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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Sunday, December 02, 2007

An Advent Reading List -- with a Twist

If you've visited this blog more than once or twice, you know that I'm an inveterate reader. I have three really interesting books going at the moment that, as I think about them, make an interesting and thought-provoking trilogy of Advent reading, as only Ways of the World could conjure it. In between the pages of Barbara Crafton's new book about Mary, try these out as well . . . .

Christmas: A Candid History
Where else to begin in Advent, but looking forward to Christmas? But did you know that the Church had no formal celebration of Christmas until about the Fourth Century? And why is Christmas in the wintertime, anyway? We don't really know the date in the calendar when Jesus was born. Bruce David Forbes, professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Iowa, brings us the intriguing notion that the early church wasn't keen on commemorating birth-days; birth brought people into this harsh, sin-filled world. The Church was much more attuned to someone's death, which marked the passage to the bliss of eternal life. So the very idea of a birthday party was novel. Forbes also gives us the quite logical thought experiment: why have such a big party in the middle of winter? Think harvest festival and abundance plus the need to have something to brighten mid-winter's darkness. Further, he suggests, the Church co-opted the pre-existing mid-winter parties for Saturnalia and New Year's in order to rein in their wild and crazy excesses. The later chapters talk about the evolution of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus and commercialization. Different spins on this season, which show us how the religious feast emerged from a worldly context, rather than the other way around. See what you think.

Bruce David Forbes. Christmas: A Candid History. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2007. A special order through VivaBooks; available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The Little Ice Age
It's easy to think of Creation and Climate at this time of year. The season's first snow in New York this weekend sensitizes us to possible changing trends in the weather. Brian Fagan, an archaeologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writes about much earlier periods of Climate Change: did you know that in the 12th and 13th Centuries, it was so warm in England that there were commercial vineyards? English wine was so abundant and popular that there were trade restrictions to keep it out of Continental Europe. The vineyards, though, faded around 1300 as the weather turned colder and stayed colder. Early Nordic settlements along the Canadian coast and Greenland were abandoned about that time, too, when ships could no longer sail safely through the increasingly icy North Atlantic waters. So there was a time that had been warm – warmer than now – but shifting ocean currents changed that. From 1300 to 1850, western and northern Europe experienced "The Little Ice Age".

Our present time of apparent global warming brought about the conclusion of that prior cold, Fagan explains. This began probably 150 years ago, with large-scale clear-cutting of forests during the spread of industrialization and massive migrations. Stripping the land of trees released huge quantities of carbon emissions. So while there have been major climate swings throughout the history of the world, this is the first known to be associated with humans' actions.

Fagan writes clearly and neatly. If the topic weren't so serious, I'd even say it is enjoyable. However you characterize the style, the story is engaging for the long-term perspective it puts on these crucial issues for our time – and all time!

Brian Fagan. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. New York: Basic Books. 2000. Available at VivaBooks.

unChristian? What a thing to suggest just before Christmas! But it's important, too. This is a brand new commentary on young people in the church. It's from The Barna Group, a well-known market research firm for Evangelical and "Born-again" churches and mega-churches.

These churches are the ones that are growing the most. Many mainline denominations have experienced membership declines in recent years. But Evangelicals have kept increasing, some quite spectacularly. However, they have begun to notice that young people, in their 20s and 30s, are tending to drift away from the church. Kids who've grown up in the church often separate from it during college and early adulthood, but they've usually come back as their lives begin to take shape and settle down. Until now. These churches are apparently starting to notice a new trend with the 20s and 30s, that they aren't coming back in the numbers they used to.

David Kinnaman, the President of Barna, is hardly older than the subjects of his research, but he's worried about what this might mean for the future. And I'd say that if a leader in that wing of Christianity has such a concern, we in our wing of Christianity need to know about it as well. Kinnaman and his associates interviewed and surveyed several thousand young people, and carefully analyzed the responses from those outside the church. "What is keeping you away?" they asked.

After Christmas, during the season of Epiphany, we'll talk in some detail here about church growth and what social scientists from mainline denominations – including the Episcopal Church – are learning about ways to help it along. In the meantime, we can also ponder and pray about this striking new development among our Evangelical neighbors.

David Kinnaman, with Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2007. Available at VivaBooks.


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