Why Do Children Embrace or Reject the Religion of their Parents?

A few days ago the New York Times ran a review of a new book which attempts to understand why religious faith is kept or lost between generations—Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford University Press). The book’s principle author, Vern Bengston, professor of social work at the University of Southern California, studied 350 families and 2,400 individuals from 1969 to 2008 in order see if religious beliefs were passed down through the four generations of family members that he interviewed and if so, what the determining factor was. His results are summarized in this selection from the article:

According to Professor Bengtson, parents have as much hold as ever on children’s souls. “Parent-youth similarity in religiosity has not declined over 35 years,” from 1970 to 2005, he writes. Denominational loyalty is down — kids feel free to ditch the Baptists for the Presbyterians — but younger generations are no less likely to inherit core beliefs, like biblical literalism, the importance of church attendance or, for that matter, atheism.

As to why some children follow their parents, spiritually speaking, Professor Bengtson’s research confirmed some common-sense assumptions. For example, it helps if parents model religiosity: if you talk about church but never go, children sense hypocrisy. And intermarriage doesn’t help. If you’re Jewish (or Mormon, Catholic, etc.), and want your child to share your religion, it helps to marry someone of the same faith.

But Professor Bengtson’s major conclusion is that family bonds matter. Displays of parental piety, like “teaching the right beliefs and practices” and “keeping strictly to the law,” can be for naught if the children don’t feel close to the parents. “Without emotional bonding,” these other factors are “not sufficient for transmission,” he writes.

Professor Bengtson also found that one parent matters more than the other — and it’s Dad. “But what is really interesting,” he writes, “is that, for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s fathermatters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother.”

This study discovered that emotionally bonding with one’s father seems to be the most important determinate as to whether or not a child will embrace the religion(s) of the family into which they were born. Not whether the child was properly catechized, or rigorously taught a belief structure, or pushed to deeply explore various worldviews, or given a certain set of moral standards. These things are not necessarily bad, in the right settings they can often be very good, but according to this study they were not nearly as important for belief transfer as it was for a child to feel close to their parents and, in particular, their father.

I think that this leads us to an important point that should be intuitive but in many cases is not (for my part, I wasn’t clued in on this until I met my current pastor)–a crucial part of the Christian life involves intentionally taking steps to better under understand ourselves and then opening up our lives and emotionally connecting with those around us and with God. At first this can seem strange and even uncomfortable because we live in a world, even a church-world, which often leaves us emotionally disconnected or connected in very dysfunctional ways.

For instance, I find that it is easier to debate ideas or rationally discuss a Scripture passage than to be vulnerable and honest with those around me and to take the time and spend the focused energy to deeply understand the pains and joys of those I love. But, if I want my daughter to embrace the Christian faith that so animates my life, I had better not merely talk to her about the truth, I must deeply love her, be transparent and honest with her, incarnate the message that Jesus is Lord in all its breadth and fullness, and emotionally connect with her. Because if I merely give her my faith packaged as a mental idea, my faith will likely die with me.

My Favorite Reads of 2013

Here are my favorite books that I’ve read in 2013 (not necessarily published in 2013) in absolutely no particular order. I’d also love to hear from you on which books were your favorites. Best wishes and happy reading for 2014!

Jon Levenson, Inheriting Abraham

Levenson is one of my favorite scholars of biblical studies and he’s on my “read everything s/he writes” list. Inheriting Abraham is a completely fascinating look at the traditions of Abraham as they appear in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Levenson argues (persuasively, IMO) that the traditions are different enough that we should no longer talk about “Abrahamic” religions as if they all share the same understandings about this figure. And, as a bonus, I interviewed Levenson about this book for Marginalia.

Stephane Michaka, Scissors

A completely engrossing and wonderfully written novel inspired by the short story writer, Raymond Carver, along with his wife and editor. If you are a writer yourself, you will love this book. And if you’re not, you’ll still love it.

Russell Norman, Polpo

My favorite cookbook. A true work of art and the recipes are deliciously, traditionally Venetian while still easy to prepare.

Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek

What is the Bible? Why do different Christian traditions use different forms of it? This is a fascinating and helpful book for anyone interested in studying the Bible and learning of its origins and reception within Christendom.

Stephen Harrigan, The Eye of the Mammoth

A collection of essays so well written that you’ll be fascinated with as obscure things as the scientific study of road kill.

R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology 

Along with Ben Sommer and John Rogerson, Moberly is one of my favorite scholars to read on the topic of theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. This book reads representative passages from the Hebrew Bible in light of the insights of contemporary criticism as well as received traditions of the Christian faith to form a very substantial and thoughtful picture of the messages of the Old Testament.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing

If you read one book about the craft of writing make it this one. It is both inspirational and practical. Also, check out my interview with Klinkenborg for Marginalia.

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton

Rushdie’s memoir that focuses on his life under the fatwa. Like all of Rushdie’s work, the writing is fabulous and the story moves at a good clip.

Miguel A. De La Torre, Latina/o Social Ethics

This book challenges the traditional foundation of Christian Ethics by exposing the fact that these approaches support the structures of those in power instead of the marginalized of society. It will change the way you view the entire field of ethical studies.

Matthew Specktor, American Dream Machine

This novel sets the standard for stories about Hollywood. It has a main character that you will simultaneous love and hate, and it’s ending is one that you’ll never forget.

Paul Theroux, Last Train to Zona Verde

A travel memoir from an absolute master. If you’ve ever wanted to wrap your head around the glories and challenges of Africa, this is the book for you.

Tim Parks, Italian Ways

It’s a book about exploring Italy via the railroad. It’s one of the most incredible books I’ve read. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

It’s Julian Barnes. He explores his grief and experience of loss at the death of his wife. One of the most tender, insightful, and profound books I’ve read.

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Wiman explores his return to the Christian faith after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer. His reflections are anything but neat and tidy but rather the complex thoughts of one of the most interesting poets of our time.

Christopher M. Hays and Christopher Ansberry, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

Evangelicals have tended to have a reactionary stance toward mainstream biblical scholarship in which they retreat into traditionalism and fail to be honest with the reality of the biblical text. Hays and Ansberry show that this is not only unhelpful but completely unnecessary.

Michael Frayn, Skios

A novel which produces hilarity through unfolding chaos.

Giacomo Leopardi, Canti and Zibaldone

Leopardi was a linguist, poet, and polymath. Canti is a collection of some of his stark poems mainly about Italy and Zibaldone is his collection of notes. Both are tremendously fascinating and pleasures to read.

Historical Books or Former Prophets

In Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s newest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, one of the main characters gets into a philosophical debate over the nature of history. In the course of the discussion one of the participants says:

History is merely a pattern we see in what has passed. It has no power to reach into the present.

I think this view of history is similar to the ways in which many Christians regard portions of the Old Testament.


We often refer to the books of Joshua-Esther, following an old tradition, as the “historical books.” There are good reasons to use this label–this section emplots the histories of Israel and Judah (histories because are parallel accounts, like Kings and Chronicles, which contain differences and particular theological interests). But often times when we hear the word “history” we think of it in terms similar to the character in Coetzee’s book–history is in the past, it relates some trivia but for the most part it is irrelevant for those of us living in the present.

Jewish tradition viewed these books very differently. Instead of calling these books “historical,” within the Hebrew canon Joshua-Kings is seen as a collection of “former prophets” (the “latter prophets” being Isaiah and the like), while Chronicles-Ezra were lumped into the “writings,” a catch all collection of texts that were, for the most part, written rather late in the development of the Hebrew Bible. What’s really striking about the designation of Joshua-Kings as “former prophets” is that this moniker regards these books not as dead records of the past but as living voices for the present. They are prophetic books that teach their readers how to live flourishing lives, give warnings concerning dangers to avoid, and provide insights into the fragile states of humankind and the gracious and fractious relationship that we have with God.

When is the last time that you’ve heard the book of Kings preached in church? I’m guessing that it’s been a while, if ever. If more pastors thought of Joshua-Kings as “former prophets” rather than “historical books” would they preach on them more often?

Are Single People Damaged Goods?

Christians often ground their thoughts on human sexuality and marriage with Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Accordingly, individuals and churches often project the message that the one of the chief goals in life is to find a spouse and have a family. Many congregations are structured and segregated into different departments–youth, college, singles, and married–to help parishioners live out this goal.

The expectation is that everyone will progress through these stages. The “singles” department is viewed as little more than a temporary way station; a physical manifestation of ChristianMingle.com. It is designed with a planned obsolescence and individuals in their mid-thirties are seen as party crashers. Within the church, people who never marry are regarded as damaged goods. Whether spoken or not, we often assume that if, after several decades of life, a person is not able to convince one–just one!–out of the seven billion people on the planet to walk down an aisle with them, they must have some seriously twisted issues.

If the Apostle Paul were with us today he would probably say that we have things upside down–it’s the married people that have a problem. In I Corinthians 7:8-9 Paul gives this advice to single people:

To those who are unmarried or widowed, here’s my advice: it is a good thing to stay single as I do.  If they do not have self-control, they should go ahead and get married. It is much better to marry than to be obsessed by sexual urges (The Voice).

For Paul, the proper default for human relations is singleness. It is only if a person lacks self-control–in other words, if they have a certain character flaw or spiritual immaturity–should they consider marriage. Why aren’t more churches structured to account for this? Why is it that we married people regard ourselves as healthy and single adults as in need to be fixed up?

We need to rethink our approach to human relations. The first thing we need to do is destigmatize singleness within the church. We need to present singleness as a lifestyle that is appropriate and noble instead of abnormal and dysfunctional. We should highlight the many benefits of singleness and the opportunities for blessing others that it presents. And this message needs to be communicated more than once every blue moon when a sermon series happens upon this passage in 1 Corinthians. This message needs to be embedded within the very fabric of our thought. Certainly, singleness entails hardships and we should be honest about them. But married life brings challenges of its own. No life situation is free of difficulties.

The second thing we should do is reexamine the structures of our churches and assess what these structures  communicate. If a church decides to have a “singles” program, the “singles minister” should spend as much effort helping their congregants find contentment in singleness as they do trying to facilitate pairings. And, a “singles” department should be explicitly designed to welcome singles of all kinds–young, middle aged, old, and widowed.

These two thoughts barely scratch the surface of how the church can more fully embrace Paul’s perspective on the value of singleness. What other ideas do you have?

Arrested Development and the Old Testament

Many of us, including myself for a long time, view law as something negative–a list of don’ts, punitive rules, commands that box us in and restrict our lives. And for this reason many people, even some Christians, have a negative disposition toward the Old Testament. It is true that the laws in the Old Testament (and also the New) act to constrain our behavior. But constraints are not always bad. In some sense, the only way to truly live is to observe certain boundaries. Instead of stifling creativity and eliminating fun, constraints often enhance artistic creation and produce greater human flourishing.

A recent example of this can be seen in the critical reaction to the new season of Arrested Development. It ran for three seasons as a network TV show and after a long hiatus Netflix released a fourth last weekend. The pre-Netflix show was fast paced, zany, frantic, kinetic, even. Almost every episode was a constant series of hilarity–both overt and subtle–packed cheek and jowl. The new series, I have read, is bloated and overwrought.

There are probably several reasons for the apparent decline in the show’s quality but one of the most relevant to our discussion is the fact that, time after time, critics point to the lack of constraints at Netflix. James Poniewozik, TV critic for Time, put it this way:

Hurwitz was famously constrained by the network system at Fox, but he made genius of necessity. Restrained by content standards, he wrote a kind of poetry of innuendo. Confined by commercials, he compressed and chiseled episodes into sculptures of diamond. On commercial-free, watch-at-your-own-pace Netflix he’s free — to write incredibly intricate plots, to vary the length of acts, to make episodes over 30 minutes long.

The typical length of a pre-Netflix show was about 22 minutes while some of the Netflix episodes push 35. Without constraints, the show lacked creativity, energy, focus, and verve. The way to fix it? Force the creators to work within boundaries:


It’s like this with the rest of human life too. If we are free to do absolutely whatever we want, most of us will end up in decision paralysis or the same kind of flaccid, dullness that apparently characterizes Arrested Development’s new season.

In like manner, if we approach the biblical legal corpus as a set of boundaries intended to create the conditions for human flourishing instead of as a list of rules designed to punish us, we will embrace them more easily and learn from them more readily. And in the process we will adopt a perspective a bit closer to that of the authors that penned them.

Reading Scripture Fixed and Free

Let us begin by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatever between the two.

– Virginia Woolf, “Hours in a Library” in Times Literary Supplement, 30 November 1916.

I am convinced that hardly a Christian reads the Bible. We may crack its spine every morning, study it groups, or vocalize it in services, but we never, ever, actually read it.

That’s because we use the Bible. We approach Scripture with the specific agenda of learning from it. We burn through four chapters a day to complete it in a year, distill theological principles from paragraphs, and make moral applications from the Decalogue.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry via Wikimedia Commons

Learning from the Bible is undoubtedly good, but when is the last time that you just read it? Not to prepare for a lesson or to discern a principle or to understand theology but merely to rest inside a narrative? To feel the energy between sentences, to let a poem’s emotion wash over you, to feel the horror of Judges 19 and sublimity of Psalm 23? Maybe never. But this is what reading is. It’s approaching a text with the agenda of mere enjoyment.

But we don’t enjoy the Bible. We use it as a vehicle to get us somewhere else — to another spiritual reality, a different moral space, a more developed theological perspective. We hardly ever linger within its pages, asking it to do nothing else than capture our imagination. But surely this is one of the things its editors desired. Why else would they have assembled a canon that contains genealogies, cosmologies, etiologies, biographies, narratives, laments, liturgies, letters, credos, contracts, visions, riddles, oracles, apocalypses, histories, hymns, parables, proverbs, poems, laws, ordinances, reports, dreams, encouragements, rebukes, songs, and speeches when they could have saved some ink by giving us a few bullet points of doctrine, some ethical guidelines, and a barebones narrative?

It seems that the Bible was intended to nourish the entire person, not merely shape our beliefs and guide our behavior. Otherwise, the poetic and literary nature of the Bible is purely superfluous. Yet, most of us never take a break from studying the Bible to read it.

There are several reasons for this but perhaps the biggest stumbling block is our conception of what Scripture is. We think of it as a divine handbook, a love letter, a depository of data to fuel research, or a story of salvation history and then we strip mine it for information. Rarely to do we consider it a work of art or a cultural expression that could shape our aesthetic. But why not? The mere fact that it contains poetry should be enough to convince us that Scripture has an artistic nature in addition to a didactic one.

Many Christians approach the Bible through a rigid system — a liturgical calendar, a prescribed reading schedule, or a daily quota. This is tremendously problematic if these are the only ways in which we relate to our most sacred text. Potentially, the Bible becomes another task that we tick off our to-do-list. We need to cultivate times of unstructured reading. To borrow a phrase from Alan Jacobs, we need to read at whim. If the desire arises to read a Psalm or a Pauline letter, or, dare we say, Leviticus, and it’s not the specified passage for the day, carve out a few minutes and soak in it.

But equally problematic is the person who reads the Bible with no rhyme or reason, retweeting a random verse here and flicking open a Bible to whatever page there but never getting around to finishing an entire narrative. There’s hardly a chance that this person will enjoy the Bible’s story lines or integrate its teachings into coherent ideas. The books that make up the whole were intend to be read through. If we treat the Bible like a jumble of hypertexts and bounce around its pages we will never appreciate it in the ways its authors intended.

There is an inherent tension in our relationship to the Bible. This tension is similar to the ways in which Jewish tradition approaches prayer — certain prayers are to be recited at particular times but petitions should also flow out of the heart. Prayer demands both keva (set times of recitation) and kavanah (spontaneous intention). We could loosely translate these terms as “fixed and free.”

Like prayer, the Bible is best read fixed and free. Impromptu sessions should accompany liturgical recitations and whim should interrupt schedules. In addition, we should read the Bible for enjoyment as well as study it for understanding. To a large degree these are very different acts but embracing the Bible more fully involves holding together the tension of keva and kavanah.

Is Prayer Surrender?

Benedict XVIPaolo Flores d’Arcais wrote a breathtaking blog post for the New York Review of Books. It’s one of the most trenchant attempts to interpret Benedict XVI’s resignation that I’ve read. He explores the theological implications of a Spirit-inspired Vicar of Christ on Earth saying that he is too old to continue in his divinely appointed task. Is the Holy Spirit not able to strengthen him and the church during a time of mortal weakness?

This is a weighty question, to be sure. But what intrigued me even more is d’Arcais’s speculation that in the face of raging power struggles that are bringing the Church to her knees, Benedict decided to surrender. To scamper off to Castel Gandolfo and after that to a former convent. Too old and feeble to fight, the now Pope Emeritus chose to pray.

But should we equate prayer with surrender? The author of Ephesians writes:

We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places (6:12, The Voice).

Possibly, Benedict had this passage in mind when he received the report he commissioned in the wake of the “Vatileaks scandal.” Scheming priests, money laundering bankers, and blackmailing bishops – they are just bit players in a much bigger game. Their sins would take some doing to unravel but the real challenge would be addressing the evil that propels them. That’s something that no pope, no matter how physically fit, is able to do on his own.

At this point – emotionally dead, physically frail, and spiritually tired – perhaps Benedict thought of Christ at Gethsemane. After his closest friends failed him and a trusted advisor betrayed him, Jesus faced his own death. The Pope may have seen similarities between his circumstances and those of his Lord. Intriguingly, Christ responded to all this by retreating in prayer.

If we keep reading we find that after this night of passionate petition Jesus went to his death and, as the Gospels confess, death was defeated in resurrection. Jesus didn’t surrender to pray, he prayed to continue the fight. But it was a fight that was won through self-sacrifice and persistent – defiant, even – prayer.

To many, Benedict’s decision seems like a foolhardy act of cowardice at best and a negligent abdication of his religious duty at worst. He gave up at a time when the church needed him the most. Yet, it might be that, in Benedict’s mind, he was taking the fight to a whole other level.

Monkey Gone to Heaven

The first time I heard the song must have been as I was weaving in and out of traffic. I was too impatient to wait for the DJ to name to title so with one eye on the road and the other on my phone I shazam’ed it. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by The Pixies. By far my favorite song from them. Their music is a mix of discordant sound, screaming, and catchy loops; normally not my cup of tea. But anytime someone mixes environmentalism, a great hook, and esoteric Hebrew numerology they’ve won my heart…wait, hold up–do monkeys really go to heaven?

I know, I know, it’s just a song. And from The Pixies no less. In an interview the writer boasted that after someone casually mentioned to him the numerical play that is partly what the song is based on he “didn’t go to the library and figure it out.” He took the idea, however accurate or incomplete it was, and ran with it. But still, it’s a good question: Do monkeys go to heaven?

I’ve seen documentaries of cute little monkeys grooming each other and humorous videos of them cleaning themselves by gently picking bugs off their fur and eating them. At times they act almost human. They show empathy toward animals that suffer and mothers lovingly raise their offspring. I’ve also seen them fling feces at visitors gazing at them from the other side of a plexiglass wall. But I’d be throwing poo around too if I were locked up in a zoo.

Apart from their cuteness and my sense of pity when I encounter them imprisoned, is there any reason to think that monkeys will go to heaven? This question tumbled through my mind refusing to go away to a quiet recess until I answered it.

The first thing I had to get straight was what I meant by “heaven.” We all have our own idea of what this place is. A city in the clouds that’s populated with naked babies, rows of singing saints in a blank void, or golden streets leading to a gigantic McMansion. None of these pictures are remotely close to how the Bible describes the “world to come.” Instead, it persistently presents heaven coming to earth. To be sure, there are many texts that refer to people rising up to the skies in order to enter the divine realm, or projecting their prayers upward, or the heavenly hosts coming down to earth. But these verses speak to our present reality, not the future one.

When we look at passages that address an eschatological horizon we read of heaven coming to earth. Perhaps the most prominent passage that conveys this idea is Revelation 21 in which the holy city descends from heaven and comes to rest on Jerusalem. It’s true that immediately before this the first heaven and earth are said to have passed away and that the author saw new ones in their place. This “newness” implies a qualitative difference between the world that we now experience and the one that will be in the future. But Christian tradition has maintained that there are strong continuities between them as well. Just as resurrected saints retain similarities with their former identity, so will the new heavens and earth, or better, renewed heavens and earth, retain similarities with the present ones.

The second thing that I had to understand was that animals were not created solely for human use. Animals have their own intrinsic value within God’s creation. Like rocks that cry out (Luke 19:40) and the sun, moon, and stars that praise God (Psalm 148:3), animals worship by being what they were created to be. For these reasons the Hebrew prophets envisioned humans and animals living together in the eschatological future. Here is Isaiah of Jerusalem’s description:

A day will come when the wolf will live peacefully beside the wobbly-kneed lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf and yearling, newborn and slow, will rest secure with the lion;
and a little child will tend them all.

 Bears will graze with the cows they used to attack;
even their young will rest together,
and the lion will eat hay, like gentle oxen.

 Neither will a baby who plays next to a cobra’s hole
nor a toddler who sticks his hand into a nest of vipers suffer harm.
All my holy mountain will be free of anything hurtful or destructive,
for as the waters fill the sea,
The entire earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal. (Isaiah 11:6-9, The Voice).

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this. I’m comforted by the idea that I’ll see my dogs again but I don’t know what I’ll say to the hundreds of animals that I’ve eaten for dinner over the years. It doesn’t seem like a simple “sorry” will cut it.

What I do know is that this picture fundamentally changes the way I relate to animals here and now. They aren’t disposable commodities that exist merely to satisfy my perceived wants and needs. They are creatures created by God just like me. The breath of life flows through their lungs as well as mine (compare Genesis 2:7 and 7:22). As creatures that give glory to God in their own unique ways they deserve care and respect. Even though I eat meat I believe that I have a responsibility to make sure that animals have a happy and flourishing life while they are alive. That’s why I make it a point to avoid animal products derived from the horrors of factory farms. I’m going to live with these creatures for ever. It’s enough that I eat some of them; it’s beyond the pale of responsibility that I’d facilitate their torture as well.

When I first heard the song I never knew that a chorus which chanted “This monkey’s gone to heaven” would lead me into such deep ethical and theological contemplations. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Life is where theology and ethics meet.


The quote in the second paragraph is from Marlene Goldman, “Here and There and Everywhere,” Alternative Press, Vol. IV, No 22 (September 1989).

For a discussion of Revelation 21 and the new heavens and earth see Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 126-143.

For a discussion of the reasons why animals were created see Richard Bauckham, Living With Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 96-98.

For more on how our diet affects the lives of animals either positively or negatively see Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006).

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