Thursday, September 29, 2005

Social Identity, Neotribes, and Modern Tribalism

How human beings think of themselves remains one of the foundational questions of human existence. The concept of personal identity has been defined in differing ways by human beings related to their historical and cultural contexts.

Christian missions has long been interested in this issue, and has defined the various ethne (Matt. 28:19) in a variety of ways in the course of her history. The current tendency in missiological circles is to define "people groups" in ethno-linguistic ways.

Modern and post-modern concepts of self add new twists to our thinking. It seems as if the increasing dissatisfaction with modernity and the self defined by consumerism and rationalism is giving way to more fluid concepts of self defined more by shared interests within social networks. Whether goths, vampires, tattooists, or Burning Man participants, these "neotribes" have found a sense of individual and cultural identity that they did not find in either modern secularism or the church. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and religious studies have been researching these phenomena, and it may be time for the church to interact with these ideas and these people in greater ways.

In my continuing research in these areas as it relates to missiology I came across a documentary titled Modern Tribalism. If evangelicals can get past the initial shock to the sensibilities that this video brings, there is much we can learn about how an increasing number of people view contemporary society and the church. How might the concepts of social idenitty and neotribalism be applied to our understanding of the new religions and emerging spiritualities, both in terms of how we conceptualize and respond to them? How might a new awareness of the multiplicity of neotribes in our communities inform (revolutionize?) our concepts and activities of church as missional congregations? Will we continue to casually dismiss them as the lunatic fringe, or will we love them, learn of them (and from them), listen to their pain and criticism, and embrace them in ways that enables us to walk spiritual paths alongside of them, and in so doing, living and telling of the way of Jesus?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us: Rowe's I Love Mormons and LDS Blog Comments

The faculty and staff of Salt Lake Theological Seminary represent some of the institution's greatest assets. I have been privileged to develop a friendship with one of the professors, Dr. David Rowe. David has a new book that was published by Baker Books called I Love Mormons. At the conclusion of a dinner meeting last night Dave mentioned that he has been following comments on his book on a LDS Blog called Times and Seasons. Evangelicals will find the book review and comments on the site instructive, not only for their response to David's book, but also in learning to appreciate how the LDS see evangelicals, particularly in their evangelistic attempts. The book review may be found here:

Friday, September 23, 2005

Curt Watke and NeoTribal Wiki: New Tool for Missional Christians

A few years ago while doing some Internet research on neotribal concepts of self-identity and social groupings in western postmodern contexts, I ran across Dr. Curt Watke with the Intercultural Institute for Contexualized Ministry. Curt and I exchanged emails for some time but were never able to connect. To my great surprise he called me this week, and we met this morning for several hours in the greater Salt Lake City area in connection with a ministry and personal trip in the area.

Curt is a missional and visionary Christian. He appreciates the application of intercultural missions in the western postmodern, post-Christendom, retribalized context. An important concept for Curt is "neotribalism," which he defines variously as:

1. The organization, culture, or beliefs of a group similar to a tribe.
2. A strong feeling of identity with and loyalty to one’s tribe or group.
3. The fragmentation of North American society that causes a re-tribalization of culture.
4. A group of people with similar lifestyles, attitudes and consumer behavior who live together in common neighborhoods.
5. Not dependent on genealogy but on proximity and choice.

Curt has been working to educate and connect Christians in missional ways that will enable them to connect with the neotribal cultures and subcultures of their communities. One of the tools that Curt has been developing is NeoTribal Wiki. This is a missional knowledge database that has the potential to be very helpful to missional churches. It utilizes the information technology of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Within this framework NeoTribal Wiki has plugged in a wealth of demographic and cultural data from around the world that is in the process of being cross-referenced and segmented for missional application.

You have to take a look at the website for NeoTribal Wiki to fully understand and appreciate it, and keep in mind that this missional tool is currently in pre-launch construction, but perhaps a few examples will help to illustrate the value and potential of this resource.

For example, if you click on Browse by Categories, and then select Community Studies, followed by North American Community Studies, you can eventually work your way to a South Carolina Community Study which provides a wealth of data that can prove invaluable to pastors, church planters, and missionaries. Curt and his associates will be adding to this database and including statistical data on other states in the U.S. International data is available as well.

As another example for those working in missions to emerging spiritualities, going back to Browse by Categories, you will see that other divisions of information and topics are of missional value as well. Continuing on the neotribal concept, Curt includes categories such as Religious Neotribes, Spiritual Neotribes, Postmodern Neotribes, and Youth Neotribes. Once developed, these categories help provide what Curt calls "missional culturescapes" that compliment the other areas of missional knowledge in this database that can be shared and studied to assist in the formation of culturally informed mission strategy.

After I reviewed just a little of the information in this missional base I came to the conclusion that this may represent a tool for missions that can revolutionize missional approaches in America and beyond.

Curt was interested in sharing this project with me, and my involvement in overseeing the development of the Spiritual NeoTribes section of NeoTribalWiki, and in working as a Research Associate. I will be contacting colleagues in my network in the hopes of recruiting their involvement and contributions to this project.

I encourage missional thinking Christians to check out this exciting resource.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Let's Do Our Homework and Engage in Personal Dialogue: Final Comments on Mariners Church and the LDS Temple

As the comments section of the post on Mariners Church and the LDS temple indicates, this post has drawn the attention of some in the countercult. I attempted a brief response, but this is a large and important issue. On further review of the entire article written by Keith Walker I noted several problems in understanding of the perspectives of those advocating missional and relational approaches to LDS, an inability to make a distinction between Mariners Church's approach and other missional and relational approaches to LDS, a false dichotomy between relational evangelism and confrontation, confrontational rhetoric, poor reasoning, a lack of any criteria of methodology, anecdotal testimonies presented as solid evidence for countercult praxis, and a general failure to interact with relevant perspectives on the issues as raised by this Blog and many other sources not the least of which is missiology and the history of Christian missions.

The intention of this Blog is to post comments, and to have brief comments in response, on key issues related to mission, theology, and praxis among emerging spiritualities and new religions in the 21st century. It is not a forum to bring folks up to speed with the wealth of material that provides a background for these comments. Effective dialogue on this topic can only take place if we bring a similar level of awareness to the issues. (I have extensive prior experience in countercult theory and praxis, and I would ask my countercult critics to bring some missional background to the discussion.) Therefore, Mr. Walker will be permitted to provide a very brief response to my comments on his article excerpt, this is not the forum for extensive commentary. Mr. Walker, and other interested parties in the countercult community, are free to familiarize themselves with the relevant background data and to then enter into personal dialogue with me (rather than continuing the Blog and email exchanges) as my academic and ministry schedule permits.

In the meantime, I will move on to post on other topics as they relate to the purpose envisioned for this Blog.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror, and 'Reel' Spirituality

I still remember one night in the 1970s when my dad gave my younger brother and I the option of watching The Wonderful World of Disney on television as part of our regular family habit, or a horror film on another channel. The curiosity of youth being what it was, we chose the horror film, and our first exposure to the genre through The Creature From the Black Lagoon began a love affair with not only horror, but science fiction and fantasy as well.

Given evangelicalism's frequent connection of horror with "the occult," after my conversion to Christianity I though such passions had to be jettisoned as part of my new life. Much to my surprise and joy, I discovered that other Christians were also interested in these genres, and that they did not find them incompatible with the Christian life. In my research in the area of emerging spiritualities and popular culture years later, I discovered that these genres of entertainment were important aspects of emerging culture, and ones that the evangelical world needs to consider if it wishes to be relevant to post-modern culture. In this post I will pass along a few thoughts that have come to mind recently after some posts at Matt Stone's Blog Eclectic Itchings.

Evangelicals have tended to either react confrontationally to aspects of popular culture, or to downplay its significance as opposed to "high culture." Scholars now recognize the significance of popular culture o aspects of broader culture and spirituality in the shaping of western plausibility structures. The secularization of the West has resulted in the desire for a re-enchantment of the world, and this is being explored in a number of ways in popular culture. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror in literature and film have been used as vehicles to both express and explore aspects of new religions and emerging spiritualities, and as mythic resources with which to shape new spiritualities for a post-modern age.

In the area of the exploration of spirituality for new religions, Mormonism has great sympathies with science fiction. It has served well as a genre to creatively express aspects of their cosmology. LDS author Orson Scott Card has incorporated aspects of LDS cosmology in his novels, and it is well known that the original Battlestar Galactica series of the 1970s incorporated modified versions of LDS cosmology, although there is less emphasis on it in the current Sci Fi Channel version of the program.

Fantasy has long been drawn upon to express and explore spirituality, from Tolkien and C. S. Lewis incorporating or expressing elements from Christianity, to Paganism and Wicca in more recent authors.

But not only are these genres serving as vehicles to express spirituality, we are also seeing emerging spiritualities that are drawing upon these genres as both mythic sources by which to create new spiritualities, as well as to express and explore them. Australian scholar Adam Possamai provides several examples including The Church of Satan, and the Church of All World, as well as other exotic new spiritualities, such as The Temple of the Vampyre drawing upon vampire fiction, Jediism drawing up the Star Wars films, and Matrixism based upon The Matrix film trilogy.

A few years ago when the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was still unfolding, TIME magazine wrote a story on the phenomenal success of the films that included an interesting sidebar. It discussed the increasing popularity of fantasy films and the apparent decline in popularity of science fiction. This got me to thinking and I'll pass along a few thoughts for consideration. Science fiction has served well as a forum for expressing ideas related more to materialist philosophies. With Mormonism's emphasis on materialism, where even spirit itself is another form of the material, Mormon cosmology fit in well with the science fiction genre's materialist leanings. Science fiction literature and films continue to be popular, but with the cultural shift toward re-enchantment fantasy films (and horror that includes a supernatural element) will likely continue to find a ready audience in the Western world. Those who may disagree with this idea given the popularity of the Star Wars films since the 1970s might take note that although Lucas' films are expressed in the garb of sci fi they are more properly classified as a space fantasy.

While evangelicals may express incredulity in response to such new spiritualities and the pop culture sources behind them, nevertheless, they represent serious spiritual and social phenomena that are proving increasingly attractive to those in the West, particularly younger people. Christopher Partridge notes that these literary and cinematic sources serve as popular sacred narratives that represent "connections between the occult and arts-based culture, particular literature, film and video games..."

I wonder whether it might be possible (from the above it would surely be profitable) for evangelicals to spend less time fighting expressions of emerging spiritualities in popular culture and instead spend more time as students of popular culture so that we might understand the contemporary spiritual milieu, and where Western culture is spiritually "itching," in order that we might actually scratch them where they itch rather than where we think they should itch. And while some of us are complaining about the popularity of J. K. Rowling with the Potter books, how about writing a series of books, or producing some films that draw upon fantasy, horror, and science fiction to creatively and subtly explore Christian spirituality?

Just a few thoughts.

Suggested Reading

Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 1998).

Michael R. Collings, "The Rational and Relevatory in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card," Sunsone 11, no. 3 (May 1987): 7-11.

Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 1 (T & T Clark International, 2004). See his discussion of secularization and re-enchantment, as well as popular occulture in literature and film.

Adam Possamai, Religion and Popular Culture (P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2005).

Sandy and Joe Straubhaar, "Science Fiction and Mormonism," Sunstone 6, no. 4 (July/August 1981): 52-56.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Missional Theology of Relationships

The other day I was thumbing once again through George Hunter's book How to Reach Secular People (Abingdon Press, 1992). Among other things, he has a discussion of relational theology that provoked some thinking in me related to missional ways of being in the postmodern West.

Hunter quotes from Bruce Larson who writes about four aspects of relational theology, including "our relationship to God, our relationship to ourselves, our relationship to the 'significant others' in our lives, and our relationship to the world" (Hunter, 137). It is with the fourth relational element that I did some further thinking on in the context of missional ways of being for Christians in the twenty-first century.

Larson defines our relationship to the world as characterized by "identification, involvement, and service." These characterizations fit in perfectly with an incarnational missions approach among emerging cultures. Christian disciples must identify lovingly with the people, and incarnate in their midst. They must become involved meaningfully and intentionally in their culture, and not merely in utilitarian fashion. And they must engage in selfless acts of service to the peoples they love.

This relational theology and praxis is in stark contrast from what Larson and Hunter refer to as "sterile forms of orthodoxy," and which we might identify with traditional forms of "outreach" to adherents of postmodern, emergent, and alternative spiritualities. Noting the significance of this contrast, Hunter quotes Larson to say that

"the Bible deals primarily with relationships and only indirectly with
doctrine.... Reading the Bible convinces me that the real test of 'orthodoxy' has to do with the quality of relationships far more than with doctrinal stands. Life's real problems are obviously relational; they are only indirectly doctrinal....Certainly [doctrine] may explain to a degree what sin is, and what grace is, but doctrine per se is not the very stuff of life. It merely describes life without enabling it....We are not trying to make people believe 'the right things' so much as enabling them to experience a relationship with God and with one another." (Hunter, 140)
There is precedence for such an emphasis and thinking in the history of Christian missions. The Celtic Christian movement emphasized Christian community, and a sense of belonging and relationships over doctrinal propositions and believing. This extension of Kingdom relationships then became the living, relational context in which faith (and its doctrinal content) could be born nurtured.

A few individuals ministering with a new paradigm among new religions which emphasizes the importance of relationships, flowing out of a theology of relationships as part of a broader missional theology, have been the objects of criticism by evangelicals for deep relational involvement with "heretics." Yet is such a relational theology really out of bounds? Is there biblical room for such theological development? Does it not have some precedent in the history of Christian missions? And what might it "look like" if we placed less emphasis on a theology of information and propositional proclamation, and instead reframed it within the context of missional relationships?

What might be the results for both Christian disciples and the peoples among whom we live and minister if we developed a theology of relationships for the twenty-first century?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Boniface and History of Missions: Toward a Criteria of Methodology

How do we determine missions strategy? Churches and parachurch agencies are engaged in missions, and utilizing various strategies to accomplish the task, but how might we pause and reflect critically on methodology? The dovetailing of a discussion in my seminary class on the history of Christian missions, and a post on another Blog, come together to provide us with some helpful ideas.

In The History of Christian Missions class at Salt Lake Theological Seminary we recently looked at Roman Catholic missions as discussed in Ruth Tucker's book, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Zondervan, 2004). One of the figures we read about and discussed as a class was Boniface, who worked as a missionary in Germany among Pagans in the Middle Ages. Boniface felt that dramatic action was necessary in order to communicate to Pagans at Geismar, and he decided that chopping down a sacred oak tree identified with the Thundergod was an appropriate course of action. Althought the act was defiant, there was a positive outcome in that the Pagans viewed it as a victory of Boniface's God over that of the Pagans. Boniface was encouraged by the reaction of the Pagans and it emboldened him to continue in confrontational fashion among the Pagans, resulting in his destruction of temples, shrines, and sacred stones.

As our seminary class discussed Boniface I was asked by a fellow student for my views on his destruction of the sacred symbol of the Pagans, and how this might relate to my call for greater emphasis on missional approaches in the West among emerging spiritualities. I responded by noting that although Boniface continued his ministry in confrontational fashion for some time following this event, he later questioned the validity of this aggressive approach. He later abandoned this approach in favor of building monastic communities which served as mission outposts.

Another historical consideration comes from comparison of the approaches of other Roman Catholic missionaries, Raymond Lull and Francis of Assissi, both working among Muslims. Lull engaged in a threefold approach that included apologetics, education, and evangelism. Lull's approach was aggressive, and Tucker notes that although he claimed to reach out to Muslism lovingly, "his message was often very offensive, and may have further embittered the Muslims toward Christianity." By contrast, Francis "proposed that the Muslims should be won by love instead of hate." His approach involved dialogue, relationships, and service.

How might these examples from the history of Christian missions inform our missional task in the twenty-first century? And how did I relate these examples to my response to my fellow student?

The history of Christian missions provides for us a number of examples from those who have come before us and who have ministered in a variety of differing cultural and historical circumstances. They need to be considered individually and collectively in these differing contexts, and then with appropriate adjustments, application can be made to our own circumstances.

I believe that one of the things we can learn from such examples is the need for balance. Contrary to some misunderstandings of my views, I am not opposed to apologetics or confrontation in missions encounters. Boniface provides us with one example that may have been appropriate for his cultural context. However, simply because Boniface was confrontational among Pagans at Geismar does not mean that similar approaches were appropriate at other times in his ministry, or that they should be normative for us. How the should we understand such important historical examples and formulate a strategy and application for the present day?

One of my favorite Blogs is that of Ryan Bolger. Ryan is a missiologist who teaches at Fuller Seminary. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at a conference at Fuller in 2004. Ryan recently posted a discussion on his Blog that mentioned his teaching method in one of his classes. (See the link to Ryan's BolgBlog in the Blog links in the right hand column of my Blog.) Ryan has been teaching a class to folks that include campus ministers. They were interested in learning about evangelism strategy, but rather than teaching principles from church growth or business models, Ryan remembered that the students had recently had classes on culture and worldview. So he had them read through the Old and New Testaments looking specifically at missions texts. He then had then review church history, followed by nineteenth century missions. He then had them reflect on all of this in order to extract certain ideas and patterns. Finally, he encouraged them to make cultural adjustments appropriate for the contexts of their campus ministries, all with an eye toward developing evangelistic "strategy."

What does all of this have to do with my discussion of Boniface, and how does it relate to the development of missional strategy? My class discussion, and the study methodology Ryan Bolger urged for his students, reminds me that our study of missions will be a helpful corrective for the church in a twenty-first century postmodern context. We need to engage in fresh reflection on missions in the Old Testament with the missio Dei and the calling of the nation of Israel, and then proceed to see how the early church continued to embody and proclaim the Kingdom message. We must then proceed to reflection on the examples of those who have come before us in the history of Christian missions. From all of this we can then identify certain missional and theological principles that can then be applied (with appropriate cultural modifications) to our own ministry contexts. The insights we can gain from such reflection are applicable not only in missional approaches to emerging spiritualities, but to broader missional considerations in the Western world with the passing of Christendom culture. As Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls noted:

"It is now too late to treat Western society as in some sort of decline from Christian standards, to be brought back to church by preaching and persuasion. Modern Western society, taken as a whole, reflects one of the great non-Christian cultures of the world. There is one department of the life of the Western church that spent centuries grappling with non-Christian cultures, and gradually learned something of the process of comprehending, penetrating, exploring, and translating within them. That was the task of the missionary movement." (Andrew Walls, "Western Society Presents a Missionary Challenge," Missiological Education for the Twenty-first Century, ed. Dudley J. Woodberry et. al. [Orbis, 1996])
If the Western church is willing to rediscover its missional heritage (and imperative) I believe we will have taken a significan step toward laying the groundwork for both a criteria of methodology, and specific methodologies themselves (although we need to embody being missional as the church rather than to merely implement strategy and methodology). The interface between missiology and theological reflection will enable us to sort through the issues that the experiences of Boniface, Francis and others pose for us today.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Criticism and the New Paradigm: Time to Eat Some Fruit or Something

One of the great scenes in M. Night Shyamalan's film Signs takes place in a children's bedroom in an old farm house. The background for the scene is the growing tension over crop circles that keep appearing worldwide that some wonder may be a harbinger of a pending alien invasion. In the scene Mel Gibson's character is sitting on a bed with his son and daughter as they thumb through a book on extraterrestrials. They pause to look at an illustration in the book of an old farm house under attack by an alien spaceship that hauntingly resembles their own house. As they look more and more closely at the painting their tension rises, and then...the phone rings causing them all to jump! Mel Gibson's character says something very fatherly in response, something like. "I think this family needs to calm down and eat a piece of fruit or something."

It's easy to get worked up over things that we care passionately about. But if we aren't careful, our zeal for important things gets the best of us, and we end up overreacting, and perhaps jumping to conclusions and missing some important things in the process. I believe this has taken place in reaction to the growing evangelical missional (and relational) paradigm for understanding and responding to new religions. Well meaning evangelicals have misunderstood the activities of a few individuals utilizing this different approach, and as a result, they have impugned the character of good people, and missed the promise of a new approach to new religions at the same time.

Recently someone in the countercult community issued a public criticism of a respected scholar and apologist who has pursued a more relational and missional approach to Mormons and Mormonism. His efforts reached a negative crescendo (for the countercult ministry at least), and a public statement was made that linked the apologist with what was labeled "the new Liberal Apologists and their Politics of Appeasement". With this label, and some of their discussion that followed it, the concern is that some pursuing the missional model are somehow compromising Christianity in liberal fashion, and are more interested in appeasing those in new religions, such as Mormonism, who are seen as believing in spiritual "pornography" (their word, not mine).

I find this harsh rhetoric unfortunate on a number of levels, but it is not surprising. A few individuals have analyzed the countercult approach to new religions and have characterized it as placing more emphasis on boundary maintenance and a defensive reaction against perceived threats from new religions (or "cults" in their terminology), rather than proactive missional or evangelistic engagement. Of course some in the countercult have resisted this characterization, and have stated that it is inaccurate. But the reaction of some in the countercult, including the reaction referenced above, demonstrates the reality of the countercult boundary maintenance approach, and that its sights are not merely focused on new religions.

Unfortunately, I have had my integrity and orthdoxy questioned by figures in the countercult, and while it has not gone as far as the case mentioned above, I have no doubts that some may already consider me a "Liberal Apologist" practicing my "Politics of Appeasement". Nothing could be further from the truth. I and others have adhered to the countercult framework of a heresy-rationalist apologetic and have seen its limitations and problematic nature. Our interaction with a broader palette of information and perspectives, including religious studies, the sociology of religion, theology in cross-cultural contexts, and cross-cultural missions, have given us serious reasons for abandoning the dominant paradigm. But this doesn't mean we're theologically liberal, or that we would rather engage in appeasement rather than pursuasion in the way of Jesus.

Make no mistake a about it. A new missional paradigm is developing among evangelicals in response to new religions and alternative spiritualities. It has been expressed internationally by a number of thinkers, including the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. and it has caught the attention of at least one academic to be discussed briefly in a forthcoming book titled New and Alternative Religions in the United States (Praeger Publications). In response to the new model some in the countercult have expressed feelings of marginalization, apprehension, and defensiveness.

I appreciate the zeal in the countercult for doctrinal orthodoxy in response to heresy. But this zeal is clouding sound thinking and is precluding individuals from considering the merits of a new approach. The heresy-rationalist paradigm is apparently serving more as blinders, rather than as an appropriate tool for understanding and communication. We're so worked up over this issue that I think it's time to take Mel Gibson's advice: we need to eat some fruit or something.