Linda Woodhead is a sociologist of religion based in Lancaster in N.W.England. She is particularly interested in examining how religions confirm or challenge power relations in wider society.  Recently she has focused on showing how new ‘post-confessional’ ways of being religious have eclipsed a traditional ‘Reformation style’ of religion in Britain. Her observations are always worth reading and I enjoyed recently finishing her ‘Christianity – A Very Short Introduction’.  It is actually not that short, about 120 pages, which in our attention-deficit age is reasonable. It is one of the excellent ‘VSI’ series (very short introductions) that Oxford Uni Press produce, which currently numbers over 510 titles. My main ‘takeaway’ from the book is her theory about the ‘two modernities’ and how Christianity has responded to them.

The first modernity – often referred to as ‘The Enlightenment’, dominated Europe in the Eighteenth Century.  Woodhead explains how this led to the rise of ‘Liberal Christianity’. Challenged with a development in historical sciences, driven by the concern that modern people would be alienated from Christianity, the Gospels underwent a process of demythologisation by influential liberal theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann.  This was controversial and lead to the ‘explaining away’ of miracles and an undermining of the supernatural. According to ‘form-criticism’, the events narrated in the gospels had their origin in preaching, so the actual narrated event is secondary, a mythological development. So for instance, many liberal Christians would question the need to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  I remember studying theology in Edinburgh and was in a minority in the undergraduate class who believed in the historicity of the resurrection, the others believe it only had a symbolic or even metaphorical value.  The emphasis of this liberal current in Christianity was rational & ethical.  This was the Christian response to the intellectual flourishing of the enlightenment and according to Woodhead was successful for a hundred years, but it seems now that this form of Christianity, particularly liberal Protestantism is in crisis, perhaps even dying.  Recently it has been Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) who has offered a credible critique of this method.

The second or ‘late modernity’, started in the 1960’s was a rejection of all authority and a turn to the individual and subjective. Church-going started to fall precipitously, as a result of this, as religious and moral duty and social conformity no longer had any ‘pull’.  Liberal theology found itself on the defensive, and conservative Bible-based churches started to grow, with the emphasis being on personal-experience.  A Christian ‘sub-culture’ started to emerge and grow, fundamentalism started to thrive, with radio and network channels and held its own against the corrosive influences of popular culture and became more and more politically influential.  Evangelicals started to grow in this climate too – reinforcing family values, dissolving confessional differences, focusing on the ‘born-again’ experience.  Charismatic Christianity started also to emerge in this climate.  Christianity – once part of the establishment has become a conservative counter-culture.

I find Woodheads account much more nuanced and convincing that the blanket ‘narrative of decline’ that I often come across in the UK and even more sharply in Ireland.  If you have time to read this accessible and fairly cheap book I would recommend it.