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Something strange is going on in America’s bedrooms. In a recent issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers reported that on average, Americans have sex about nine fewer times a year than they did in the late 1990s. The trend is most pronounced among the young. Controlling for age and time period, people born in the 1930s had the most sex, whereas those born in the 1990s are reporting the least. Fifty years on from the advent of the sexual revolution, we are witnessing the demise of eros.

Despite all the talk of the “hookup culture,” the vast majority of sex happens within long-term, well-defined relationships. Yet Americans are having more trouble forming these relationships than ever before. Want to understand the decline of sex? Look to the decline in marriage. As recently as 2000, a majority—55 percent—of Americans between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four were married, compared with only 34 percent who had never been married (see Figure 1). Since then, the two groups have swapped places. By 2014, 52 percent of Americans in that age group had never been married, while only 41 percent were married. Young Americans are now more apt to experience and express passion for some activity, cause, or topic than for another person.

Figure 1.

A decline in commitment isn’t the only reason for the sexual recession. Today one in eight adult Americans is taking antidepressant medication, one of the common side effects of which is reduced libido. Social media use also seems to play a part. The ping of an incoming text message or new Facebook post delivers a bit of a dopamine hit—a smaller one than sex delivers, to be sure, but without all the difficulties of managing a relationship. In a study of married eighteen- to thirty-nine-year-old Americans, social media use predicted poorer marriage quality, lower marital happiness, and increased marital trouble—not exactly a recipe for an active love life.

If these were the only causes, the solution would be straightforward: a little more commitment, a little less screen time, a few more dates over dinner, more time with a therapist, and voilà. But if we follow the data, we will find that the problem goes much deeper, down to one of the foundational tenets of enlightened opinion: the idea that men and women must be equal in every domain. Social science cannot tell us if this is true, but it can tell us what happens if we act as though it is. Today, the results are in. Equality between the sexes is leading to the demise of sex.

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For three months during the early years of World War II, from November 1940 through February 1941, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) lived at Ettal, in a historic Benedictine monastery that is still a tourist attraction today. Nestled in the picturesque Bavarian Alps, Ettal became a sanctuary for Bonhoeffer as he found himself zwischen den Zeiten—still officially a pastor of the Confessing Church charged with training ordinands for ministry, yet drawn inexorably into a conspiracy against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

At Ettal, Bonhoeffer experienced firsthand the gracious hospitality of the Benedictine life in which every guest is treated like Christ. He took meals with the brothers in the refectory, he was given access to the monastic library where he worked on his book Ethics, and he walked and skied on the snow-covered hills. In the company of his friend Eberhard Bethge, who came from Berlin for a long visit, he sang and made music. He bought Christmas presents for his family and friends back home, including the wife of Martin Niemöller, a fellow Confessing Church pastor being held in a concentration camp. He spent time with local school children, including his nephew, whom he personally nursed during a bout with influenza. In the midst of all this, he made ready for yet another season of Advent.

Bonhoeffer loved Advent and saw in this holy season of waiting and hope a metaphor for the entire Christian life. During the Advent of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a circular letter to some of his friends and former students:

The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye but finds life precisely within it.

Following his arrest, Bonhoeffer would find a good analogy for Advent in the confinement and waiting all prisoners know. Advent reminds us, he wrote, that

Misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news.

The monastery was not a prison.

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by Terryl Givens

Many would like to domesticate Mormon strangeness, what Richard Mouw recently called in these pages its “ill-considered and defective elements” (“Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy,” May 2016), in the hope of promoting a more productive Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. They consider Joseph Smith’s teaching that God was once an embodied human to be an unacceptable challenge to God’s radical transcendence, but note that Mormonism’s Christocentric piety shows the possibility of greater Mormon conformity with the “orthodox Christian consensus.”

This is a generous gesture, but it gets the direction in which the consensus is moving precisely backwards in some crucial ways. It also ignores the ­fluidity of the orthodox consensus. The history of theology features many teachings and positions that ­eventually failed in the orthodoxy wars, often to reappear centuries later—from Origen’s (and the early Augustine’s) teachings on human pre-existence to Montanus’s resistance to confining canons and creeds, from patristic teachings on divine passibility to Pelagius’s defense of free will. Heterodoxy, in other words, often depends on what historical moment establishes your baseline for orthodoxy.

From a historical perspective, the problem of Mormonism’s heterodoxy is not as simple as presentist dismissals of Mormon theology have presumed. In many cases, Mormon heterodoxy has become the current orthodoxy—or subject of renewed discussion. Mormons denied the original guilt and damnation of unbaptized children 177 years before Pope Benedict’s 2007 document, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” Mormons recuperated a version of patristic teaching on theosis—neglected if not rejected for much of Protestant history—only to see it raised in such venues as Christianity Today. Mormons proposed a progressive, tiered salvation generations before Karl Barth asked, “If God’s . . . saving will is supreme, how is eternal loss possible?” And the Latter-day Saints ­elaborated a scheme of salvation for all the living and the dead a century and more before Pope John Paul II spoke of universal salvation and Rob Bell asked of the uncatechized, “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?” Mormon heterodoxy, in so many ­cases, appears to be a ­function of timing.

The history of one Mormon teaching in particular inverts the notion that “Mormons are approaching orthodoxy”: the doctrine that God the Father himself shares in human pain and suffering. Although there were early figures who spoke of divine passion or suffering, for most of Christian history, it was simply assumed that God cannot suffer. He is infinite, unchanging, and impassible. “Who can sanely say that God is touched by any misery?” asks Augustine in a typical formulation.

Mormonism broke decisively and unambiguously with this nearly universal theological consensus in 1830. The Book of Mormon contains an allegory attributed to a certain Zenos. In it, the chronicler Jacob relates the story of a servant who labors incessantly to preserve a dying olive tree. The servant’s intercessory role, pleading to forestall the tree’s burning, identifies him as the Christ. The lord of the vineyard who sends him, watching the object of his care fall into ruin, is a clear representation of God the Father. Seeing the fruitlessness of his servant’s efforts, “the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard?”

Months after the Book of Mormon’s publication, Smith further developed this motif of the weeping God in an ascension narrative firmly situated within the Enoch tradition in extracanonical literature. In Smith’s account, the prophet Enoch is taken into heaven and records his ensuing vision. He sees Satan’s dominion over the earth and then witnesses God’s response to a world veiled in darkness. “The God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept . . . And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep?” Three times he asks incredulously, “How is it thou canst weep?”

The answer, it turns out, is that God is not exempt from emotional pain. As the Father explains to Enoch:

Unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood . . . and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?

It is not their wickedness but their “misery,” not their disobedience but their “suffering,” that elicits the God of heaven’s tears. Enoch’s weeping God participates in rather than transcends the ebb and flow of human history, tragedy, and grief.

These unambiguous 1830 Mormon pronouncements about the capacity of God the Father to suffer, to weep, to mourn in solidarity with human misery were harbingers of a broad change in the Christian consensus about God.

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July 24, 2015 

Is there any lonelier occupation than that of the Christian intellectual? This species sits between two different bodies, both of which struggle to trust one another: (1) the church, anchored in the Word, and (2) the academy, anchored in credentialed expertise.

The existential loneliness of the Christian intellectual shouldn’t obscure the fact that this strange species does yet endure, even thrive. In the postwar era, numerous figures attained eminence for their public work. One of the best of this brave band was Richard John Neuhaus, the famed editor of the journal First Things, long the gold standard of religious engagement with the American polis.

Incisive New Biography 

Neuhaus (1936–2009) is the subject of a readable and incisive new biography by Randy Boyagoda titled Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square. Boyagoda, who serves as professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, traces Neuhaus’s life chronologically, ranging over his childhood as a conservative Lutheran pastor’s son, his iconoclastic seminary experience as a social justice proponent, his early career as a New York City pastor to a humble congregation, and his eventual ascendance as one of the leading public intellectuals in America.

Neuhaus had a knack for ending up in the center of things, whether that be a Martin Luther King, Jr. march, a colloquy with Cardinal Ratzinger, or the presidential administration of George W. Bush. Bush famously said Neuhaus helped him “articulate these things,” meaning religious truths bearing on political life (357–58). Neuhaus surely emboldened Bush’s pro-life convictions: “Every child welcomed to life and protected by law” was the elegant language Neuhaus helped craft for the president. Their interaction led to many salutary effects, though in other areas the president’s folksy ways persisted.

Boyagoda’s rich and well-researched study left me with three main reflections.

1. Neuhaus’s career reminds us that institutions are people.

In other words, institutions are only as vibrant and consequential as the people who lead them. Everywhere Neuhaus served, he enlivened the place and expanded its reach. This was as true at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn as it was at First Things. Neuhaus had that quality unique to a certain few that allowed him to see unprioritized needs and then magnetically draw others to the cause. This ability was not unrelated to the power of the pen, a gift Neuhaus possessed to the full (398–99).

In our time, if we are to build lasting institutions that serve and perhaps renew aspects of the body politic, we must have leaders who can animate those institutions. It’s easy to snipe at the Religious Right, but it’s harder to put skin in the game and actually lead something. Neuhaus was part of a generation who knew this truth at a perhaps subconscious level and acted on it with alacrity. His was the era, after all, of born-again Chuck Colson, swashbuckling William Buckley, and evangelist-statesman Billy Graham.

2. Neuhaus’s program calls us not to hide our light.

There’s a discomfiting pattern that sometimes plays out with Christian leaders: they start solidly, then become famous, then disown much of their earlier platform. The endpoint seems to suggest the doctrine was nothing more than an escalator to fame.

Neuhaus enjoyed his celebrity, to be sure. He could be unctuous in his dealings with White House officials, for example (350). Neuhaus loved the light, but he also loved the spotlight. He did not, however, shrink back from broadcasting stubbornly countercultural convictions. His statements on the pro-life cause never wavered in their intensity. He doggedly defended religious freedom. In The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984) he presented a brilliant case for religion as a public good, a case we still need today (see 231–47).

Of course, Neuhaus’s intellectual framework had splinters. It was sturdy, impressive in construction, but it invited regular controversy. Boyagoda gives little attention to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), Neuhaus’s joint venture with Colson, but it drew criticism from all sides. Neuhaus, raised a Lutheran but a late convert to Catholicism, persisted in his belief that the two traditions could collaborate. In 2015, the great theological questions remain, but evangelicals and Catholics have found a lot of common cause in recent days in the public square. Neuhaus’s legacy with ECT may not be full communion, but neither is it any less than friendly cobelligerence.

3. Neuhaus shows us that serious intellectual investment can pay off handsomely.

We need Neuhaus, just as we need Carl F. H. Henry, and just as we need the Inklings. The church too easily loses sight of the power of the intellect. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps because Scripture is true and good and because the gospel is simple in formulation, we can be tricked into embracing an intellectually malnourished Christianity. Honey, I shrunk the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Even readers who don’t hold Neuhaus’s full doctrinal convictions will come away from this biography freshly impressed by the man’s example. Christians hungry for models of the the activist-thinker discover one in its pages. We need to remember how influential First Things became, for example; it helped fund the policies of the nucleus of global power, the American presidency (360–62). Though we know from the history of ideas such intellectual investment can pay off immensely, we sometimes forget how high the stakes are. Neuhaus calls us back to the fray, back to intellectual engagement, back to confessional activism.

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There’s a good piece by Andrew Walker in First Things on a popular international church network called Hillsong’s apparent equivocation on marriage. At a recent New York press conference, the ministry’s leader, Brian Houston, declined to answer whether the ministry affirms the biblical position. Instead, he stresses the church’s need to stay “relevant.”

Earlier this year the pastor of Hillsong’s New York’s congregation, the ultra hip Carl Lentz, shared similar views with CNN. His wife added: “It’s not our place to tell anyone how they should live. That’s their journey.”

Hmmm. If it’s not the church’s place to tell anyone how to live, then what is the church’s purpose? Entertainment? Affirmation? Socialization? And if it’s not the church’s role to counsel how to live, then who or what should? Perhaps it’s the central message of our age that each autonomous individual chooses his/her own path without reference to others.

But of course, absent transcendent authority, individuals, no matter how independent, hearken to temporal influences in their life choices, often the passing fads of their culture and age. Typically transient fads are not helpful, reliable guideposts for life fulfillment. So most of humanity does and has looked to religion, at least at times, for more permanent guidance.

All religion, even its most permissive forms, aims on some level to tell its adherents how to live. Otherwise it has no purpose. Certainly Hillsong preachers must fill their sermons with admonitions. A sermon from Lentz in 2013 spoke of complete surrender to Christ: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” He added: “When you take a bite of me, when you really follow me, everything in me goes in you—you can’t pick and choose.”

Indeed, but the more recent Hillsong comments imply there can be some picking and choosing, at least on sexual ethics. Perhaps the Hillsong preachers still privately adhere to Christian teaching on marriage but don’t want to risk public controversy. At his New York press conference, Pastor Houston explained:

“And to me, the world we live in, whether we like it or not is changing around and about us. Homosexual marriage is legal in [New York City] and will be probably in most Western world countries within a short time. So the world’s changing and we want to stay relevant as a church. So that’s a vexing thing. You think, ‘How do we not become a pariah?’ So that’s the world we live in.”

The challenge is that the Cornerstone, Founder and Lord of the Church was crucified as the ultimate despised pariah, and He warned that His followers would often be pariahs. Yet somehow this collection of pariahs, across the centuries, in every culture, preaching the Gospel of an executed but risen pariah, has made His message the most “relevant” message of all time, everywhere.

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