Friday, June 26, 2015

New DMin course at South University on world and new religions

I am pleased to recommend a new online DMin course through South University College of Theology on world religions. I was asked to design this 11 week course, and it covers definitions of religion and methods in the study of religion and world religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, an introduction to new religious movements, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, popular expressions of the Western esoteric tradition ("New Age" and Gnosticism), Paganism, and thoughts on a Christian study and engagement with religions. The course interacts with the best Christian and secular scholarship on world and new religions, brings critical thought to popular Christian assumptions and methods of engagement, gives students interaction with adherents of other religions, and is grounded in a theology of love of neighbor. Learn more at My thanks to Robb Redman​ for the opportunity to put together the course, and Paul Louis Metzger​ for recommending me.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The NAE and "Top Theological Issues for Seminaries"

Today in my email inbox I received a copy of NAE Insight: The Newsletter of the National Association of Evangelicals (Winter 2014/15). It included a feature titled "Top Theological Issues for Seminaries" which can be read at this link. This feature is composed of statements by Evangelical seminary presidents who are members of NAE where they share their thoughts on the theological priorities for their students. Unfortunately, the issues of multi-faith engagement and peacemaking are not specifically mentioned as theological priorities. There are statements about addressing pluralism and "competing worldviews," but no mention of the need for seminary students to wrestle with the practical realities of a neighborhood theology of multi-faith engagement.

How do we encourage organizations like NAE, and Evangelical seminaries, to include multi-faith engagement and peacemaking as theological priorities in our post-9/11 age frequently characterized by religious friction in the public square and violence around the world?

Monday, December 29, 2014

IBMR explores "Witchcraft and Mission Studies"


The January 2015 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research explores the topic of "Witchcraft and Mission Studies."Essays exploring this topic include:

"Putting Witch Accusations on the Missiological Agenda: A Case from Northern Peru by Robert J. Priest

"Beyond the Fence: Confronting Witchcraft Accusations in the Papua New Guinea Highlands" by Philip Gibbs

"Healing Communities: Contextualizing Responses to Witch Accusations" by Steven D. H. Rasmussen, with Hannah Rasmussen

"Toward a Christian Response to Witchcraft in Northern Ghana"by Jon P. Kirby

"Witchcraft Accusations and Christianity in Africa" by J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu

As an Evangelical who has researched and written on Witchcraft in the West academically, who has engaged Witches in relationships and conversations, and who has called for work to address human rights abuses in South Africa and elsewhere in relation to accusations of Witchcraft, I'm glad to see IBMR address this topic. I have yet to read the issue and am a little nervous about how sympathetically it will be explored, but some of the comments from J. Nelson Jennings in the opening editorial give me hope:
"Contemporary Europeans and North Americans may blush at the early modern witch trials in Europe and in Europe’s North American colonies. Accordingly, modern Western theologians and missiologists have for generations conveniently turned a blind eye to such phenomena, which have been rumored to take place elsewhere. In actuality, however, witchcraft-related activities—including violent witch hunts directed toward women and children—stubbornly plague Christian communities all around the world. Missiologists must catch up with these acute, long-neglected spiritual and pastoral issues."
In order to read this issue you must register your email address for free. You can find the publication at

Thursday, December 18, 2014

EID journal - Mission and Dialogue: A missing element for consideration

There is a new edition of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal available, the Fall 2014 edition. It focuses on "Mission and Dialogue: Critical Conversations for a Global Church." This issue includes a number of contributors from around the world, including not only Evangelicals, but also a Roman Catholic. Many of the pieces are thought provoking as Evangelicals consider the relationship between mission and dialogue.

One element is missing in my view, and that is recognition that some religious traditions view Evangelical participation in dialogue with suspicion as merely a covert for of mission and proselytizing. I have been accused of this by some Pagans, and it is helpful for Evangelicals to be aware of this concern, and to articulate the separate activities of mission and dialogue, when they may overlap, and how this might relate to those in religious traditions who see mission as incompatible with interfaith dialogue.

This edition of EID can be read here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Patheos Book Club Roundtable Review of "Rise of ISIS"

Patheos Book Club Review
I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Patheos Book Club Roundtable by contributing a review of Jay Sekulow's book Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can't Ignore. Sekulow is a noted lawyer, conservative pundit, and Evangelical. I provide a conservative political and theological alternative to Sekulow's thesis. My review can be found on the Evangelical FRD website here.

Grant project Multi-Faith Matters Team Meets

Multi-Faith Matters Team
On Saturday, November 15, the Multi-Faith Matters team came to Salt Lake City from coast to coast. You can see our group in the picture above, from left to right, Pastor Jill Riley, Pastor Bob Roberts, Dr. David Sang Ehil-Han, Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, yours truly, and Pastor Phil Wyman. The group came together for the first meeting as part of a Collaborative Inquiry Team exploring Evangelicals and multi-faith engagement, made possible by a grant from The Louisville Institute.

This first meeting exceeded my expectations. While some of us knew each other previously, this diverse group of people quickly discovered they had wonderful chemistry, and they were very productive in their first meeting together.

After some discussion the decision was made to adopt "Multi-Faith Matters" as our group name, slogan, and Twitter hash tag. We also adopted the descriptive "subtitle" of "Learning to Love our Multi-Faith Neighbors." As team members blog and discuss things related to our project we will use "#MultifaithMatters" as a way of branding and uniting our diverse efforts until we create a website or other central place for hosting our stories and other information.

We will continue to work between meetings, and will get together again in April of next year in Texas.

We think exciting things are going to come out of this group and our project. To learn more see the press release we wrote after receiving the grant.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Handbook of Religion: A Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings, and Practices


I just received my contributors' copy of Handbook of Religion (Baker Academic, 2014), edited by Terry Muck, Harold Netland and Gerald McDermott. My essays are on Paganism, including a descriptive overview, and a piece on theological exchanges and current issues. My contributions are followed by Gus diZerega's essay as an adherent of Paganism.

 I think this is one of the best volumes produced to date by Evangelicals on religion. It includes a number of top notch scholars on the topic, and the tone and content is far different than approaches of the past. It also includes contributions to practitioners and adherents of various religions so that they might speak for themselves. Pick this one up.

From the dust jacket:

"This comprehensive handbook provides a Christian perspective on religion and its many manifestations around the world. Written by top religion scholars from a broad spectrum of Christianity, it introduces world religions, indigenous religious traditions, and new religious movements. Articles explore the relationship of other religions to Christianity, providing historical perspective on past encounters and highlighting current issues. The book also contains articles by adherents of non-Christian religions, offering readers an insider's perspective on various religions and their encounters with Christianity. Maps, timelines, and sidebars are included."

Friday, September 19, 2014

Evangelical FRD Podcast Conversation with Paul Louis Metzger and Kyogen Carlson on Christian-Buddhist Relationships

The latest podcast for the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is now available. It is a conversation with Paul Louis Metzger and Kyogen Carlson on Christian-Buddhist relationships. Metzger is Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Carlson is a Soto Zen priest and abbot of Dharma Rain Zen Center.

This conversation was recorded on September 17. Kyogen Carlson passed away the following day. This was his last work in multifaith engagement. We are privileged to have known him, to have had him as a friend, and to have worked with him in religious diplomacy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review of "Mormon Christianity" in Dialogue

I have written a review for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 47, no. 2 (Summer 2014). The review can be downloaded through my page at this link. Here are the introductory paragraphs.

Stephen Webb is a Roman Catholic scholar who has made a great effort to understand and interact with Mormonism in sympathetic ways. In his prior volume on this topic, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2011), Webb considered the possibility of the materiality and divine embodiment of God by way of elements in the history of Christian thought, specifically “heavenly flesh” Christology. In Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints, he narrows his focus to consider Mormon materialist metaphysics and what this might mean for his own Catholicism, as well as the doctrine of the rest of historic Christendom.

In contrast with classical theism where God is an immaterial spirit, Webb entertains the idea that God possesses a material body (5). He wonders whether this might be a possibility for traditional Christians as they consider the implications of Joseph Smith’s interpretation of his “First Vision” which provided him with an “insight into the materiality of the divine” (9). This has resulted in a Mormon metaphysical teaching on matter wherein God is not only embodied and material, but also, “Most fundamentally speaking, spirit and matter are not opposites at all. Spirit and matter complement each other and are not ultimately different in substance” (34).

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, 113–14, 159), and notes that unfortunately “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 my mind.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tour of Khadija Mosque

Last night I had the privilege of visiting the Khadija mosque in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is home to at least 20,000 Muslims. The mosque's imam, and a representative of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, spent some time with me and my small group including members from two different churches. We had a great time, and put down a foundation for future conversations and hopefully ongoing relationships. We will be returning in June or July to be a part of their Ramadan celebration.

The Good Samaritan and the Compromise of Convictions

Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most powerful of his illustrations regarding love of neighbor, and it provides an important foundation for how to engage others in a multifaith world. But at the same time, popular interpretations of the story rob it of much of its subversive power.

Rebecca Trotter has written a piece on her blog "The Upside Down World," that steps back to reassess this story in light of a statement that Evangelical often make in relating to others: "You don't have to compromise convictions to be compassionate." On the surface this sounds good, particularly for those of us working in multifaith contexts where conservative Evangelicals are concerned that such efforts are risky, and leave practitioners open to compromise. But Trotter reminds us that the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges this idea. Sometimes you do have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.

Consider the familiar story again. When the priest and the Levite saw the injured man, they made a conscious choice not to help as acts of faithfulness to their religious convictions, particularly those related to fears about ritual impurity and contamination. But the conclusion of Jesus' story indicates that the one who truly loved neighbor in God's way was the one who ignored these religious convictions and offered aid anyway.

This should give Evangelicals pause for reflection. Our religious convictions concerning how we relate to and engage others in our multifaith world should not be cast aside casually, but there may be times when love of neighbor trumps these convictions. At the very least, we should be willing to engage in more theological self-reflection in such matters.

Read Trotter's piece and give Jesus' parable another look.

Monday, May 12, 2014

New Springer Book Series on Popular Culture, Religion and Society

Announcing the New Springer Book Series Popular Culture, Religion and Society 
A Social-Scientific Approach

What happens when popular culture not only amuses, entertains, instructs and relaxes, but also impacts on social interactions and perception in the field of religion? This series explores how religion, spirituality and popular culture co-exist intimately. Religion sometimes creates and regulates popular culture, religious actors who express themselves in popular culture are also engaged in shaping popular religion, and in doing so, both processes make some experiences possible for some, and deny access to others. The central theme of this series is thus on how religion affects and appropriates popular culture, and on how popular culture creates and/or re-enforces religion.

The interaction under scrutiny is not only between the imaginary and ‘real’ world but also between the online and off-line one, and this revitalises the study of popular religion through its involvement in popular culture and in new social media technologies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Works presented in this series move beyond text analysis and use new and ground-breaking theories in anthropology, communication, cultural studies, religious studies, social philosophy, and sociology to explore the interrelation between religion, popular culture, and contemporary society.

Call for Book Proposals

Book proposals are invited for research monographs and edited collections that fit within the series’ scope and themes. Please email your initial book proposals to the Series Editor.

Series Editor: Adam Possamai, University of Western Sydney (

Editorial Board: Stef Aupers, Erasmus University of Rotterdam Netherlands
Roberto Blancarte, El Collegio de Mexico, Mexico
Douglas Cowan, Renison University College, Canada
Giuseppe Giordan, University of Padua, Italy Danielle Kirby, RMIT, Australia
Joseph Laycock, Texas State University, USA
Eloisa Martin, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
John W. Morehead, Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, USA
Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Heinz Scheifinger, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia
Vineeta Sinha, National University of Singapore, Singapore
James V. Spickard, University of Redlands, USA

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

The second installment is at

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. 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

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:

This is a podcast of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy ( 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

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:

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, via, 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.