Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Interview at PARSE: Religious Diplomacy in a Multifaith World (Part 1 & 2)


I was privileged to be interviewed by Paul Pastor at PARSE, which explores ministry and culture in connection with LEADERSHIP JOURNAL. The first installment can be read at http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2014/march/religious-diplomacy-in-multifaith-world-part-1.html.

The second installment is at http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2014/march/religious-diplomacy-in-multifaith-world-part-2.html

Please give it a read and start a conversation as I respond to questions about religious diplomacy in contrast with dialogue and interfaith.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

US and THEM: Religious Rivalry in America Screening in Salt Lake City

Experience a Change of Heart
Learn how to feel differently towards people of another faith
 
Free Religious Film Screening
 
Film: US and THEM: Religious Rivalry in America

When: Saturday, February 8th at 7:00 p.m.
 
Where: First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City
12 C St, Salt Lake City, UT 84103
(801) 363-3889
 
There will be a Q&A and discussion after the film.
 
Come participate in this great opportunity
to resolve religious misunderstandings.

Perry's 'Dark Horse', Evangelicals, and Pop Culture Demonic


Update: One reader pointed out that the previous edition for this essay mistakenly attributed one of the sources to Christianity Today online in the US, but should have listed this as Christian Today in the UK. This post has been revised to correct the error.

At the recent Grammy Awards Katy Perry performed her song "Dark Horse" which has fueled a controversy in some circles. For them all hell has broken loose (literally). On Glenn Beck's radio program today he labeled the performance demonic, and a writer for Christian Today online agreed. Jennifer Jones' views are summed up in the title of her piece on the event: "Katy Perry Grammy Awards 'Dark Horse' performance had witchcraft and satanic symbolism; Show's singer's rejection of childhood Christian values." Jones' opening sentence reinforces the title as she describes Perry's performance that is said to have "shocked some fans as it displayed dark satanic imagery, including witchcraft and demons."

These interpretations were echoed in reactions shared in social media. Christian gospel singer Natalie Grant walked out of the performance and sent two tweets expressing her concerns. Even E! News raised the possibility of sinister activities with the tweet, "Um, did we just witness actual witchcraft during Katy Perry's #Grammys performance?"

Others characterized Perry's performance as a Satanic ritual. Thegailygrind.com makes this claim and references several tweets by those who share the viewpoint, including one that states "I'm like 99% sure Katy Perry just summoned satan during her performance."

For those who missed the performance Sunday night, or for those who want to revisit it for the purposes of discussion, in the video Perry begins singing inside a sphere reminiscent of a crystal ball. The stage is dark with trappings and symbolism familiar from horror films. As she performs the song dancers move about her dressed in dark costumes, some have horns, and broomsticks are featured as props. The performance ends as flames seemingly consume Perry, perhaps as a witch and reminiscent of witch burnings in times past.

But are the negative interpretations accurate? Was Perry incorporating the symbolism of witchcraft and satanism as real Pagans and esoteric practitioners understand and practice their spiritual pathways and philosophies? My answer is "No." Instead, this performance is better understood as drawing upon the concepts and symbols of witchcraft as expressed in horror films that have informed the collective cultural imagination (particularly the trope of the satanic witch said to be devoted to the service of the devil), and this is then combined with Judeo-Christian ideas about Satan and the demonic. This use of horror symbolism from popular occulture is not new. Recall the fears in previous decades when Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and other rock stars and groups were said to be drawing upon Satanism in order to spiritually enslave a generation of teenagers. (See my article "Devil's Music: Rock N' Roll, Heavy Metal, and the Danger of Satanic Panics" from Diabolique magazine on this issue.)

In light of the strong and negative reactions to Perry's performance several thoughts come to mind by way of critical reflection.

First, many Christians in America must grapple with religious illiteracy and privilege in regards to some forms of esotericism. Horror film symbolism appropriated by a musician for sensationalism, attention, and music sales is mistakenly assumed to be either witchcraft or satanic ritual, demonstrating that many Christians know little to nothing about witchcraft or satanism, and our fears of such things fuel our stereotypes even further. And even if this were the incorporation and expression of these, the assumption on the part of some conservative religious people is that this apparently has no legitimate place in popular culture. Suppose Perry were a witch or a satanist (in interviews she has expressed her spirituality in terms that sounds like the growing religiously-unaffiliated "Nones" from the Pew Survey), and incorporated that into a public performance. Is that out of bounds in American popular culture? Doesn't the support of religious freedoms for all mean that we must extend such opportunities to everyone, including those who practice and believe things Evangelicals find distasteful?

Second, satanic and demonic fear has a large footprint in American culture at the present time. From horror films on demonic pregnancies such as Devi's Due, to Bob Larson performing an exorcism via Skype, to an alleged possession of the Ammons family in Indiana described in ways that are reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, Americans have Satan on their minds. This is particularly the case for Evangelicals. In the opinion of Scott Poole, author of Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), the influence of Evangelical demonology has helped the country become "a kind of demonic echo chamber of rumor, panic, conspiracy theories, and deep cultural unease." Are we really witnessing an increase in demonic activity, as many Evangelicals may believe, or is there some other social and cultural dynamic going on that causes us to look to Satan and the demonic as a way of expressing our fears?

Third and finally, I fear that in relation to many Evangelicals, as J.B. Phillips put it in the title of his book, Your God Is Too Small. Conversely, our Devil is too big. When Evangelicals fear that demons are seemingly everywhere in popular culture I think we need a larger concept of God, a balanced understanding of principalities and powers, and a reminder that evil is already defeated through the work of Christ. He calls us to join him through sacrifice and service to others in the divine work of reconciliation. As N.T. Wright has summarized it:
"We celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ in a way which, by the power of its symbolic action, resonates out, into the city, into the country, into the world . . . that God is God, that Jesus is his visible image, and that this God has defeated the powers of evil that still enslave and crush human beings today."
Readers who want to explore some of these ideas in greater depth can do so at my other blog in these posts.

Scott Poole: Satan in America

Satanism, Exorcism and Social Horror Trends

Satanic Cinema

Carrol L. Fry - Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca, and Spiritualism in Film

Metaphysical Media and a Typology of Media Portraits of the Witch





Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'Loving Our Religious Neighbors' National Launch in Fall 2014


The Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy as as one of its goals the education and equipping of college and university students on interreligious engagement. Our primary resource for this is called Loving Our Religious Neighbors. This was designed by Josh Daneshforooz, who was previously on staff at Northwood Church under the leadership of Pastor Bob Roberts. Josh comes from a bi-religious family. His dad was Muslim and his mom is a Christian. As a result he's had a passion for helping Christians engage other religions in more positive ways than we have tended to in the past. Josh sits on the advisory board for our FRD chapter.

Josh wrote a book on the subject and more recently has transformed that into a study series. I was privileged to provide some feedback on revisions as the material came together, and our Evangelical FRD chapter is partnering with Josh to promote LORN as a major tool for churches and also Christian universities and colleges. Here's a link to a story on how this program helped students at Gordon College.

We are working toward a national launch for LORN in the fall of 2014. We need to find 10 churches and schools that will commit to being a part of this that will include major social media promotion.

If you're a pastor, Christian educator, or Evangelical student, please take a few moments and look at the description and sample video of LORN at the its website. And then let me know if you'd like to discuss the formation of a LORN study as part of our national launch of the program later this year.
 

Review of 'Mormon Christianity' coming in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought


I was asked to submit a review of Stephen Webb's Mormon Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2013) to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I was pleased to hear earlier this week that the review has gone through the initial phase of editorial review and was very well received. Dialogue editor Kristine Haglund will have a look at it and it should be published in the near future. I hope it can be posted elsewhere at places like By Common Consent, at least an excerpt, as a conversation starter between Mormons and Evangelicals. I'll post an update when the review is published.

Here's an excerpt from draft's the introductory paragraphs:

Webb recognizes the serious implications of this for traditional Christianity, if true, in that it “calls for the revision of nearly every Christian belief” (124). For this reason a thoughtful analysis from the perspective of traditional Christianity is in order. At several points Webb calls for civil and respectful engagement of Mormonism (23, 113-4, 159), and unfortunately notes that “skeptics can be tempted to reduce it to a simple set of claims for quick criticism and polemical rebuttal” (23). This reviewer eschews such approaches, and what follows is a respectful and thoughtful critique of Webb’s thesis incorporating Mormon ideas. In the review that follows I bring the perspective of an Evangelical scholar with a background in Mormon studies, appreciation for interreligious engagement, and a desire for religious traditions to critically engage each other in civility. The following areas of critique are especially significant to traditional Christianity both Protestant and Catholic, in the mind of this reviewer. 
  


Douglas Johnston at Westminster on Religion, Terror, and Error

Last night I had the pleasure of attending this lecture by Dr. Douglas Johnston, Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. The event was put together by the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy.


This presentation was a summary of his book with the same title as his lecture. The book description provides a better feel for last night's presentation:
How should the United States deal with the jihadist challenge and other religious imperatives that permeate today's geopolitical landscape? Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement argues that what's required is a longer-term strategy of cultural engagement, backed by a deeper understanding of how others view the world and what is important to them. The means by which that can be accomplished are the subject of this book.

The work realizes three important tasks. It shows how the United States can reposition itself to deal more effectively with the causal factors that underlie religious extremism; offers a successor to the rational-actor model of decision-making that has heretofore excluded "irrational" factors like religion; and suggests a new paradigm for U.S. leadership in anticipation of tomorrow's multipolar world. Describing how the United States should realign itself to deal more effectively with the factors underlying religious extremism, this innovative treatise explains how existing capabilities can be redirected to respond to the challenge and identifies additional capabilities that will be needed to complete the task.
 You can order the book through Amazon.com.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

FRD Podcast 1.2 - Interview with Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church



This podcast features an interview with Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee. He discusses his congregational relationship and extension of love for neighbor to the local Muslim community, and how this became an international media story. For additional background, see the many news stories on this, such as that in USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-09-07-cordova06_st_n.htm.

This is a podcast of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (www.religious-diplomacy.org). The interviewer is John Morehead, an FRD board member and Custodian of its Evangelical Chapter.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Review: Evangelical Peacemakers


David P. Gushee, editor: Cascade Books, 2013. 150 pp. $19.00 paper.
ISBN: 978-1-62564-115-1

For many years Evangelicals have been distinguished as a movement that favors evangelism and missions, putting a great deal of energy and financial resources into mobilization, strategy and execution in this regard. But by and large, they have not been known for their interests and activities in peacemaking. However, this has changed in recent years, and now a growing number of Evangelicals across a spectrum from progressive to conservative, are practicing peacemaking, inclusive of what it means to share the gospel, and as a worthy goal in and of itself apart from evangelism and missions.

Evangelical Peacemakers is a new volume that is representative of recent activities in this area. It came together as a result of papers presented at the Evangelicals for Peace Summit on Christian Morality and Responsibility in the Twenty-first century, which was held at Georgetown University in September of 2012. Rick Love of Peace Catalyst International was the primary moving force behind the formation of this conference. At the conclusion of the event, Love gathered the resulting collection of papers and asked David Gushee of Mercer University to edit the material into a volume. The result provides an introduction to and overview of varying approaches to peacemaking among Evangelicals, inclusive not only of center-left positions within Evangelicalism, but also those from more conservative views on the right.

Each of the chapters in this volume is brief, reflecting the origins of the material in summit presentations rather than extended written chapters originally intended for publication. The book begins with a Preface and Acknowledgements by Gushee who provides an initial context and orientation for what the reader will encounter in successive chapters.

The first four chapters address issues related to a Christian ethic and theology related to war, particularly Just War Theory and pacifist perspectives. Gushee begins this first section in Chapter 1 with a consideration of the U.S. as “a warfare state with a bloated national security apparatus and a pattern of excessive military engagements” (xi). His chapter concludes with a consideration of Evangelical involvement in foreign and military policy discussions in this context. In the second chapter Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners looks at Christ’s example and teachings in the New Testament to argue for a pacifist position brought into engagement with U.S. foreign policy. Eric Patterson of Regent University takes up the third chapter with a consideration of Just War Theory where he provides an exposition and defense of this view and then reflects on how this might be connected to contemporary events in foreign policy and international conflict. Chapter 4 concludes this first section with an offering by Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary who introduces a just peacemaking concept as an alternative to pacifism and Just War approaches.

In the second half of this volume, eleven chapters discuss peacemaking efforts undertaken by individuals as well as organizations. In Chapter 5 Geoff Tunnicliffe describes the peacemaking work of his World Evangelical Alliance. Similarly, in Chapter 6 Mark Johnson discusses the peacemaking work of his organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The seventh chapter is by Joseph Cumming of Yale University who explores his peacemaking as well as mission work with Muslims. In Chapter 8 Doug Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy argues that U.S. foreign policy must take religion seriously, particularly in the most pressing international context with Islam. David Shenk provides a discussion in Chapter 9 of the peacemaking in his Christian tradition of the Mennonites who serve in dangerous areas of conflict around the world. In Chapter 10, Lisa Gibson of the Peace and Prosperity Alliance provides an inspiring discussion of her journey of forgiveness and its relationship to peacemaking as a result of the loss of her brother in the Lockerbie terrorist bombing in 1988. Sami Awad shares his thoughts on peace and justice in the Middle East through his Holy Land Trust organization. Pastor Bob Roberts of Northwood Church describes his personal and congregational work with service, missions, and peacemaking in Asia and the Middle East. In Chapter 13 David Beasley speaks as the former governor of South Carolina about loving witness in connection with the National Prayer Breakfast. Jim Wallis of Sojourners shares examples of peacemaking around the world, and how personal relationships and networking have been helpful to this process in Chapter 14. Rick Love helps Evangelicals who emphasize evangelism consider a typology for peacemaking in Chapter 15. Finally, David Gushee completes the volume in Chapter 16 by way of critical interaction with the perspectives provided by the other contributors.

Three areas stand out as especially significant in this volume. First is the recognition of new ways of interreligious engagement among Evangelicals. In the Preface Gushee refers to this as “an emerging new approach to Christian missions and interfaith encounter” (xiii). This is echoed in Love’s perspective where he reminds us that Evangelicals have tended to emphasize evangelism at the expense of peace, and in his view “we are pioneering what it means to be evangelical peacemakers” (107). Cumming also touches on this when he says that people tend to ”think that one either works for peace or bears witness for Christ, but not both” (49). But this dichotomy may become a major problem. Cumming shares his fear that “there is a split developing between two camps” (49) of Evangelicals around the world. Although the challenge of a split exists, a more holistic approach holds great promise as peacemaking is seen as an important part of the Gospel, as well as an essential part of Christian praxis and identity.

The second area of note relates to the tension that arises in sharing differences and disagreements among competing religious traditions. Shenk discusses Christian and Muslim interactions where when evangelism backfires, “the inclination is often to simply avoid the call to witness” (61). He points to a “trust-building friendship” approach of a pastor and imam in Nigeria who feel they must “avoid theological discussions, for that would put a wedge between them” (61). Although they leave space for mutual witness, they avoid discussion of theological differences. Shenk then goes on to contrast this “gingerly approach” (62) with other forms of dialogue and peacemaking where theology and differences are more prominent. Roberts brings the much-needed stance to this context that avoids the elephant in the room and which permits for deep relationships of trust. In his chapter he argues that we must be willing to recognize that “[m]ulti-faith engagement says we have fundamental if not irreconcilable differences between our faiths…So let’s be honest, not compromise what we believe, but treat one another with respect” (89). While dialogue has tended to avoid areas of conflict in seeking common ground, the more promising way forward is found in peacemaking and religious diplomacy approaches wherein irreconcilable differences are acknowledged and discussed, but done so with civility so that authenticity and transparency provides for a transformation of religious enemies into trusted rivals.

Roberts also articulates the third area of significance in this volume in the shift in forms of interreligious engagement. He argues that there needs to be a shift “from dialogue among clerics to engagement between congregations” (90). In his view as a church leader, [t]he greatest power of a pastor is to connect and release his people to engage with people of other faiths” (90). For some time now interreligious dialogue has been pursued by way of religious adherents taking a more passive role as they watch their leaders or religious professionals engage in sophisticated forms of theological exchange. Roberts states that [t]he real power is the people” (90), and there is great untapped potential for grassroots movements if clerics and professionals empower their people to take the lead in peacemaking at congregational, mosque, temple, synagogue, and ward levels with their interreligious counterparts in their communities.

The individuals, organizations, and fledgling movement of Evangelical peacemakers/peacemaking described in this book hold great promise for Evangelicalism and the world in which they live and serve. If these activities continue we agree with Gushee that “it is fascinating to contemplate a future for evangelical Christian leaders as global diplomats (a role long played by Catholic popes), and to see the gradual institutionalization of a vision for Christian engagement that includes grassroots peacemaking and conflict resolution” (126-7). Surely this is something Christ’s disciples should work toward as they seek to be obedient not only to the Great Commission, but also to receive the blessing Christ promised to the peacemakers (Mat. 5:9).

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review - Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk


According to recent research by Naomi Schaefer Riley, the number of interfaith marriages is increasing. 45% of all marriages in the last decade involved couples from differing religious traditions. Riley’s research also shows that these marriages are not easy. Although we live in an age that is calling for increasing religious tolerance, this does not make the daily struggles of interfaith marriage any easier to wrestle with.

These difficulties are illustrated in Saffron Cross, where Dana Trent, a Christian minister with connections to the Southern Baptist Convention, shares her experiences in an interfaith marriage with her husband Fred, a Hindu and former monk. This is an interesting volume that provides insights into what the partners in such marriages experience, and it includes lessons for those outside of such marriages. Their experiences navigating such relationships have much to teach us in navigating religious pluralism.

The book begins dramatically with Dana sharing her “sex-free honeymoon” in the village of Vrindavan in India. Dana is transparent with the reader as she shares her strong displeasure with many aspects of Indian life due to its very different complexion as a Two Thirds World country. Everything that Westerners, and Americans in particular, take for granted on a daily basis, from safe driving on city streets to fresh running water to the easy availability of toilet paper, are readily available in poverty-stricken India. As this chapter unfolds, Dana also shares her growing awareness of the differences between her experiences in the Western expression of the Christian faith and that of the Eastern religion of Hinduism. Unlike the American experience where religion is often relegated to the private sphere of the individual, in India religion is the center of every aspect of daily life. Beyond that, its basic worldview assumptions, rituals, beliefs, and forms of worship, are very different from the Southern Baptist church experience that Dana was used to back in the U.S. After the honeymoon experience in India, the couple’s return to North Carolina comprised the early stages of the challenges of an interfaith marriage.

Dana and Fred met as a result of using the eHarmony online dating service. When completing her profile on the question “What faith(s) would you accept as a partner?” (28), she opted for an openness to a wide variety of religious traditions, thinking that as a self-identified Christian the chances that the service would connect her with someone distant from her religious preferences was unlikely. She was wrong. Soon she was contacted by Fred, who identified himself as a religious person, and a former monk. Dana assumed he meant something in the Roman Catholic tradition. Instead she would learn that Fred had previously pursued the path of the Hindu monk in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition. This is most familiar to Americans through the work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the 1960s popularly known as the “Hare Krishna Movement.” This was a little off-putting for Dana, who early on in their dating made efforts to try to persuade Fred to be baptized and return to the Christianity he had negative experiences with in his youth.

Fred and Dana found great interest in each other’s religions and experiences, and in dating they also worked through various interfaith tensions that naturally arose. After the couple married these continued, and at one point seriously intensified, so much so that they came to question whether or not the marriage could survive. But Fred and Dana were just as committed to each other as they were to their differing religious pathways, and the book describes the challenges they faced and how they successful navigated through them as a married couple. As a result, Dana describes not only how she has grown closer to Fred, but also how her Christian faith has deepened and expanded. As Dana describes it, “Immersion into a religious tradition different from my own did not convert me, mix me up, or derail me” (26).

As mentioned in the introduction to this review, this volume is not only helpful for learning about interfaith marriages, it also provides food for thought on working through issues related to religious pluralism.

Dana describes herself as theologically progressive, and this is evident in several statements she makes in the book where she advocates a pluralistic understanding of religion. She says that, “the Holy Spirit lived and breathed in each representation of the Divine” (24), both Hindu and Christian; speaks of grasping “Hinduism’s validity as a bona fide spiritual path toward God” (47); says that at one point she “had no sense that Krishna was any different from Jesus” (60); and that “God was mercifully showing up as Jesus, Spirit, Vishnu, and Krishna” (140). Dana’s attempt at finding similarities between Christianity and Hinduism is laudable. And certainly these can be found. But while contrasting the religions with interpretive and analytic humility, and taking cultural considerations into account, we are left with the reality that religions teach very different things at a foundational level. We have to be careful in our search for religious unity that we don’t force this where it is not found. As Stephen Prothero has said in his book God is Not One, seeking religious unity in the name of tolerance that does not recognize real religious difference can lead to “naïve theological groupthink,”1 which he sees as dangerous rather than helpful.

This does not mean that Christians need to embrace a form of particularism or exclusivism that is hostile. In the book Dana shares her struggles with reconciling Christianity and Hinduism and says, “I was one of those Christians” (48, emphasis in original), referring to the narrow mindedness, defensiveness, and hostility that often characterizes Christian understandings and interactions with other religions. But this need not be the case. As Bob Robinson reminds us, one of the most famous Indian Christians, Sadhu Sundar Singh, was a particularist who “combined a deeply Christocentric faith with a quite positive attitude towards Hinduism.” 2 Christians can practice a faith identity that is rooted in the love and example of Christ, even while recognizing irreconcilable differences with other religions.

Saffron Cross is an interesting story of an interfaith relationship. It promises to reward readers who want insights into an increasing marital trend, and thoughts for reflection on interreligious relationships in the pluralistic public square.
____________
1. Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 3.
2. Bob Robinson, “Response to Bart Abbott,” Sacred Tribes Journal 8, no. 1 (2013), special theme edition on The Ethics of Evangelism: When is Proselytism Predatory?,” Kindle edition at http://tinyurl.com/nd3zzdc.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Richard Mouw at Utah Valley University


Tomorrow I will be attending an event at Utah Valley University involving Rich Mouw who will address issues related to Evangelical Christianity generally with additional remarks on Evangelical-Mormon relations, and religious freedoms. This will include a chapel event, a presentation, and interactions with UVU students. On that the UVU website describes the event as follows:

Description
This course explores the relationship between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity with particular attention to the contemporary dynamics of this relationship. Key texts from both traditions will be examined in light of their comparative dimensions and cultural influence. Guest scholars will be invited to engage students from a variety of perspectives.

Key Themes
* Contemporary Mormon/Evangelical Dialogues
* Contested concepts of grace, Trinity, and the nature of God
* Social cooperation in the public square
* The religious dimensions of American politics *
* The fundamentalist challenge Mormonism and evangelicalism in the 21st century

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review - Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims


Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims

By Rick Love

Paperback: Peace Catalyst International Publications, 2013. [Amazon]
ISBN: 978-1935959502

Evangelical Christians across a spectrum of denominations and political commitments are working together to provide a response to Muslims that is faithful to the best of the Christian tradition in our post-9/11 world. These efforts find their roots in two aspects of the Christian tradition. The first is a desire to emulate the way of Christ in relating to the marginalized and the outsiders that are frequently viewed with suspicion and enmity by members of their own religious tradition. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a primary biblical text that exemplifies the model of Jesus that these Christians want to follow in their encounters with Muslims. The second foundation for these efforts is the desire to be obedient to Christ in his call for disciples to be peacemakers.

Rick Love, through his organization, Peace Catalyst International, takes a leadership role among American Evangelicals in peacekeeping between Christians and Muslims. Grace and Truth was written as a result of Love’s participation in a global meeting of Evangelical leaders who came together to address how relations between Christians, particularly those in the West, and Muslims might be improved, and in ways that resonate with Christian faith. Love serves as the main author of this volume, although he acknowledges the input of “more than seventy leaders form around the world” (3-4). As a result, this book “is a consensus document” (5) that brings together “a spectrum of evangelical thinking” (5) and which finds a balance between slight differences of thought on the subject matter. This contributes to the layout and overlap found in the book.

The volume is comprised of an Introduction that provides a summary of helpful information and perspectives for Evangelical readers in understanding the Muslim world, and the perspective in the material that follows. This includes consideration of the diversity of categories and perspectives that make up the Muslim world, a list of the areas of agreement and disagreement in Muslim beliefs in relation to Christianity, and discussion of “significant theological and ideological diversity” (11) among Muslims. The Introduction concludes with the suggestion that Evangelicals “find a middle path between demonization of Islam and naïve political correctness” (13).

The next two major segments of the book include one titled “Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims: An Exposition,” and another “Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims: An Affirmation.” These two sections are very much alike, with the latter incorporating slight revisions that reflect the specific views of Peace Catalyst International. Both of these segments include a series of guidelines for Christian interaction with Muslims and the Muslim world, with nine in the former, and ten in the latter “reflecting Peace Catalyst’s revised, personalized version of these affirmations” (26). The ten affirmations include:

1.     Be Jesus-Centered in our Interaction
2.     Be Truthful and Gracious in our Words and Witness
3.     Be Wise in our Words and Witness
4.     Be Respectful and Bold in our Witness
5.     Be Prudent in our Glocalized World
6.     Be Persistent in our Call for Religious Freedom
7.     Be Peaceable and Uncompromising in our Dialogue
8.     Be Loving toward All
9.     Differentiate between the Role of Church and State
10. Support and Challenge the State

The chapters that unfold each of these guidelines or affirmations are very helpful, and it is evident that a lot of careful reflection has gone into their formulation. As such, they “describe how we can be agents of peace in a polarized world” (32) as Evangelicals embrace Muslims and share the Gospel of Christ.

The next two sections are study guides that look at each of the preceding major segments of the book. They are designed for small group and Sunday school settings as well as individual study. The volume concludes with a bibliography of materials that will be helpful for further study.

Although this volume is very small, and involves a great deal of overlap and repetition in its layout and subject matter, it provides a concise and accessible study for Evangelicals. The volume might have been strengthened with a few additions, including mention of Islam’s priority of ritual rather than belief, the addition of a few more noteworthy volumes in the bibliography, and the suggestion that the study of Islam be connected to relationships and conversations with Muslims in readers’ neighborhoods. But despite these suggestions, this is a helpful book that has the potential to overcome some of the stereotypes, generalizations, assumptions, and hostility that many Evangelicals have in regards to the Muslim world in the wake of 9/11 and the continuing “War on Terror.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cognitive Empathy in Interreligious Engagement



This is a video from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and I found it on a blog called The Crooked Mouth posted with the title "Empathy and the Conservative/Progressive Theological Divide," where the author, Anderson Campbell, connects the discussion to Christian concerns. Campbell has an intrafaith context in mind when he writes:
Much like the social, political, and economic realms, the Christian theological realm has become highly polarized in the past several decades. The distance between conservative and progressive theological camps is growing wider by the day. Conversation between people of differing theologies is becoming less frequent and is often derisive, not charitable. We have become very good at “othering” because we have a failure of empathy within the Christian church.
 Of particular interest is the discussion is the idea of "cognitive empathy" in application to theology. On this Campbell distills and teases out the relevant section of the video for us:
When most people think of empathy, they often think of a kind of emotional mirroring. When you see someone in distress and you feel badly for that person, you are empathizing with them. This is affective empathy. It is the ability to recognize what the other is feeling and respond appropriately. We often characterize this kind of empathy as soft and passive, largely emotive. Contrast this with cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand or put on someone else’s perspective, when you don’t necessarily share that same perspective. It is the ability to move past labeling the other and step into their shoes, so to speak. This empathy is more potent for change, asserts Krznaric. In contrast “touchy-feely” affective empathy, cognitive empathy ”is actually quite dangerous, because [it] can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”
I appreciate Campbell's application of this to the divide between progressives and conservatives in the church. I have found value in the thought of certain progressives, such as (dare I say their names?) Marcus Borg on the atonement, and Brian McLaren on interreligious encounters, and had no difficulty engaging progressive thought, but I've taken some heat from conservatives for doing so. I am a part of the Evangelical subculture, and in my experience we tend toward a faith identity that is hostile and confrontational with others, not only in intrafaith contexts, but interfaith ones as well.
Cognitive empathy has potential for addressing this, especially in the context of a theology and praxis of interreligious engagement. Some similarities can be found in my prior proposal on this in my essay on this at Patheos in "A Generous Orthopathy: Evangelicals and a Transformed Affective Dimension of Faith."

Plenty of food for thought here for those Evangelicals involved in interreligious dialogue and religious diplomacy. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Enns on Theological Belligerence


Peter Enns recently made a blog post that is worth reading. It's titled "Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence." The piece begins:

"My point: Belligerence in theological discussions is a reaction to a deep fear—typically unperceived—that one’s metanarrative is under threat.

"Let me put that in English: People fight about their views of God because they are afraid of the consequences of being wrong. Being wrong about God is fearful because it destabilizes their way of looking at the universe and their place in it. People tend to fight when frightened this way."

As he unpacks this, Enns responds to various arguments that are offered many times as to why theological belligerence is the right way forward. As he does so he echoes sentiments that I have presented in a number of venues. I feel vindicated in some way as another Evangelical has made the same observations that I have.

I think Enns has "in-house" arguments in mind between fellow Christians and Evangelicals given the harsh response he has received from many in regards to his views on the Old Testament, evolution, and inerrancy. But this essay also has application to interreligious contexts, and helps explain one of the dynamics involved in confrontational encounters between Evangelicals and those in other religions.

The essay is worthwhile for critical reflection by Evangelicals.

Monday, October 28, 2013

FRD Podcast 1.1: An Interview with Dana Trent and Fred Eaker on "Saffron Cross" and interfaith marriage

The first podcast for the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is now published. It is an interview with J. Dana Trent and her husband, Fred Eaker. They are an interfaith couple. Dana is a Baptist minister, and Fred is a Hindu and a former monk. Dana is the author of Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk (Fresh Air, 2013). The volume can be purchased via the publisher at http://books.upperroom.org/fresh-air-books, via Amazon.com, and your local bookstore. Learn more at Dana's website.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sacred Tribes Journal on Ethics of Evangelism and Predatory Proselytism for Kindle


As I've mentioned previously, the next issue of Sacred Tribes Journal Vol. 8, no. 1 (Fall 2013) is devoted to an exploration of the ethics of evangelism. This is one of the best issues we've done, addressing a neglected topic from multiple perspectives, including an Evangelical exposition of the subject, a critique by a Hindu writer, responses by two Evangelicals, a review of Elmer Thiessen's The Ethics of Evangelism, and an excerpt of Myron Penner's The End of Apologetics with consideration of the politics and violence of apologetics in certain contexts.

I am working with some folks to address technical issues related to an update on the website so the new issue can be uploaded there. In the meantime, I have created an electronic version for Kindle.  Unfortunately, Amazon will not allow the option to offer the book for free, so I selected the minimum price of $.99US. So the Kindle book will sell for that price to interested individuals, and the journal edition at the STJ website will be free.

Please help share this in your network among Evangelicals, Hindus, Pagans and others who may be interested in a great conversation on this topic. I would be happy to make the PDF file available upon request for those who do not want to purchase the Kindle version.

I'll post a link to the STJ website piece when it is uploaded and published.

*Update Nov. 11: This edition is now available on the STJ website.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Southern Baptist Event Supports Religious Freedom for All and Pluralistic Public Square


I have roots in the past in the Southern Baptist Convention, but over the years have not seen much in them that is encouraging in regards to interreligious encounters in the public square. That is, until now. To my great and pleasant surprise, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, formerly headed up by Richard Land, now by Russell Moore, held a "Faith, Culture & Religious Freedom in 21st Century America" event. It involved a number of participants from both Right and Left, and it was great to hear Moore articulate his support for Christian involvement in working toward religious freedom for all, and not just for Christians.

You can watch this interesting discussion here.

#erlc #religiousliberty

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Benefits of "Weaker Arguments"


Previously I've shared my concerns about the way in which Evangelicals try to share their heart-felt concerns about their religious convictions with others. Many times it takes the form of sternly presenting the doctrinal propositions of our faith, which seem all too true and reasonable to us, and coupling that with strong arguments if not attacks against others. In its most extreme forms, this takes place when "street preachers" go to Mormon General Conference, homosexual gatherings, or Muslims festivals in places like Dearborn, Michigan, but also when Evangelicals go to Mormon pageants and hold up signs and shout sermons on the sacred turf of others. More often than not, we end up confirming the truth of our own views in our minds, and those we are trying to persuade end up never ever hearing what we have to say, they become defensive and entrenched in their own positions, and in the end Evangelicals have a huge perception as well as persuasion problem.

At The World Table discussion forum I was pleased to see someone post a great essay that provides a counter-intuitive suggestion on how to be heard when we want share contrary perspectives with those that we seriously disagree with. The piece is titled "Want to Win a Political Debate?: Try Making a Weaker Argument" by Eric Horowitz from the Pacific Standard. The byline for the essay is "Gun control? Abortion? The new social science behind why you're never able to convince friends or foes to even consider things from your side." The essay is directed more toward the political end of the things, something desperately needed right now with the dysfunction in Washington, but it also has application to religion.

The foundation for the essay comes from research in psychology which indicates that people are rarely likely to find the arguments of others persuasive when they undercut those foundational ideas that contribute to their self-identity and self-worth. In fact, research shows then when shown data and arguments that strongly counter our cherished ideas, we tend to doubledown in our commitments to such ideas, even to the extreme. Horowitz calls this the "backfire effect:"
"Research by Nyhan and Reifler on what they've termed the "backfire effect" also suggests that the more a piece of information lowers self-worth, the less likely it is to have the desired impact. Specifically, they have found that when people are presented with corrective information that runs counter to their ideology, those who most strongly identify with the ideology will intensify their incorrect beliefs."
Instead, Horowitz suggests that the better way forward that will help people begin to consider our perspective is to offer a "weaker argument." He writes, "We argue like boxers wildly throwing powerful haymakers that have no chance of landing. What if instead we threw carefully planned jabs that were weaker but stood a good chance of connecting?"

As I read and continue to reflect on this essay it seems to me that it has great ramifications for our rhetorical, dialogical, and apologetic strategies. Instead of firing our apologetic salvos that we think provide the unanswerable argument that our opponents should fall over and accept in defeat, what if we softened and “weakened” this approach and presented something that others might be willing to entertain because it’s not so threatening? Such a rhetorical approach sounds similar to the Apostle Paul’s recognition of God’s strength working through his personal weakness (1 Cor. 1:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:10).  

I also think this essay has much to offer those who are tired of the frequent disconnect between people who are passionate and disagree about things like religion and politics, and who are not content with merely preaching to the choir. Take a look, give it some though, and share your thoughts here and at The World Table.




Sunday, October 06, 2013

CNN Addresses the "Holy Trolls"


Over the weekend John Blake posted a great story at the CNN Belief Blog addressing the "Holy Trolls," those individuals who post negative, uncivil, and abrasive comments on religious websites or in response to religious topics. This is a huge problem that not only stifles productive conversation on these topics, but also changes perceptions of the topics themselves into negative. It also steals from the virtual public square with its function as a forum for us to discuss the most pressing religious challenges that divide us. Read Blake's essay, "Holy Trollers: How to argue about religion online," and then take a look at The World Table as a tool that directly addresses the challenges raised in the CNN piece.

Stephen Webb on Mormon Christianity


I recently became aware of a new volume by Catholic scholar, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (Oxford University Press, 2013). Webb caught attention previously with his work on the idea of divine embodiment, wherein he made the case that Mormon ideas of God having a body have connections to elements of more traditional Christian theologies. (See Sacred Tribes Journal for a dialogue between a Catholic and a Mormon on this topic.) In this new volume Webb takes up a more expansive agenda. From the OUP website:
Mormons are adamant that they are Christian, and eloquent writers within their own faith have tried to make this case, but no theologian outside the LDS church has ever tried to demonstrate just how Christian they are. Stephen H. Webb's Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints fills this void, as the author writes neither as a critic nor a defender of Mormonism but as a sympathetic observer who is deeply committed to engaging with Mormon ideas.

Webb is unique in taking Mormon theology seriously by showing how it provides plausible and in some instances even persuasive alternatives to many traditional Christian doctrines. His book can serve as an introduction to Mormonism, but it goes far beyond that: Webb explains how Mormonism is a branch of the Christian family tree that extends well beyond what most Christians have ever imagined. His account of their creative appropriation of the Christian tradition is meant to inspire more traditional Christians to reconsider the shape of many basic Christian beliefs.

Mormon Christianity is not all affirming and celebratory. It ends with a call to Mormons to be more focused on Christian essentials and an invitation to other Christians to be more imaginative in considering Mormon alternatives to traditional doctrines.
Those interested in reading an accessible summary of some of Webb's thoughts related to the thesis of this volume can read his guest post on Sam Rocha's Catholic Channel at Patheos.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Are Mormons Christian?: Evangelicals, Modernity, and Cognitive, Propositional Definitions


There is a saying frequently attributed to a Chinese proverb: "If you want to know what water is like don't ask a fish." Regardless of the source the idea behind it is true: when someone is too familiar with their surroundings it becomes a blind spot that so influences their perspective that they aren't aware of it. It simply becomes something that is taken for granted. This is the case with Evangelicals and modernity. As Myron Bradley Penner argues in his new book on apologetics, modernity influences Evangelical assumptions on apologetics, theology, and as I will note in this post, it is also what is behind Evangelical definitions of Christianity that then serve as the backdrop for a major sticking point in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

I am currently reading and enjoying The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013), by Myron Penner. The main thesis the author develops is that Evangelical apologetic approaches of whatever type are based upon the assumptions of modernity and its perspectives on reason. In particular, Penner states that, "In the modern philosophical paradigm, then, reason forms what I will call the 'objective-universal-neutral complex' (OUNCE)" (32). Penner identifies these features of reason in modernity in distinction to premodern views wherein, "reason is internal to (and possessed only by) human beings in a way that is universal, objective, and neutral" (32). Given these assumptions, apologists like William Lane Craig, and many conservative Evangelical theologians, present arguments, evidence, and theological propositions in ways that conform to the assumptions of modernity in regards to reason and epistemological justifications of belief. Penner takes issue with these assumptions and finds them far more secular than Evangelicals assume in the name of reason and its alleged objectivity and neutrality.

As Penner goes further in his description of Evangelicalism and modernity, he makes the interesting observation that, for  many (most?) conservative Evangelicals, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)" (36). While Penner explores this in relation to Evangelical apologetics, and to a lesser extent theology (after all, apologetics is a branch of theology), I want to consider this in relation to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

You don't have to search for or read much in dialogue and conversations between Evangelicals and Mormons to find the question "Are Mormons Christian?" raised by concerned Mormons. Evangelicals usually respond in the negative, and with certain historic, creedal, and doctrinal assumptions providing the foundation for that response. Mormons are naturally offended by this idea, as they have a different set of assumptions, with the idea that Mormons believe in and follow Christ, therefore they should be considered Christians. 

As Evangelicals and Mormons pass each other like two ships in the night on this topic I would note that members of both groups are missing an important element in exactly why Evangelicals would answer this question negatively. It goes beyond historic creeds and doctrines to some underlying philosophical assumptions. Evangelicals have so imbibed at the well of modernity and its philosophical assumptions that for them, as Penner notes, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)." This means that while Evangelicals connect these propositions to a relationship with Christ, even so, the cognitive acceptance of certain specific propositions are primary in their definition of what it means to be a Christian. The assumptions of modernity have become so intertwined with Evangelical thinking that, like the fish in water that knows nothing else other than its daily experience of its environment, that Evangelicals may not be aware of the extent to which these modernist assumptions impact not only its apologetics and theology, but also its ways of relating to those of other religions, as well as the formation of perceptions by those of other religions because of the views Evangelicals have of them that are shaped in part by the assumptions of modernity.

My friend and colleague at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Charles Randall Paul, once shared his observation that Evangelicals are the scientists and philosophers of their religion. I agreed with his assessment, and made my own observation that Mormons are the performers and artists of their religion. We certainly approach our religious pathways very differently. But the more I reflect on the "scientists and science of Evangelicalism" the more I realize how modernity has impacted us, even in the way in which we define what it means to be a Christian and relate our message to those in other religions.

Maybe it's time for Evangelical fish to jump out of the bowl and look around for a bit.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The World Table: Transforming our Incivility for Clarity of Thinking and Persuasion


There seems to be a growing recognition that something is not quite right about the way in which we engage each other over our differences on the Internet. In fact, some websites are changing their procedures in this area, and others are calling for a new platform that helps transform behaviors that make up this problem.

In August of this year The Huffington Post announced that it would no longer allow anonymous comments to be posted in response to their essays. A piece by Lorraine Devon Wilke explained why in "What Trolls Are Doing to Our Politics, Our Culture... Our Brains." She writes, "On a societal level, particularly since the internet opened comment features under most offerings, negative dialogue has become the norm; the loud, persistent, often vicious norm of most online interaction. In fact, the degree of irrational response exchanged online is so high, so automatic, that one expects any article, no matter how logical, fact-based, positive, or even neutral, to be immediately ripped apart by trolls who seem bent on the task." After discussing some findings in Psychology Today on the psychological effects of focusing on negativity, she continues and describes the unfortunate results of such hypercritical and negative commentary on individuals who read it. She says that "the more one sits at a computer spewing savage, hateful criticism, the more one translates life through the filter of hostility and personal attacks, the more one builds brain pathways toward greater and greater negativity. In fact, as online commenters, media pundits and politicians have grown uglier and more malicious, the more the bar seems to have moved, making 'ugly' more accepted, more accessible." For The Huffington Post the way to address this issue is to disallow the posting of anonymous comments. The hope is that if people have to take public ownership of their comments and the way they relate to others that it will contribute to more positive and civil forms of exchange.

More recently PopularScience.com included an essay that went even further in exploring the impact of uncivil exchanges on the Internet. This website is going further than HuffPo, and is removing the ability for readers to comment entirely. Suzanne LeBarre in "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," also discusses the impact of trolls on the shaping of perspectives of readers. Although they acknowledge that they receive lots of positive comments, the negative ones have an enormous ability to shape perceptions. LeBarre cites a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Broassoard about reader perceptions of a particular technology, which revealed that "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story."  From a New York Times op-ed the following results were discovered:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought.

LeBarre states that this ability of uncivil comments to negatively alter perceptions of a story is causing readers to think uncritically about accepted scientific notions. For PopularScience.com the way forward is to end the ability of readers to comment and interact with each other over ideas.

The final threads in this discussion come through a new book and another online essay. Os Guinness is the author of The Global Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2013). In this volume he sets forward a proposal for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, as well as the need for a civil public square. He recognizes that the public square is now far more expansive than it was previously given the importance of "new technologies and social media" which are so influential and formative that the "public square has morphed again through the power of the Internet and has gone from the physical to the metaphorical to the virtual." This worldwide platform means that "...even when we are not speaking to the world, we can be heard by the world," often by way of increased incivility and "degrading rhetoric" from anonymous individuals. Guinness wonders whether we can "in the next twenty-five years forge a new understanding of what it means for global citizens to debate other global citizens in a manner that the issues deserve..."

Related to this, in February of this year Sarah Perez argued at techcrunch.com that "The Best Platform for Online Discussion Doesn't Exist Yet." While not mentioning trolls specifically, Perez does mention the problem of uncivil comments, as well as questions related to credibility. She states, "The problem, which the Internet hasn’t solved at all, and has in fact even made worse, is that opinions are not created equal and therefore shouldn’t be considered in equal measure. The Internet has put people on such an even playing field that we now have to create entirely new systems to verify who’s worth listening to. From Google rankings to Techmeme headlines to retweets and number of followers, we’re still struggling to figure out who deserves to be heard." Perez concludes her essay by writing, "We’re ready for a radical overhaul that reflects how people are communicating and sharing information today; one that shows which comments or shares have resonated and why, and one that understands who deserves to be heard."

These various elements come together to paint a picture of a tremendous challenge. Serious issues need to be discussed, but it is usually the negative and polarizing voices that are the most influential. The result is that critical, thoughtful, and civil discussion and persuasion is stifled, and opinions are unfairly shaped along the way. The Internet has become a cyber extension of the physical public square and a very important place for discussion of the pressing issues of the day, but it is presently hampered by incivility. We need a new platform, a new mechanism to transform the way in which we engage each other to empower the best of what the Internet has to offer.

But while Perez opines that the best platform for online discussion doesn't yet exist, I'd beg to differ. The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is currently involved in beta testing for The World Table. Participants must verify their identity and allegiances, and then agree to a set of ethical guidelines called The Way of Openness. Participants are then rated on the way in which they engage others, and rate others in similar fashion. The goal is to earn the highest rating possible as a badge of honor. Drawing upon accepted principles of social psychology that resonate with many religious traditions and ideologies, The World Table promises to change behaviors by shaming the trolls and making civil conversations a highly desired virtue, thus setting a new tone for exchanges about the most serious issues that divide us, from religion to politics and beyond.

A new movement for civility in the way in which treat each other over our deepest differences is taking shape. It's happening at The World Table. Come and take your seat.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

WIFE SWAP's Atheists and Christians: Reality Television and Lessons on Civility


I don't share many of my teenage daughter's interests in television, particularly the expressions of reality TV that she enjoys, but yesterday I found an episode of a program she turned on interesting. It was a past episode from the show WIFE SWAP from 2007 as it turns out. The basic premise of the show is to find two very different families and lifestyles and then swap the wives to live with the other families in order to set up a very uncomfortable two weeks for the women and the families they are staying with. The first week the wives have to live as the wife who lives in the home, and the second week the wives get to turn the tables and make the families live as they do in their own homes. Depending upon the types of families that participate, the program can be very interesting to say the least.

The episode re-aired yesterday brought together a family of white atheists and a black family of Evangelical Christians. These families could not have been more different as each embodied the stereotypes often attributed to them, the atheist family being heavily tattooed with edgy hairstyles and a wife with a shaved head, and the Christian family being very conservatively dressed. The atheist family prided themselves on being freethinkers, not only in the area of religion but also in regards to letting their children do whatever they wanted, and exposing them to almost everything in life, including their parents liberal attitudes toward sex. The Christian family prided themselves on the centrality of their faith that informed every aspect of their lives, including ideas about male and female gender roles in the home and workplace to the influence of God in every aspect of life such as having their children pray before tests so that God could remind them of answers for higher grades. In the atheist home the wife worked long days in an in-home Internet business while the husband took care of the cooking and cleaning, while in the Christian home they followed "what God's Word says" as the husband worked outside the home and the wife and daughter were responsible for all the cooking and cleaning. The husband and son did none of it because of "Man Law," the allegedly biblical ideas related to masculine and feminine roles.

After the wives swapped homes there was the much anticipated shock of the women and the families they were staying with. The clashes were expected by the audience, but what was most interesting was the way in which each of the wives and families attempted to present their alternative worldview perspectives to others who were at odds with them. Being at such polar opposites it was clear that the families would never likely persuade each other and held irreconcilable differences. What then to do? Unfortunately, each took the path of coercion and ridicule. For the atheist family with the swapped Christian wife, they made it clear that God was a myth and a crutch, and Christians were anything but freethinkers, conspiring to force their limited view of reality and restrictions on fun on others. The constantly reminded the Christian woman of not only their choice in skepticism, but their need to mock what others held sacred. In the Christian home with the swapped atheist wife, they too felt compelled to share their beliefs with a lack of any sensitivity or framing for the perspectives of their unbelieving guest. They forced the atheist woman to go to church and participate in a Bible study against her express desires. She relented only because of the rules of the television program. When it was time for the wives to impose their will and perspectives on the other families, they followed suit and coerced family members into conformity with their understanding of reality. The atheist wife took away all religious items and icons, and the Christian wife forced the family to go to church and made her temporary "husband" preach with a Bible in hand in public "like he believed it" as punishment for violating her rules. The result of much of this was anger, conflict, shouting, ridicule, and confirmation on both sides that the perceptions of "the other" was confirmed and their lifestyle with its supporting worldview was justified and the only legitimate way to see things.

Even with these clashes there were positive aspects of this program. At one point when the atheist family went to church with the Christian woman they expressed their surprise that rather than being preached at they were able to play games and socialize with others that seemed to care for them. The atheist father goes on record sharing his appreciation for these kinds of expressions of Christianity. In another segment the Christian father comes to reassess his assumptions about the roles of men and women that he has connected to his faith, along with a willingness to allow his teenage daughters greater freedom in socializing with boys and girls. When the participants in this television program were willing to move beyond coercing and abusing others with and through their respective traditions and ideologies then positive things happened.

And this is where we can learn something positive and important from an unlikely source in pop culture. While WIFE SWAP thrives on the drama of the clash of personalities, and in so doing presents the all too common ways in which human beings interact with each other over their differences, at times it can also remind us of the way in which to navigate more carefully through them. While retaining confidence in our convictions, rather than using coercion to impose our perspectives upon others in the hopes of persuading them to join us, there is great value in respect and a softer hand. At the conclusion of this program the two couples come together to discuss their experiences and what they learned. At one point the topic of forcing perspectives on others comes up with examples on both sides, and the Christian woman states that at least the atheist father could have respected her in her faith commitments even while seriously disagreeing with her choices. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we practice The Way of Openness, a set of guidelines that are put into place as we interact with others. One of these guidelines is "Be Kind:"
Kindness will go further towards building trust than any other virtue listed here. Kindness is never outdated. It is not weak, or naive, or small. It changes hearts and minds and can quickly tear down walls because genuine kindness is easily recognized and understood by everyone. BUT...nothing is more offensive or destructive than kindness that is forced, phony, or insincere.
WIFE SWAP is produced for entertainment, for viewers to take joy in the clash of competing family perspectives. When an atheist and a Christian family go head to head, the audience is given the fight that it was hoping for. But in this episode it got a little bit more. The clash of these families is not contained within the walls of the family homes, but instead is found within the public square. It is also not restricted to these two groups but involves a multiplicity of religious and ideological perspectives. For those interested in moving beyond the clash of perspectives we are reminded that kindness and respect not only work toward civility in a mutifaith public square, but they also hold greater persuasive power.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Patheos Review of Os Guinness' "The Global Public Square"


I highly recommend Os Guinness' new book The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (IVP Books, 2013). The volume's website provides this overview description:
How do we live with our deepest differences?

In a world torn by religious conflict, the threats to human dignity are terrifyingly real. Some societies face harsh government repression and brutal sectarian violence, while others are divided by bitter conflicts over religion's place in public life. Is there any hope for living together peacefully?

Os Guinness argues that the way forward for the world lies in promoting freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. He sets out a vision of a civil and cosmopolitan global public square, and how it can be established by championing the freedom of the soul—the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In particular he calls for leadership that has the courage to act on behalf of the common good.

Far from utopian, this constructive vision charts a course for the future of the world. Soul freedom is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. We can indeed maximize freedom and justice and learn to negotiate deep differences in public life. For a world desperate for hope at a critical juncture of human history, here is a way forward, for the good of all. Guinness' perspectives and the proposal he sets forward for a public square that embraces freedom, civility, and diversity dovetails quite a bit with my own perspectives and work, and that of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. 
My review of this volume, titled "Beyond Interfaith Dialogue: A Review of 'The Global Public Square:'Os Guinness makes a bold proposal for a new public square, and Evangelicals must work with others to embrace its civility, freedoms, and diversity," was recently published at Patheos and will soon be available at the Patheos Book Club. My review concludes with the following:
Os Guinness has provided a real service in not only raising the issues of religious freedom and civility in diversity, but in also providing a proposal for addressing them. He risks being dismissed as setting forth mere hyperbole, but I believe he is correct to state that, "How we deal with our deepest religious and ideological differences in public life will be a defining issue for the future of mankind" (25). This book needs to be read and discussed widely. It is my hope is that Evangelicals will join Dr. Guinness in wrestling with the challenge of religious freedom, diversity, and civility, and be willing to link arms with other religionists and secularists in navigating a way forward in a new public square.