Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Karla Poewe Interview

Karla Poewe is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Calgary. She has interests in not only anthropology, but also global-local cultures, ethnography, religious movements, and new religions as they relate to National Socialism. She is the author of a number of articles that have appeared in refereed journals, and is the author or co-author of a number of books. Some of her books include Reflections of a Woman Anthropologist: No Hiding Place (Academic Press, 1982), written under the pseudonym Manda Cesara; two volumes on new religions that she co-authored with her husband, Irving Hexham, including New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred (Westview Press, 1997); Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture (University of South Carolina Press, 1994) which she edited; and her most recent book, New Religions and the Nazis (Routledge Press, 2006).

Morehead's Musings: Karla, thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview, even if your husband, Irving Hexham, volunteered you! Can you share some of your background with us? Where did you grow up and what is your educational background?

Karla Poewe: I was born in Königsberg, East Prussia--a town that is now Russian and called Kaliningrad. Since we fled the bombing of 1944, I grew up in Saxony from which my clever mother fled with us to the British Zone in 1948. So I grew up in a town called Buxtehude near Hamburg until the beginning of 1955 when we immigrated to Canada. I have a B.A. (Honours) from the University of Toronto and my Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.

MM: How has your perspective as an anthropologist shaped your understanding of religions?

Poewe: Back in the 19th century, missionaries, especially Berlin missionaries and some outstanding British ones, who were superb anthropologists and made an effort to learn the local languages wrote fascinating narratives about the religions of diverse peoples. Anthropologists developed this tradition further; they try to understand a religion empathetically and from the inside, as far as that is possible, before they conceptualize and criticize it.

MM: Is anthropology a helpful, perhaps even necessary perspective to consider in our understanding of religions as a compliment to theological and religious studies perspectives?

Poewe: Anthropology's strengths are its methods. These are empirical, based on fieldwork, participant observation, and archival research, as well as interpretation. Religious Studies is weak in methods and sometimes too enamored and trusting of what is told researchers by religious believers. One needs to observe and one also needs to have access to archival material in order to move beyond a naive belief that what is said is necessarily true or is their truth.

MM: Some of your research has looked at charismatic Christianity as a global culture. Can you summarize some of your thinking here?

Poewe: Charismatic Christianity arises in situations that are undergoing change where people find themselves in insecure political, social, and economic situations. These are situations that require new thought and behavior. Charismatic Christianity sanctions the use of the receptive imagination where rethinking, inspiration, and insights occur even for people who otherwise are hard-nosed scientists. Charismatics interpret these and other happenings as the workings of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual.

MM: Do you see charismatic Christianity as a significant facet of global Christianity in the twenty-first century?

Poewe: It is still important in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. As well, immigrants bring forms of Pentecostalism back to the West.

MM: Let's talk abour your new book, New Religions and the Nazis. What motivated you to write on this topic?

Poewe: Before one can explain the Holocaust (1941-1944) which occurred especially within the sphere of influence of National Socialism in East-Central Europe, that is, within the sphere of influence of Nazi Germany where National Socialism became the state's official worldview, indeed, religion, one has to understand how Germans came to accept or help form National Socialism in the first place. Being German born, although a Canadian citizen, I wanted to look at archived unpublished documents like letters, notes, brochures, written by Germans after WWI in their own language because these letters bring one close to how people experienced their lives and circumstances then and spoke about them. Most books offer interpretations of published books which themselves are interpretations. Usually these books are based on ideological and political preferences and causes. They have their place, but they do not let me get into the heads of the people who envisioned the secular new religion of fascism with its emphasis on the new man, sacred violence, conquest and total national regeneration.

MM: Can you share the thesis of the book with us?

Poewe: My book is deliberately not based on a thesis. It tells the story of the development of National Socialism with its roots in youth groups that were simultaneously religious and political in nature. It starts with the defeat of WWI and the bad peace of the Treaty of Versailles which created a sense of hopelessness and despair especially among the young and returned soldiers who then made it their goal to radically change society.

MM: What were some of the new religions that provided important ideas in the development of National Socialism, and why were these ideas significant?

Poewe: Generally these were religions that hearkened back to a pre-Christian Germanic past and emphasized German idealistic philosophy, Icelandic sagas, and generally Nordic mythologies and mythological thinking. They also saw themselves part of the Indo-Germanic tradition and thus included aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism. Some called themselves: The German Faith Movement, League of the German Knowledge of God, Working Group of Biocentric Research, The Coming Community, League of the Free Religious, German Faith Community of the German Christians, and so on. Together these groups and hundreds of reading circles, militias, Young German Leagues, diverse political parties of the Nationalistic Right, and popular nationalist writers turned the public mind from the Weimar democracy to a totalitarian regime based on National Socialism.

MM: In your book you mention certain forms of Neo-Paganism played a part in the National Socialism of Germany. Of course, National Socialism and racist ideologies are still to be found in Europe and the West today, and there also seems to be an increase of interest in certain expressions of Neo-Paganism with emphases on racial and ethnic emphases. How are some forms of Paganism connected to the New Right today?

Poewe: In Germany there was a direct connection between Hauer's German Faith Movement to Sigrid Hunke's German Unitarians to the German and French New Right.

MM: Why is consideration of the rise of Nazism in Germany so long ago of great importance for our cultural and religious reflection today?

Poewe: National Socialism like other forms of Fascism grew out of a post-WWI Europe, a situation of extreme crisis which encouraged visions of palingenesis or rebirth based on new biological strength and national regeneration. To these people, a rebirth meant liberating Europe from the Old Testament with its Jewish morality to enable the natural growth of an "organic morality" from within a more or less homogeneous people.

MM: Do you have any projects you are working on that we can look forward to?

Poewe: Wars tend to unleash ethnic hatred and cleansing. They do not end when they are supposed to end. Streams of refugees flee war torn areas. I was one of these refugees after 1944. Starting with research based on the destruction of my own family, I want to do broader research into the conditions of other refugees after the Second World War but possibly also in the present.

MM: Karla, thank you for your time and thoughts. We look forward to more interesting articles, lectures, and books from you in the future.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Terry Muck Intensive Course: World Religions and Folk Religiosity

As I mentioned in my previous post, Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary began the first of three weekends as part of an intensive course at Salt Lake Theological Seminary titled "Exegeting Religious Cultures for Mission." Terry is a great scholar with a combination of high academic professionalism and the ability to write and teach at popular and postgraduate levels. He also brings a wealth of experience to the issues, and addresses the issues with an eye toward cultural interaction and missiological engagement.

For me, three things stood out over the course of the weekend.

1. Folk religious emphasis. While we discussed overviews of the "high religions" of Hinduism and Buddhism, we also spent a good deal of time looking at the folk religious aspects of these world religions. Terry referenced Paul Hiebert, Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou's book Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Respnse to Popular Beliefs (Baker, 1999), and with it evangelicalism's tendency to ignore or minimize folk religious considerations when it comes to world religions in cross-cultural missions contexts overseas. As I have mentioned here previously, I believe the same unfortunate tendency exists with evangelical approaches to new religions.

2. Humility in understanding. Terry repeatedly emphasized the need for Christians to understand and engage those in world religions with a sense of respect and humility. This is especially necessary in our increasingly pluralistic, globalized, and post-9/11 world. My hope is that this same attitude can also be applied by Christians to new religions in the West in increasing measure.

3. Risky investment. Terry said that one of Jesus' parables that speaks most meaningfully for him when it comes to theological engagement with religious others is the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:15-28. We might recall that in this story it is the disciple who takes risks in the investment and use of the talents who is rewarded most liberally, rather than the one who plays it safe and buries the talents in the ground. I appreciate the work of Terry and others who are engaging in risk in the use of the talents God has entrusted them with as they engage the world's religions, and I hope more risk takers can be found among those who work among new religions.

Look for an interview with Terry Muck here in the near future.

Positioning Yoga

Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary came out to Salt Lake Theological Seminary last weekend to lead the first of three weekends for an intensive course on world religions. During the course of the weekend we had a private discussion in which he recommended the book Positioning Yoga by Sarah Strauss (Berg Publishers, 2005). Terry felt that the book had great lessons for understanding how religious and spiritual movements move cross-culturally in an age of globalization. A review of some of the endorsements from the back cover of the book on Amazon reveals why this book is worth picking up:

"This wonderful study takes yoga out of the realm of Orientalism and Western romantic cliche and shows that it is truly a flexible and circulating system of ideas, both in its bodily techniques and as an example of the cross-cultural flow of ideas about health, lifestyle and well-being. This is an exciting contribution to the study of global cultural flows at the same time as it shows how a specialized religious idiom can become a dynamic global industry. It will be of great interest to anthropologists, Asianists, scholars of religion, and to the general reader who is curious to know how yoga really flows."
Arjun Appadurai, New School University

"Strauss has given us a marvelous account of the local and global forces that have shaped Sivananda's brand of yoga. This book is required reading for those who are interested in the globalization of culture."
Peter van der Veer, Utrecht University

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Religious Journey Leads to Wicca: Discusses Spiritual Transition in Reaction to Fundamentalism

The has an interesting article posted that describes the spiritual journey of Don Larsen (seated on the right in the photo, copyright Camera-Works), a one-time Pentecostal Army chaplain. Through the article, titled "For Gods and Country," and an online video clip, we learn of Larsen's journey from Messianic Jewish Rabbi to Christian Pentecostalism to Wicca. In the video Larsen describes the motivating experiences behind the latter part of this journey in his experiences with sectarian violence among Muslims in Iraq. This served as a reminder of the history of violence among various fundamentalist expressions of religions. Larsen does not fault Islam, but instead takes exception to fundamentalist expressions of all religions.

In addition to sharing his journey, Larsen makes the following quotation worthy of reflection by Christians:

You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up," he says. "What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion.

"We don't need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys."

The article goes on to share statistics about the growth of Wicca as it scratches the itch of human yearning for the magical:

Something about Wicca clearly fills a niche. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, a widely respected tally, the number of Wiccans in the United States rose 17-fold -- from 8,000 to 134,000 -- between 1990 and 2001.

While transitions from one religion to another, and a switch as dramatic as the journey Larsen experienced are relatively uncommon, the increasing religious pluralism of America combined with consumerist approaches to religious identity and consumption might make such journeys more common in the future.

A printable version of the article can be found here, but the reader may need to register with the web page (its free) in order to view the article in its entirety.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology on Christianity and Other Religions

While doing some research on Terry Muck's work in preparation for an intensive course he will be leading at the seminary I recently came across an interesting journal. It is titled Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology. The January 2007 issue is devoted to an exploration of Christianity and other religions. As the journal's website for this issue describes it:

A majority of the articles in this issue of Interpretation reach toward a similar goal. The discipline under scrutiny is the theology of religions. Few serious Christians will need to be convinced that this is one of the most urgent tasks of theology today. Novel forms of communication technology and the physical relocation of many millions of people to new homelands over the past few decades have put different religions in close proximity to one another, to a degree never before experienced. Increasingly, people with different faith commitments have to learn how to live together. In the West, disputes over the place of religion in public life are made more complex by the fact that once unfamiliar traditions are now also deeply involved in the conversation. Globalized threats of violence that claim religious sanction complicate the best efforts we might make to engage with the religious other in our societies; sometimes, fear of that violence can entirely sap the will even to begin to understand those who stand outside of the circle of one’s own faith group.

Several of the articles and contributors in this issue caught my attention:

"Theology of Religions after Knitter and Hick: Beyond the Paradigm" by Terry C. Muck

Abstract: Both Paul Knitter and John Hick rely heavily on the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist paradigm. In a world that has become increasingly suspicious of missionary activity, moving beyond this paradigm calls for a bigger theology, wider methodology, and deeper missiology characterized by participant theologizing.

"A response to Terry Muck" by Marianne Farina

"Can we get 'Beyond the Paradigm'? A response to Terry Muck" by Amos Yong

"The Bible, Mission, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic" by Michael Barram

Abstract: Despite a long-standing rift between missiology and biblical scholarship, current trends in both disciplines— such as a converging emphasis on the significance of social location in biblical interpretation—suggest that the time may be ripe for a "missional hermeneutic" that would privilege the missiological "location" of the Christian community in the world as a key to a critical and faithful approach to Scripture.

I have secured a copy of this issue but have not had a chance yet to read through these essays. I am looking forward to it and hope others will wade through them for reflection as well.

Two Items

I'd like to draw the attention of readers to two items. The first is a revised and expanded version of a previous post on the Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith DVD due for major distribution next month. It may be found here.

The second is the second installment of the two-part interivew with sociologist Douglas Cowan on the relationship between horror and religion as discussed in his book Sacred Terror (Baylor University Press, forthcoming 2007). This second part of the interview may be found on my TheoFantastique blog here. The response to this blog has been more than I could have hoped for, not only among evangelicals, but also among Neo-Pagans who have blogged on the Cowan interview with great interest at Wildhunt and other locations.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Inteview with Doug Cowan on Sacred Terror at TheoFantastique

I just finished posting part 1 of an interview with religious studies professor Douglas Cowan on his forthcoming book, Sacred Terror at TheoFantastique. It can be found here. Part 2 will be posted next week. (Painting by Paul Thomas, Ph.D.)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Religious Identity in the American Free Market

The latest edition of "Religion News" from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has an interesting article titled "For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given." Here's an excerpt:

When Aurora Turk was growing up in Mexico City, being Catholic was a given. "It was taught to me by the nuns at school and my mother at home," she recalled. "My whole world was Catholic."
But Turk's adult life has been marked by religious exploration.

Married to a Brooklyn-born Jew, the 38-year-old mother now follows the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian spiritual teacher; she and her husband plan to raise their infant son in the Self-Realization Fellowship, a group founded by Yogananda, at their home in Springfield, Va.

While Turk's story seems unique, her experience of switching religious identities is a common one for many Americans. According to experts who study the phenomenon, believers are exercising their freedom of choice more than ever before.

Sixteen percent of Americans have switched their religious identities at some point in their lives, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, one of the largest studies of its kind.

"People are making more choices in everything, from lifestyle to sexual identity. It's not surprising if they are making more choices in religion," said Peter Berger, professor of sociology and theology at Boston University.

In other words, Berger says, the era when religion was determined solely by accident of birth is over.

Barry Kosmin, co-author of the 2006 book "Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans," which is based on the 2001 survey data, said "more switching is to be expected."

"Family and ethnic loyalties -- the old glue that maintained inter-generational religious identification -- has weakened," he said.

In addition to moving more frequently, Americans are also more likely to be "searching" for religious truth, often outside their own traditions, wrote Kosmin, who directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

While the article goes on to state that the 2001 ARIS study indicates that evangelical Christianity has thus far achieved a net gain in this religious competition, nevertheless, American evangelicals should take notice of the religious environment in which they find themselves, and the issues related to shifting religious identities and religious consumerism have serious implications for living in a religiously plural environment, as well as for how we "do church."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

John Bracht Interview: Perspectives on Mormonism - Part 2

Following is Part 2 of the interview with John Bracht:

MoreheadsMusings: You describe the anti-Mormon writers as "rarely comprehend[ing] the complexity and sophistication of Mormonism as a world faith." Could you elaborate on this for a bit?

John Bracht: The anti-Mormon writers I was referring to were those in the “counter-cult” camp. I said they rarely understand the complexity and sophistication of Mormonism as a world faith because they are mainly interested in proving it wrong. Put that on an individual basis. If I approach a particular person determined to prove his behaviour or views wrong, I may succeed in scoring points, winning the argument or confounding him, but that is all surface stuff. Surely what is more important is why he acts this way or believes those things. What is there in his background, upbringing, culture, experiences – good and bad, etc., that have made him the person he is and forged him intellectually and temperamentally? Most counter-cult folk approach Mormonism like that. You listen to the other guy only long enough to come back at him with your point, but you are deaf to the nuances of what he is saying or not saying. Mormonism is the most theologically-complex of all the religious movements to have had their origin in the United States. It is sophisticated at many levels. It has been constantly evolving and analysing itself and planning how best to market or present itself to the world. It has largely succeeded in creating an educated (opponents would unkindly say ‘brain-washed’) and articulate laity and in mobilising that laity in terms of mission, in ways that we Christians have seldom done. Jehovah’s Witnesses are another good example of that. You can’t accomplish that sort of thing without a sophisticated program of pedagogy and instruction at all levels.

In the 70’s and 80’s I read books by people who understood that complexity and sophistication – Mark P. Leone, Thomas O’Dea, Jan Shipps et al, and there are, happily, many more today, but the popular market is still dominated by the less perceptive.

MM: You also refer to the relationship between Mormonism and "traditional" Christianity as similar to Christianity's historic relationship to Judaism as "a reform and consummation." Why is this signficant, and what are its ramifications for evangelicals as they seek to understand and interact with Mormonism?

John Bracht: I think I have actually touched on this issue in my previous response when I said I saw in Fawn Brodie’s statement, the inspiration for another thesis. In many ways I have pursued that other thesis in my mind down through the years. It still fascinates and sometimes troubles me. I think the comparison between Christianity and Mormonism and Judaism and Christianity is a very significant one. I don’t know that it will appeal to all evangelicals, but there are some crucial elements in the comparison which relate to our approach to apologetics and mission. I’ve read a lot of Jewish texts from the 19th century when Jewish writers were far more polemical towards Christianity than they seem to be now, though the Orthodox and Lubavitcher movement are similarly active today. It is interesting how writers like Isaac Wise and da Silva, following in the tradition of writers like the 16th century Isaac Troki, so forcefully and meticulously set forth the Jewish case as against Christianity. Like the “counter-cult” writers of today, they tackled specific issues, exegeted scriptural texts in opposition to the Christian interpretations of those texts and hammered home the traditional Jewish understanding of God as opposed to what they saw as the Christian heresies about God. They are scathing in their exposes of Christian misrepresentation and ‘mutilation’ of scripture passages, using many of the same arguments against Christians, that Christians now employ against Mormons and other ‘cultists’. In one place Troki talks about Paul’s poor exegesis: “Scripture thus mutilated can certainly not uphold the fabric of human faith”. Ironically then, it is their polemical defence of the one God against our assumed three Gods, that sounds so similar to our defence of the One God (in Trinity) against the Mormons three actual Gods. They read a little like Reed and Farkas’ Mormons Answered Verse by Verse.

Today we have entered into a more sympathetic and productive dialogue with Judaism, even though in many respects, we still see ourselves in Brodie’s words as a “reform and consummation” to Judaism. Though there is obviously far more continuity between ourselves and Judaism than there is between ourselves and Mormonism, it is still instructive to see how the later or ‘daughter’ faith treats the other. In other words, we might better understand Mormon apologetics in relation to the Christian Church if we more sensitively analyse our own apologetic in relation to the Jewish religion. This is what Jan Shipps was saying when she wrote: “by paying close attention to what happened as the early Christian saints appropriated a vision of Israel’s past that could be ritually re-created to serve as meaningful background to the Christian story, it is possible to discern the pattern of reappropriation that allowed the Latter-day Saints to take as their own a vision of the past of both Israel and Christianity that now serves both directly and through ritual re-creation as meaningful background to the Mormon story” (Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, p. 53).

I don’t really want to pursue this one any further, except to say that in our study of effective mission and apologetics, we could profit from reading some of the current Jewish works on explaining their faith. And I mean, the full spectrum, from the “counter-cult” equivalents in books like Samuel Levine’s You take Jesus, I’ll take God: How to refute Christian missionaries, through to the more scholarly and sophisticated essays of Arthur A. Cohen’s The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition and on to the more culturally-sensitive works of writers like Prager and Telushkin’s The Nine Questions people ask about Judaism, Harold Kushner’s To Life!, Jonathan Sacks A Letter in the Scroll, or Shmuley Boteach’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism. Such works are all the more relevant to our approaches to mission when we remember Paul’s words to the Romans that “it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom. 11:18).

MM: You also include an interesting discussion on a common evangelical apologetic against the Mormon view of God that is used frequently as an evangelistic approach. You state that "when Christianity challenges the Mormon view of deity and seeks to 'expose' it, it challenges the Mormon psyche and threatens to undermine the Mormon's sense of identity and security. So much of what they are, is bound up in what He is, that it is not possible to criticise or ridicule the one, without deeply offending and wounding the other." Why is this sigificant in our interactions with Latter-day Saints, and how might (or should) it influence us in terms of change in our understanding and apologetic and evangelistic concerns?

John Bracht: I expanded on that point in Part 3.1 Definitions and Perceptions. I suppose this is where the empathy comes in to our dialogue with Mormons again. Simply analysing the Mormon view does not help us to understand why they believe it. It is not theology they are asserting, but rather an experience of relationship with the three persons identified as divine in the New Testament. We are missing this often. Their theology of God may be horribly wrong, but their worship of and devotion to God, is real and sincere. We think their “glorified man”, their God with a body demeans the Almighty, but their reverence for him remains intense. As President Hinckley once said: “I do not equate my body with his in its refinement, in its capacity, in its beauty and radiance. His is eternal. Mine is mortal. But that only increases my reverence for him.” In other words, God is no less glorious and awesome to Hinckley than he is to an orthodox Christian. For Mormons ‘Heavenly Father’ is the father of their spirits in an absolute sense, as well as the creator of their bodies and the material world. He is the ruler of the Universe. Jesus is the Saviour and Redeemer of the world. Of Jesus, Hinckley says: “I believe in him, I declare his divinity without equivocation or compromise. I love him. I speak his name in reverence and wonder. I worship him as I worship the Father.” You only have to listen to many of the hymns they sing about the Father and the Son to know that their devotion to him is unqualified.

The Mormon meta-narrative that moves from their pre-existent life in the spirit with their heavenly parents through to their testing time on earth and on beyond death into the Spirit World while awaiting the resurrection of the body that will lead them on to the Celestial Kingdom, is a powerful context for their lives. While Christians may be very vague about the before and after, Mormons express this sense of connectedness with a God who has shared their existence in the same way that Christians think of Christ as having shared our earthly existence. This generates powerful emotions. It may be in part, the power of myth, but it sustains them. To simply present them with the imponderable mystery of the Trinity, asserting that God the Father has no body but God the Son does – God is non-corporeal and corporeal at the same time, does not seem like a ‘fair swap’ to them. I think then that in our approaches to them, we must acknowledge this earnest devotion to God, and lead them gently to an orthodoxy that stresses the personal nature of a God who does not need to be of the same species as they are. Instead of only ridiculing the absurdities of an embodied Father-God, we must show them that God can still be intensely personal without having a glorified body. One of the ways I do that is to talk about Israel’s love affair with God. I cite the prophets and figures like David and the expressions of his devotions in the Psalms. I talk about the intensity of conviction experienced by the disciples following Pentecost, when they sensed the presence of Jesus who had been removed from them bodily but was present in an even more powerful sense through the Spirit. Mormonism has huge anomalies with its doctrine of the Holy Ghost versus Holy Spirit and drawing attention to those anomalies can really help here.

Part of this gentle approach must also include the respectful question, ‘Can the apotheosis of human beings, the elevation or exaltation of human beings to divine status, be taken seriously?’ Here you are starting at the other end. Instead of attacking the ‘Man Mormons call God’ you are asking them to tell you how they imagine they could ever be the kind of God they presently worship. Some of course won’t hesitate to tell you that they have no trouble imagining that! Upon this hangs the whole case for tritheism and polytheism. If we answer no, then there is no tritheism, only one God. And if there is only one God, if the incomprehensible Trinity really does reveal the true nature of God, then all of that dazzling Mormon Olympus quickly fades from the imagination. Then they may realize that the ‘Man of Holiness’ their Heavenly Father, who, because he is corporeal, resides on an incomprehensibly distant star near a place called Kolob, is really appallingly impersonal as opposed to the God of David’s 139th Psalm.

MM: You have written on Mormonism from other perspectives. Can you summarize some of your thoughts expressed in our article "The Americanization of Adam"?

John Bracht: I wrote the chapter, "The Americanization of Adam" at the request of my supervisor while completing my Master’s. He thought it would be a valuable contribution to his book on cargo cults and Millenarian movements. The main idea of the chapter is that no other religious movement has done more to sacralize America than Mormonism. Though today there is a much greater emphasis on the worldwide as opposed to a Utah-based church, it will never escape its roots and mythic context in America. In that sense Joseph Smith will always be an American prophet.

The book was published in 1990 and at that time I was saying, that in a sense unparalleled in popular thinking, America is the ‘promised land’. Its scriptures and particularly the Book of Mormon, make that an article of faith. It remains to be seen how that article of faith will be modified in the light of all the present controversy over the historicity of the Book of Mormon. In summary I wrote about the historic and geographic context of the Book of Mormon peoples, the Mormon ‘burden’ for the American Indian – they are the only group in the United States who have a theological view of the Indians; the significance of the Book of Abraham and the connection between the pre-diluvian civilization of Genesis, the fabled figure of Enoch and America, past and future. I wrote that transferring Hebrew concepts to new worlds and seeking to build the Kingdom of God on earth were hardly pursuits original to Mormons and cited some of the view of Puritans on eschatology, the partial Judaization of Protestant England and the gathering of Israel - Jewish and Mormon Israel. I commented on the fact that as Hansen put it, Mormonism, while claiming to be a world religion nevertheless sees its mission fulfilled “through a peculiar identification with American nationalism.” Most of the rest of the chapter dealt with the Mormon concept of ‘Zion’, the countdown to a literal millennium centred in North America and the prophetic events predicted to occur in preparation for the building of the New Jerusalem in Missouri and the second coming of Jesus Christ. These dreams of a present and future Zion, though somewhat muted today, are still very much a part of contemporary Mormon hopes and faith.

I concluded the chapter by saying: “They have always believed in what they could see and feel and create with their own hands, always judged heavenly realities by earthly models; always thought that if they worked hard enough, perfection could be achieved. They are the children of the gods and imagine that ‘nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them’ (Gen. 11:6)”.

MM: What would you like to see as positive developments in Protestant studies on Mormonism, as well as in apologetic and missiological engagement with this religion?

John Bracht: Well I think I am already encouraged by positive developments in Protestant studies on Mormonism as I said in my response to your third question earlier. There are two areas however, that I do feel strongly about and think could do with more attention.

The first is the Book of Mormon. When I was first becoming disillusioned with the LDS Church there were obviously a number of Christian texts which attacked the claims and historicity of the Book of Mormon. Today, we have this growing phenomenon where lots of Mormons no longer accept its historicity though they still believe in Joseph Smith and the truthfulness of the Church (you see this in Sunstone and Dialogue articles). When I was a young Mormon I remember the much-expressed affirmation that the Book of Mormon was the “keystone of our religion” and that a man could get closer to God by abiding by its precepts than through any other book. Though it was a keystone in terms of the claims of Joseph Smith to be a prophet, I don’t think it was ever the keystone in terms of what Mormons actually believed. All of that came from other sources. Ironically it might be regarded as a keystone again. By that I mean that if Christians spent less time trying to disprove it historically – we have several LDS allies assisting us there! – and more time examining its actual theology then we would discover that the book may provide blocks for the continued construction of our bridge to Mormons.

I have often contemplated writing my own edition of the Book of Mormon in which I simply edited out every historical and cultural reference which placed its context in Ancient America. The next step would be to organize it into a kind of systematic theology of early Mormonism and call it something like “The Writings of Joseph Smith”. Then we would be able to see that there really is a lot in it that is familiar and acceptable to Christians in terms of our beliefs. Since we should always be looking for common ground and seeking to understand each other in the other’s terms, this could be a very useful exercise. Perhaps someone has already done it? I don’t know. Perhaps we can’t do it because of copyright, but there is nothing to stop us spending more time writing about its theology.

My second area of concern would be Joseph Smith. I see the popular anti-Mormon market falling short of effective apologetics in its treatment of Joseph Smith. Fawn M. Brodie’s book No Man Knows my History gave me a statement that I have built on in much of my speaking and writing on Mormonism. She wrote: “Joseph Smith’s was no mere dissenting sect. It was a real religious creation, one intended to be to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism: that is, a reform and a consummation.” In the midst of writing my thesis I saw in that statement the inspiration for another thesis, but my supervisor cautioned me, for reasons I did not then understand, not to pursue that line of thinking. But it was Brodie who, despite her very effective expose of the prophet himself, yet revealed that the source of his power was in his person “and the rare quality of his genius” which was in his imagination rather than his reason. She called him a “mythmaker of prodigious talent”, observing that “the myths he created are still an energizing force in the lives of millions of his followers.” In some small way, I sought to touch on that energizing force in my treatment of the Mormon doctrine of God.

Harold Bloom in his The American Religion similarly noted that “there had to be an immense power of the myth-making imagination at work to sustain so astonishing an innovation . . the Mormon prophet possessed that quality (charisma) to a degree unsurpassed in American history . . . one’s dominant emotion towards him must be wonder. There is no other figure remotely like him in our entire national history, and it is unlikely that anyone like him ever can come again.” I don’t think too many anti-Mormon writers feel any sense of wonder when they talk about Joseph Smith! What I am trying to say here, is that just as we approach Muslims sensitively in the way we talk about the Prophet Muhammad, we must show Mormons that we have some measure of respect for their founding-prophet. It is easy enough to discuss his errors, his failures, his radical departure from the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints”, but we cannot escape the enormity of his religious genius and legacy. We must regard Mormonism as we regard him. We cannot understand one without the other. This is why I titled an early seminar booklet I produced, Mormonism: Magnificent Illusion. It is indeed an illusion in so many ways, but one which deserves the adjective.

So what I would urge here is a serious reappraisal and acknowledgment of the things the Prophet Joseph Smith got right! Everybody is so clear about what is wrong with Mormonism that they seldom pause to acknowledge what is right about it. The great benefit of this exercise is that it will help us reflect on our own theology and practice and be more willing to admit that we haven’t always and still don’t always get certain things right in our faith and practice. The fact that he got some things right may suggest that Mormonism is not totally bereft of God’s grace or inspiration and that they may have some lessons to teach us. Now there’s a challenge for the counter-cult folk! We always look for signs of God’s grace working in the Mormon Church, encouraging reflection and change and reform of certain practices. But what if that grace was present even at the beginning, expressing itself in forms and beliefs that we need to take further note of?

I’m not going to go into detail here about what I think Joseph Smith got right, but I can suggest the following: Hans Kung once offered three criteria by which the orthodox theologian can distinguish between “powerful and weak, good and bad interpretations of the Christian message.” He spoke of a development in keeping with the Gospel which should be encouraged, a development outside the Gospel which can be tolerated, and a development contrary to the Gospel which must be condemned. If you apply those three criteria to Mormonism they can be very helpful, e.g. what is to be encouraged, tolerated or condemned? But this is a two-edged sword. It cuts both ways and can wound Christianity as it does Mormonism. The fact that we have such enormous diversity and disunity in the Christian world testifies to the difficulty we have dealing with or understanding those criteria.

MM: John, once again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Given the unique perspective of your masters thesis I hope it can be updated and find a publisher in the United States as an academic book so that its insights can benefit others.

John Bracht Interview: Perspectives on Mormonism

As I mentioned in a previous post, John Broacht has agreed to particpate in an interview. Due to its length it will be divided into two installments. Following is Part 1:

A few years ago Philip Johnson made me aware of an interesting Master of Arts thesis written by John L. Bracht for the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Sydney, and supervised by Garry Trompf. The topic for John's 1988 thesis was "Mormonism: The Search for a Personal God." John's perspective on this is both academically rigorous, as well as personally sympathetic and engaging in that John brings together his former involvement with Mormonism along with his academic abilities, and his encounters with evangelical apologetic approaches to Mormonism from the time that continue to be influential today.

John has also contributed to academic books with his expertise in Mormonism, and in Gary Trompf (ed), Cargo Cults and Millenarian Movements: Transoceanic Comparisons of New Religious Movements (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990), John wrote a chapter titled "The Americanization of Adam."

John is now serving in a pastoral role for a Presbyterian church in Canberra, Australia. He has graciously made some time to respond to some questions in order to share more about his work and perspective on Mormon studies.

MoreheadsMusings: John, thank you for making the time to participate in this interview. Can you tell us a little more about your background and how this helped inform your perspective on your masters thesis and later writings on Mormonism?

John Bracht: Thank you, John. I appreciate your interest and have enjoyed our correspondence in recent days. Your Neighbouring Faiths Project is an important ministry and I am happy to make a contribution to it in this way. I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), but after emigrating to Australia with my family as a young boy, encountered the Mormons in my early teens. Against the serious misgivings of my parents, I joined the LDS Church in Sydney in 1961 at the age of 14. It was the dominant passion of my teenage years and the reason for my going to the Church College of Hawaii (now BYU-Hawaii) in 1967 – 1970. During my Junior Year some intensive and disillusioning extra-curricular studies into the history of the LDS Church as well as a reading of the Book of Romans, led to a growing crisis of faith and my conversion to Christianity in the summer of 1969. One of the people I turned to for ‘help’ during that troubled time was Stephen Covey, then in Hawaii on sabbatical writing a book. I never forgot his sincere and loving attempts to steer me in the ‘right’ direction, unsuccessful though they ultimately proved to be. Though I felt elated at finding Christ, I was not completely prepared for the difficult, final year that lay ahead. At the time I was Editor of the college newspaper, Ke Alaka’i, a History student and President of the local Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Fraternal, on the Dean’s List for 1969 and a member of the Honour Council. In May of that year I received letters from Harvey L. Taylor, Administrator of Church Schools and President Nathan Eldon Tanner, office of the First Presidency, commending me for an editorial I wrote in the College newspaper. That commitment to both the academic and spiritual life of the college was then contrasted with a singular dishonour – excommunication for apostasy.

After graduating, I returned to Sydney and after teaching high school History and English for some years, felt called to the ministry and commenced theological training in 1978 at the Baptist Theological College of North South Wales. During that time and beyond, I received numerous invitations to conduct seminars on Mormonism in various churches and institutions and completed a Master’s degree on the Mormon doctrine of God. I have continued to take a keen interest in the life and growth of the LDS Church and the changes that have taken place since I left it.

MM: Can you summarize the essence of your thesis for us?

John Bracht: If I were to summarize the essence of my thesis, I would say first of all, that it was motivated by the observation that it is easier to caricaturise and ridicule the Mormon doctrine of deity than it is to analyse it seriously and accurately. I felt that anti-Mormon writers rarely comprehended the complexity and sophistication of Mormonism as a world faith and generally failed to assess Mormonism in the light of its appeal to the common man. In examining that appeal, I sought to show that there is room in the popular imagination and understanding of the Mormon doctrine of God, for something more than caricature and expose; something revealing the complexity, sophistication, even wonder of the Mormon view.

I suppose empathy describes something of my approach. Having been deeply and passionately committed to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith during a very formative period of my life, I tried to write with a certain intuition for how the Mormon thinks and feels about these things. When Christianity challenges the Mormon view of deity and seeks to ‘expose’ it, it challenges the Mormon psyche and threatens to undermine the Mormon’s sense of identity and security. So much of what they are is bound up in what God is, that it is not possible to criticize or ridicule the one, without deeply offending and wounding the other. I felt it was possible to go on disagreeing with Mormonism theologically, while at the same time exercising some real empathy towards the Mormon people. Empathy, rather than polemics, also helps us as Christians, to sharpen perceptions of our own faith.

Whatever we think of the Mormon doctrine of God with its characteristic finitism, materiality and polytheism [or henotheism], it is important to remember that Mormons are simply bewildered that all people do not see God as they see him. It is a bewilderment that can be read on the young, zealous faces of their proselyting missionaries when their message is rejected. For them, their own position is eminently rational, irrefutable, Biblically-based and most natural. When they look at our ‘incomprehensible’ creeds they see no alternative to the God revealed by Joseph Smith. I wanted to both explain and define the Mormon heresy and something of why Mormons believe as they do. I believe that Mormonism as a movement within Christianity is the most comprehensive and effective challenge to Trinitarian orthodoxy in the history of the Church. You cannot effectively deal with that challenge simply through polemics. I think it was Robinson and Blomberg who said in their How Wide the Divide? that we must learn to understand each other in each other’s terms.

As I wrote the thesis I was thinking not only of showing why the Mormon God is incompatible with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also why Mormons believe that their greatest contribution to the world of religion is to share their understanding of the relationship of God to persons. Naively Mormons reject as an impossibility, the kind of ‘non-person’, the immaterial being, that Christian theology appears to promote in its understanding of God. They believe instead in a God who is personal because he is corporeal. That is the crux of the issue and that is why I chose the title "Mormonism: The Search for a Personal God." I hope I have shown that the search for that kind of God is ultimately futile, but at the same time why they want God to be like that.

MM: In the introduction to your thesis you refer to anti-Mormon writers, Christian critics and apologists of various types that usually go by the term "counter-cult," and you state, "Anti-Mormon writers, more often than not, simply draw attention to Mormon theology in the most simplistic and sensationalist terms, sometimes without comment or qualification. The theology is rarely examined fairly and few of its amateur critics are competent to assess its philosophical implications." You wrote this in the late 1980s, but do you feel that by and large this is still a concern?

John Bracht: Yes, it is still a concern. Of course I am encouraged by my growing awareness of recent alternative approaches to Mormonism adopted by institutions like the Salt lake Theological Seminary, the Standing Together ministry and your own Neighbouring Faiths Project, but the big battalions still seem to be with the evangelical “counter-cult” ministries. I recently checked a website of the largest Christian bookstore network in Australia. Its titles on Mormonism were overwhelmingly in favour of that traditional approach. I constantly read titles and phrases like, Latter-day Deception, Mormonism Unmasked, Lifting the Veil, Exposing Secrets Mormon Authorities Don’t Want You to Know, Occult Practices, How to Rescue Your Loved One From Mormonism, and so on. Such descriptives are great for sales, but achieve very little in terms of cross-cultural missions. They absolutely pre-empt any serious dialogue with Mormons. At least in the U.S. and particularly in Utah, you have groups seeking to build real ‘Bridges’ into Mormon culture, but there’s not much if any of that kind of thing in Australia or the rest of the world, where Mormonism is growing apace. The crucial difference between the ‘relational’ type of ministry and the ‘confrontational’ is that only the former is truly Christian in the sense that that is how Christians should behave in dealing with others. There are no guarantees that our more sensitive overtures to Mormons will reap a great harvest, but at least we will have the satisfaction of knowing that Christ himself was more truly manifest in the effort.

MM: In the Introduction you also state that "some Christians, far from being repulsed by accounts of Mormon deity, may actually feel an uncomfortable attraction to certain Mormon concepts and be forced to admit that they may have conceived of God in Mormon terms all along!" The evangelical apologetic against Mormonism often focuses on the nature of God, but as your thesis notes, Christians are rarely reflective in any depth on their own theology, and given that Mormonism appears to be successful in its growth by drawing from Protestant ranks, do you feel that this statement from your thesis is still valid? And what does this mean for theological education in our churches, let alone our apologetic?

John Bracht: Yes, I do think my statement from the Introduction is still valid. I can only guess, but I’m sure that if we had more access to LDS analyses of what converts are responding to, we would discover that the doctrine of God is still high on the list. There has been an evolution of this doctrine from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young and beyond. That evolution, with some marked mutations, has included President Hinckley’s now famously-evasive responses to Wallace’s question about God once being a man in the Mike Wallace interview on 60 Minutes in 1997 – “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it . . . I don’t know a lot about it”! And yet, the two persisting features, God’s corporealty and plurality (as opposed to the Trinity) remain unchanged. I don’t think they will ever be apologetic about those. And why should they be when people continue to be persuaded, albeit wrongly, that that is what Scripture teaches.

I recently conducted a Bible study in my own church on the doctrine of the Trinity. A simple exercise quickly demonstrates that most of the people in the group subscribe in one way or another to most of the major heresies associated with this doctrine. At the very least, many Christians are modalists. Interestingly, it was the emotional reactions of some in the group that caught my attention. A few simply shrugged off attempts to explain the Trinity. Either they don’t accept or believe traditional interpretations or see no need to try and understand them. Others were obviously uncomfortable with the whole discussion and wanted to avoid talking about something that seemed too difficult. Now even if we accept as some have suggested, that the Trinity is not a subject to be preached, but rather a reality to be experienced, I think we still have to accept that we face considerable obstacles in getting many Christians to have an appropriate understanding of the doctrine. I doubt that most would want to read a book on the Trinity. It was Moltmann who said that “In practice, the religious conceptions of many Christians prove to be no more than a weakly Christianized monotheism.” He goes further and quotes Rahner as observing that people say that “God has been made man instead of ‘the Word has been made flesh’ (John 1:14)” and that “one could suspect that as regards the catechism of the head and heart, in contrast to the catechism in books, the Christian idea of the Incarnation would not have to change at all if there were no Trinity.”

So the Mormons have an advantage here because their view appears to make much more sense and is readily adopted. When the missionaries tell people that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are really three beings and not one, people generally tend to agree with them. It may take years before the implications of that revelation prove that the simple solution is not so simple after all. For most converts, it never happens.

I suspect that in their confusions about the Godhead, some Christians may even be closet Mormons! There’s some truth in what Augustine said, that when we are talking about the persona or three persons in the Trinity, “we are not speaking in order to say something, but in order to avoid being silent”. My suspicion is that most of the time we Christians are not avoiding being silent and the result is that our people are vague or ill-informed. So yes, I think this does have serious implications for theological education. When you consider that there are at least 30 million people in the world today claiming to be Christians who do not believe in the Trinity (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), then you can appreciate how effective their apologetics are. This was another motivation for my thesis. If, as Harold O. J. Brown said, there is a positive side to heresy and that is “to note what orthodoxy owes to heresy: in a sense, it owes its very existence” because heresy usually precedes orthodoxy, then understanding the Mormon view is going to be very helpful in understanding our own, orthodox view. But we have to understand the Mormon view first, not attack it.

Tomorrow part 2.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Understanding Paganism: Missional Apologetic Interview

My friend and colleague, John Smulo, has posted an interview with Mike Stygal, a British Pagan who is part of the Pagan and Christian Moot group. Click over to learn about Paganism from a Pagan, and how such learning through dialogue can be done respectfully between Pagans and Christians. I'm pleased to have John as a friend, and to have him and others in my network doing such important work in our religiously plural world.

Visit this blog in April for a major announcement on Pagan-Christian dialogue that will be of interest to both religious/spiritual communities.

Dudley Woodberry and Dialogue with Islam

One of my missiological heroes is Dudley J. Woodberry. Dr. Woodberry has served as a pastor in Kabul, Afghanistan as well as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and is currently professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Intercultural Studies with Fuller Theological Seminary. He has written a number of helpful materials on Islam from a Chrisitian perspective that is balanced and written with an eye toward careful cultural consideration and missiological reflection, such as "The War on Terrorism: Reflections Of A Guest in The Lands Involved." His reflections and writing on Islam were recently expressed in one of the more interesting articles in the February 2007 issue of Christianity Today titled "Can We Dialogue With Islam?: What 38 Mulsim scholars said to the pope in a little-known open letter."

This article begins by recalling the international uproar in the Islamic world that followed Pope Benedict XVI's comments on Islam reported through the media out of context that he gave as part of an address at the University of Regensburg in Germany in September 2006. The Muslim reaction that followed was tragic, including the killing of Christians and burning of churches. But Woodberry points out that not all of the reaction from Muslims was violent, and he points to a group of 38 Muslim scholars who wrote an open letter to the pope. Those scholars who contributed to this letter are significant. As Woodberry described them:

The Muslims who signed the open letter include grand muftis who are authorized to make legal decisions for Muslims in their countries. Other signers are professors at major universities in the Muslim world and the West who influence the rising generation of Muslims. The opportunity to engage with them is significant.

Woodberry goes on to describe the substance of the letter to the Pope, including several areas of critique where the Muslim scholars point out what they felt were errors in the papal address. Woodberry concludes this article with comments that Christians would do well to consider in a post-9/11 world, comments that are relevant for those with concerns about interreligious dialogue in other contexts as well:

No, meaningful dialogue does not require that the participants relinquish a witness concerning their faith. Nor does it mean we can't disagree about how they understand their history and faith. But it does require that we listen and learn what they really think. These 38 Muslim leaders have given us an extraordinary opportunity to do just that.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Andrew Walls: Don't Know Him? You Should!

Christianity Today magazine for February 2007 has a number of interesting articles. On the I think is worthy of consideration relates to Andrew Walls, the noted mission historian connected in the past with the University of Aberdeen, University of Edinburgh, and most recently with the Overseas Ministries Study Center. The article is titled "Historian Ahead of His Time," with the interesting subtitle "Andrew Walls may be the most important person you don't know." He is the author of a number of books, including The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith (Orbis Books, 1996), and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Orbis Books, 2002). Walls has, perhaps better than anyone else, helped explore the significance of the global shift in Christianity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, and also the significance of African Christianity.

The following quotes seemed especially significant to me and relevant to missional work among new religions and alternative spiritualities, as well as a broader cultural, missiological, and theological perspective in the West.

First, consider an example of Walls' teaching in Nigeria as it relates to the history of the expansion of the church across cultures:

In Walls's second year home, he presented a lecture to the combined divinity faculty of the four Scottish universities, comparing the Church of Scotland to its "daughter," the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria. He also offered the first version of what he would eventually call "the Martian visit." (You can read a later version in Walls's remarkable collection of essays, The Missionary Movement in Christian History.)

In it, he imagines a space visitor who comes to earth to study representative Christians over the centuries. He begins with Jewish believers in the first century, fond of large families and still worshiping in the temple. He then jumps ahead to Roman Empire believers, horrified at the idea of animal sacrifice and expecting church leaders to be celibate.

On a third visit, he meets Irish Christians standing up to their necks in ice-cold water reciting psalms. Then come English Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries, whose idea of holiness is not ice-water asceticism but activism for missions and against slavery. Lastly, he visits Nigeria in the 20th century to meet white-robed Christians dancing and chanting in the streets, claiming to be cherubim and seraphim. What, Walls asked, do they all have in common?

Walls had begun to see churches in Africa and Scotland as part of a bigger story. How is the faith transmitted and transformed across cultures? Through what process does the rationalistic faith of Scottish Christians become the visionary, supernaturalized life of Nigerians?

This summary dramatically illustrates the diversity of cultural expression of the church through history. This is a reminder for me as an American evangelical of the need to appreciate the body of Christ in this diversity, to be willing to learn from these other expressions, and to be hesitant before assuming my cultural expression of the faith is the only appropriate or orthodox form.

Evangelicals believe in the conversion of individuals, but Walls began to see that conversion refers also to nations and communities. Did not the Great Commission command the discipling of the nations? "Conversion to Christ does not isolate the convert from his or her community," Walls says. "It begins the conversion of that community. … [D]iscipling is a long process—it takes generations. Christian proclamation is for the children and grandchildren of the people who hear it."

How might the American evangelical tendency toward individual conversion, almost to the neglect of broader community and cultural perspectives, be influenced by fresh biblical and historical reflection along the lines of Walls thoughts above? I recall being at a conference where I heard someone bring harsh criticism against an article a colleague of mine had written on mission among Iglesia ni Cristo where the author stated that group dynamics which worked through leadership were more effective than apologetic efforts aimed at individual evangelistic prospects. The critic viewed this as unbiblical, indicating that the cultural assumptions of American evangelicalism were confused with biblical theology. And Walls' comment should also call into question our tendency toward extraction evangelism. Might it not be possible to leave new Christians within their cultural frameworks from among the new religions while creating indigeneous expressions of Christian community and church within this culture rather than extracting individuals and transplanting them in more monochrome types of evangelical churches in the West?

Another quote from the article on Walls:

Not only that, but Walls's study of Paul's letter to the Ephesians suggested that each culture adds new riches to an understanding of Christ, so that "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13) becomes possible only when bringing all of our different communities together. Each culture asks different questions of the gospel, and as new answers to those questions are unearthed, they enrich our understanding of the greatness of Christ. The second-century church asked philosophical questions that would never have occurred to Jews in Jerusalem. One result was the fourth-century Nicene Creed. Africa asks questions about witchcraft that children of the Enlightenment can't answer. Perhaps a new understanding of Jesus' victory over evil is in the works.

This paragraph was refreshing on two levels. First, Ephesians was referenced in regards to its theological and missiological implications beyond spiritual warfare. The overemphasis on spiritual warfare as a means of approaching the new religions, and the use of warfare and military imagery, are troubling for me. I recently read an evangelical statement concerning an evangelistic project which was referred to as a "stealth bomber" going behind "enemy lines." Are fellow human beings following the pathways of new religions combatants that we target with our weapons or fellow human beings created in the image of God for whom Christ died? Second, this quote reminds us that each generation brings new questions and challenges which requires fresh theological and cultural reflection. This takes us beyond minor modifications to Reformation theology and reminds us of the need to reflect currently and globally.

And the final quote:

While some scholars such as Philip Jenkins emphasize a shift of power from Western churches to those south of the equator, Walls sees instead a new polycentrism: the riches of a hundred places learning from each other.

Great idea, and one which I support, but I wonder when this will translate into our evangelical theological educational institutions, and the seats of our churches. Are American evangelicals prepared with humility to recognize that perhaps the page in the history of Western Christendom has been turned and the time has come to learn from our global brethren? I'm skeptical, but I can also hope.

Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith Video: Professional Polish on a Counter-Cult Apologetic Misfire

The following was originally posted a week or so ago but was then removed due to the need to consider a request by evangelicals who produced the DVD in question to remove the post and to keep this video project secret until the mass distribution of the video to Latter-day Saints in March. At that time I removed the post and sent an inquiry to a Christian philosopher and ethicist asking his opinion on the request. He said in response, in part, that "I see no reason why their concern for secrecy is greater than your concern for justice" [among Latter-day Saints in the way in which we engage in ways of living and ministry among them that are ethical]. He continued and stated that "Being a Christian means conducting one's relationships, both inside and outside the church, in a virtuous and honorable way." Related to this, I am reviewing Hiebert, Shaw & Tienou's Understanding Folk Religion for an intensive course with Terry Muck next weekend, and in the Preface they describe their foundational assumptions for the book that are based on their commitment to the mission of God. In one of these guiding principles they state that "mission is about principles, not pragmatic answers," and remind us that "Christianity is about truth and righteousness, not only in the ends it seeks, but also the means it uses to achieve those ends." These considerations are relevant to my consideration of the request to maintain secrecy on this DVD project and after careful review I feel that it is appropriate to share my comments publicly on this DVD project for my readers, both evangelical and Latter-day Saint.

A few weeks ago I received a call from a friend in California who was inquiring about a new video he had heard of and he was asking for my opinion on its value. I told him I had not heard of it but was willing to review any information about it that he could pass along. I recently heard of this video again, the Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith video, through a friend of mine in Utah and I was able to secure a copy. Tri-Grace Ministries is spearheading this project, and is engaged in a large-scale distibution campaign to LDS doorsteps as well as other distribution methods this month.

After contacting the individuals associated with this project to share my thoughts and concerns, and having given them an opportunity to respond, I thought I might pass along some reflections of mine which came to mind after I reviewed the video.

First, let me state that I appreciated the comments made at the beginning of the film concerning the love those associated with this project have both for traditional Christians and Mormons. I believe that they are sincere and have the best intentions in the production and distribution of this video.

Second, I appreciate the professional production values evident in this video. It is evident that great effort was made to ensure that the look of the film reflected the highest quality possible.

Third, let me state that I share with the video's producers a common desire to help traditional Christians understand Mormonism in contrast with traditional Christianity, and to share our testimony concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ through deed and words with members of the LDS Church. We simply happen to have substantial disagreements on the philosophy and methodology undergirding how these worthy goals should be accomplished.

With these positive considerations in mind please consider the following areas of critique:

1. The title, Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith, will be immediately perceived by Latter-day Saints as a false dichotomy. While evangelicals surely disagree on their understanding of both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, nevertheless, Latter-day Saints will be immediately put off by the notion that they must choose one versus the other when they feel they can maintain both in their proper place in their beliefs. Good communication skills requires that we try to determine how our message is understood by others from their perspective, and if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Latter-day Saints it is clear that the title will be perceived as dichotomous and confrontational.

2. In the beginning of the video the hosts introduce the persons of Jesus and Joseph Smith, and while Jesus is introduced in the most flattering of Christian terms and concepts, Joseph Smith is presented as a deceiver, a madman, or a prophet. Will Latter-day Saints receive these interpretive options positively? Certainly not, and this characterization merely compounds the problematic title of the video.

3. The video criticizes the founder and prophet of the LDS Church and in so doing threatens the sacred narrative of the Latter-day Saints as a foundational element of the video project itself. Scholars have long noted the importance of sacred narratives to individual and community identity, and when these narratives are threatened the usual reaction is defensiveness, not receptivity to the criticism or the critic.

4. The video approaches the subject matter primarily from the perspectives of doctrinal contrast between traditional Christian orthodoxy and heresy and apologetic refutation of historic claims of the LDS Church. Please note that this is a specifically evangelical framework reflecting evangelical concerns for biblical fidelity, rational certitude, and historical veracity. By contrast, Mormonism as a culture tends to emphasize praxis, ethics, and cultural identity and inclusion. Given these differing foundational frameworks for religion, evangelicals will feel as if this video communicates from the appropriate starting point, but this will be lost on Latter-day Saints who simply practice their religion from dramatically different vantage points. Thus, the basic foundation and approach of the video virtually guarantees that this project will miss not communicate to its target audience.

5. In terms of the apologetic orientation of the video, this involves the same types of arguments that evangelicals have been using for years. Australian scholar and former Mormon John Bracht made two observations relevant to this in his masters thesis on Mormonism in the 1980s reflecting on The Godmakers film. He stated in the introduction that evangelical apologetic critiques of Mormonism tend to “simply draw attention to Mormon theology in the most simplistic and sensationalist terms.” He went further and noted that even though The Godmakers was one of the most widely distributed apologetic critiques of Mormonism, worldwide membership in the LDS Church continued to grow, and despite widespread evangelical apologetics against Mormonism, “Mormon proselytizing efforts have not been appreciably affected.” While I have no doubt that some Mormons have been persuaded by apologetic approaches such as that exemplified by Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith, the numbers have not been great, and despite a long history of apologetic interaction with Mormon culture the effects have been minimal. Thus, it would seem that this new project promises little more than what has been offered apologetically for many years by evangelicals, and while it may make evangelicals feel better in they have defined and defended the boundaries of traditional Christian orthodoxy, among the Mormon people it does little and amounts more to an exercise in preaching to the evangelical choir.

6. The video suffers from something Terry Muck has referred to in his book on religious studies methodology as the "error of triumphalism." This refers to depictions of other religions as inadequate with an accompanying idealization of one's own religion. Muck provides an example of unflattering depictions of the shortcomings of Muhammad related to Islam, and then states that "these statements may all be true, but how one then uses this information can be devastating." Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith engages in this error in relation to Joseph Smith by discussing aspects of his life in the most unflattering of ways, going so far at one point as paralleling his polygamous activities with Warren Jeffs. Regardless of whether a sound historical case can be made for this ethical portrait of Smith, quite unsurprisingly the reaction of Latter-day Saints will be extremely negative and will provide yet another reason for the video not to accomplish its purposes.

7. The distribution methods for this video appear to be largely impersonal, through door-to-door distribution, and perhaps through mailings. If this is the case, the videos will likely be distributed without any context of relationships, friendship, interpersonal credibility, and trust, and as a result the videos will likely do little more than see the inside of thousands of trash cans in Latter-Day Saints homes.

Other criticisms should be considered but these serious shortcomings should suffice for critical reflection. With these in mind I can only come to the conclusion that while many evangelicals are putting great hope in this video as a major evangelistic and apologetic that will reach the Latter-day Saints, in all likelihood it will be yet another failed project.

For all of these reasons I feel that it is my responsibility to let churches, pastors, and Christians know that I do not support this project, and that I feel it will set back other efforts by evangelicals while alienating us further from the Mormon people. I must also let my Mormon friends and contacts know that I do not agree with this project and that it does not represent the attitudes and efforts of myself or like-minded colleagues. There are other more promising ways forward and they must be explored.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Communitas, Community, and Tourism

The Ooze discussion on aspects related to my first Burning Man paper continues to be one of the most popular discussion threads, and it is presently the most discussed thread in the Culture Forum. In the forum the issue of communitas and community arose and I posted some comments that I thought might be helpful for reflection here.

The issues of communitas and community are key for those in the church to think about and reflect on theologically, especially in the emerging church where the concepts are discussed frequently. The idea of communitas is developed in the writings of anthropologist Victor Turner. As I wrote in my paper:

Turner conducted research on rites of passage among African tribes, and expanded on a set of ideas proposed by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. As Turner studied the experiences of tribe members undergoing a process of transition during the performance of rites of passage he identified three concepts as parts of this process which involved separation, liminality, and aggregation. This then resulted in feelings of social cohesion which he labeled “communitas.” In the separation process, individuals move from regular participation with the tribe in the mundane world, and then enter a liminal or threshold space where they work together through the performance of rituals. They then experience aggregation or a return to their tribe with a new status resulting from these experiences. The result for those who have gone through this process is an experience of communitas, a strong social bond among individuals who have worked together through common ritual experience. Although Turner’s work focused on “traditional” pre-modern tribal societies, and although he has been criticized for utilizing an idealized framework applied universally to other cultural contexts without appropriate modification, scholars have found it helpful to apply his communitas concept to modern industrialized societies. Here a distinction must be made in that while Turner applied the label “liminality” to tribal cultures, he referred to liminal-like “liminoid” experiences in industrial societies.

In Turner's research, frequently cited by those involved in Burning Man studies and those in the emerging church, communitas tends to be a strong feeling of social bonding that is arrived at through participation in a common activity or purpose by those in a liminal state. Some in the emerging church urge other expressions of church to capture this. For example, although they would classify themselves as missional rather than emerging, two friend colleagues of mine, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, have written on this topic. You can find a discussion of this in The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (Hendrickson/Strand, 2003), and Mike Frost's Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson/Strand, 2006), as well as Alan Hirsch's new release The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Hendirckson/Strand, 2007). Chapter 8 of the latter work by Hirsch is titled "Communitas, Not Community," which demonstrates an unfortunate tendency to divide the two with an emphasis placed on communitas.

I believe communitas is an important concept, but the application of Turner's work on this must be interacted with critically, and in light of other concepts, such as Hakim Bey's concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, which I drew upon in application to Burning man. Another concept relevant to communitas as it relates to ecclesiology may be the concept of pseudo-events in connection with tourism and travel. In a previous post I discussed this idea as developed in Daniel Boorstin's book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage Books, 1992) with reference to culture and spirituality:

Boorstin is a historian who, in this book, developed the idea of simulation as a social category. The main thesis of the book is that Americans live in an “age of contrivance” and that our public lives are filled with various “pseudo-events” or “artificial products” that simulate reality and which leave the individual who experiences the events or utilizes the products feeling as if they have experienced reality when in fact they have had their stereotypes confirmed by an encounter with the simulation.

One of the examples of pseudo-events that Boorstin discusses is travel and tourism. He notes how we often settle for travel packages that conform more to our stereotypes and expectations rather than a genuine encounter with another culture. This then results in us becoming tourists who feel like they've experienced something meaningful when in fact travelers (or "travail-ers") from another era would have had a more genuine and real experience than what we experience at the present time.

How might our understanding of communitas interact critically with the concept of pseudo-events, particulary in regards to travel and tourism? The connection is not that far off. Recall the scene in the film Fight Club where Edward Norton's character has finally found catharsis and relief from his insomnia through participation in various self-help groups, only to find Helena Bonham Carter's character, Marla, impinging on his ability to experience this relief through her participation in the same group's under false pretenses. At one point Norton confronts Carter with her hypocrisy and calls her a "tourist" for her lack of real participation in the various maladies that provide the basis for these support groups. The rub of Norton's complaint is that he too is not a fellow traveler suffering from the physical and social ills of those in the support groups he frequents, so he too is really a "tourist." Carter's presence is a constant and painful reminder of Norton's own hypocrisy. Neither of them really identify with the support groups through real participation in them, and any sense of identification they have with them does not translate beyond the weekly meetings into ongoing community beyond what they receive from the meetings themselves.

Fight Club provides an interesting illustration of the connection between aspects of tourism and social groups and relationships. Returning to the critical interaction between communitas and pseudo-events, is it possible that the intense feelings of social bonding found in certain contexts, whether Burning Man or forms of the emerging church, are really pseudo-events, feelings of social bonding but without appropriate grounding in community?

I believe that an emphasis upon communitas is important, and that those like Frost and Hirsch are correct to ground the liminal state in the missio Dei, but this must then be rooted in a (new?) form of Christian community. If this is not done then you have the feelings of communitas (pseudo-event) that never translate appropriately into ongoing forms of community, and an emerging or missional form of church then becomes transient and may likely disappear as other forms of communitas seem to have done in Christian history, such as the Jesus People Movement which only formed lasting community through Jesus People USA in Chicago.

I suggest that the church needs to recapture a sense of communitas as it fulfills its purpose of extending the Kingdom in the world through the missional impulse. But then what? One of the weakness of countercultural utopian communities like Burning Man is that the sense of communitas does not translate very often into ongoing expressions of community. How might the church capture appropriate forms of communitas that then translate into the church living as a true countercultural utopian community? Until the church can demonstrate and offer a valid alternative it will continue to sound hollow and hypocritical to the post-modern Western world. Can the church pay such bills? I hope so, but I wonder whether we must continue our journey into exile in post-Christendom before such bills are recognized and modifications made in our church's so that appropriate payment can be made.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Amos Yong Interview: Pneumatology, Hospitality and Religious Pluralism

Amos Yong is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University. He is a prolific author, having contributed to a number of scholarly journals and published a number of books. Some of the more intriguing as it relates to new religions, alternative spiritualties, and missions in the post-modern, post-Christendom, and post-9/11 West include Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Baker Academic, 2003), and the forthcoming The Spirit of Hospitality: Pentecost and Christian Practices in a World of Many Faiths (Orbis Books, 2008). Amos is also involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and his combined interests, background, and scholarly pursuits make for important contributions to theology, religious studies, and questions surrounding religious pluralism.

Amos has made some time in a busy schedule to participate in an interview in order to share some of his thoughts.

MoreheadsMusings: Amos, can you tell us a little about your background? I only discovered recently that you and I grew up in the same town and attended the same high school in northern California. Can you tell us more about where you grew up, and what influences, personal and theological, shaped your current perspectives and work in theology?

Amos Yong: I was born a PK [preacher's kid] into an Assemblies of God minister’s home in Taiping, W. Malaysia; we moved to California when I was ten, when my father was called to a pastorate among first generation Chinese-speaking immigrants, making me a MK (“missionary kid”) to the USA. I went to Bethany College (Assemblies of God liberal arts school in Santa Cruz, California), where I completed a BA in pastoral ministry, then went to Western Evangelical Seminary (WES), where courses in modern theology and church history rocked my preconceptions that modern pentecostalism fell “suddenly from heaven,” to use the phrase of a popular pentecostal history text written in the 1950s. From WES, I completed a second MA in history of philosophy at Portland State University (PSU), and then a PhD in religious studies at Boston University (BU). At PSU I studied for the first time Kant and Whitehead, felt attracted to process philosophy, but uncomfortable with process theology. I found in Robert Cummings Neville at BU a doctoral advisor who helped me work through process philosophy while gaining critical leverage on its theological aspects. The other part of the PhD program at BU which really shaped my work was its commitment to doing theology in the public context of the encounter between world religious traditions. We read core texts from the major world religions and had to develop Christian theological perspectives in dialogue with – not adopting, but not ignoring either – the major religious traditions of the world.

MM: The work you have done in pneumatology of religions first attracted my attention. At the risk of oversimplifying your thinking, can you summarize your ideas in this area?

Amos Yong: My work in this area can be seen as emerging out of a) the intuition that pneumatology is a neglected theological perspective, and that if pursued and given an opportunity, it might illuminate our theological reflections – thus it could be said that pneumatology is the frontier of theological reflection in the 21st century; b) the conviction that as a pentecostal Christian, pneumatology is a central experience, even a set of practices, which hence gives shape to a robust hermeneutical and methodological key that can be in principle applied to all theological questions, so why not this one – thus it could be said that a pneumatological theology may be one of pentecostal Christianity’s gifts to the wider church and academic conversation; and c) the sense that the question of the religions was one of the most important theological matters that we need to attend to in our time – thus it could be said, for me, that the intra-Christian ecumenical question opened up unavoidably to the inter-religious ecumenical question: if folk such as Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc., who I had been raised to think were non-Christians were now understood as possibly being saved, then where does one draw the line between who is and is not a Christian?

MM: Some of us in the Lausanne issue group addressing postmodern and alternative spiritualities have suggested that Western Protestantism's overemphasis on God's transcendance and a de-valuing of the work of the Spirit in creation may contribute to the growth and popularity of Neo-Pagan and nature-based spiritualities. Why do you think a fresh consideration of the Spirit in relation to creation is significant, particularly for our place historically and culturally in the West?

Amos Yong: As I have pursued this pneumatological research initiative, I have come to be convinced that there is nothing beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit – indeed, all creation is nurtured by the holy breath of God. At some level, I think that Neo-Pagan and nature-based spiritualities reflect both the hungering after an encounter with God that is both immanent and yet transcendental, and a sense that God is to be found in some significant way in such practices and within such arenas. However, since this has not been a distinct area of research of mine, I’m not sure what kinds of theological conclusions to draw yet about these matters. In these areas, I’m actually very much learning as I listen in on the discussions such as those you are having on this blog site and elsewhere. But I do think that pneumatological perspectives open up for us the tension between understanding the Spirit as in some ways intimately tied in with the work of the church of Jesus Christ on the one hand, and yet also being the Spirit of the wider created world on the other hand. I don’t think we can resolve this tension, although to collapse this tension to either side would be to deny the truth of the other side. Hence for me it is so important that Christians wrestle together among themselves, while remaining in engaging dialogue with others who are “outside” the (visible) church, on these things.

MM: You are involved in interreligious dialogue, particularly Buddhist-Christian dialogue. How did you get involved in this, and what you have learned as a result?

Amos Yong: I have been a member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies for a number of years. I was first introduced to Buddhism during a graduate course at PSU on process philosophy, during which time my theological research curiosity led me to the work of Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, and others at the Claremont Center for East-West Studies, which involved a fair bit of Christian-Buddhist dialogue. When I first learned about Buddhism and Chinese religious traditions, there were a few “aha” moments when I recognized how simply being raised in a Chinese home imbibed Buddhist notions like the “moderation of the middle way” without calling such “maxims of the Buddha.” As I have continued to study the various Buddhist traditions, I’ve been challenged: of all the world religious traditions, arguably Buddhism is the most foreign to Christianity in terms of its agnosticism about God’s existence. But perhaps also for the same reason, its very radical differences from Christian faith make it an important dialogue partner to stretch, test, and open up other perspectives on my Christian self-understanding. I think the biggest challenge remains, as I’ve come recently to acknowledge, that of the interrelationship between beliefs and practices: if Christian beliefs are as interconnected with and even emergent from Christian practices, are not Buddhist beliefs similarly dependent on certain kinds of practices, and if so, what are the implications for my own ongoing engagement with the Christian-Buddhist dialogue? I’m not sure how to respond to this question – so I can only say, for those interested, “stay tuned…”

MM: Evangelical theologies tend to be strongly influenced by European and American perspectives. Is there something valuable to be learned by engaging a broader, global perspective on theology, particularly theological reflection from Asia and the Two-Thirds World?

Amos Yong: Of course; we can’t avoid globalization; we can’t be parochial; we can’t be in denial that we live in what I’ve called the “post-al age”: post-western, post-colonial, post-patriarchal, post-Enlightenment, post-Christendom (in terms of Christianity being at the center of political power as in the age of Constantine), etc. In this “post-al” time zone, then, to ignore the scholarship, etc., coming from the rest of the world is to be left behind the times and to become increasingly irrelevant. Of course, there is much out there that is immaterial – and we must be discerning about which voices and perspectives we engage – but that goes for whatever is being produced in the “western world” as well.

MM: Your forthcoming book deals with the issue of hospitality in a religiously plural world. Can you tell us a little more about this book and what it will discuss?

Amos Yong: I am trying to do three things in this book: 1) given the connection between beliefs and practices, I am proposing a pneumatological perspective that I think will further our reflection on this matter, centered on the maxim, “many tongues, many practices”; 2) from this, I am trying to tease out the interconnections between exclusivistic, inclusivistic, and pluralistic theologies of religions and their concomitant or correlative practices; and 3) I am trying to salvage what I feel are important practices across the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist spectrum – e.g., kerygmatic proclamation of Jesus Christ, reciprocal and mutual dialogue, and social engagement – without having to buy into all of their theological positions – and I think the best way to do so is via a theology of hospitality; so, I am proposing a pneumatological theology of guests and hosts by which I attempt to get “beyond the impasse” of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism toward a holistic posture of beliefs-virtues-practices that will allow us to engage people of other faiths in a dialogical manner, being open to being transformed by the Holy Spirit through such encounters, even while believing that these same encounters will be opportunities through which the same Spirit will work transformatively in the lives of our non-Christian friends. This is the double and paradoxical bet.

MM: Why do you think hospitality is important in our world of many faiths, and how can this compliment dialogue and other forms of religious engagement?

Amos Yong: The interesting thing about hospitality is that there are guests and hosts, and Christians sometimes find themselves as the former, other times as the latter, and on occasions, as both simultaneously. I argue in my book that Jesus is the paradigmatic exemplar of guest, journeying into the far country (to echo Barth), even while representing and offering the redemptive hospitality of God, and that Christians also follow in Jesus’ footsteps as aliens and strangers into far countries, being guests of those who might welcome them, even while embodying and representing the eschatological hospitality of God’s redemptive banquet. Hospitality thus opens up to dialogue, but also requires works of love and mercy (witness the parable of the Good Samaritan). And of course, hospitality also provides, at the right moments and occasions, for a sharing of the truth in love. There is give and take, but there is also honesty, compassion, and genuine interpersonal interaction. I think the notion of hospitality bursts the categories of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism because it registers affections, postures, and sensibilities so important to the chief virtues and practices of our contemporary world, instead of staying only at the level of doctrinal abstractions or moral projects (and this is not to say that we should neglect these).

MM: Some aspects of evangelicalism, particularly those associated with a counter-cult or heresy-rationalist approach to new religions as well as boundary definition and maintenance approaches to Christian theology have expressed concern about your theological views in regards to pluralism and inclusivism, even going so far as to label them "dangerous." What would you say in response, and how might we move our theological and missiological reflection further in positive ways in evangelicalism?

Amos Yong: Well I do hope that my new book will dispel any lingering doubts about my commitments as a follower of Jesus Christ the Messiah, about my convictions regarding the essential aspect of bearing witness to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, and about my views regarding the Great Commission as the church’s raison d’etre. But I am also convinced that any new theological ideas are in some sense “dangerous” since they are new and hence will always be resisted – so I expect disagreements with new ideas will continue to the end of time. I do learn from my detractors, to the point that this book itself has been written with some of these previous criticisms in mind. Without critics, the weaknesses of one’s position can be realized only with much greater difficulty – so in a sense, I am grateful for them. Yet I do feel strongly that not all of us are called to do similar things. And given that pentecostalism has in some ways always been relegated to the Christian margins, perhaps that may also be where my views remain for the time being, being effective, if at all, from that location. I’m OK with that, so long as my most immediate circle of dialogue partners – those of my colleagues in the Society of Pentecostal Studies – both encourage me on as well as engage with me in the common task of bearing witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit in the complex world we call “our time.”

For example, my colleague at Regent, Prof. Wolfgang Vondey, wrote a critical review of my book The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Baker Academic, 2005) in one of the recent issues of PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies; but since then, he’s been motivated to the point that he’s now writing a book (which I hope will appear in the next two years) not at all refuting my work, but trying to do what I attempted there, although better! That is precisely what I had hoped my work would produce, so in that sense, I take that as confirmation that God is in what I do at least in some way.

MM: Amos, thanks for making time to share your thoughts with us. Your thinking provides a lot for us to interact with and reflect on carefully.

Amos Yong: Thanks for inviting my thoughts; I honored that you’ve paid enough attention to my work to invite this exchange, and can only say that if there is anything useful in what I’ve done, the credit belongs fully to God. Meanwhile, if criticisms must be lodged, I invite responses; know I pay attention to these, even if I might not be able to engage in a running discussion. Honestly, I am unsure how much interaction I can be involved in, if only because my work with the new PhD program in Renewal Studies at Regent University School of Divinity (where I teach) takes up much of my time now. Might I add that if any of you feel called to doing a PhD in this area – whether with a historical, theological, or biblical focus – please pray about coming to Regent to study with us. I have a wonderful set of colleagues and we are committed to the renewing work of the Spirit, in the church, the academy (essential for the PhD), and the whole world.