Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dialogue and the “L” Word

Last weekend I posted an interview with Terry Muck that touched on inter-religious dialogue, among other things. Later in the week I noted that another blog had linked to the interview, and with the following comments:

"John Morehead has a brief interview with Terry Muck which touches on the issue of why it is essential for evangelicals to be involved in inter-faith dialog. He's right but "dialog" sounds so liberal -- so much like we're giving up the gospel imperatives in order to have a nice pc conversation. Of course, that's not the true nature of dialog.”

I think this comment highlights a major underlying concern that evangelicals and other conservative Christians have with inter-religious or interfaith dialogue. Liberal strands of Christianity have been at the forefront of such endeavors, and because of this dialogue is now suspect in certain quarters. I find it interesting that the blog referenced above grants that dialogue is essential, but even so, it is still somewhat suspect and linked with concerns over compromise through liberalism and political correctness.

Can’t evangelicals move beyond these suspicions to engage our religiously plural world in ways that broaden our forms of communication beyond mere proclamation and into two-way discussion? Perhaps it is to our shame that we have allowed liberal expressions of Christianity to take the lead in this area while we have been more content with debate and monologue. With concerns like these it’s no wonder some evangelicals are unsettled with evangelical-Mormon dialogue. What will they do with Christian-Pagan dialogue?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Burning Man, the Temple, and Memorial Day

Since today is Memorial Day in the United States I thought I would use the occasion of the holiday to post some thoughts related to its meaning related to death, its memorialization, and the grief process. As I make this post I do so in light of my experiences with the Burning Man intentional community with the idea that this event and community has something meaningful for us to consider.

One of the more interesting features of Burning Man is a placed called the Temple. This structure provides a places where people can write down and create their own memorials to friends, family, and loved ones who have died. At the conclusion of the festival the temple is burned, and this action is often associated with people weeping and experiencing a great sense of catharsis. During my participation in Burning Man in 2006 the Temple was very moving, both because of the quiet and somber experiences of those around me as they remembered the dead, but also because it provided a time for me to grieve the loss of my young son Jacob.

As part of my continued reflection on Burning Man I recently posted a few questions on their e-Playa discussion board, including a question as to whether and how Burning Man might function as a spirituality for some participants. One of the respondents posted his thoughts that touched on the Temple:

"I think it's interesting to see just how intense the Temple burns can be. I've always had this personal belief that culturally we really don't ritualize grief all that much. It tends to be a very personal thing and traditional avenues such as churches often tend to sanitize it. To hear more than a few people in the crowd keening, yelling, crying and openly weeping suggests to me that there is a touch stone of sorts for a lot of people who've not really been able to tap into the more primal aspects of processing loss and coming to terms with it."

This Burner recognizes something that scholars have touched on as well.. For example, Sarah Pike says that this mourning process at Burning Man is "a substitute for failed rites of passage in the outside world, healing emotions left behind after more traditional death rites were completed." The resonance of such ritual and communal acts of memorialization at Burning Man may point out a deficit in the ways in which we deal with death in the West. Earlier in her discussion Pike discusses the process of mourning in "industrialized, secularized societies" and she states that, "Instead of shared communal rites most Westerners are left with 'the invisible death: a biological transition without significance, pain, suffering, or fear.'"

Is it possible that the activities at the Temple at Burning Man illustrate yet another cultural and spiritual lesson to be learned from this intentional community? Perhaps it also points out yet another "unpaid bill of the church" in our failures to adequately respond to death as we live our lives in its constant shadow.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Interview with Dr. Terry Muck

Terry Muck teaches in world religions at the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including A Pocket Guide to American Religion (Doubleday, forthcoming), Buddhists Talk About Jesus, Christians Talk About Jesus (Continuum, 2000), Ministry and Theology in Global Perspective: Contemporary Challenges for the Church (Eerdmans, 1996), and How to Study Religion (Wood Hill Books, 1993, 2005). He is also the author of a number of articles that have appeared in various periodicals, and he serves as the editor of Missiology: An International Review, the journal of the American Society of Missiology.

Terry has been actively involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue for a number of years.Terry recently taught an intensive course in world religions at Salt Lake Theological Seminary last semester. The emphasis of the course was a look at folk religious aspects of world religions. Terry graciously made some time in his schedule to share some thoughts.

Moreheads Musings: Terry, it is a pleasure to engage you in this dialogue. Thanks for taking the time to share some insights. I enjoyed your course last semester. Can you briefly share some of your background in education, experience and theological reflection that helped your current perspectives and approaches to world religions?

Terry Muck: After my divinity degree at Bethel Theological Seminary, I did a Ph.D. at Northwestern University in the history of religion. My focus was on Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism. I lived a couple of years in Sri Lanka doing field research for my dissertation, a study of Theravada Buddhist monasticism. Since then I have worked in publishing (as editor of Christianity Today Magazine) and in theological education, first at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and then at Asbury Theological Seminary. The study of religion and religions has never been more important for the Christian church. The theological and practical questions raised by the growth of the non-Christian religion may be the ecclesial challenge of the 21st century—to say nothing of the impact of religious pluralism on human cultures in general.

MM: You wrote an article in 1997 for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society exploring whether there is common ground among religions. Can you summarize your conclusions, and if you did find some kind of common ground, why is it important for Christians to emphasize this aspect as well as differences (which seems to be the preference among evangelicals)?

Terry Muck: Of course there is no end to the common ground one finds among the religions of the world. As a Christian I believe this common ground is a result of creation—all human beings were created in the image of God, with a strong desire to know God. Human beings have expressed that essential nature in literally hundreds of ways and thousands of different religions. Anyone who seriously studies the other religions of the world and does not see the commonalities is really not looking for them. On the other hand, anyone who seriously studies the non-Christian religions and does not see that they are different from Christianity is simply not paying attention. The other religions ask us to do different things for different reasons than does Christianity. A faithful study of the non-Christian religions should result in the discovery of both similarities and differences.

MM: In this article you summarize possible points of common ground, and I found one especially intriguing. You quote Hendrik Kraemer who said: "There really is only one point of contact...The attitude and disposition of the missionary." Why might this be especially important for Christians to consider in the post-Christendom, post-modern, post-9/11 Western world?

Terry Muck: Too often Christian mission has resulted in a strong disconnect between what Christianity teaches (the command to the best of our ability imitate the love and grace that God shows toward us to other people) with the manipulative and dishonest mission methods sometimes used. People of other religions have the same full range of emotions that we as Christians have, including love, hate, anger, joy. Whatever attitude we as Christian witnesses use when we tell the gospel story will connect with that same attitude in non-Christians. And they will associate that attitude with the story we are telling. It becomes a part of the Christian story. Of course, Kraemer was advocating that the attitude and disposition we have toward other people match the attitude and disposition of the gospel—love and grace and peace.

MM: In some of your other writing, such as a recent contribution you made to the journal Interpretation, you touch on the issue of a theology of religions in light of religious pluralism, specifically one that moves beyond the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist paradigms. Can you summarize some of your thinking here, and why is this important for us to think about in terms of theology, methodology, and missiology, as well as daily living amidst religious pluralism?

Terry Muck: The exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist paradigm focuses on a question that only God has an answer to, the question of salvation. We are not called to judge the eternal destinies of other individuals—God does that. We are called to witness to the truth of the story of God acting through Jesus Christ to restore our relationship with God. Basing our theology of other religions on a question to which only God has an answer means the theology runs out of meaning pretty quickly. Better to base our theology of religions on things we have some control over—loving our neighbors in every way by making life better for them. And telling them what difference the truth of the gospel has made in our lives in the hopes that they will learn to see their stories as a part of this much larger story.

MM: You have been involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue for some time. How did you get involved in this process, what kinds of things have you learned, and how has it helped you reflect on Christian theology and praxis?

Terry Muck: My studies of Theravada Buddhism created associations with scholars of Buddhism worldwide. Some of those scholars are not just students of Buddhism, but practitioners of Buddhism also. I found that scholars have a desire to go beyond their scholarship at a certain point and talk about faith, commitment, meaning, and destiny in a very personal way. These topics are not a part of academic discourse—for good reasons, by the way. But they are a part of every person’s total life, and as we discovered this about each other we realized we had a common desire to talk to one another about these extra-curricular activities. So some of us created the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies. We have been meeting annually for almost 30 years now. For ten of those years I edited the journal of the society, Buddhist-Christian Studies. The friendships I formed there have been an important part of my life, both professional and personal.

MM: Given your involvement in interreligious dialogue, do you see this as an essential and valuable aspect of the Christian life in a religiously plural world? What about it's value to Christian ministry? And would you have any thoughts about the various forms of the evangelical-Mormon dialogues taking place?

Terry Muck: Yes, of course it is essential. Without dialogue, any kind of mission becomes a caricature of itself, a one-way conversation where we are simply shouting into the darkness with no hope of really connecting with 21st century non-Christians. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Mormons are too sophisticated religiously to seriously entertain the teachings of Christianity if they are presented without acknowledging the value of their religious traditions, and without any attempts to connect the grand Christian story with these other religious stories. It is not really a question of truth, although truth must play a part. It goes way beyond truth. It is a matter of effectiveness--and a matter of treating other people with the respect they deserve as children of God.

MM: The intensive course you taught for Salt Lake Theological Seminary last semester included a special emphasis on folk religion as it relates to world religions. Why is this aspect of understanding and study so important? Do you think we have a tendency to reify religions that may not always reflect our "textbook" understandings of them? And why might folk religious understandings of new religious movements be important for evangelicals?

Terry Muck: Every so-called world religion uses a “folk religion” as a cultural carrier. If we look for pure Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others, we never will find them. Knowledge of pure Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam is essential of course. But understanding Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims will not take place unless we learn how these world religions are expressed in local contexts, as they are associated with discrete cultures and their attendant folk religions. And of course knowing another person and what they believe is essential to making the most effective presentation of the gospel story.

MM: Terry, you have been a valuable contributor to the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities, and a helpful force in shaping my own thinking on religious pluralism, theology, missiology, and interreligious dialogue. Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

BeliefNet Article: "Are We Ready for a Mormon President?"

I recently became aware of an article by Cathleen Falsani of Religion News Service titled "Are We Ready for a Mormon President?" The article is posted on BeliefNet. Below is a sizeable excerpt:

As a teenager, spiritually educated in the Southern Baptist church and a conservative evangelical Christian school, I learned that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a cult, and that its members, the Mormons, most certainly were not Christians.

I heard repeatedly about Mormons' strange theological beliefs and about how to counter their evangelistic efforts with a response that Mormonism was a threat to "real Christians." And I can recall vividly reading the book "The Kingdom of the Cults."

Chapter Six: The Mormons.

The book outlined various Mormon "false teachings," the most egregious (at the time) being the addition of other literature beyond the Bible. "The Book of Mormon," "Doctrine and Covenants" and "The Pearl of Great Price" clearly violate, I was taught, the biblical prohibition against adding or subtracting anything away from Scripture.

These days, I don't think the LDS church is a cult. Nor do I believe Mormons are a threat to Christianity, true or otherwise. My impression of LDS church members is overall a positive one. They are, in my experience, largely a devout, accomplished, polite people.

The fear-based education I received about the Mormon menace didn't take. And while I don't buy what the LDS church is selling, I have enough historical perspective to realize that usually the difference between a cult and a religion is point of view.

All religious beliefs are equally weird. Just how weird is in the eye of the beholder. So what happens when the beholder is a voter?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon and a favorite among the Republicans campaigning for president.

Of late, Romney's Mormonism has become a political volleyball and I'm certain, as the 2008 election draws nigh, his beliefs and identity as a Mormon will be thoroughly scrutinized.

Last year, a Gallup Poll indicated that 66 percent of Americans are not "ready" for a Mormon president, and a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that 37 percent of voters said they would not put a Mormon in the Oval Office.

Romney insists his church doesn't instruct him one way or another in political matters. Forty-some years ago, John F. Kennedy said basically the same thing about his Roman Catholic faith, hoping to allay fears that the White House would be reporting to the Vatican.

Were Romney to become the first Mormon president of the United States, I'm doubtful the executive branch would be taking orders from Salt Lake City. That fear is as baseless now as it was in 1960.

Still, evangelicals make up about a quarter of the voting public.

And neither Romney nor any other candidate, no matter how otherwise appealing, will be able to sway many evangelical hearts on the issue of Mormon doctrine.

Romney's greatest hurdle may be the overall impression many Americans have of Mormonism in general. I'd describe it as a wariness of the weirdness.


While the doctrinal differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are immovable stumbling blocks for many evangelicals, the majority of Americans don't cast their ballots based on a candidate's theology.

Morals, ethics and character -- or the appearance thereof -- are a different story.

Is the candidate a good man (or woman)? Is he or she trustworthy?

Smart? Ethical? Pro-family (whatever that means)? Does he or she walk the talk, or live hypocritically?

Romney wouldn't get my vote because of his political ideology, but his religious beliefs wouldn't give me pause.

A churchgoing, clean-living, non-cussing, doesn't-even-drink-coffee Mormon could hardly be any worse for this country than a warmongering Methodist or a Southern Baptist with a hyperactive libido.

Pew Research Center Survey on American Muslims Stirs Controversy

Yesterday the American media reported variously on the results of a recent survey of American Muslims by the Pew Research Center. As the Pew Forum describes the report:

The first-ever, nationwide, random sample survey of Muslim Americans finds them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.

The Pew Research Center conducted more than 55,000 interviews to obtain a national sample of 1,050 Muslims living in the United States. Interviews were conducted in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu. The resulting study, which draws on Pew's survey research among Muslims around the world, finds that Muslim Americans are a highly diverse population, one largely composed of immigrants. Nonetheless, they are decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes. This belief is reflected in Muslim American income and education levels, which generally mirror those of the public.

Some of the key findings include the following:

*Overall, Muslim Americans have a generally positive view of the larger society. Most say their communities are excellent or good places to live.

*Based on data from this survey, along with available Census Bureau data on immigrants' nativity and nationality, the Pew Research Center estimates the total population of Muslims in the United States at 2.35 million.

*Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries. However, there is somewhat more acceptance of Islamic extremism in some segments of the U.S. Muslim public than others. Fewer native-born African American Muslims than others completely condemn al Qaeda. In addition, younger Muslims in the U.S. are much more likely than older Muslim Americans to say that suicide bombing in the defense of Islam can be at least sometimes justified. Nonetheless, absolute levels of support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans are quite low, especially when compared with Muslims around the world.

*A majority of Muslim Americans (53%) say it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most also believe that the government "singles out" Muslims for increased surveillance and monitoring.

*Relatively few Muslim Americans believe the U.S.-led war on terror is a sincere effort to reduce terrorism, and many doubt that Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Just 40% of Muslim Americans say groups of Arabs carried out those attacks.

One of the interesting facets of this report was not so much the report itself, but rather, the differing ways in which it was reported on in the media. In a post-9/11 America, and a country divided over the Iraq war and the broader war on terror, as well as divisions along political party lines, balance in reporting on this issue was lacking. Conservative media outlets reported on the sympathies of some young Muslims with terrorism almost to the exclusion of other considerations, while more liberal outlets reported on the successful assimilation of most U.S. Muslims into American life while neglecting to report on young Muslim attitudes toward terrorism.

The entire report can be downloaded here.

LCWE Announces Third International Congress

The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) has announced that the Third International Congress "will be held 16-25 October 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa." The website continues and states:

The world is radically different from 1974, the date of the First Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization. There are opportunities, challenges, and technologies that exist now that could not have been imagined at the time of Lausanne I or Lausanne II in 1989. Lausanne III will be the first international world evangelization congress of the third millennium.

Doug Birdsall, Executive Chair of Lausanne says, “It’s imperative that we convene the ‘elders of the church’ – both the wisdom leaders and the action leaders – to wrestle with the challenges and opportunities before us with respect to world evangelization. We must do a thorough assessment of the state of the church, the nature of the gospel, and the condition of the world in which we live and then determine together how we will respond.”

Lausanne III will serve as a “church council” in an attempt to formulate convictions about the changeless Gospel in such a way that makes sense in our rapidly changing world. Lausanne III will also serve as a catalyst to motivate the global church to courageous, creative, and collaborative response to the challenges before it.

Lausanne III participants will reflect the demographic and theological realities of the church. As such, Lausanne III will be a microcosm of the church as Lausanne leaders work to build appropriate bridges with like-minded believers. Special emphasis will be placed on involving women, younger leaders and laity.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Masters Degree Awarded and Thesis Completed

Last weekend I was p;rivileged to attend the commencement ceremony for Salt Lake Theological Seminary and was awarded the Master of Arts degree with a specialization in Intercultural Studies.

The last of the critical feedback on my thesis was received and incorporated as well. The title is “Burning Man Festival as Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom ‘Middle Way,’” and it came with the following comments by one of my readers:

This is a superbly written and well argued analysis of Burning Man—its history and the lessons its success might have for the Christian church in the United States. The argument is cogent. The use of the modernist analysis of Victor Turner along with the late modernist Peter Berger and the post-modernist Hakim Bey to theoretically frame his analysis, reflected the very cultural shifts we are currently undergoing. In such a time of transition it is probably necessary to use all three in order to fully capture the complexity of an event such as Burning Man.

The author showed great facility in his handling of the scholarly literature necessary for his analysis. The careful reader comes away with great confidence that the author has mastered the normative sources, uses them faithfully, and yet goes beyond them for his own conclusions.

Of course, using an interdisciplinary approach one always runs the danger of not being considered fully expert in any of the disciplines. Although we could add books to reference to almost any area of consideration in this thesis, none seemed essential to the argument. The author does not come across as novice in any of the areas he covers, and convinces by making pointed observations and sober judgments.

The choices of the Jesus Movement and the Rainbow Family of Living Light as comparative foils were especially appropriate. Important movements, one Christian, one not, one enduring, the other enormously influencial through the movements it birthed. It would have been interesting to have the author speculate on what the fate of Burning Man might be, in light of the two trajectories of these comparative examples.

The most difficult section of the thesis is the ecclesiological reflexivity chapter. There is nothing particularly wrong with the chapter, and the suggestions the author makes regarding what the Christian church might learn from Burning Man seem helpful. Indeed, a great deal of expertise is evident in the author’s exposition of the half dozen positive lessons we might learn from Burning Man. But in a sense the author is struggling himself when he describes the Christian church in the United States as a struggling church. Perhaps the real problem is not the specific weaknesses the very success of Burning Man exposes, but that the church does not see itself as struggling. The church does not see that it has accommodated itself to an astonishing degree to a culture that is struggling, and in so doing the church has both infected itself with the same struggles and has inoculated itself from seeing its own disease.

I think this is a brilliant study, one of the best Masters theses I have ever read. I commend both the author and his professors and advisors.

--Terry C. Muck
Professor of World Religion
Asbury Theological Seminary

I look forward to using my academic study, and the lessons that have been learned as a result of my research and writing of the thesis. I hope that new and greater opportunities open up as a result. The question is where does a young scholar with expertise in the religious landscape of America and the West, cross-cultural and missional training, and the hopes for future Ph.D. studies go in the near future?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Post on Pan's Labryinth on TheoFantastique

I have posted some thoughts on the film Pan's Labyrinth on my other blog, TheoFantastique, in an article titled "Pan's Labyrinth: A Grand Fairytale and a Key to the World of Wonder." Those who do not normally read my other other, particularly my Neo-Pagan readers, might find this article of interest.

Monday, May 14, 2007

New Books of Interest: Wicca, Christianity, and the Druids

Two of the Pagan blogs that I read, Chas Clifton's Letter from Hardscrabble Creek and The Wild Hunt Blog, recently mentioned a couple of books that look interesting.

Chas Clifton's post mentions Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic by Joanne Pearson (Routledge, 2007), with the following description from the publisher:

What is Wicca? Is it witchcraft, Paganism, occultism, esotericism, magic, spirituality, mysticism, nature religion, secrecy, gnosis, the exotic or 'other'? Wicca has been defined by and explored within all these contexts over the past thirty years by anthropologists, sociologists and historians, but there has been a tendency to sublimate and negate the role of Christianity in Wicca's historical and contemporary contexts.

Joanne Pearson 'prowls the borderlands of Christianity' to uncover the untold history of Wicca. Exploring the problematic nature of the Wiccan claim of marginality, it contains a groundbreaking analysis of themes in Christian traditions that are inherent in the development of contemporary Wicca. These focus on the accusations which have been levelled against Catholisicm, heterodoxy and witchcraft throughout history: ritual, deviant sexuality and magic.

Jason Pitzl-Watters's post at The Wild Hunt Blog mentions Druids: A History by historian Ronald Hutton (Hambledon & London, 2007). No description was provided, but Wild Hunt does include some interesting commentary on Hutton and how his work has been received by both academics and Neo-Pagans. These books appear to be worthy additions to the libraries of those involved in Pagan studies.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

PBS Reports "The Mormons" Documentary Breaks Ratings Records: Lessons?

Various news outlets in Utah, from television to newspapers such as The Salt Lake Tribune are reporting that the PBS documentary, The Mormons, that aired earlier this week broke ratings records. As the Tribune reported,

[M]ore Utahns tuned into KUED Channel 7 and KBYU Channel 11 for the first episode of "The Mormons" Monday night than watched KJZZ Channel 14 and cable's TNT simulcast of game 5 of the Utah Jazz playoffs. "It's the highest [ratings] we've ever had," said KUED General Manager Larry Smith. "This is very phenomenal and very unusual." He said KUED likely will re-run the series in mid-summer. According to Nielsen Media Research, Monday's episode on the history of the LDS Church drew a 17.9 rating and Tuesday's segment earned a 17.7. Normally, KUED's weekly nighttime ratings are between 1.8 and 2.

The documentary was also the focus of a large audience outside of Utah. As the Tribune continued, "Nationally, the series was also was a relative hit. At a 3 rating, the documentary captured nearly double the viewers of a normal PBS weeknight, said KBYU spokesman Jim Bell."

As might be expected, reaction to the documentary has been mixed on both sides of the LDS/non-LDS divide with some speaking favorably on it and some negatively. One of the interesting things I find in the large viewing audience was that the program touched on several issues of controversy, such as skepticism concerning Joseph Smith's First Vision, his early involvement with folk magic of the time period, and polygamy, some of the very issues addressed in the Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith apologetic DVD that received mass distribution in Utah and neighboring states. Yet it is likely that far more Latter-day Saints watched The Mormons documentary with an open mind than ever considered the apologetic DVD. This is because the documentary producers interviewed a number of diverse sources, produced the program openly, invited the contribution and perspective of LDS Church leadership as well as rank and file Mormons, and strove for balance in their presentation.

I wonder what lessons evangelical filmmakers might take away from all of this?

Festivals and Festivity

In a previous post I noted the signfiicance of play theology to Western Christianity, particularly in reflection on how this is expressed as a major facet of alternative cultural events and intentional communties like Burning Man Festival. Play takes on special significance when connected to the issue of festivals and sacred festivity.

Festivals present specific challenges to Protestantism. While Roman Catholic and secular scholars have devoted serious attention to festivity, this is not the case with Protestants. Festivity is not taken seriously either as a cultural phenomenon or as a topic for scholarly exploration by most Protestants, and yet Catholic scholars have argued “that festivals belong by rights among the greatest topics of philosophical discussion” (Pieper 1999, back cover).

In the work of Yinger on countercultures, he includes a chapter on symbolic countercultures which use rituals of inversion that reverse and mock the established order. These countercultures have existed in the past and the present, and Yinger says that “such activities can be matched in the medieval and contemporary worlds” (1982, 154). Peter Burke discusses such phenomena in his book on popular culture in early modern Europe. He says that, “[c]arnival was, in short, a time of institutionalized disorder, a set of rituals of reversal” (1990, 190). Duvignaud references the same thing in his comment that “festival involves a powerful denial of the established order” (1976, 19). In the context of early modern Europe, this celebration of social inversion involved a number of phenomena, including dressing in costumes, cross-dressing, intense sexual activity, as well as weddings and mock weddings (Burke 1990, 186). Burke sees these activities as fulfilling an important social function as ritual regardless of “whether participants are aware of this or not” (ibid., 199).

Here we might note the connection of the festive and ritual expression of acts of social inversion to Burning Man. First, individuals come to the festival in order to carve out their own place in space and time which includes acts of creativity as well as social inversion. Second, the activities of social inversion at Burning Man exactly parallel those expressed in carnival and festival in early modern Europe, including costuming, cross-dressing, sexual activity, weddings, and mock weddings. Thus, the activities at Burning Man may be understood as a contemporary expression of festival with historical and cross-cultural precedents.

But an aspect of festival that may not be familiar to evangelicals is its connection in the past to the life of the church. As Bakhtin reminds us, carnival and festival provided a “second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance” (1984, 9), and further “[a]ll forms of carnival were linked externally to the feasts of the church” (ibid., 8). Harris notes a similar historic connection between the church and festival and states that, “[a] good case can be made, however, for the argument that Carnival developed within the Christian community from the topsy-turveydom of Christmas” (2003, 140). Festivals thus have a historic connection to Christianity, both through Christmas celebrations as well as the connection between Carnival and Lent. Carnival is a Roman Catholic celebration with the carnival season being a holiday period that is celebrated during the two weeks before the traditional Christian fasting of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week, and its forty days of observance are symbolic of forty day periods of religious significance found in the Judeo-Christian narrative, most especially Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness for a time of fasting and temptation.

Yet even in this ecclesiastical context the social inversion of festivity was still present. Harris notes that carnival celebration in connection with Christmas in medieval and early modern Europe involved “[c]ross-dressing, masking as animals, wafting foul-smelling incense, and electing burlesque bishops, popes, and patriarchs [that] mocked conventional human pretensions” (ibid.).

If festival was connected at one point in history with the church’s sacred calendar, why did it disappear? At least two reasons seem likely. The first is that such festive play is perceived as dangerous in ecclesiastical contexts. As Manning states, “[p]lay theology, it seems, is frightened of sensuality, excess and ambiguity which all reside in the body and are unleashed in play process – as if it is frightened of the carnality of birth and death itself” (1983, 369). Krondorfer develops this idea further when he states that,

[p]lay processes (such as dance, festivals or ceremonies) are often excessive, transgressive, inversive and passionate. They can be carnivalesque in structure and ‘anti-theological’, as Julia Kristeva explains. They challenge ‘God, authority and social law’.

A few play theologians are aware of the fact that actual play processes, including religious rituals (such as the medieval Feast of Fools), are transgressive, subversive and dangerous; but they do not fully integrate this knowledge in their theological thinking’”
(1993, 368).

Krondorfer’s analysis converges with Miller’s in that he later states that, “[p]lay theology, it seems, is frightened of sensuality, excess and ambiguity” (ibid., 369), and this frightening and dangerous form of expression and theologizing apparently proved threatening to the church.

The second reason why festivity has lots its connection to the church and its sacred calendar of celebrations may be connected to the Protestant Reformation. The celebration of certain holidays in the church calendar “diminished in importance” with the Reformation (Santino 1994, xvi), and further, some seem to have been expunged as a reaction against aspects of Roman Catholicism. As an example, Hutton comments on contemporary Protestant concerns over Halloween and its connection to All Saints and All Souls Day from the past:

Such an attitude could be most sympathetically portrayed as a logical development of radical Protestant hostility to the holy days of All Saints and All Souls; having abolished the medieval rites associated with them and attempted to remove the feast altogether, evangelical Protestants are historically quite consistent in trying to eradicate any traditions surviving from them. If so many of those traditions appear now to be divorced from Christianity, this is precisely because of the success of earlier reformers in driving them out of the churches and away from clerics… (1996, 384).

I suggest that despite the potential danger that festival celebration poses to the church with all of its rituals of social inversion, that the vacuum created in Western culture as a result of a lack of sacred festivity that includes social inversion has resulted in the creation of new forms of sacred festivity that are interpreted outside the Christian context through alternative cultural events such as Burning Man. Thus, festivals and festivity represent another “unpaid bill of the church.”

I argue that festivity need not be divorced from the context of Protestant community and church life. Indeed, the rediscovery and experimentation with festivity will play an essential part of the church’s engagement with Burning Man as well as other facets of postmodern spirituality. I believe that the church can benefit from fresh exploration of festivity in three areas, that of festivity serving as a reminder of the biblical teaching on social inversion, festivity as a tool for theological reflection, and as a source for fresh ritual in the church.

First, festivity reminds the church of it own traditions on social inversion. A number of biblical passages touch on this topic, with the “Magnificat” from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel being one of the most relevant with its discussion of the raising of the humble and the bringing down of rulers from their thrones (verse 53). Harris discusses the connection between the social inversion of festival and the Judeo-Christian scriptural narratives in this area:

The Feast of Fools, with its explicit justification in the Magnificat, noisily proclaimed the Christian basis for festive roles of reversal…. [This is echoed in] Christ’s utterances about children and the Kingdom of Heaven, Isaiah’s prophecy that a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6), and the theme of inversion and the world turned upside-down found in texts like the ‘Magnificat’.. (2003, 141).

Second, festivals provide the church with another tool for theological reflection. Once again Harris’s comments are helpful:

The popular elements in patronal saints’ day festivals, like Carnival, have often been demonized as pagan or heretical...Could it be that popular religious festivals offer a source of theological wisdom, otherwise unarticulated and therefore unnoticed by formal theology, that is worthy of a place alongside sacred text, reason, and ecclesiastical tradition? Such a perspective would partly balance the standard sources of theology, which privilege clerical exegesis, educated reason, and authoritative legitimation of tradition (ibid., 28).

Third, festivity provides a source for fresh ritual in the church. Chad Martin has written an intriguing paper that explores the potential for carnival as a form of ritual that holds great promise for the church (1999). In his view, “Carnival is the necessary Dionysian expression that counter-balances the church’s otherwise Apollonian heady approach to religion” (ibid., 35). He draws attention to the “ecclesiastical symbolism” of festivals, including Mardi Gras (ibid., 36), and sets forth a case for the possibility of “ritual transformation” that takes place through Carnival and festival with its “precarious social inversion” (ibid., 37). Like Harris, he draws a connection between festive social inversion and biblical themes, and then makes a case for the necessity of the chaos and revelry of carnival for Christian worship (ibid., 40). In his view, festivity is important for Christian worship for two reasons: “first, the glorification of the humorous, light-hearted side of human experience; and second, the inversion of social standards (in the biblical settings this means the opportunity for social change)” (ibid.). Martin’s discussion then moves from the theological exploration of festival to its implementation and exploration in his local church setting, which involved the creation of carnival themes, reflection on biblical stories, costuming, music, “dancing, eating and laughing,” and carrying the festival out into the community through a “closing parade” (ibid., 39). For Martin, carnival involves an important theological message: “God’s kingdom is for the oppressed, and it can come surrounded with laughter, irony, celebration and freedom. ‘The chief attitude of [carnival] is one of peaceful revolution. When the spirit rules, the kingdoms of this world are overturned’” (ibid., 42). Through his discussion and example, Martin provides a way “for developing a meaningful carnival ritual” (ibid., 45) for church and community.

References Cited

Bakhtin, Michail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Burke, Peter. 1990. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, rev. ed. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Duvignaud, Jean. 1976. “Festivals: a sociological approach,” Cultures 3/1: 13-25.

Harris, Max. 2003. Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Hutton, Ronald. 1996. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Krondorfer, Bjorn. 1993. “Play Theology as Discourses of Disguise,” Journal of Literature & Theology 7/4 (December): 365-380.

Manning, Frank E. 1983. “Cosmos and chaos: celebration in the modern world,” in Frank E. Manning, ed., The Celebration of Society: Perspectives on Contemporary Cultural Performance. Bowling Green, OH: Bowing Green University Press.

Martin, Chad. 1999. “Carnival: A Theology of Laughter And a Ritual for Social Change.” Worship 73/1 (January): 33-45.

Pieper, Josef. 1999. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Santino, Jack, ed. 1994. Halloween and Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Yinger, J. 1982. Countercultures: The Promise and the Peril of a World Turned Upside Down. New York: The Free Press.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Forthcoming Book on Teenage Witches

In my recent review of various blogs that I frequent I came across a post on Chas Clifton's blog mentioning a forthcoming book that sounds very interesting given its subject matter, the authors, and the cross-cultural analysis. I was so intrested I went ahead and ordered a copy through Amazon.com. Once I receive it I will give it a read and post some thoughts on reflection, but first I need to read through the book that Chas already provided by way of a gracious review copy, his own her hidden children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (AltaMira Press, 2006). Here's the information on the new book from the publisher's website:

Teenage Witches
Subtitle: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self
Authors: Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy
Subject: Sociology / Religion Paper
ISBN 0-8135-4021-6 Cloth ISBN 0-8135-4020-8
Pages: 272 pages
Publication Date: June 2007
Price: $21.95

Praise for Teenage Witches
"This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of Witchcraft and its appeal among real-life young people on three continents. It's a fascinating story of young practitioners who find in alternative spiritual practices a way to affirm diversity and respect for all people."
-Lynn Schofield Clark, author of From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural

"This book is informative, engaging, and enchanting. The interweaving of the vignettes and quotes from the authors' interviews is masterful."- James R. Lewis, author of Legitimating New Religions

A popular new image of Witches has arisen in recent years, due largely to movies like The Craft, Practical Magic, and Simply Irresistible and television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Charmed . Here, young sexy Witches use magic and Witchcraft to gain control over their lives and fight evil. Then there is the depiction in the Harry Potter books: Witchcraft is a gift that unenlightened Muggles (everyday people) lack. In both types of portrayals, being a Witch is akin to being a superhero. At the other end of the spectrum, wary adults assume that Witches engage in evil practices that are misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

Yet, as Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy show in this in-depth look into the lives of teenage Witches, the reality of their practices, beliefs, values, and motivations is very different from the sensational depictions we see in popular culture. Drawing on extensive research across three countries-the United States, England, and Australia-and interviews with young people from diverse backgrounds, what they find are highly spiritual and self-reflective young men and women attempting to make sense of a postmodern world via a religion that celebrates the earth and emphasizes self-development.

The authors trace the development of Neo-Paganism (an umbrella term used to distinguish earth-based religions from the pagan religions of ancient cultures) from its start in England during the 1940s, through its growing popularity in the decades that followed, up through its contemporary presence on the Internet. Though dispersed and disorganized, Neo-Pagan communities, virtual and real, are shown to be an important part of religious identity particularly for those seeking affirmation during the difficult years between childhood and adulthood.

About the Authors:
Helen A. Berger is a professor of sociology at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Douglas Ezzy is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Trinity Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities: The New Unreached People Groups

Description: Trinity International University, in conjunction with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization Issue Group 16, The Church and New Spiritualities, announces an international conference on Christianity and new religious movements hosted by the School of Biblical and Religious Studies at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, USA on 16-19 October 2008. The conference will be a gathering of practitioners and scholars addressing the decline of Christianity in the West and the concomitant growth of new unreached people groups expressed in religions and spiritualities such as modern Paganism, New Age, and other alternative spiritualities. Plenary sessions and parallel workshops will address the topics of the future of religion in the West, the make up of the alternative religious marketplace and approaches in engaging adherents of alternative spiritualities.

Call for Papers: Practitioners and scholars working in the field of new religious movements are invited to submit a title and 400-word abstract along with a curriculum vita for consideration in the Post-Christendom Spiritualities conference. Special consideration will be given to papers addressing the academic study of new religious movements as well as the praxis of engaging these movements. Papers for the conference might include, but are not limited to, subjects such as the following:

The work of the Spirit in mission and New Spiritualities
Perspectives on contemporary spirituality from the sociology of religions
Missiology and contemporary spirituality in relation to Christian tradition in cross cultural mission and/or the study of world religions
Creation and redemption in Christian theology
Goddess spirituality and the theology of God
Inter-religious apologetics in post-modernity
The emerging church and emerging spiritualities
Science and new religions
The Christian and the paranormal
Christian approaches to complimentary medicine and energy healing

Papers should reflect the ideas expressed in the Lausanne Occasional Paper no. 45. Please submit a title, abstract and CV to mcooper@tiu.edu by 30 November 2007. A final decision of acceptance will be made 30 March 2008. The final program will be determined by 30 May 2008. If accepted, a paper must be submitted by 15 August 2008 for solicitation of responses from critical respondents.