Faith After The Fall

  • The grim litany rings out in every synagogue in the country every year, last Thursday included. A key passage in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, the somber Jewish holiday of repentance, bids believers to speculate on the ways to die. "Who by fire and who by water," they read in unison. "Who by the sword and who by wild beasts, who by famine and who by drought..." It is a hard passage. Wild beasts? There are usually some raised eyebrows.

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    Last week they were replaced by tears. There are indeed wild beasts afoot, and their acts packed synagogues even fuller than usual for Yom Kippur. Many churches and mosques were swamped after Sept. 11. The influx raised almost as many questions as the atrocity--about both God and American faith.

    First of all, are we in revival? Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, described the Sunday following the attacks this way: "We put people in the lobby, the overflow areas, the choir risers. The lines were down the block." Clergy countrywide had similar experiences. Sixty percent of all Americans attended some kind of memorial, and Bible sales rose 27%. However, the new impulse isn't sticking with everyone. Gallup polls taken Sept. 21 and 22 suggested that weekend church and synagogue attendance rose only 6% (compared with, say, 20% after President Kennedy was shot).

    Still, few would argue with the feeling of Rabbi Steven Leder of Los Angeles' huge Wilshire Boulevard Temple that since the terror "the intensity of the [religious] experience has heightened." On Sept. 22, as Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that Boston might be attacked next, 15,000 Christians knelt on the asphalt of City Hall Plaza in a display of Christian repentance. Evangelist Franklin Graham thinks the mood will hold. "There is a conflict in front of us," he says. "And that is going to keep the focus on the spiritual."

    As important as church attendance, says evangelical leader Chuck Colson, is that "people are asking all the right questions." Houston pastor Ed Young elaborates: "What do I know about God, who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, where am I going?" A second tier of issues has arisen around the question of war. Muslims and others have been doing furious research on the concept of jihad. Traditional antiwar denominations like Quakers and Church of the Brethren are challenging the more common Christian concept of the just war. Some mainline Protestants, Buddhists and other religious liberals have begun peace initiatives. Many conservative Christians are speculating about the Apocalypse, and sales of the apocalyptic book series "Left Behind" are booming.

    The most pressing conundrum is the one Jerry Falwell broached so divisively when he suggested that God allowed America to be attacked because of the actions of feminists, homosexuals and "abortionists." Falwell later recanted, but his view is echoed, faintly, by Graham. While saying, "These tragedies are not part of God's original plan," he cites the biblical history of the Israelites, who "would turn away from God, and God would allow a calamity." To Falwell's cultural critique, Graham adds one on American materialism. "We were more concerned about our 401(k)s than about our own souls," he says. Father John Duffell, a Roman Catholic priest in New York City, speaks for his church's hierarchy and a more benevolent view of the deity in saying, "God was absolutely shocked to find all those people before him" in heaven. "God created us with free will. God doesn't plan this. People choose evil."

    A few pulpiteers gently rebuked the new arrivals for foxhole religiosity. Cymbala admonished on that first Sunday, "You come to church when some buildings come down, [but] your loyalty is like the dew that passes away." Most of his colleagues are less harsh. Says Colson: "If the church hasn't been attracting people, you blame the church." That said, he asks, "Are we just going to soothe the frayed nerves of lots of Americans, or are we going to introduce the real Gospel? If you just bring them in and sprinkle holy water on them on Sunday, you haven't had the real thing."

    Duffell takes a softer line. "The community needs the prayers" of the recent arrivals, he says. "If we are engaged in a true act of communion, then that nourishment will bring them back again." Looking out and seeing people who had not been to Mass in years, Duffell thought, "At least you came. It's a chance to begin again."