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In his much-discussed column last month highlighting Christian Smith’s much-discussed sociology of young adults , David Brooks laments that young adherents of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism aren’t even that moral.  “Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”

Was ancient Israel, the place where that “morality was once revealed,” any different? Archaeology may be the closest we can get to Christian Smith-style sociological analysis of the Ancient Near East, offering evidence for actual religious practices as oppose to official theological belief. What do recent excavations tell us about ancient Israelite religion on the ground? Archaeologist William Dever (an authority on such matters) drives home the lessons of the dirt:

In ancient Israel, until the Exile, Asherah and Ba’al were not shadowy numina, dead and discredited gods of old Canaan. Rather the pair were potent rivals of [God] himself, and for the masses their cult, with its promise of integration with the very life-giving forces of Nature, remained an attractive alternative to the more austere religion and ethical demands of [official Israelite religion] ( 164 ).

Dever is frustrated by attempts to verify the Bible with the spade. “Nothing could be clearer evidence of the modern lack of faith than our . . . demands for archaeological ‘proof.’” Nevertheless, he suggests that pagan statuary discovered in Israelite sites  “merely confirms what the Bible suggests - but downplays . . .   In short, it demonstrates that the prophets knew what they were talking about” ( 166 ).

Like those prophets, we should lament that young adults today are marked not by catechized commitment, but by Moralistic (and Snycretistic) Therapeutic Deism. But there’s no reason to be surprised.  Less demanding cultural defaults like MTD are ancient religion, not newfangled faith. 

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