Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Let's Not Get Too Cozy with Pagans? Foursquare Church and The Gathering

A few years ago I was privileged to meet Phil Wyman, Pastor at The Gathering church in Salem, Massachussets. Phil has a wonderful ministry that uses dialogue and other methods to engage the local Wiccan community and other Pagans. We referenced Phil's work in a footnote for a chapter on Wicca in our book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004). At the time I met Phil his church was part of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. But this has changed. In a recent article in The Salem News, Phil states that the denomination has decided to sever the affiliation of the church with their organization. During the Phil's emotionally-laden meeting with organizational leaders he was asked how he could be friends with Witches, to which he replied, "We live in Salem. How could you not?"

I suppose for all the talk of conservative evangelicals about wanting to be like Jesus and extend fellowship to those considered spiritual outcasts in society, as many perceive Wiccans and Pagans, apparently this pushed the boundaries of acceptability and comfort for the Foursquare folks. This kind of response by churches to cutting-edge ministry to groups that are bogeyemen for evangelicals is unfortunately not uncommon.

Interested readers might want to visit Phil's website to learn more about his ministry, including his dialogue with Pagans called "Circle and Cross Talk."

Update Nov. 1: Phil recently made me aware of the original article that broke this story which appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The article can be found here. The article has some interesting quotes, including a statement from a United Methodist pastor in Salem who stated that Phil appeared "too familiar, too cozy, too amicable with that [Wiccan] community." Another comes from a Foursquare official who stated that "Phil had a strategy and methodology that was significantly different from how we perceive church life." Both of these statements are revealing, and indicate where not only Foursquare Church may be on different approaches at interacting with Pagans, but where many evangelicals are likely at as well.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Discerning Halloween

Tomorrow is Halloween. Usually at this time of year many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have been up in arms for some time warning of the alleged evils of Halloween in books, tracts, websites, and probably podcasts by now. We all know the claims, but in case you haven't heard them, Halloween is allegedly evil because of Pagan origins, twisted because it celebrates death, satanic because of its occult-related icons, and harmful because children pretend to be monsters with their costumes. But is this "received wisdom" really the best way of understanding the holiday from a sound Christian perspective?

My friend Lint Hatcher provides an alternative worth considering. Lint was one of the brain childs, along with Rod Bennett, behind the now (unfortunately) defunct Wonder magazine. He has provided Christians with a resource in the form of a book titled The Magic Eight-Ball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween. This book answers the specific allegations mentioned above and does so in a very entertaining manner. You can preview Lint's book here, and take an in-depth look through Lint's press kit that he assembled, that not only gives you a great look at his book but also demonstrates his great desktop publishing and artistic work.

Before you toss that horror and sci fi collection, or denounce the "evils" of Halloween from your pulpit or in your church newsletter, consider the case Lint puts forward.

Friday, October 27, 2006

EMNR Erases Part of Its Past

Today I was writing my curriculum vita and including various publications I've worked on, including published and unpublished items. A few items I wanted to include were unpublished papers that are available electronically. As a time saver I clicked on my blog and went to the articles in the right hand column and clicked on the links for papers I delivered in previous years at the annual conferences for Evangelical Ministries to New Religions. To my surprise my papers have been removed from the Research Papers section of the EMNR website. In addition, the papers from my colleagues that used to be available in the past, such as those by Jon Trott and Philip Johnson, have been removed as well. (Note the hole now present elsewhere on their website in a 2001 e-mail newsletter to members which mentions my presentation but the link to the paper is now dead.)

I find the removal of these documents troubling. On the one hand EMNR can choose to include or not include any papers it wishes. Since I am no longer a member of EMNR I can understand how the decision might have been made to only include papers by current members. On the other hand, when I wrote the papers I was a member in good standing in EMNR, and served on the board, including holding the positions of vice president and president in various years.

So why the removal? It seems on the surface that unfortunately two things have happened. First, EMNR appears to have sanitized its history by removing traces of a previous member and board member who's present views they find distasteful. This is curious since counter-cult methodology critiques some of the new religions for cleaning up their history and revising their sacred writings.

Second, while protesting loudly that one of their bogeymen has nothing valid to say in his criticisms, through this action EMNR has validated some of the criticisms of sociologist Douglas Cowan, Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Renison College, who wrote Bearing False Witness?: An Introduction to the Christian Countercult (Praeger, 2003). In this book and his previous Ph.D. thesis, Cowan stated that the counter-cult methodology involves a form of reality maintenance, and raised the concern that their reasoning and activities are lacking in part because of a lack of peer review. The removal of papers by a former member critical of the counter-cult movement and its methodology involves a form of reality maintenance that seeks to expunge troubling ideas from the past. In addition, any possibilty for the peer review that might have come from interacting with the ideas presented in these papers is now lost.

I'm not going to lose any sleep over this development, I just wonder, "What's going on EMNR?" I hate to see these well-meaning folks continue to marginalize themselves within evangelicalism and beyond.

Update 10/29/06: After conducting some Internet research this weekend I came across one of the motivating sources for EMNR's decision to remove my papers and those of my colleagues from their website. Dwayna Litz, who took great exception with Cornerstone Festival's Imaginarium presentations that touched in part on the Mexican Day of the Dead and Halloween, apparently contacted EMNR's board and shared her concerns over my views. You can read Dwayna's concerns here. The apparent connection between EMNR's decision and Dwayna Litz is very troubling as even a casual reading of her concerns indicates that not only fails to accurately understand the Bible as it relates to new religious movements (not to mention a basic sound theology), but she also fails to understand the views I expressed in my papers, as well as those of my colleagues Jon Trott and Philip Johnson. If EMNR's board expresses views in sympathy with those of Ms. Litz, and finds it necessary to placate this segment of evangelicalism/fundamentalism, then it confirms that I made the right decision to sever my ties with this organization and to pursue my approach as a separate methodology.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Teen Spirituality: American and Australian Contrasts

Simeon Payne, one of the members of the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities that I am a part of, passed along a copy of some data on "The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers," from a publication out of Australia, Pointers Vo. 16, No. 1 (March 2006). The publication is produced by the Christian Research Assocation and I have found previous issues of this publication helpful in assessing Australia's spiritual climate in contrast to America's.

The subject of this issue of Pointers is of particular interest to me in that I am intrigued by youth alternative subcultures and spiritualities, such as Goths, Raves, and to a certain extent we could include Burning Man there as well.

The article on teen spirituality takes a book by Christian Smith as its point of departure. In 2005 he published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press), which caused spawned a debate in the United States. The Christian Research Association is building on the research from this book through their Australian 'Spirit of Generation Y' study. The result is an interesting contrast of teen spirituality among young people in Australia and the United States.

The article mentions that "Australians are considerably more likely to believe in reincarnation, astrology, the possibility of communication with the dead and the powers of psychics and fortune-tellers than are US young people."

The article also noted that American teens are more likely than their Australian counterparts to have some connection or involvement to a church, particularly a Protestant or evangelical group, and that there is a correlation for these teens who show less interest in alternative forms of spiritual exploration.

Yet even though American teens are more active in church than those in Australia, the article states that, "The spiritual dimensions of life are close to the bottom of the list in terms of what they really consider important." Christian Smith states in his book that for American teens religion is "somewhere in the background" rather than the forefront of their lives:
The majority of US teenagers are not rebellious toward religion but are generally rather positive about and conventional in living out religion. This fact should not, however, be presumed to mean that religion is among the most important concerns in the majority of US teenagers' everyday lives. ... However generally positive teens may feel about religion, when it comes to getting specific about religion in their lives, most teens seem simply to accept religion as a taken-for-granted aspect or presence that most operates in the background of their lives.

Like their parents and other adults in the U.S. and Australia, teens pursue a consumerist approach to religion where the individual picks and chooses what is useful in personal application. This consumerist framework led Smith to state that:
For most US teenagers, religion is something to personally believe in that makes one feel good and resolves one's problems. For most, it is not an entire way of life or a disciplined practice that makes hard demands or changes people. Stated differently, for many US teenagers, God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience. ... Thus, one 14 year-old white Catholic boy from Ohio told us, "Faith is very imortant, I pray to God to help me with sports and school and stuff and he hasn't let me down yet, so I think it helps you."

Several things should be reflected on as a result of this study by parents and youth pastors in America:

1. While American teens demonstrate greater involvement in Christian church's than their Australian counterparts, this trend could change as the country continues its journey in post-Christendom culture.

2. The result of secularization in the West has been a spiritual re-enchantment process involving an interest in alternative spiritualities and a declining interest in Christianity. While the situation is far more advanced in the United Kingdom and Australia, the social and cultural process of re-enchantment and post-Christendom is moving across the Western world and unless our changing social circumstances are recognized and engaged with appropriately, in the future we may see statistics about teen spirituality in the U.S. that more closely resemble those of other Western countries.

3. Related to number 2, we might recall George Barna's survey which stated that "twentysomethings" who had previously been active in church life during their teen years are tending to leave the church as they enter their twenties.

4. Although American teens are more active in churches and Christian spirituality than are Australians, this has not made Christian spirituality a priority of life, nor does not seem to have made an impact in how teens live their lives.

5. We might also consider the importance of the media as to how it shapes the spiritual lives and understandings of teens. Related to this Lynn Schofield Clark has an interesting book that parents and youth pastors should consider reading titled From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 2003).

If our young people really are the priority that churches say they are in programs, buildings, and funding, then we have our work cut out of us in making the Christian faith are more foundational and meaningful aspect of the lives of young people. It seems clear that something new needs to be done.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Gospel of the Living Dead

I purchase and read a lot of books for my seminary studies and ministry research. As a result, I am on a lot of mailing lists for book publishers. Most of the catalogs don't include titles that interest me, but today I received a promotional postcard for a new book from Baylor press that's right up my alley in a number of ways in terms of my interest in the intersection between religion and popular culture, and my appreciation for the horror genre of literature and film. The book is by Kim Paffenroth and it's titled Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor University Press, 2006). Here's the book's description from the Baylor website:

This volume connects American social and religious views with the classic American movie genre of the zombie horror film. For nearly forty years, the films of George A. Romero have presented viewers with hellish visions of our world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls. This study proves that Romero's films, like apocalyptic literature or Dante's Commedia, go beyond the surface experience of repulsion to probe deeper questions of human nature and purpose, often giving a chilling and darkly humorous critique of modern, secular America.

And the Table of Contents:
Introduction: The Themes of the Current Zombie Movie Genre
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)Romero's First Look at Hell, Sin, and Human Nature
2. Dawn of the DeadM (1978)Consumerism, Materialism, and the Fourth Circle of Hell
3. Day of the Dead (1985)Violence, Perverted Reason, and the Lower Circles of Hell
4. Dawn of the Dead (2004)Limbo and the Partial Victory of Reason and Virtue
5. Land of the Dead (2005)The Deepest Abyss of Hell and the Final Hope
Conclusion: The Meaning and Future of Zombie Movies

Now, if you're one of my critics who takes exception to my interest in horror, before you start writing the next issue of Apostasy Alert, hold on for a few moments. I'm tempted to respond by simply providing a quote I heard attributed to R. C. Sproul: "If you can't appreciate what's funny about zombies eating human beings then I can't explain it to you." Perhaps this came from Sproul, or at least I'd like to think so. But if that isn't persuasive consider a few things about what horror says about human nature, religion, and popular culture.

My friend and colleague Philip Johnson passed along a paper written by Paul Teusner as part of his Master of Theology studies at Melbourne College of Divinity. The paper was titled "Resident Evil: Horror Film and the Construction of Religious Identity in Contemporary Media Culture." The author discusses myths and rituals that play a part in cultural meaning making, and then interprets horror as a form of ritual activity as the "audiovisual mass media has become...the common ritual of the people." He also discuses how horror films include theological conversations about issues of importance to religion and the human polace in the cosmos. He concludes by noting the implications of horror for contemporary theology and that the church will continue to marginalize itself it it does not recognize such things, and the increasing significance of the media forreligious identity and mythic expression.

I know that horror is not everyone's bag, and that's ok. But perhaps we'd better at least take the media's role in Western culture more seriously, as well as the place that myth plays in the re-enchantment process where horror, sci fi and fantasy play a part.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Paranormal Popularity

The latest bulletin from ReligionLink came out and the title is "Popularity of paranormal soars." The bulletin uses the results of the recent Baylor University survey on religion in America as its starting point. Recall in a previous post on this blog that the poll showed great interest in the paranormal. Below is the introduction to the bulletin, and the entire piece may be found here. This item should be of interest not only because Americans are more inclined to think of the paranormal near Halloween with our stereotypical understandings of the various influences on this holiday, but also because it should raise a series of questions for the church.

The interest in the paranormal is found outside and inside the church. What does this say about the church's neglect (other than denunciation) of the issues of spiritual powers and divine guidance?

Many interested in the paranormal use various forms of divination. Christians assume this is biblically off limits when they traditionally cite certain Old Testament texts, but what about those in the Old and New Testaments that appear to involve forms of divination that are viewed more positively?

How will the church engage the many people involved in various forms of folk magic and nature-based spiritualities where the paranormal is more readily accepted?

Here's the introduction to ReligionLink's bulletin:

As children know, Halloween is a time to let the imagination run wild. A new survey of religious beliefs, however, shows that adults do the same, and not just for Halloween. Baylor University’s expansive survey, released in September 2006, found what it termed a “surprising level” of paranormal belief and experience. According to a 2005 Gallup Poll, about 75 percent of Americans hold some form of belief in the paranormal – extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation or channeling.

Some religions, such as Wicca or neo paganism, draw deeply from the wells of reincarnation and spells. Some traditions or cultures mix elements from traditional, organized religion with the supernatural. Yet most religions are laced with elements of mysticism or the surreal: Consider a voice coming from a burning bush, water turned into wine, lamp oil that lasted eight days, prophets and angels in the Quran.

October is a rich time to explore why so many people believe in the paranormal and how those beliefs are reflected in everyday actions and popular culture. After all, religion and the paranormal share a common challenge: Just because we can’t prove it, does that mean it’s not there?

Why it Matters
Both nonbelievers and people of faith keep blurring the lines between what they’re sure about and what they sense could possibly be. Ordinary people have had dreams that came true, encountered coincidences that don’t feel like coincidences, felt the presence of someone they love who has died. Many wonder: How big is the world, and what does it mean to believe in the divine?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Friends and the New Urban Tribes

One of my wife's favorite television programs was Friends. As American audiences know the program was extremely popular, and it may have been so for reasons in addition to its great cast and good writing.

I also recall sitting in on a leadership meeting at a large church in California when this program came up in conversation and it did so in a negative sense. One of the church's staff persons took exception to the program's depiction of sex and childbirth outside of marriage. But on reflection in light of some recent reading I wonder if the significance for the popularity of this series has been missed both by those who admired the program, and those who saw it as problematic.

Two sources for my ongoing research project into Burning Man and alternative communities has been Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family? by Ethan Watters (Bloomsbury, 2003), and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Watters writes about the trend in America (echoed in other Western countries) wherein some 37 million people are delaying marriage into their thirties and forties. These "never marrieds" as classified in demographic surveys are finding identity and community in small social groups and networks rather than through "blood ties" and neighborhoods. Watters describes these "urban tribes" as "small societies formed by friendships, and mutal interests." He rightly notes that television sitcoms such as Friends and Seinfield tapped into this social development on a popular culture level.

Watters references Putnam's research which notes that American concepts of community have shifted toward individualism and away from community as defined in previous generations. This has resulted in declining civic involvement, whether through bowling leagues, rotary clubs or church membership, and this decline has been taking place for some time. Watters recognizes the validity of much of Putnam's research as confirming the shift toward "urban tribes," but bristles at the negative implications of this social change for American culture.

This sizeable chunk of American culture that comprises these urban tribes should send messages to American churches.

1. Most churches continue to plan their programs and church structure around married couples and the nuclear family while ministry to the "never marrieds" in the urban tribes is relegated to "singles" or college ministry. These conceptions of singles seems woefully behind the social developments in American culture.

2. Those involved in the urban tribes are often those who have left involvement in traditional religious institutions behind. Adding new institutional programs for singles seems inadequate as a means of engaging the urban tribes.

3. Participants in the urban tribes have developed intense emotional bonds in their tribes not found in other social groups and networks. The church will have a difficult time in creating a social group that will speak with equal passion and relevance for these people.

4. While the urban groups have a connection to geographical location, participants in these groups are often members of more than one group simultaneously. This is due not only to geographic proximity, but also due to social affinity between group members in varying groups. This means that churches must not only think in geographic terms while assessing their "sphere of influence," but must also think in terms of loose social networks and how these can be interacted with.

Returning to what I began this post with, those who enjoyed or were dismayed by Friends, perhaps we've missed an important factor in the success of sitcoms like it. The rise of the urban tribes provides us with an important facet for consideration.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Burning Man and the Emerging Church

In my last post I provided an excerpt from my Burning Man essay that related its meaning to the contemporary church. In this post I include a section of the essay that engages Burning Man and the emerging church.

The West’s cultural shift to post-modernity has fostered a response from a number of sectors in American society, including evangelicalism, with the rise of the emerging church movement. This is a diverse movement reacting against modernity and trying to express forms of church in a post-modern environment (Gibbs & Bolger, 2005). This movement has strengths and weaknesses, and some of its efforts at engaging post-modern cultures have been more appropriate and successful than others. But permit me to address one glaring blind spot in the movement in its failure to consider the significance of alternative spirituality in post-modernity. Scholars such as Christopher Partridge describe the situation in the West as a form of spiritual re-enchantment in response to a previous process of secularization. Partridge comments on the significance of this re-enchantment and the place the alternative spiritualities play in this cultural milieu. He says:

"Far more notice needs to be taken of the culture of re-enchantment which is beginning to shape the Western mind. In particular, new religions and alternative spiritualities should not be dismissed as superficial froth or the dying embers of religion in the West, but are rather the sparks of a new and increasingly influential way of being religious, a way of being religious which is shaping and being shaped by popular culture (Partridge 2002, 250)."[1]

What does this mean for the emerging church? While I appreciate this movement’s attempts to wrestle with important epistemological, theological, and ecclesiological issues, the emerging church simply must attempt to come to a greater awareness of the presence and significance of new spiritualities in post-modernity. For increasing numbers of people, alternative spiritualities, such as those experimented with at Burning Man, represent attractive pathways for experiencing spirituality. Sound theological and missiological engagement of alternative spiritualities are crucial for the emerging church if it is to have not only cultural relevancy, but also theological and missiological integrity.

[1] See also Philip Johnson’s article on this topic that attempts to dialogue with the emerging church, “DIY Spirituality and Pop Culture,” http://emergingchurch.info/reflection/philipjohnson/index.htm; accessed 22 September 2006.

Friday, October 13, 2006

What is Burning Man Saying to the Contemporary Church?

Earlier this week I noted in a post that I completed my seminary paper on Burning Man. In the paper I interact with Hakim Bey's concept of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, and Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas as it relates to ritual. The result is that Burning Man might be understood as a heterotopic community wherein its participants are exploring alternative forms of identity and community through artistic and ritual expression. I move from this to ask what Burning Man might be saying to various segments of the evangelical church for those with ears to hear. Below is an excerpt from the paper as it relates to the contemporary church. Later I will post the excerpt on the emerging church:

[L]let us consider what Burning Man might be saying to the traditional or contemporary church in its various manifestations. Here I believe the demographic makeup of Burning Man, and the post-modern sense of social identity, provide startling considerations for the contemporary church.

Recall that earlier in this paper I noted that Generation X is a major demographic representation within the Burning Man population. This group and other young generational demographic groups, represent continued challenges to evangelical churches with their expressed interest in spirituality but not in institutional religion. It might be tempting to dismiss Generation X and other young people drawn to Burning Man as a cultural and spiritual aberration if it were not for a recent Barna study which indicates that churches are having increasing difficulty in maintaining the interest of “twentysomethings” in Christianity following their teen years even after active involvement in church life while growing up.[1] If the church cannot meaningfully engage and retain young people who have had positive Christian experiences within its walls, then new approaches are desperately needed to reach those who find Burning Man and similar expressions of spiritual questing appealing. Barna’s assessment seems correct that “the current state of ministry to twentysomethings is woefully inadequate to address the spiritual needs of millions of young adults.” This is especially the case with post-modern neo-tribes.

This situation raises serious questions about the church’s awareness of and ability to adapt to social change. David Moberg commented on this situation by stating:

Few churches are able to retain successfully an unmodified program of activities over long periods of time. Social change cuts across every aspect of the work of the church … the church must understand much better than ever before its continually changing social environment and the impact of that environment upon the lives of people if it is to cope successfully with the tremendous challenges it faces (Moberg 1984, 546).

[1] Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” http://www.barna.org; accessed 11 September 2006.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Carnality, Burning Man and Alternative Culture

This post will likely push the boundaries of comfort for many evangelicals, both with the content of the post and the image that accompanies it. Let's begin briefly with the image and then move to content. For those evangelicals who find an image artistically representing the female body offensive then this indicates you've got the wrong priorities. (I found it interesting that so many evangelicals complained publicly about Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl a few years ago and yet remained silent on human slave trafficking. Curious.)

Now that we've touched on the image, let's move to the content of this post. In my research and experience in Burning Man the themes of carnality and nudity are significant. Graham St. John found the same features present at ConFest, an alternative cultural festival in Australia. He describes carnality in his Ph.D. dissertation as "the manifest desire for physical contact with co-participants: ranging from non-sexual tactility to erotic sensuality." St. John goes on to discuss carnality at ConFest and notes that "it is a form of public knowledge suppressed in Protestant modernity and to which nostalgic contemporaries desire to return."

Andrew Mclean touched on the these themes in an article he wrote for the Lutheran Theological Journal, and which we reprinted in Sacred Tribes Journal. Writing on Paganism in the context of the body, sexuality and nakedness, Mclean made the following comments in regards to nudity:

"Many who attend ConFest celebrate nudity publicly. They are not simply making a statement but discovering their inner self. When writing his PhD thesis, Graham St John attended ConFest and found that 'being naked in the presence of strangers was not as difficult as I had been conditioned to believe' (187). It helps to bring out the child, the carefree gaiety and uncontrolled fantasy that is the world of the child (St John: 180)."

In regards to Pagan views of sexuality Mclean wrote:

"Pagans also reject western views of sexuality. For them the body is sacred and pure. Public and ritual nakedness is affirmed by some, though probably not the majority. Tabloids and newspapers make much of the sexual perversion of witches, but Pagans believe that society has a suspicious and dirty-minded view of sex; it sensationalizes and tittilates. But sexuality is a part of life's cycle to be celebrated in an open and pure fashion. The intertwining of sex with religion lifts it above the perverse and shameful act that it has become in western society."

I raise the issues of carnality and nudity for Christian consideration because I believe they are important as we seek to engage various forms of spirituality and alternative cultures in Western post-modernity. Perhaps our views on these topics are not so much biblical, as they are peculiarly Western and as such are influenced by other sources that have colored our perceptions of these issues. If this is the case then our encounter with Paganism and alternative cultures can provide us with an opportunity to reassess our conceptions of the body, nudity, sexuality, and carnality. We need to be open to critique and modification of our views.

For example, Chas Clifton, a Pagan writer and blogger, came across the issue of Sacred Tribes journal where we interact with Paganism. He took issue with Lisa Woolcott's essay "Wiccans and Jesus: Making the Message Meaningful." Woolcott discusses "the Great Rite" in Paganism, and Clifton shared his concern that Woolcott found it necessary to "dodge the erotic aspect of the rite." Might our failure to consider and engage such aspects be due to our conservative Christian perspectives related to sexuality?

If Christians hope to meaningfully engage Pagans and participants in alternative cultures in the post-modern West then we will have to rethink our views on these important topics and not assume that our Puritanical notions of sexuality are necessarily biblical.

Image source: http://moshilo.image.pbase.com/u18/morbihan/large/43111161.nuditydream2.jpg

Missions and Blasphemy

Last week during our Lausanne consultation on postmodern and alternative spiritualities we discussed the process of contextualization, or communication of the gospel in differing cultural contexts. Michael Cooper of Trinity International University led our discussion on this topic, and during some of our follow up discussions Michael drew our attention to a portion of Acts 19 which most of us had missed in our previous reading of this text.

Acts 19 finds the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions in Ephesus. As Paul shares the gospel a riot breaks out as local craftsmen feel their trade in creating religious items related to Artemis is threatened by the Christian message. Eventually Paul's companions are siezed and brought before the people. The city clerk quiets the angry crowd and says, "You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess" (Acts 19:37).

Our issue group found this passage of great interest. Although Paul and his companions shared the gospel and challenged idolatry, they did so in ways that did not blaspheme the local deity.

I find this of great interest in contrast to how evangelicals tend to engage other new religions, such as Mormonism at temple openings, pageants, and General Conference. If the Mormon officials connected with these events were to give public testimony to our activities would they say we have been respectful and have not blasphemed their God? I wonder.

Image source: http://www.bygosh.com/bible/images/097.jpg

Burning Man Essay Available Online

I recently completed my essay on Burning Man as part of the course requirements for Salt Lake Theological Seminary. I presented the paper to faculty, staff, and guests this week and it was well received. The paper is available on our Lausanne issue group's website and can be downloaded here.

I will be following this paper up with one for my apologetic traditions course this semester that develops a missional apologetic to Burning Man culture.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Interview on Smulo Space

My friend John Smulo is Pastor of LifeSong Church in Elk Grove, California, and is also a co-collaborator on several ministry projects, including our book, Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 200), the Sacred Tribes e-journal, and the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities. While in Hong Kong last week John asked me to participate in an interview that you can find on his blog. Enjoy the interview, and John's fine blog.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Lausanne Reflections: It Depends On How You Look At It

It is Thursday here in Hong Kong and our Lausanne issue group just finished another day of discussion. Today's activities included presentations in the morning on phenomenology by Philip Johnson, and contextualization by Michael Cooper. Both presentations were helpful and contributed toward lively discussions and follow up questions in the afternoon after lunch.

I found the following items helpful in Philip's phenomenology discussion.

1. The need for empathy or sympathetic understanding of other spiritual pathways that seeks to understand them as an adherent would understand them.

2. The need to check our predjudices as we seek to understand alternative spiritualities.

3. The need to avoid reification, that is, the our abstract (often flawed) understanding of a new spirituality that we then project as reality rather than the reality itself.

4. The need to recognize that many of the alternative spiritualities have a praxis and ritual orientation rather than doctrinal, and that they need to be understood from their perspective and not the Western Christian framework which emphasizes doctrine.

From Michael's presentation on contextualization, or a missiological method of engagement, I took away the following insights:

1. Conceptualizing contextualization in terms of a multi-stranded spiral of interlocking perspectives and activities, the process begins with the missio Dei, the centrality of the missional activity of God in the world. The missio Dei thus becomes a focal point for theological reflection.

2. We then move to missiological exegesis of other cultures and spiritualities which includes dialogue and observation.

3. After collecting observational data we move to missiological reflection on what we have seen and learned.

4. From our missiological reflection we move to the development of missional praxis.

5. Much as in ethnography, this process is cyclical and involves a constant need to engage in ongoing exegesis, reflection, and praxis development.

6. Finally, Michael shared examples from Paul's missiological engagement which he described as passive engagement in culture that came as a result of his presence and interaction with it, and Paul's refusal to develop "a method" for mission. When this happens we tend to McDonaldize a method.

The consensus among our international group is that we need to build momentum for a new paradigm for new religions. Our discussion today and earlier in the week provides helpful considerations for the development of this new paradigm and an ability to look at our understandings and activities in differing ways than many have seen before. Much like the image accompanying this blog post which provides the viewer with the image of a young woman when viewed from one perspective, and yet from another perspective the image of an old woman, reflection on alternative spiritualities from diverse perspectives provides an image for engagement that moves beyond heresy-rationalist approaches in America.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lausanne Discussion Group: Report from Hong Kong

I had originally intended not to post on the blog until my return from Hong Kong and the conference, but fellow consultation attendee and blogger John Smulo talked me into it. John has been blogging each day all week and I figured I could put a few things out at least to try to keep up with him.

The conference has seen two days of interesting discussion among consultation members as they shared their backgrounds and ministry experience. This has been followed by discussion in the evenings following the day's reflections on the morning time of sharing.

As I listened yesterday I was struck by a couple of things. Our attendees include Steve Hollinghurst and his wife Anne. As Steve shared his experiences it struck me that he was arguing for the necessity of focusing more on communicating Christ as the defining center rather than emphasizing the boundaries between Christianity and alternative spiritualities. Put in the language of missiology (and discussed in a previous post on this blog), Steve is talking about a centered set approach rather than a bounded set. That is, in missional work among alternative religions, rather than emphasizing concerns over doctrinal heresy as putting them outside the boundaries of orthodoxy Christianity, the emphasis instead is put on articulating Christ within their religious or spiritual cultures. I touched on this some time ago by quoting anthropologist and missiologist Paul Hiebert:

Hiebert then applies the concept of centered set to missions and states that "our primary aim would be to invite people to become followers of Jesus, not to prove that other religions are false. We would stress our personal testimonies of what Christ has done for us more than argue the superiority of Christianity."

While this might cause some evangelicals to go into a panic as if concerns over sound doctrinal beliefs have no place in this emphasis, several things need to be understood. First, there is overlap between the two approaches in that both centered and bounded sets have defining centers (Christ) as well as boundaries (doctrine and practice). Second, the differences come down to the area of emphasis. Third, these concepts are held in tension and relationship with each other as the gospel is shared contextually in the alternative spirituality milieus.

Another facet of our discussion came out when Steve mentioned the celebration of life that Pagans and New Spirituality adherents have at their festivals, and in life in general. This often comes as a sharp contrast to evangelicals who tend to emphasize the significance of Jesus to the afterlife rather than the present life as well. Related to this is the issue of festivity. I shared that in my Burning Man experience I found a parallel to the celebration found at Pagan festivals, which indicates a desperate need for the development of a theology of festivity, as Harvey Cox articlated in The Feast of Fools (Harper Colophon Books, 1969). In this book Cox also mentions the notion of Christ as Harlequin or Christ as Fool which tie directly into the notion of festivity and which hold great promise for inclusion in an overall missional approach to alternative communities like Burning man. I hope to research this next semester at seminary as a guided research project for incorporation into my master's thesis on Burning Man. I began the research into this in early morning hours of Hong Kong and found some fascinating possiblities.