Peter Berger: Sacred Canopy

Church and Pop C, The Sacred Canopy

The Church and Pop Culture Developing a Christian Worldview in a Pagan Nation

Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours

1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
Book Review


The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson

The Scholar’s Corner

The Sacred Canopy

The term “sacred canopy” was coined, by Peter Berger, who wrote a book of the same name.

The idea of a sacred canopy is that the worldview of a group of people, nation, or culture is shaped by a certain set of common assumptions which give order and meaning to life. These assumptions include views of science, economics, religious and secular authority, political rights, etc…

For example, in the 1400’s, Galileo challenged the commonly held view that the earth was at the center of the solar system and, when his scientific observations proved correct, he threatened not just a scientific beliefs of the day but the religious belief system as well, for the Church held that the Earth was at the center of the Creation. Galileo’s observation so threatened the Church and its official teachings that his scientific discoveries became a threat to the authority, power, and control of the Church. He was threatened with excommunication for his “heretical” views, and he recanted and denied his scientific discoveries in order to “save his eternal soul,” or so he thought.

Nevertheless, Galileo’s discovery set the world unalterably on another path, and eventually his views would come to be widely accepted. A revolution of a worldview always begins with the destruction of commonly held assumptions about the meaning of the world, life, and truth. This revolution in thinking initially fragments society because people no longer operate under a common belief system &emdash; this destruction of cultural assumptions is called a “rending of the sacred canopy.”


A book by Jeremy Rifkin, called the EMERGING ORDER, outlined the paradigm shift that occurred during the period preceding the Reformation: the plagues caused people to question the religious leadership and competence of the Catholic Church and the priesthood Both pious and impious alike died in the plagues – so it seemed like the Church had lost the ability to interpret the events taking place in the world with any degree of moral or divine authority. It had certainly lost the ability to preserve order in the world. At the same time as this crisis of confidence in the Church and its authority, there was an economic shift away from the feudal system, where the majority of people were serfs – tenant farmers who could not own land. The new economic engine of the culture were the merchant guilds, who. through professional trade schools, created a middle class with an economic power base and personal freedoms. Serfs were basically slaves who did what they were told and who could not choose their destiny. But the new economic freedoms of the rising middle class now allowed people to question their place in the world and to take responsibility for their own destiny.

All these situations created a climate where the issues of faith incited by the Reformation directly affected the majority, who were now yearning for some personal security with God. The people were ready for that revolution from a scientific, economic, political, and religious standpoint.


A major rending of the Sacred Canopy in the United States, and in the Christian world in general, began during the 1800’s with the growth of the acceptance of Darwinism and the theory of Evolution. The concept of a 7 day Creation began to be challenged from a scientific theory. As challenging and threatening as Galileo’s observations were to the Church of his day, Darwinism did as much or more to undermine the authority of the Church, because it seemed to directly contradict the teachings of the Bible. By the early 1900’s, the rending of the Canopy was about complete, for major sectors of the Church began to discount the truth of God’s Word and began to deny its validity not just from a scientific perspective, but also from a theological and moral perspective. The great fundamentalist/ modernist controversies are over that very issue.

What has happened in the process is that the Word of God has been relegated to a questionable status. When it lost its authority in the Church, it lost even more authority in the culture at large. Religion began to be considered a matter purely of personal and PRIVATE concern, and of questionable worth at best, but certainly of no value in the legislative and political structure of society. And as the culture began to discount the Bible as having any relevance or bearing on society, the Christian heritage and moral foundation of the social contract had to be rejected and cast aside. A new Humanism, not based upon superstitious religious beliefs but upon scientific principles of logic, reason, and empirical observation, was put in its place. One tent came down, religious beliefs, and up went another, SCIENCE. Science and a scientific understanding of the world now provided a new sacred canopy under which all the people’s of the world could safely dwell, in mutual tolerance and acceptance; free of superstition, ignorance, and religious fanaticism.


Rifkin goes on to suggest that we are entering a similar period of rending of the sacred canopy because the priests of this age, the scientists, no longer have the answers we need. Iin fact, they seem to part of the problem (nuclear weapons, nuclear wastes, and environmental pollution from chemical wastes were all created by scientific advances in the field of industrial technology). The scientists are helpless in the face of the great moral dilemmas of the day and can not solve the health problems we created through our technology. And science cannot seem to solve the violence in our streets. So, just as the Church did in former times, they are losing their moral authority and ability to interpret meaning and order for this society. And our culture is beginning to look for other sources of authority to answer the great questions facing us about the meaning of life.We desperately want an new Sacred Canopy, under which we will find security, warmth, and comfort.

There has been a rise in religious questing for truth, but often that quest ends in New Age religions, because the traditional denominational Christian thinking seems to have become outmoded. With the widely held assumptions about evolution, the Bible seems to be inadequate as a means of explaining the world from a scientific standpoint. And although the culture no longer trusts scientists, the basic belief in scientific materialism and empiricism still provides a bedrock for the thinking of modern


1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
Center For Biblical Literacy
“Love the Lord with all your….mind.”


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