Monday, April 30, 2007

Church Embracing "Marginalized" Groups

I just have to say it: I have seen a lot of that I really like from Jesuit mission and theological studies.

Now if you're a Protestant, and especially one of those folks who looks out for heresy, hold on to your hat, and give me a chance to explain. (The anti-Roman Catholic contingent is still pretty vocal out there.) What I mean by my appreciation for Jesuit missions refers to some of my heroes in the history of Christian mission such as Matteo Ricci who became a student of Chinese culture and who established a successful mission among Confucian literati. And as to what I appreciate in Jesuit theology, I refer specifically in this post to the work of Carl F. Starkloff in an article he worte for Theological Studies 58 (1970: 643-98 titled "Church as Structure and Communitas: Victor Turner and Ecclesiology." This article was helpful in my masters thesis on Burning Man, and continues to be helpful for further theological and missiological reflection.

In the article Starkloff begins by preparing his readers with a mention of Augustine and Johann Adam Mohler's position on heresy. Starkloff states that for both of these men, in addition to their concerns over heresy they also considered "it an opportunity for growth in the search for truth and the development of doctrine." As Starkloff prepares to discuss anthroplogist Victor Turner's discussion of liminality, structure, and anti-structure, he continues and says:

"The liminal experiences to be discussed here are not per se heretical, but they bear an analogy to heresy in that their separation from the conventional mainstream can be an occasion for creative reform if the Church will enter into genuine dialogue with these experiences."

Starkloff then continues and discusses the work of Turner, specifically in his work that describes society moving back and forth between the two poles of structure and communitas (the intimate social bond found between those working together for a mutual goal in a liminal or threshold space). Starkloff applies this in analogical fashion "to the creative theological tension between institution and community" in the church.

What I find interesting about Starkloff's perspective on this, especially as a Roman Catholic (a religious system that tends to emphasize institutional forms of the Christian religion), is his openness to learning from "marginal" groups. At one point he writes: "To what extent is is possible for the institutional Church, in its structural aspect, to sanction, interact with, and grow from its relationship with liminal communitas groups?" But Starkloff not only raises the question, he also supports an affirmative embrace of such groups when he says that those groups that are "'liminalized' or marginalized from society should be awarded a valued in place in the universal Church."

As I reflected on Starkloff's article I drew my own application in regard to the liminalized and marginalized groups that I engaged for my thesis, Burning Man Festival, and a contrast drawn with the Rainbow Family of Living Light. While evangelicals tend to ignore or stereotypically dismiss and condemn such groups I think Starkloff is correct when he asserts that the church can learn a lot from them, and that "[w]hat the Church might hope to no less than a deeper communion or koinonia." At least we should be willing to consider such possibilities.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Burning Man and Play Theology

One of the more interesting research and reflection points for me in the writing of my masters thesis on Burning Man was where I engaged in a process of critical reflection on what insights this intentional community and festival might have for the Christian church in America. In order to reflect appropriately I adopted an approach informed by the work of sociologist Peter Berger in his book A Rumor of Angels (first published in 1969 and expanded in 1990). Berger said that he wanted “to show how the intellectual tools of the social sciences, which had contributed greatly to the loss of credibility of religion, could be turned on the very ideas that had discredited supernatural views of the world.” He described this as a sociologically-informed process of theologizing, “a very rough sketch of an approach to theologizing that began with ordinary human experience, more specifically with elements of that experience that point toward a reality beyond the ordinary.” This involved an inductive approach, informed by anthropology as well as sociology, which resulted in a “search for "signals of transcendence" in order to "transcendentalize secularity." By these signals of transcendence Berger meant “phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our ‘natural’ reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.”

One of the signals of transcendence specifically mentioned by Berger is the "argument from play." Although very few Catholic or Protestant theologians have written on festivity and fantasy, some have written on the related concept of play. David Miller is one such writer, and his work provides a concise overview and some helpful considerations as to the relationship between Christianity and play. He refers to human beings in the context of religious play as homo ludens, or humanity at play, a concept which compliments Harvey Cox’s reference to human beings as homo festivus and homo fantasia. As he considers theology in relation to play he states:

"It is one thing to use “play” and “game” terminology to construct academic theories about nature, the social order, and the self, but it is an altogether different matter to speak of religious matters, indeed, of the gods and God himself, in these terms. It may seem to some even blasphemous. Of course, it is true that some contemporary studies of religion which have adopted the game/play metaphor are far from orthodox in their viewpoint. But what may seem surprising to some is the quite blatant fact that the greatest number and the finest quality of “game” and “play” theologies have been written by very orthodox scholars who themselves stand squarely in the front doors of the religious traditions they are interpreting"

Miller also includes a discussion of the origin and history of ideas about games and play, and their connection to religious thought. He points to its continuing existence in religion through the metaphor of the child at play and says this is applied not only to conceptions of an Edenic paradise, “but also to Utopia and the Day of the Coming of God’s Kingdom. Doctrines of eschatology as well as doctrines of creation found the metaphor of play appropriate.” He then provides examples to support this in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures through Zechariah 8:3-5, and mentions that “[o]n at least two occasions the Gospels credit Jesus as comparing the Kingdom of God with children and their game and play."

Miller then moves to a discussion of a theologia ludens, or a theology of play, and he refers to an example of it developed by Jesuit scholar Hugo Rahner wherein “the interpretation of traditional religion as play – would view God as a player, man as a player, the church as the community of play, [and] salvation (both now and in the life to come) as play.”

In his continuing discussion of concepts of work and play in the West, particularly in light of the Protestant work ethic, Miller states that,

"The church of the Western tradition lives in that period after the Fall into a life of labor as its Scripture in fact indicates. But the same church has not been able to anticipate the heavenly Kingdom, to which its Scriptures also refer, a Kingdom of the Spirit which, like paradise before the Fall, is pictured as a spirited life of play, where play is not laborious, as work is, but labor is playful just as games are.”

I would like to draw the reader’s attention to two areas for further consideration from the discussion above. First, the Protestant work ethic, while important, must also be balanced against other important theological considerations, such as the significance of play. Second, in the discussion above play is mentioned theologically in connection with two primary areas of theology, both as an expression of the Kingdom of God, and as an expression of creativity by those in that Kingdom community. Both aspects of play theology are important, but for the purpose of direct connection to Burning Man and Christian reflection I will focus on play and its connection to creativity.

Rahner connects human play to the activities of God himself. He says, “we cannot truly grasp the secret of Homo ludens, unless we first, in all reverence, consider the matter of Deus ludens, God the Creator who, one might say, as part of a gigantic game called the world of atoms and spirits into being.”

Another theologian, Krondorfer, also connects human play with God as creator and human co-creativity:

"In contrast to more traditional (non-play) theologies which have interpreted Eve’s and Adam’s transgression as a paradigm of humanity’s inherent sinfulness, play theological generally favours the notion of co-creatorship which is warranted in the biblical proclamation to make humans in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Human creativity, play theology presumes, is good because it is imitative of God’s creation."

The connection between human play and God’s creativity is significant for consideration of play as it is manifest at Burning Man. Theologians need not abandon the notion that something is dreadfully wrong with human beings as recorded in the biblical story and as evidenced by humanity’s devastating actions against themselves, nature, and Creator, but this aspect of the biblical narrative might be held in tension in contrast with the notion of co-creatorship so that a theology of play as an aspect of creativity of the imago Dei can be explored.

Of course, my thesis goes into more depth on explaining these issues, and in providing suggestions as to how the church might reflect and experiment with play as an expression of worship and human creativity, but these thoughts might be enough to get some creative juices flowing in my readers. Is it possible that a festival in the middle of the Nevada desert provides important lessons for the church?

Another Positive Book Review for ENRM

Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004) has received another positive review in a theological journal. The most lastest, sent to me by Kregel Publications, comes from Criswell Theological Review. This latest positive review follows those of the past that have come from Global Missiology, Missiology, Bibliotheca Sacra, Ashland Theological Seminary, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, and Anvil. These reviews compliment the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award the book won in the category of global affairs/missions in 2005.

The book can be ordered directly from Kregel, or from other book distributors such as Amazon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Interview with Irving Hexham: Part 1

Irving Hexham is a noted figure in religious studies. He teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. He is a prolific writer, including journal articles and books. Some of the more significant volumes that relate to this blog include two that he co-wrote with his wife Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Eerdmans, 1986), and New Religions as Global Cultures: The Sacralization of the Human (Westview Press, 1997). He has also served as editor and contributed chapters to a number of works, including the volume that I had the pleasure of working with him on, Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004).

Morehead's Musings: Irving, it is a pleasure to be able to talk with you and to learn a few important lessons about religion in our global culture. Let's start with a little of your background. How did you come > to the Christian faith, and where did you pursue your academic studies?

Irving Hexham: The town I was born in was Whitehaven, Cumberland, now known as Cumbria, which was the only English town to be attacked by the Americans during the War of Independence when the privateer John Paul Jones destroyed the shore batteries. My birthplace was 1 Scotch Street which was the last English house the Washington family stayed at before sailing to America. In a nearby churchyard is the grave of George Washington's grandmother. Not for from Whitehaven are the churches of Gosforth and Bewcastle both of which have some of the oldest stone crosses in England. All around were Roman, Medieval, and Georgian buildings. I say this to give you some indication of the sense of history which was part of my upbringing in what had been an ancient Christian part of Britain.

When I was eleven years my family was living in nearby Workington where like everyone else I knew I sat an exam known as the "Eleven Plus." Everyone had to take an exam known as the 11+. It decide who went to what were called a "Secondary Modern Schools" and who went to the local "Grammar School." At that time 5% of the population went to the elite public schools like Eton, around 10% went to Grammar schools and the remaining 85% went to Secondary Modern Schools. You can read all about this in Anthony Sampson’s excellent book Anatomy of Britain (New York, Harper and Row, 1962).

Those who passed the Eleven Plus had a chance of going on to university although even then only 27% of Grammar School boys went to university. The rest were from the Public Schools which, although they represented only 6% of the population took most university places. Everyone else “left” school at the end of the term following their fifteenth birthday.

Needless to say I failed my Eleven Plus and went to Secondary Modern Schools in Workington, Walkdne, Lancashire, and then Cheadle, Cheshire, where my family moves when I was fourteen. A few months after arriving in Cheadle I left school to begin work with the North Western Gas Board (NWGB) as an apprentice gas fitter. This was fortunate because the NWGB, which was a Nationalized Industry owned by the Government, was one of the best companies in Britian.

My apprenticeship lasted six years during which time we were sent to technical colleges during one day a week during the winter months. At the end of this period I had the equivalent of what is today a B.Sc. in Gas Engineering. At the Gas Board I only met two people who professed to be Christians all the others were thorough going "heathens." The two Christians were both Roman Catholics. At that time my hobby was stage magic, that is conjuring which has nothing to do with the occult but is a form of entertainment. Through this hobby I met Norman Hazeldene who was a retired inventor of magical tricks. He also lent me books on free thought and partly as a result of those, partly through what I had learnt or rather not learnt in school, and partly from the people I worked with I realized that I did not believe in Christianity.

My agnostic period lasted three years. It ended gradually when I was eighteen after I met a group of Christians who were holding an open air evangelistic meeting one Sunday evening. Actually, I was on my way to the Post Office to send off a letter ordering some magic tricks. On my way I saw the Christian group on the village green and crossed the road to avoid them. But, they were expecting that sort of thing and had posted some young people one the sidewalk to give out tracts. One of these, a very pretty blond engaged me in conversation for a few minutes before I “escaped” and got on with my business.

The next Saturday I was shopping in Cheadle when I met the same girl who recognized me and invited me to a youth group that evening run by Cheadle Parish Church which was Anglican. Since she was very attractive I accepted only to find when I got there that she already had a boyfriend, Peter Heyman, who later became Head of Department and Professor of Old Testament at the University of Edinburgh. Anyway, Peter and I soon became close friends and I began attending the youth group, which was run by a Rev. Peter Downing, on a regular basis. Sometime over the next six months I gradually changed my religious views. It was all very slow and began with my reading the J.B. Phillips translation of the “New Testament.”

As a result of this I became convinced of the reality of the resurrection and became a Christian. Two very important things happened shortly after this.

First, Billy Graham came to Manchester for the Greater Manchester Crusade in 1961. As a new Christian I attended the “counseling classes” along with others from my church which were taught by Dan Piet. Then shortly before the Crusade began I put an advertising sticker on the petrol (gas) tank of my motor bike.

Shortly after doing this I was down at the local offices of the Gas Board in Stockport when one of the bosses came out and asked me if I was involved in the Billy Graham Crusade and whether I went to Church. When I told him that I was a Christian and very involved with both things all he said was “good luck to you.”

A year later the same man, who I saw fairly regularly at work, called me into his office. This time he asked if I was still “going to church.” When I said “yes” he said “That’s wonderful. I have to send an apprentice on an industrial exchange visit to Berlin organized by the Industrial Chaplaincy. So I might as well send you as any of the other buggers who are bloody heathens.”

As a result in late August early September 1962 I made my first visit to Berlin almost exactly a year after the building of the Berlin Wall. What was really exciting about this visit is that we were taken into the East by a young American pastor Wesley Burdett who arranged for us to meet some young East German Christians.

This visit really changed my life and I both began learning German and began to think seriously about the challenge Communism presented to Christians.The other thing that happened was that Peter Hayman and a number of other Christian friends, all of whom had gone to Cheadle Grammar School, went up to university to study theology in October 1961 only a few months after I first became a Christian. Over the next year one friend, from a prominent Christian family, completely lost his faith while Peter and a couple of others were really began to struggle with their faith because of the impact of biblical criticism on their rather naïve evangelical beliefs.

From these two experiences, my visit to Berlin and the struggles of my friends, I developed an interest in Christian apologetics. At the same time I also began to attend the Saturday evening meetings of the Manchester Inter-Faculty Christian Fellowship (MIFCU)which was held at Ivy Cottage Church in nearby Didsbury. Actually, it was Peter who introduced me to a Christian friend of his, Ashby Owens, who was studying with Prof. F.F. Bruce. In those days the MIFCU meetings were very well organized with people like John Stott and Martyn-Lloyd Jones speaking there once a year.

Through MIFCU I also met Clark Pinnock who was one of Bruce’s graduate students. Clark did two things that really shaped my thinking. First, he encouraged me to visit L’Abri in Switzerland which I did for the first time in April 1965. After that I became a disciple of Francis Schaeffer who was very kind to me and encouraged me to attend university. Second, through Clark, and his wife Dorothy, I met Don Hagnar, who later taught at Fuller Seminary, and Ward and Laurel Gasque who were among the founders of Regent College in Vancouver.

In the meantime I was doing very well at the Gas Board where I first became a manager and then a Lecturer in Gas Fitting and Technology at Stretford Technical College in Manchester. Nevertheless, I began to study for university entrance qualifications. This I did through correspondence courses studying early in the mornings because my work schedule did not allow me to attend night school.

As a result I 1967 I left the Gas Board and began a new career as a student at Lancaster University. Initially, under Schaeffer’s influence and guided by his son-in-law Ranald Macaulay, I decided to study Philosophy and the History of Science. But, that year Professor Ninian Smart opened the first Religious Studies Department in Britain and I soon switched my major to Religious Studies.

Once again I was very fortunate because Lancaster was a dynamic place that has consistently ranked as the top Religious Studies Department in Britain. There, among my fellow students were a number of committed evangelicals including Roger Mitchell who later became an evangelist in Britain. Currently Roger is back at Lancaster completing his Ph.D. Certainly this was a very stimulating time with excellent teachers like Adrian Cunningham, the former Catholic editor of the “New Left Review” he was a well informed “Christian Marxist” who taught Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought. Bob Morgan, who we all described as a “Bultmaniac” because of his radical views taught New Testament. His work was balanced by the evangelical scholar David Catchpole. Visiting lecturers taught the Old Testament and Church History.

Ninian Smart taught the Phenomenology of Religion, Indian religions and with Colin Lyas the Philosophy of Religion, as did James Richmond. Michael Pye a fascinating teacher and expert of Japanese Buddhism, James Dickie, a Scottish convert to Islam whose Arabic name is Yakub Zakki, taught Islam, and the great Buddologist Edward Conze taught me Buddhism. Stuart Mews also introduced me to the Sociology of Religion and the importance of carefully reading classic texts.

Dickie was a brilliant man whose analysis of Islam was superb while Conze was unforgettable. Neither of them were Christians but the fact that I was, or that anyone was, did not matter to them. All they wanted was a commitment to scholarship and hard work. On reflection none of the professors at Lancaster, with the exception of Catchpole, were evangelicals. But, all were publishing scholars who did not allow their personal beliefs or feelings to influence their judgment of students. Only after I came to North America did I experience the sort of blatant prejudice among professors that drives evangelical students to take refuge in Christian universities and Bible Schools.

From Lancaster I went on to the University of Bristol to work with F. B. Welbourn who was an expert on African religions and author of the groundbreaking Welbourn, F. B. East African Rebels : A Study of Some Independent Churches. London: SCM Press, 1961. Initially I wanted to study the influence of Calvinism in South Africa but he convinced me to study a local religious movement because he believed researchers must “get their hands dirty.” Therefore, he argued that it was no good writing about South Africa without first going there. As a result of his influence I took courses on Anthropology and wrote my MA thesis on new religious movements in Glastonbury.

Once my MA was completed I began work on my PhD with Fred Welbourn and Kenneth Ingham who was Professor of History at Bristol. Ingham was a highly decorated infantry officer who began studying theology after completing his PhD on missionaries in India. After a year he quit theology because he found the methods “Micky Mouse.” He then took a job at the Makerere University in Uganda where he became a leading expert on African history. When I studied with him he was writing a book, Jan Christian Smuts, the Conscience of a South African (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986). In addition, his book Reformers in India, 1793-1833: An Account of the Work of Christian Missionaries on Behalf of Social Reform (New York: Octagon Books, 1973), is a classic study of missionaries and Indian society which very few evangelicals know anything about.

Under the able guidance of Welbourn and Ingham I then wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the origins of the ideology of apartheid which was later published as “The Irony of Aparthied,” Toronto, Edwin Mellen Press, 1981. The interesting thing about my time at Bristol is that both my supervisors were at the top of their respective fields and very well respected scholars who were practicing Christians.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Upcoming PBS Production - The Mormons

I was recently given the privilege of previewing a press copy of the first installment in a two-part documentary produced by a collaborative effort between PBS's series' FRONTLINE and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. The documentary is titled The Mormons, and Part 1 is scheduled to air on Monday, April 30, with Part 2 following on Tuesday, May 1 at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS. Local broadcast times can be checked here.

This documentary is the work of filmmaker Helen Whitney who was responsible for two other PBS projects, including John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, and Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. A production profile and press release issued with the press copy of Part 1 of this documentary states that "Whitney gained unusual access to Mormon archives and Church leaders as well as dissident exiles, historians, and scholars both within and outside the faith." Whitney is quoted as saying, "Through this film, I hope to take the viewer inside one of the most compelling and misunderstood religions of our time."

Part 1 is divided into six Acts, including segments on Revelation, The Saints, Persecution, Exodus, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and Polygamy. Both believing Latter-day Saints and skeptics of the Church will find balanced representation here as LDS General Authorities and faithful Mormons share their understanding of the Mormon faith, and skeptics share their perspectives as well.

A press release for the documentary be downloaded here, and a fact sheet at this location.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Burning Man Masters Thesis Near Completion

My masters thesis on Burning Man is near completion. This week I will complete the draft and begin to fine-tune it while soliciting critical feedback for revisions before turning in a final copy to the seminary at the end of the month. Below is a copy of the proposal I presented to the seminary on the topic for those that may be interested.

The scholarly analysis of Burning Man is a relatively recent area of specialization for the academic community. Scholarly analysis of spirituality and religiosity in the West at times includes studies on Burning Man, and it has also been the focus of at least one masters thesis, and doctoral dissertations. Some of these treatments have found their way into academic books dealing with American popular religion and the rave dance phenomenon. But even with this relatively recent area of study and specialization, something of an academic “orthodoxy” has already developed in terms of the theoretical lens by which this festival and community is understood. A comparison of many academic studies on Burning Man demonstrates strong dependence upon the theories of the late anthropologist Victor Turner. Turner applied the work of French folklorist Arnold van Gennep to rites of passage among African tribes, and in particular his three-fold structure or phases of this process consisting of separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation (or reaggregation). The experiences of these tribal people during the liminal phase resulted in a strong sense of social cohesion which Turner called “communitas.” Turner’s theories have been extremely influential and have provided one of the major frameworks by which Burning Man studies are conducted.

Yet as common as Turner’s theories on ritual and communitas may be in the analysis of Burning Man they are not without their difficulties, as has been recognized, for example, by Graham St. John in his analysis of Australia’s ConFest. In addition to these difficulties and shortcomings, other perspectives might be considered by the academic community that would shed additional light on our understanding of the Burning Man phenomenon. This thesis represents an exploration of two such possibilities that provide alternative analytical perspectives. The first is the “homeless mind” thesis developed in 1974 by Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfield Kellner, and its modification in 2002 by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. Berger et al.’s thesis explored the lack of confidence of the Sixties counterculture in mainstream institutions that ceased to provide an adequate psychological home for the self. Without these moorings these “homeless minds” turned within to their own “subjectivities” and then looked to the “secondary institutions” of alternative spirituality and psychology as a way of guiding the deinstitutionalized self. The homeless mind thesis has been revisited by Heelas and Woodhead and revised in light of the intervening decades since the 1960s. They suggest that the homeless mind thesis is sound and of continuing value to an understanding of the contemporary West, but that the countercultural turn to the self has broadened to include “relational, humanitarian, ecological or cosmic” dimensions, and that with this has come the development of new secondary institutions that navigate a “’middle way’ between primary institutions and the fragile resources of the homeless self drawing upon itself.”

The second analytical perspective is that provided by Hakim Bey and his discussion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. For Bey, as the name of his concept implies, this is a temporary location in space and time that frees an individual from social control and enables them to create a new vision of reality in opposition to existing social structures.

Both the concepts of the homeless mind with its accompanying secondary institutions, and the Temporary Autonomous Zone, provide us with additional heuristic tools that enable alternative understandings of the Burning Man phenomenon.

The main thrust of this thesis is that Burning Man is an alternative cultural event created as a secondary institution that provides a religious or spiritual function as a substitute for mainstream religious institutions. This secondary institution functions by means of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), or perhaps more accurately, numerous TAZs, where art, ritual, and other forms of self-expression facilitate new understandings of self, expressions of spirituality, and forms of communitas and community. The social function of Burning Man as a secondary institution in post-Christendom means that it represents a significant cultural, social, and spiritual phenomenon in America which provides important lessons for the Christian church.

This thesis will be developed in the first chapter with a consideration of Burning Man in alternative academic analysis. Chapter One will begin with a brief discussion of the origin, history, and self-understanding of Burning Man as described by the founders of and participants in the event. I will then consider Berger, Berger, and Kellner’s homeless mind thesis, followed by its modification by Heelas and Woodhead. I will also look at Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, and having put down this fresh foundation for analysis, I will consider how these concepts affect our understanding of Burning Man.

Chapter Two will explore Burning Man by way of historical contrast. I will consider two alternative culture movements that arose as a result of the 1960s counterculture, including the Jesus People Movement that traces its origins back to the San Francisco Bay Area of California and the Pacific Northwest, and the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a nomadic group that also traces its origins to the same geographical regions and general timeframe and which gathers on an annual basis in various national forest lands in the United States. This chapter will note the reactions of these groups to consumerism and organized religion, as well as the reactions of mainstream society to these groups. I will then consider the similarities between these groups, particularly between the Rainbow Family and Burning Man. I will conclude this chapter with the application of the concepts of the homeless mind and secondary institutions, as well as the Temporary Autonomous Zone, to the Jesus People Movement, and the Rainbow Family. This application will demonstrate that these concepts apply to these alternative cultures as readily as they do to Burning Man, and will shed additional light of how our understanding of Burning Man might be enlarged by consideration of these historical predecessors and “alternative cultural cousins.”

The results of the application of the insights from the preceding chapters result in a shift to ecclesiological reflexivity in Chapter Three. Given the existence of Burning Man as a post-Christendom secondary institution and middle-way I will consider what lessons the church might learn in critical self-reflection from the appeal of secondary institutions such as Burning Man and alternative spiritualities that arise, in part, as a result of the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions. I will also consider insights from counterculture studies, utopian studies, festivals and festivity, and play theology, and how the Western church’s reflection and experimentation in these areas might aid in its own revitalization with the corresponding perceptions of its credibility among those involved in alternative cultural events. I will conclude with how this might shape our understanding of the form of the church in engagement with twenty-first century alternative cultural events and communities.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Muck Lecture: Karl Ludvig Reichelt and the Johannine Approach to Religious Studies

Last night was the final lecture by Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminaryat Salt Lake Theological Seminary in connection with the final weekend of his intensive course on world religions. His lecture was titled "The Johannine Approach to Religious Studies." Muck began this three-part series several months ago and in his first installment he looked at the Christian study of non-Christian religions and how this has a legitimate place in missions. His second lecture built upon this and discussed how mission workers can be good religious studies scholars, and included interaction with Rodney Stark's writings as an example of this, and its relevance to understanding the growth of religions. This final installment provided an example of a contextualized approach to Asian religions, that of Karl Ludvig Reichelt.

Muck shared a brief biography of Reichelt (1877-1952) as a Norwegian Lutheran, raised in a conservative pietistic church community. He later began missionary work among Chinese Buddhist monks, and Muck described him as a missionary, scholar, and pilgrim. Reichelt began his work in very traditional ways through open air preaching and the distribution of evangelistic tracts in Chinese. While Reichelt did see some success in this in terms of a few converts, nevertheless, Muck characterized this as an effort with no appreciable success. Reichelt then changed approaches and adopted a contextualized mission approach that might be understood as standing between traditional and pluralistic approaches.

Reichelt became a student of Buddhism and did his best to understand how this religion and culture understood not only its own religious expression, but also how its cultural filter interpreted reality. Reichelt developed his missional approch that he dubbed a Johannine model based upon John's Gospel and its discussion of the logos in chapter 1. It would eventually lead to his establishment of a pilgrim's study facility, the infamous Tao Fong Shan Centre in Hong Kong. (Further discussion of Reichelt may be found in Eric J. Sharpe, Karl Ludvig Reichelt: Missionary, Scholar & Pilgraim [Tao Fong Shan Ecumenical Centre, 1984].)

Muck pointed out that Reichelt's approach resonated with the Chinese mindset. His emphasis on harmony and relationships appealed to the Buddhist and Confucian foundations of Chinese culture. His work remains one of the classic studies in missional contextualization, and one with great lessons for those working among new religions in the West.

The following day Muck began the first day of his two-day course. Two items stuck out for me today as we reviewed the primary "worldview base" of the three major sources of the world's religions, including India, China, and the Middle East. Muck summarized these systems, noting that in Indian systems the key elements are samsara, karma, and dharma. In Chinese systems the essential ideas are the Tao, Ying/Yang, divination, and ancestors. In the Middle Eastern traditions the elemetns are monotheism, ethics, history, and judgment/reward. As we reviewed these central defining elements of these worldview bases Muck commented that these should be understood as "more than just doctrines." These serve as the very filters through which other religious cultures understand reality. Thus struck me in application to new religions in that evangelicals many times approach their adherents with the mindset that they can persuade new religionists to merely replace doctrines one for another without recognizing that these elements are not merely doctrinal, they serve as foundational prisms for viewing reality.

A key missiological question that arises from this is how the story of Jesus can be presented within the framework assumed by these worldview bases that does not require the religious other to assume a Western worldview. The second issue arises from this consideration in that Westerners need to move beyond their efforts at making others see the world as we do. Of course, these questions have application to ministry among new religions. Evangelicals might not only consider the foundational depth of the worldview base of religious others as more than superficial and doctrinaire, and also consider how greater portions of a new religions culture can be retained and the gospel communicated in light of these frameworks.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Gerald McDermott and Robert Millet Dialogue

In a previous post I interviewed Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College. In that interview mention was made of a forthcoming book co-authored by McDermott and Robert Millet of Brigham Young University. A preview of the shape this book might take can be found in a previous public dialogue between these two scholars that can be found here:

Friday, April 06, 2007

Lessons from an Ossuary

Several weeks ago the media was saturated with discussion of an ossuary or bone box that according to some theorists held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, thus falsifying the Christian claim that he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. I did not comment on the subject as it is not directly relate to the areas of focus of this blog, and archaeology is not my area of expertise. However, I would like to approach the topic from another angle to see if something might be learned by way of comparison.

As the ossuary story was discussed in the news it also made its way to various websites and blogs, and of course many Christian websites touched on the topic as well. I read several of them and a pattern quickly developed in that the response of Christians was predictably one of critique in terms of the authenticity of the box and the credibility of the claim that its existence questioned the truthfulness of Christianity's central truth claims. The Christian response to this topic was understandably apologetic and defensive in nature, and in my brief and unscientific review of Christian perspectives I did not find a single Christian writing on the topic who appreciated the opportunity provided by the story to reassess a commitment to Christianity. Neither did I find any Christians sharing their thanks for this story in destroying their faith in Christianity while simultaneously facilitating their transition to agnosticism, atheism, or some other metaphysical commitment.

Again, the Christian reaction to this story was understandable. In a way the documentary program on the ossuary functioned as rhetoric designed to undermine the credibility of Christianity's truth claims, whether it was consciously produced to accomplish this function or not. Of course, this was not the first time such rhetoric has made the rounds, as the claims of the Jesus Seminar from a previous decade remind us.

I think we can learn important lessons from the ossuary if we compare it to another context. Just as Christians were not positively predisposed to consider the falsification of one of their major truth claims when confronted with a critical documentary, but instead responded defensively and apologetically, I would suggest that adherents of new religions are likewise not predisposed to positively consider overt Christian challenges to their faith commitments. A case in point for illustration is the recent Jesus Christ - Joseph Smith DVD currently being distributed in the United States and Canada. It is extremely likely that Latter-day Saints will respond to the challenges presented in the DVD in exactly the same way that Christians responded to the challenges presented in the ossuary.

I think these considerations present us with some interesting possibilities for reflection. What lessons might evangelicals learn from a limestone box?