she can be a (Christian) youth minister. But she isn’t sure she’s a Christian; she doesn’t know what she believes. Even so, she knows she wants to work with teens, provide a safe place for them to explore important questions, and navigate the challenges of becoming an adult. A religious setting appears as good a place as any to do that. Others say they currently work with children or youth in their religious communities, even though they do not share the beliefs of their religious community. Serving doesn’t require believing.

Even the religious ones don’t see relevance of religion for daily life, goals, etc.

In one assignment, I asked the students to reflect on how religion might hinder or help them attain their personal and career goals. This is where I found the biggest surprises. Predictably, students who weren’t sure about their spiritual convictions found the question hard to answer. If they aren’t religious now, they couldn’t imagine religion helping them down the road. But those students who do consider themselves religious—most of them Christians—saw their religious beliefs having very little impact on their personal or professional goals. A few said they wanted to get married in their church. One said she was a committed Christian but her longtime boyfriend is Muslim, and he can only marry her if she converts. She’s considering it. So, in that sense, religion has real consequences for her. But on the whole, students were stymied to come up with a way religion could play any role at all in the parts of their lives that really matter.

This is the data, such as it is. In the following post, I’ll make a few observations about what implications this might have for how we minister to young people.

Religious Lives of Twentysomethings

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

This semester I assigned the students in the World Religions course I teach a series of writing exercises that (I hoped) would help them personalize and internalize the subject matter we were reading about and discussing in class. There were four total, one every four weeks or so. And each was a little more probing. My goal was simply to get them thinking about their experience with religion, assumptions about religious claims, how they understand the role religion plays in their lives—that sort of thing. The projects were enlightening for many of them. Several told me they’d never thought about these things before, and they’re glad they did. (It’s nice when a plan works out. That was the point, after all.) What I hadn’t expected was how enlightening their responses would be for me.

Discussions about why young folk leave the faith and how to get them back continue to generate a lot of heat. I don’t claim to have anything new to contribute. My observations here are anecdotal, not scientific. But I found it useful to reflect on the general trends that emerged in my students’ reports. They have a lot to say about this ever elusive demographic.

First some trends I did not find surprising.

Spiritual but not religious.

Consistent with the conventional wisdom about young people—and maybe even older people—in America, the vast majority of my students were quick to identify as spiritual—as believing in something out there bigger than themselves—but were hesitant to identify as religious. Growing up, our pastors reminded us frequently that Christianity is “not a religion; it’s a relationship.” That’s not what my students mean. They are hesitant to align themselves with a community that they view as wanting to control their behavior or making them adopt an entire belief system in toto. Many of them wrote something to this effect: “I used to go to church. Now I don’t. I don’t feel any closer to God in a church than I do at home.” They feel they have all the necessary resources for faith—all by themselves.

Happy to believe many things at once.

One reason, I suppose, that these young folks don’t want to identify as religious is because they prefer to draw from different aspects of all religions as they synthesize their spiritual points of view. This isn’t just “I’m okay, you’re okay” relativism—they’re quick to admit when they disagree with a religious teaching. (“That’s stupid,” is a favorite objection.) But they are skeptical that any one belief system has all the answers. They like the forgiveness of Christianity but balk at the Trinity; they admire the nonviolence of Buddhism but find nirvana hard to swallow. This is true even of Christian students. Several of them wrote that they consider themselves followers of Jesus but they believe in reincarnation. Buffet-style religion is alive and well among America’s twentysomethings.

Religion irrelevant

In the first assignment, the students wrote about their experience with religion from their earliest memories to the present. Interestingly, most of them had overwhelmingly positive experiences with religion as young children. Some of them expressed being bored or confused during services—temple, mosque, synagogue, or church. But none of them reported leaving the faith of their youth because they had a traumatic experience or because they ultimately disagreed with the community’s teaching. Rather, most of them just stopped going. One week they went; the next week they didn’t. Services didn’t make any real difference in their life.

In another post, I’ll list a few themes I found surprising. In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone else’s experience confirms or qualifies what I’ve noticed with my students.

Read part 2 and part 3

Back to School

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Tomorrow morning I head back to school. I’m teaching a couple of sections of World Religions at the College of DuPage again this semester–this time in the mornings, not the evenings. Right now I can hardly believe that the summer is past. As for the school at which I’m a student, that begins next week. It is all upon us.

It’s been a busy last few weeks. Our book manuscript is due September 1. So I’ve been ruminating, writing, and revising full time for the past couple of weeks in our last push before the semester gets us too busy to write. I look forward to chatting more about the book in the near future here on the blog.

To anyone else heading back to school, may the Lord be with you. You have my sympathy.