Religion's Not Dead, It's Just Catnapping, Says Loyalist Critic Martin Marty
Between the Pope, Mother Teresa and Willie Stargell, it has been quite a fall. We have a hot streak going, all this goodness in the world is good for society..." Forgive Martin E. Marty his volubility and do not dismiss him as some kind of Howard Cosell of theology. When a Pope visits the U.S., a nun wins a Nobel or anything happens in modern religion, Marty is perhaps America's most sought-after and provocative commentator. He is an ordained Lutheran minister, a professor at the University of Chicago, a columnist for the venerable Christian Century magazine and a fixture of the talk-show and lecture circuit. His children call his office "the writing factory" (at 51, he has published 25 books) and blessed, indeed, is his phrasemaking. In 1972 he received the National Book Award in philosophy and religion for Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America.
"Marty has become the spokesman, the guru of what is going on in American religion," says Chicago faculty colleague Jerald Brauer. "He tells it the way he sees it." "I don't think there is anything in the church that should be exempt from criticism," argues Marty. "If you read the Scriptures, the prophets took the place apart, but it is always done with loving regard."
As chronicler, Marty has witnessed the place falling apart—U.S. religious attendance has endured a long decline he believes may be ending—and he isn't shy about identifying the causes. "The only power the church has is shared belief," he says, "and the problem in the '60s was that the church was using the spiritual capital of a different generation. A faith isn't transmitted genetically, like race. Only the groups that put a strong premium on intense religious experience have held their young." While millions of Americans are moving from sect to sect in search of a spiritual fix, some of the established denominations are faltering.
By comparison, Marty's own Protestant faith is rock-steady. Born in Nebraska, the son of a teacher, Marty was sent away to a Lutheran boarding school at 14. "It was inbred and seedy," he recalls. "We got to know each other too well." But he continued his education at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and later assumed pastoral duties in the Chicago suburbs. "I wanted to prove that it was possible to be a successful minister and an intellectual at the same time," he told a friend. "But the phone in the parish was always a threat—calls about murder, incest, death or news that the elder had run off with someone's wife." His own wife complained about all the interruptions during meals. Eleven years later, in 1963, he gladly exchanged his minister's robes for the academic variety.
Married 27 years, Marty met his wife, Elsa Schumacher, during his student days in St. Louis. Together they have raised four sons and two foster children, all of whom are now in college or on their own. He considers 11:55 a.m., Dec. 13, 1977 as a landmark in his life: That was the last time all five boys were in college at the same time. But the family's 80-year-old frame house in Riverside, Ill. still retains a sense of disciplined clutter and is the repository of so many books (more than 8,000) that some of the walls have cracked. Elsa is the resident carpenter, and Marty does all the dusting. A habitual napper and voracious reader, he sleeps only six hours a night and friends say he scans paragraphs about his current fascination even as he drives to work every day.
An orderly man, who believes in the value of reliable institutions, Marty is put off by the trend toward what he calls "highly privatized, do-it-yourself religion" to the detriment of traditional church loyalty. "You have a little bit of Zen, a bit of Catholicism and Judaism, a bit of Tillich, a bit of primal scream or macrobiotics—everyone has his own package," he observes. "To me, that is part of urban alienation, the religion of the high rises." Personally, he admits, "I am an institutional church freak. I can't go back to Grandpa's time and stay there, but I do think there are ways in which people can wrestle with a tradition all their lives, and some of the most interesting people in this century—Gandhi, Pope John—have done that." So how does he feel about all the trendy recommittals? "Being born again isn't the worst thing that can happen, and it can be therapeutic," concedes Marty. "But I look for continuities in my life. I'm more trustful of things that stay than things that don't."
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