A ‘Not-so Critical’ Response to Callum Brown’s Death of Christian Britain:

In a recent issue of the theological journal First Things, Richard John Neuhaus complained of the propensity for ‘pithy’ statements to exist in the nether regions of the public mind long after anyone can remember or correctly attribute the quote.[1] Based upon a cursory look of the impact of Callum Brown’s book The Death of Christian Britain, one might argue to Brown is well on his way to this dubious honor. In a move sure to keep sales of Brown’s book going for years to come and hopefully less than obscure, his work is given special notice as being of particular importance in the encyclopedia article on secularism in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Additionally a quick google search pulls up the flyer for a April 2005 conference entitled, “The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Away to Spirituality.” Surprising at first, but there it is in black and white, come hear the author of “The Death of Christian Britain.” Blackwell Publishing has to love these little blurbs; yet whether or not one can correctly attribute the sentiments, the main idea seemed to have gained some pop cultural traction. For instance, look at this quote from D. Micheal Lindsey, “These factors [of diminishing attendance] are driving evangelical leaders into the arms of fellowship groups that exist outside of churches… The shift occurred in the 1950s, but it grew dramatically over the past 20 years…”[2] True the article is discussing events in the US and exists in a little different time frame, but what was most interesting to me was the similarity between the several dozen uses of similar themes and concepts in the multiple sources which I had previously reviewed. And where did I find this quote, I read it in the dining room of a Holiday Inn in Murray, Kentucky as I attempted to eat my overcooked eggs and relax with the complimentary copy of the USA Today.

Time and time again various authors working on various and sundry ideas argued with Brown’s research, methodology, and categorization even as each accepted his thesis. Even those authors whom one might expect to have problems with Brown’s work seemed embarrassed to admit that, yes, Brown is correct in his assessment that Christianity in Britain is in serious trouble. Witness this statement from conservative evangelical Alister MacGrath as he grudgingly conceded the point stating that the British Church in the 1960s suffered “suffered a severe crisis of confidence from which it has still not recovered.”[3]

If everyone seems to buy into the numbers presented by Brown,[4] the bloggers and authors of the world seem to express some concerns about the importance and emotive effect which this turn of events should engender. On the one hand, one has Guardian editor Natalie Bennett posting an online column using Brown’s “compelling” new book as a pitchfork with which to prod the grannies and ninnies of the world who continue to complain about the ever-shortening lengths of women’s skirts. In other words, read Brown, wise up to the way things are, and try not to gawk when the women beside you at Starbucks bends over, and reveals every last inch of her area-not-to-be-mentioned-in-polite-company.[5] Less breathless in their coverage, and perhaps a little more stately in their discussion of Brown’s work are Stuart Miller, writing about Anabaptist missions,[6] and Richard Holloway arguing for Anglicans to become the “first truly post-modern church,” are no less optimistic about the possibilities of a ‘post-Christian’ Britain.[7] The ability of authors to latch onto Brown’s work in this way represents a disquieting aspect of his work. Monica Furlong in her review of his book chides Brown for being “maybe a little gleeful” in his argument that Christianity is dying or dead.[8] For some Brown’s work reads not as a dirge but as a celebration of a truly magnanimous event.

Optimism, however, does not represent the most common reaction to Brown’s book. That belongs more to a sense of pessimism, a grand sense of loss, or angry denunciations. Douglas Winnail represents the polar opposite to Bennett. In a less-than-exegetically-precise post on the Living Church of God website, Winnail launches an invective filled jeremiad against the modern church and name-checks Brown to ‘prove’ that the modern-day church stands as a fulfillment of the book of Jeremiah.[9] Unfortunately the writers at www.imageo-dei.net were no less worried about the outcome described in Brown’s book. In another rambling post that name-checks that scholar Bill O’Reilly, Brown and his discussion of death is used as a ‘wake-up’ call to American Christians whom are thoughtlessly and horribly falling for the same lies that killed British Christianity by allowing the ‘liberals’ to take the Christ out of Christmas. Evidently the reason that America has remained somewhat Christian lies in the American church’s refusal to use the phrase ‘happy holidays.’[10]

All this fast and furious name-checking from the nether regions of the Al Gore’s pride and joy might led one to believe that no one has actually read all of, or thought fully about the important arguments of Brown’s unarguably important book. Many good and bright scholars have begun to work with Brown’s book. Most scholars seem in agreement that Brown’s thesis is cogent and well-argued. Yet, Brown, himself, has admitted to several weak links in his argument. First Brown admits that he should have spent more time in discussion of the link between birth control and the ensuing revolution. Second he admits to have creating a view of Christianity that is a little too monolithically Protestant evangelical. Last he cops to using too ‘highfalutin’ language.[11]

The first and third ‘criticism’ of his work strikes me of less importance. Yet in the second criticism lays a critical response that is overheard time and again in both the scholarly and not-so-scholarly reviews of his work. Where Gilley critiques Brown as painting Christianity as monolithic, Furlong sees Brown as setting up a dichotomous Christian presence in Britain. Even this approach leans toward the all too narrow, Furlong argues.[12] Similarly R.D. Kernohan questions Brown’s understanding of the British religious climate. Kernohan wonders if perhaps in his rush to prove his thesis, Brown might paint too monolithic a portrait of modern day British Christianity. He writes,

“It draws mainly on testimony of those who lost faith or never had the gift in abundance—certainly a vast proportion of the baptized and even of Church members. The book does not explore the experiences of those who kept the faith or found it…. Soviet scholars once made similar claims, with some substance. But both assertions over-stated and misstated the case because of the great gulf between them and the people whose faith ensured Church survival and possible revival.”[13]

This leads to perhaps my personal criticism of the reviews of Callum Brown’s work. In more than one author states that they like or don’t like the work of Brown because it feels right, or it matches the experiences which they have had. David Voas in his review argues that the problem lies in the fact that Brown approaches history as an art form and not a science. The problem, then, is that in “choosing art over science. The appeal to stories- to articles, diaries, and anecdotes- produces a rich texture, but a soft foundation. Questions of selectivity and emphasis are never far away.”[14] Nigel Aston in his review of several similar books writes that “Christianity’s apparent decline in western Europe poses the sort of question that invites instant punditry.”[15] In this modern era that controversy seems destined to end up splattered not only throughout the scholarly world, but throughout the internet. The simplicity and ease of restatement of Brown’s thesis seems only to have fanned the flames. As mentions of Brown and use of thesis percolates throughout the web one can only hope that like Neuhaus, Brown can only hope that the pundits continue to spell his name right, but with a name like Brown even that should not be outside the ability of Bill the blogger.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus. “As Long As They Spell Our Names Right.” First Things. November 2007. Viewed on-line in the First Things archive.

[2] D. Micheal Lindsey. “A Gated Community in the Evangelical World.” USA Today. Monday, Feb. 11, 2008. 13A.

[3] Alister MacGrath. The Future of Christianity. (Blackwell Publishing Ltd; Malden, Mass.), 15.

[4] To footnote every review, book, or blog that quoted the statistics from the introduction of Brown’s book would create a footnote certainly larger than this review.

[5] British school teacher Penny Thompson expresses similar optimism in a speech given at a book launch for her book on religious education stating that Brown paints a picture of a Christianity that had to die. A copy of the speech can be downloaded at www.angelfire.com/pe/pennyt/speech.doc .

[6] An excerpt from Miller’s book Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Paternoster Press, 2004) can be read at www.opensourcetheology.net/node/361 . There Miller argues that this new world of Christianity is a much better fit for Christianity than the authority-laden version of Christendom and presents the Christian with truly phenomenal chance to present the world with a truer version of Christianity.

[7] Likewise, one can read excerpts of Richard Holloway’s writing at http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/holloway/index.htm . The article looked at for this review was entitled The Myths of Christianity-6. The End of Religion (continued). Titling issues aside, the article presents a fairly sloppy and shoddy attempt to defend post-modernism as a friend of Christianity. Needless to say Brian McLaren should not worry about losing his title of poster-boy for the movement to Holloway anytime soon.

[8] Monica Furlong, Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 54 (1) 184.

[9] Douglas S. Winnail. “God’s People Will Forget God!” Tomorrow’s World Magazine. May-June 2005. 7(3). Viewed in online archive at http://www.tomorrowsworld.org/cgi-bin/tw/tw-mag.cgi?category=Magazine36&item=1115662601 .

[10] “The ‘Christmas Controversy.’” Available on-line at http://www.imageo-dei.net/imago_dei/2005/12/the_christmas_c.html .

[11] These criticisms can be read in Brown’s response to University of Durham Professor Sheridan Gilley’s review of Death for the Institute for Historical Research. The review and response can be found at http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/paper/gilleys.html .

[12] Furlong., 185.

[13] R.D. Kernohan. Review of The Death of Christian Britain. Contemporary Review. April 2002. Article available on-line at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2242/is_1635_280/ai_85532651 .

[14] David Voas. Review of The Death of Christian Britain by Callum Brown. Journal of Contemporary Religion 17 (1):103.

[15] Nigel Aston. “Decline or Evolution? Religion in Modern Europe.” European History Quaterly 2006. 36(91), 91.


About the post


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: