Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pew Forum: Public Expresses Mixed Views of Islam, Mormonism

The weekly update of September 27 for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life includes an interesting and troubling item titled "Public Expresses Mixed Views on Islam, Mormonism." The summary report states:

The Muslim and Mormon religions have gained increasing national visibility in recent years. Yet most Americans say they know little or nothing about either religion's practices, and large majorities say that their own religion is very different from Islam and the Mormon religion.

A new national survey reveals some notable similarities, as well as major differences, in the ways that Americans view these faiths and their followers. Public impressions of both religions are hazy – 58% say they know little or nothing about Islam's practices, while 51% have little or no awareness of the precepts and practices of Mormonism. The number of people who say they know little or nothing about Islam has changed very little since 2001.

Most Americans believe that their own religion has little in common with either Islam or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fully 70% say that their religion is very different from Islam, while 62% say this about the Mormon religion. The proportion who say that Islam has little or nothing in common with their own religion has increased substantially since 2005 (from 59% to 70%).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 1-18 among 3,002 adults, finds that overall evaluations of Mormons and Muslim Americans are on balance positive: 53% say they have a favorable opinion of Mormons, while an identical percentage views Muslim Americans favorably. As in past surveys, more people have a positive impression of "Muslim Americans" (53%) than of "Muslims" (43%).

Despite these similarities, there also are clear differences in public attitudes about Islam and Mormonism. These are reflected in the single-word descriptions people use in summarizing their impressions of each religion. Twice as many people use negative words as positive words to describe their impressions of the Muslim religion (30% vs. 15%). The most frequently used negative word to describe Islam is "fanatic," with "radical" and "terror" often mentioned as well. Among the positive terms, "devout" or some variant is the most frequently cited.

The words that people use to describe the Mormon religion are, on balance, more positive. Nearly a quarter (23%) gives a positive word to describe their impression of the Mormon religion while 27% use a negative term. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy almost a century ago, many Americans still associate the church with this practice. The most commonly used negative words to describe Mormonism are "polygamy," "bigamy" or some other reference to plural marriage. Among positive words used to describe the Mormon religion, "family" – or some variant of the term – is the most frequent response.

The complete 31-page report in PDF can be downloaded here. In addition, Greg Smith of the Pew Forum discusses this and other views of the American public on religion on radio at this link.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Marketing Religion: Mara Einstein on Brands of Faith

As I mentioned in a previous post, a flyer from Routledge promoting their new titles in religion, film, and media mentioned a number of interesting books, including Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (Routledge, 2007) by Mara Einstein. As her website states:

Dr. Einstein has been working in or writing about the media industry for the past 20 years. She has enjoyed stints as an executive at NBC, MTV Networks, and at major advertising agencies working on such accounts as Miller Lite, Uncle Ben’s and Dole Foods. Her first book, Media Diversity: Economics, Ownership and the FCC (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), was the cause for much debate when research from this work was used by the FCC as the basis for redefining the media ownership rules. In addition, Dr. Einstein has written for Newsday and Broadcasting & Cable as well as having her work appear in academic journals.

Mara Einstein is an Associate Professor at Queens College as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. She has a doctorate in media ecology from New York University. In addition, she holds an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern and a BFA from Boston University.

Mara agreed to respond to a few questions related to marketing and religion as discussed in her new book.

Morehead's Musings: Mara, thanks so much for agreeing to discuss your forthcoming book touching on marketing and religion. I'd like to begin with your background. You have said on our website that you wrote Brands of Faith as a way of coming to an understanding about your own journey through religion and spirituality, and how you were born in a secular Jewish household and eventually got involved in "New Age" and Buddhist practices. Can you share your spiritual journey with us that led to the book?

Mara Einstein: My pleasure. Thanks for asking me. In terms of my own spiritual journey, I think my “path” is similar to that of a lot of Americans. (I specifically say Americans because of our proclivity to maintain a spiritual practice – more so than any other industrialized country in the world.) I was raised in a particular tradition – Judaism – but as I grew older I began exploring other faiths. Now, I should say that my religious background was more secular than spiritual, which may have accounted for my wanting to search elsewhere.

That search led me to several New Age-type of practices throughout my 20s and 30s. I went to the Open Center in New York and Omega, where I was exposed to meditation and Buddhist practices, I followed Marianne Williamson and A Course in Miracles, I did spiritual adventure travel to Machu Picchu and Stonehenge. And, in all of this, the underlying theme seemed to me to be having to pay for my spiritual practice. Now that's not to say that you don’t pay temple dues or put money in the collection plate, but this was different. To learn about a belief system, I had to fork over money – often a lot of money – and that seemed somehow off to me. It made me begin to question the idea of the commercialization of religion and spirituality.

Morehead's Musings: In what ways have various faiths become brands? And can you touch on some of the examples you mention in your book, that of Alpha and the Purpose Driven Life in Protestant evangelicalism, and Madonna with her practice of Kabbalah in the celebrity interest in Western esotericism?

Mara Einstein: In Brands of Faith, I write about what I call faith brands – belief systems that have easily recognizable icons and mythologies just like any other consumer product. For example, Purpose-Driven is a brand; Rick Warren is the icon and the story of the making of the Saddleback Church is the mythology. Joel Osteen is a faith brand, and yes, Oprah Winfrey is a faith brand. In our culture, there is a blending of the secular and the sacred – the sacred is becoming more secular and the secular more sacred. That’s where the celebrity spiritual phenomenon comes in – Madonna and Kabbalah; Tom Cruise and Scientology, etc.

Morehead's Musings: You also note in your website that the statistics for church attendance are down, but that the crowds at Starbucks on Sunday mornings seems to be doing well, leading you to wonder about the success of brand marketing in relation to traditional religion. In your research do you think that the close connection between commodification and spirituality negatively alters the spiritual "product," and if so, how?

Mara Einstein: One of the ideas that I play with in the book is what in marketing is known as the relationship marketing curve – how people take on a product as part of their identity – and compare that to the conversion career – how people convert to a faith system. I show how similar these processes are. I also suggest that marketing religion is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a necessity. However, it is important not to confuse the marketing with the belief system. Using the Purpose-Driven example again, the book The Purpose-Driven Life and even the seeker services are part of the marketing. The product is much deeper than that.

Morehead's Musings: In your Alumni Profile for Kellogg School of Management you make the interesting statement that, "Religions are competing not only against each other, but against all other leisure-time activities." This struck me not only because I think it is true, but in my graduate thesis on Burning Man Festival it appeared that for many people there was a combination of the spiritual and a leisure-time event through participation in the annual festival itself. It was almost like people scheduled or calendared their time to be spiritual at the festival as a leisure-time activity, which is marketed in a sense (even though it promotes a non-capitalist ethic) through the Internet and by viral marketing. And interestingly, even this subculture and festival that is so strongly opposed to branding and consumerism has developed its own logo and "corporate" structure. Is it difficult for religions or spiritualities in today's market to resist the combination of religion or spirituality and branding despite some of the best desires and intentions?

Mara Einstein: Absolutely. As I said in response to the previous question, it’s almost impossible not to be commercial. The average person is bombarded by upwards of 3000 commercial messages a day. In order to be heard above that cacophony, religious and spiritual practices have to market themselves. Add to the level of noise the limited amount of time that people have to process information and then you can begin to understand the need for branding – a logo (sign or person) that is immediately identifiable with your product. I see the Nike swoosh and I know immediately what that means. The same thing is true for the Alpha question mark or Joel Osteen or the Burning Man.

Morehead's Musings: After writing the book what kinds of conclusions did you come to about your own spiritual journey and the influence of branding and faith?

Mara Einstein: In writing the book, I find that I’m closer to Sam Harris in my thinking than I used to be. In his book, The End of Faith, he suggests that there are mystical experiences that occur that we cannot understand and that we should by all means find ways to keep the mystical in our lives. However, in regards to religion itself, we should put our belief systems to the same empirical tests that we put other institutions in our culture. Given this scrutiny, many of these belief systems – particularly ones that have become so market driven that they have lost their core – don’t provide that sense of the mystical. This is not to say that religion should be abandoned, simply that it should be called on to deliver what is its unique attribute – the ability to connect us with the unexplainable.

Morehead's Musings: Mara, thanks again for making time to talk about your book. This is an important area of study and I hope your book is well received by scholars and others for its contribution to the subject.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Presentations and Travel

I thought I'd put up a brief post that touches on my recent speaking activities, an upcoming workshop, and travel for next month.

Readers of this blog might recall that I had an opportunity to speak at the Utah Summer Spirit Fest hosted by Eagles Kindred in July in Utah. I presented a few of my thoughts about Pagan-Christian engagement and how our two communities need to engage in hospitality and dialogue. This was well received and it led to an invitation to speak at Pagan Pride Day in Murray near Salt Lake City last Saturday. I spoke before a small group and talked about my participation and research into Burning Man Festival and what I learned with application to the Christian community. This even also gave me an opportunity to meet a few new Pagans, and to make flyers available promoting our forthcoming book Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2007).

This Friday I present the first of two workshops on interreligious dialogue with application to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue at Salt Lake Theological Seminary in connection with Standing Together's National Student Dialogue Conference. I hope that local readers will consider sitting in on this workshop and attending the conference. The syllabus for my workshop is available via email by request.

Next month I am looking forward to a bit of travel that combines research interests and pleasure. I am using some frequent flyer miles set to expire at year's end in order to visit my friend Phil Wyman of The Gathering in Salem, MA. I am looking forward to seeing what Phil is doing in Salem, to meeting some local Pagans, Wiccans, and vampires, and given that the Halloween season and tourism is in the process of gearing up in this location I am looking forward to some historical research on the witch-hunts as well as seeing how the Halloween holiday is celebrated in this infamous city. Look for future posts on these topics here in the future.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Lure of Images: Interview with Author David Morgan on Religion and Visual Media

Dr. David Morgan currently serves as Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christianity and the Arts, and Professor of Humanities and Art History in Christ College, the undergraduate humanities honors college of Valparaiso University in Indiana. After this academic year he will be moving to Duke University, where he will join the Department of Religion with a joint appointment in Art History. His area of research interests and expertise are the history of religious visual and print culture and American religious and cultural history.

Given the significance of art and visual imagery to religion, the shift in the West from text to image, and Dr. Morgan's forthcoming book on the topic as part of a series of new and interesting volumes on religion, film, and media from Routledge, I thought an interview would on visual imagery as it relates to religion would be worth exploring.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Morgan, thank you for agreeing to share the results of your research on religion and visual imagery with us. How did you develop an interest in this area, and how did it become your area of academic expertise?

David Morgan: My parents packed me off to college to become a Lutheran pastor, but it didn’t work. It took far more piety than I could muster. And Greek and Hebrew. So I became an art major and then went to get an MFA in sculpture. Half way through that program I decided that I’d rather write about art than try to make it. It was a prudent decision (I wasn’t very good as an artist) and the transition to art history was happy. I did a PhD at the University of Chicago, originally hoping to write a dissertation on some aspect of art history and religion, but became very interested in the history of art theory and focused on that. I took several courses in the Divinity School on the history of Christianity, intending eventually to find my way back to the study of religious imagery. That happened, quite by accident, in the fall of my first year as an assistant professor, in 1990, when I was invited to a small conference on art and religion at Anderson University in Indiana. There I was shown the recently acquired collection of images by the Protestant artist, Warner Sallman, in particular, his well-known “Head of Christ.” I was so astonished that there was actually an original painting behind all the lithographed copies of this image that I began on the spot to think about how one might study this image. That was the beginning of my interest in popular religious imagery.

Morehead's Musings: In one of your books, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (University of California Press, 2005), I know you've got a whole chapter in that book devoted to defining visual culture, but could you summarize some of that for us as the foundation and background of our conversation?

David Morgan: If culture is the full range of thoughts, feelings, objects, words, and practices that human beings use to construct and maintain the life-worlds in which they exist, visual culture is any aspect of that world-making activity that takes visual form. That includes dreams, fantasies, and apparitions as well as pictures, but also the ideas, values, fears, and obsessions that inform one’s understanding and use of images. As I understand it, the study of visual culture gives special attention to the scrutiny of visual practices, that is, what people do with images. As a field of inquiry, visual culture assumes that meaning does not inhere in images, but is activated by them. Some images seem to function only as denotations of codes. Like traffic signs: once you know the code, the visual signifier is devoid of interest. The sign tells you to stop or go, nothing more. But most images aren’t so ancillary to meaning-making. They enter into it much more integrally, messily. Most images acquire their meaning through engagement with viewers and through the interaction of viewers with one another. Consequently, it’s much more productive to study the reception of images in order to determine what they mean to people. Meaning is not simply abstract, but embodied and interactive. Religious visual culture is a great way to understand how religion works since many scholars have come to regard belief as a set of practices, as what people do rather than only or primarily the creeds or doctrines to which they assent. Even when some believers castigate, proscribe, or destroy images we have the opportunity to see visual culture at work.

Morehead's Musings: As you noted in an article you wrote as a Ph.D. student, Protestantism has long struggled with the use of imagery and has defined itself around the word and text. Why is this, and how does that compare with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy?

David Morgan: Words are incredibly powerful ways of building models of the world because they operate so transparently. What believers want their dominant form of representation to do is shine, to beam forth effulgently, to flood their lives with luminosity. You might call this translucence: representations that convey the divine light into the life-worlds of believers. The translucence of their words is what Protestants (but also Jews and Muslims) like about them as cultural constructions because the translucence suggests they aren’t culturally constructed, but trustworthy and compelling forms of revelation. One way to keep one’s prized mode of representation translucent is to make a rival form opaque, dark, empty of trust, devoid of authority and the capacity to compel belief. This is what some versions of the so-called "religions of the book" do with the notion of idols as dumb, empty blocks of wood or stone, utterly incapable of anything but fooling people, indulging what the biblical writers and many since polemically tag stupidity or vanity. As the Psalmist says, “Those who make them [idols] are like them,” that is, stupid and vain (Ps. 115: 8). The denigration of images is a strategy for bolstering the authority and reliability of words, in particular the words of the Bible as revealed, but, by extension, also the words of official teaching and theological discourse. It does not do much good to have a divinely inspired book that tells you about God if you can’t extend that talk to talk about God, that is, theology. So many (though hardly all) Protestant theologians have expressed anxiety about images. John Calvin insisted that “everything respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, chap. 11, tr. Henry Beveridge). That’s quite remarkable when you consider how many children learn about their religion by reading illustrated books or hanging pictures of Jesus in their bedrooms. There is simply no doubt that the image of God in their minds and bodies is deeply shaped and colored by those images. Calvin may have been exaggerating in the grip of polemical fervor, but he has a deeper point to make: the human mind is not capable of thinking about God on its own imaginative terms without misrepresenting God, appropriating the deity to human needs. Calvin’s project pivoted on the absolute sovereignty of God. So he regarded images, the medium of imagination, as lies, as accommodation of the divine to human uses and desires. “God himself,” Calvin claimed, is “the only fit witness to himself.” What does that mean? For Calvin it meant God’s self-revelation in the words of scripture. But there is a big problem with this. As soon as the holy commits itself to a medium—visual, verbal, musical, scriptural—it becomes very fluid and slippery. It can’t be easily restricted. Where does the holy word end and human thought about the word begin? That is one reason why only men may preach in some traditions or why only priests can enact the sacraments in Catholicism. Fundamentalists try to solve the problem by Biblicism—everything in the Bible is "literally" true, whatever that means. Evangelicals steep themselves in Jesus-piety, insisting not so much on the exact truth of every word as the medium of the holy as much as one’s personal relationship to Jesus. Calvinists churn out iron-clad theologies, Euclidean proofs whose axioms are lapidary dogmas. Catholics rely on official teachings and canon law and the authority of priests and bishops and the ex-cathedra pronouncements of the pope. All of these are ways of investing the holy in a regimen of words and word-mongering institutions, whose rigidity is often assisted by contrasting word to image, or by colonizing images so that they act like words—illustrations whose principal function is to endorse the iconicity of texts. In this regard, there’s hardly a whit of difference between Protestants and Catholics.

Morehead's Musings: Has there been any shift in Protestant Evangelicalism in this area with Western culture becoming more focused around image and visual media?

David Morgan: Most Protestant churches and organizations still use images as devices to extend or bolster the work of words. Words are the primary medium and images enable it. It is in fact a powerful and very effective coupling. Images have been used to great advantage by Protestants to get their message out, to teach children and converts, to compete in the cultural marketplace, and to underscore the authority and clarity of the Bible as it is interpreted by Protestants. But if you leave the domain of official policy, theology, and institutional efforts and look at both popular culture and fine art, you will find very different visual behavior. For example, look at the way Evangelicals in the U.S. responded to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Those I interviewed told me that the film was true—true to the Bible, but not merely in terms of accurately portraying the events narrated in the Gospels. They meant true to the Jesus-piety they nurture in prayer, praise, and devotion. That was their Jesus on the screen, the guy who died for them. When I asked them about the Catholic iconography of the film, they had no idea what I was talking about. I asked them where Veronica’s Veil appears in the New Testament. They didn’t see it, even though Mel Gibson made a big point of putting it there. But Evangelicals did not simply project their own beliefs on the film. What they saw was more interesting than that. They saw a fascinating combination of what they brought and what Gibson gave them and what they experienced together in theatres crowded with Evangelicals. A visual culture approach to the film won’t assume its significance resides statically and wholly in the film itself, but in the engagement of it by viewers gathered together, creating a community of seeing. You have something of the same dynamic at work in “Christians in the Visual Arts,” a largely Evangelical Protestant association of artists who gather regularly to show their art to one another. They are well-trained, professional artists and art teachers who form a community that does not regard art as illustrational, at least not all of them. More and more, it should be said, Protestant congregations in the United States are becoming interested in the visual arts as the work of artists, that is, as the work celebrating an autonomy that the artists and growing numbers of congregants believe is important for the church to encounter. Sociologists like Mark Chaves and Robert Wuthnow have been studying the life of the arts in contemporary American churches and synagogues. And there is more work to be done. It’s a fascinating area for research. William Dyrness at Fuller Theological Seminary is actively engaged in incorporating ethnographic with visual analysis of contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Muslim worship spaces.

Morehead's Musings: With the history and legacy of Protestantism in the U.S. is the study of the visual culture of religions still a somewhat neglected aspect of study or is this beginning to change academically?

David Morgan: Given the massive momentum of traditional ways of thinking that still prevail among Protestants, even as Protestantism is taking new and global directions away from its long-established center of gravity, there is much more work to be done. The visual and material dimensions of many Protestant traditions have not been studied yet. The idea that Protestants don’t have images is still out there in great force. I hear it all the time, even from academics who study religion and ought to know better. It’s a legacy of the Protestant anti-visual polemic. Scholars simply take Protestant apologists at their word. Big mistake. The more people say they don’t have any images in their world of belief, the more suspicious I am that they are blinded by their ideology. I ask myself—why is it so important that they think their tradition has no images? Sometimes it’s because Protestants work with a stereotype of Roman Catholicism: altars covered by "idolatrous" images of Mary and the saints. Some Protestants appear to need this straw image to prop up their understanding of their distinctiveness: “we’re not like them.” Some Protestants use Hinduism or Buddhism or Neo-Paganism in the same way. This sort of ‘othering’ is quite common, and images often serve as the occasion for accomplishing it. But to understand where the visual enters Protestant life a powerful way, one needs to look elsewhere than the formal worship space. The home, the street, the school, the work place, the hospital, orphanage, the YMCA, the billboard, film, television, Internet—there is where you’ll find Protestant pictures. Protestants often work with a different idea of sacred space than traditional forms of Catholicism. I think some conservative Protestants like to stick so stubbornly to altar spaces as the epitome of idolatry in part because that allows them to turn a blind idea to the powerful icons that populate their everyday worlds. And I use the word ‘icons’ deliberately. By Protestant ‘icons’ I mean the pictures that tell them who they are by connecting them with their past and promising them their future, the pictures through which they see their worlds.

Morehead's Musings: In your new book, The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007), you discuss a variety of religious cultures and how they use imagery. How has imagery informed the perceptions and practices of the New Spirituality ("New Age"), Mormonism, and Occultism or Western esotericism in contrast to Protestantism?

David Morgan: New Age and Esotericism have tended to use images as deliberately polysemous, suggestive devices for generating free association. Tarot cards, for example are a marvelous visual technology. They are an interactive medium in which a person divines his or her narrative in conversation with a reader who knows how to use the rich and evocative imagery of the cards. Actually, Protestants do this all the time with the way they read the Bible. "Sortilege" is the technical term for it: you open the Bible and randomly point to a passage, which you then read as God’s special message for you. It’s a deft way of crafting intentionality from sheer chance. New Age and Esoteric practices are sponge-like in their appropriation of world religious lore. Practitioners fashion a sort of matrix of connections by culling from Native American, Egyptian, Occult, Masonic, Catholic, and other religions what may be called ‘symbols.’ A symbol of this kind is a modern invention. People may believe it’s ancient and venerable because that makes it a kind of iconic window on the past, another world of belief to which the practitioner seeks access in the quest to re-infuse her life with religious meaning. It is a project of re-enchantment that has made Esotericism especially appealing to many people today. Images or symbols play a very significant role in this effort. The symbols are rather like fragments extracted from their original setting and invested with a self-standing or autonomous meaning such that just having them, wearing them, displaying them, and exchanging them is powerful. Combining them in one’s own narrative directs their power in talismanic fashion to the events or unfinished plot of one’s life. Labyrinths have become an important site for making this happen. Yoga and meditation, feasts, magic circles, workshops, retreats, pow-wows, sweat lodges, Wiccan spirit gatherings—all these kinds of ritual events are among those that enable people to put symbols of various kinds to work, and usually in communal circumstances, as Sarah Pike has studied so well in her work on contemporary Paganism. These symbols are deployed within ritual settings, activated by incantations or personal narratives, linked to words, we see, though in a way that many Protestants find menacing. Why? One reason may be that the symbols of Neo-Pagan practice exert more power in the rituals of meaning-making than images are allowed in Protestantism. Neo-Pagan symbols wield as much weight as words—and the words aren’t the circumscribed, scriptural words bearing the authority of church institutions, creeds, and theologies. It’s a fascinating comparison that sheds like on how representation works.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Morgan, thank you again for taking time out of your academic schedule to address this important topic. I wish you the best with the latest book.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Forthcoming Book on Pagan-Christian Dialogue

I am pleased to announce a new project that I have been privileged to work with serving as editor and project coordinator. The project is a forthcoming book by Christian author Philip Johnson and Pagan author Gus Dizerega, titled Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion Publishing).

A new discussion group has been created in Facebook for readers to discuss the volume once it becomes available (scheduled for year's end). In the discussion group I recently posted the following background and description:

The historical relationship between Christians and Pagans has not been a very good one, whether in the past or the present. Pagans have many justifiable reasons for being wary of Christians. They have often been persecuted by the Church in Europe and North America. In addition, several Christian books about contemporary Paganism misrepresent and distort it. This problematic history has led to acts of bigotry and confrontation between these spiritual communities, as when Christians held a series of Witchcraft trials that still linger in the minds of Pagans and other Witches today, a time they refer to as “the Burning Times.” With the resurgence of Paganism in the West the Church needs to understand this spiritual phenomenon, and to be more effective witnesses, all in an effort to move Beyond the Burning Times.

There is a great need for understanding between Christians and Pagans. In the past, representatives from Christianity and Paganism have written about each other’s spiritual paths, and in one case, a Pagan author attempted to present a Pagan and Christian in dialogue in book form, but the Pagan represented both sides of the discussion. There is a desperate need for Christians and Pagans to talk to each other, which is a point that can be confirmed anecdotally by several Pagans I have met. Beyond the Burning Times addresses this need in a way that has not been done before. It brings together qualified and responsible representatives of the Christian and Pagan communities to dialogue on key spiritual topics (outlined below). As the dialogue participants work through the issues they will provide clarification and understanding, and discover not only areas of disagreement, but areas of agreement as well. Pagans will gain a balanced understanding of the Christian message presented in ways that speak meaningfully to them. Christians will gain a balanced understanding of Paganism, and will come to understand that Paganism has something serious to say and offers some significant theological challenges to the Church. Other interesting features of this book include the contributions of qualified Christian and Pagan respondents, and a guest foreword.

Evangelicals have dialogued with representatives of other religious traditions in the past, such as Mormonism (How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & Evangelical in Conversation by Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson [IVP, 1997]), but this has never taken place with Paganism. Gus diZerega, wrote the book Pagans & Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience (Llewellyn, 2001) that attempted to provide a dialogue between these spiritual communities. We appreciate the attempt that was made by a member of the Pagan community, and believe the book is important, but there are distinct advantages to a genuine dialogue between qualified representatives of these two spiritual communities. Genuine dialogue provides the benefits of interaction and genuine understanding, and it also provides an example for what respectful dialogue can look like. To our knowledge, nothing like this book has been attempted before.

Book Outline

Guest Forewords by Dr John Drane and Dr Michael York

Topical dialogue chapters – Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega (alternating expositions)

1. The Nature of Spirituality
2. The Divine
3. Nature
4. Humans and the Divine
5. Spirtual Authority
6. Paganism, Christianity and the Culture Wars
7. Conclusions
8. Critical Responses Summing Up the Dialogue by Michael York and John Smulo

Suggested Readings



The book will be written in a style that is accessible by a popular audience that is literate, but not necessarily academic. It will follow basic academic conventions with respect to endnote documentation. The premise of the book is to engage in real dialogue rather than debate, and for the principal contributors to engage in real discussion on the issues in terms of a description of their views and response to those of the other. With this intent in mind, the respondents would not treat the dialogue exchange as a debate with a winner and loser, but instead, would comment on the merits of the exchange, and what the differing spiritual communities might learn as a result.

Target Audiences

There are several target audiences for this book, including a popular Christian audience, Christian academics, and Pagans.

For the popular Christian audience, this book will provide a balanced introduction to a growing and increasingly popular expression of spirituality. Christians be able to learn about the beliefs and practices of Paganism in a fashion that is unavailable in evangelical apologetic treatments of the topic. In addition, the dialogue and response format of the book will also provide an example of an informed, respectful, and biblically faithful interfaith dialogue.

For Christian and Pagan academics, this book will serve as an important resource for this rapidly growing area of study. It will provide an understanding contemporary Paganism in contrast with Christianity, and the dialogical format of the book will provide learning opportunities not found in traditional expositions of Paganism. For Christian academics the book will also be useful in providing information for seminary, university, and Bible college students, relevant to a variety of study perspectives, including missiology, theology, “cults” and new religions, as well as religion and popular culture. For Pagan academics the book will serve as an example of a balanced exposition of Christianity in contrast with Pagan spirituality and may serve as a textbook for university courses.

For the Pagan community the book will be of interest for at least three reasons. First, many Pagans come to their path after unpleasant experiences in the Christian church. Encountering fair-minded discussions of the two faith traditions will help them better clarify their own beliefs, more sympathetically understand those of good Christians, and see the points of similarity as well as difference between the two. Moving beyond defining themselves by what they are not (their image of Christianity) is an essential step in developing who they really are. Second, many Pagans are very active in interfaith communities. A book such as this could be a major assistance to the increasing numbers of Pagans working with Christians in these contexts. Finally, this volume could become a valuable book for Pagans to give to family members and friends who are concerned about their spiritual beliefs.

Interested readers can sign up through to be notified as to when pre-orders can be secured, and pre-orders are already available at

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gerald McDermott Interview on Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue

Gerald McDermott is professor of religion at Roanoke in Salem, VA. He is the author of a number of books, and many of them present a refreshing perspective on a theology of the religions. These include Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? (InterVarsity Press, 2000), and the new volume God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions - Insights From the Bible and the Early Church (InterVarsity Press, 2007). Gerry has also been involved in interreligious dialogue in the form of Mormon dialogue with Robert Millet of Brigham Young University. In October a new book will be released that presents their dialogue, Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press, 2007). We have had the privilege of interviewing Gerry before on the topic of religious pluralism in connection with his book God's Rivals, and this time we will focus on his perspective on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

Morehead's Musings: Gerry, thanks for coming back a second time to share some thoughts related to your scholarship and activities. I enjoyed our previous discussion related to a theology of religions, one of the key issues for Western evangelicals in light of religious pluralism, but this time I'd like us to focus on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. This is a timely topic in light of the National Student Dialogue Conference hosted by Standing Together and Salt Lake Theological Seminary this October, and in light of some of the criticism that has been raised by one segment of the Evangelical community over some forms of this dialogue process. To begin, how did you get interested and involved with dialogue with Mormonism, and how did you come to develop a relationship with Bob Millet?

Gerald McDermott: About five years ago I was invited by Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw to a small meeting of Evangelical and Mormon scholars, for the purpose of learning more about each other. I remember being impressed by the erudition and piety of the Mormon scholars I met. Robert Millet, whom I now consider a close friend, was particularly articulate and open. He, Grant Underwood, and other Mormons at the conference showed what to me was remarkable familiarity with Evangelical theology and history, not to mention central principles of historic Christian theology.

I invited Bob Millet to come to Roanoke College the following fall and debate me in public at the college chapel. Our subject was “Mormon and Mainstream Christian Similarities and Differences.” We spoke before a packed house. Most of the traditional Christians and Mormons in attendance, who were in roughly equal numbers, said they enjoyed and profited from the exchange. In the fall of 2005 we had another debate at Roanoke College, but this time focused on the person of Jesus. We used Bob’s landmark 2005 book from Eerdmans as our focal point: A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. Bob argued that the LDS view of Jesus was not essentially different from that of traditional Christianity. I contended that it was.

Because we received such a good response from these debates, we thought we might try to do something similar, but more extensive, in print. Thus this book. We wanted to try to model what has been in short supply in the 175+ years since Joseph Smith’s first vision--love and respect in the midst of serious theological differences.

Morehead's Musings: Some of the criticism that has been raised by Evangelicals about this dialogue is that Bob Millet is allegedly being dishonest about his beliefs, and that he is using evangelicals to further the public relations posture of the LDS Church. Let's address this criticism directly. You have a relationship with Bob and have known him for some time. How would you respond to this criticism?

Gerald McDermott: I have seen some of this criticism, and some of Bob’s response to it. Bob has shown that the supposed “dishonesty” comes from differences of context—saying some things for one audience, and other things for another audience that is in a very different situation. You could say the same things about both Jesus and Paul on such things as whether the law is still applicable, or whether salvation is by grace or by works. Depending on the audience and its needs, they emphasize different things. And those different things are fully compatible—tho not to a casual or hostile observer. We do the same many times when we say, for instance, that God is both love and holy vengeance, and (for the Reformed among us) that on the one hand we are free, while on the other hand God is in control of even our choices.

Now I also know that in our book Bob does not retreat from any of the “hard sayings” of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church. He tries to explain their context and help non-Mormons understand why he believes them, but he does not back away from peculiarly-Mormon doctrines which I and all orthodox Christians clearly oppose. We clearly disagree in every chapter. And Bob is, I should say, “honest” about his clear departures from historic orthodoxy. If the charge is that he is trying to boost Mormon PR by camouflaging doctrines that are offensive to Evangelicals, his chapters contain plenty of “offense” for Evangelicals and other orthodox.

Morehead's Musings: In your forthcoming book co-authored with Bob you focused on Christology. This is obviously an area of belief central to Christianity, but are there any other reasons why you focused a volume on this topic?

Gerald McDermott: As I shared above, this book stems from a debate Bob and I staged at Roanoke College following the publication of his book on Jesus. He claimed there that the Mormon Jesus is the same as the orthodox Jesus, and I disagreed. Then we decided to expand the debate into this book.

Both of us believe Jesus is the heart of all Christian faith. The faith rises or falls on its view of Jesus. Without Jesus there is no Christian faith. Hence the absolute importance of getting Jesus right, and the centrality of Jesus for all discussions between Mormons and Evangelicals.

Morehead's Musings: I had the opportunity to see an early draft of the book as it was developing, and I thank you for that. What can readers look forward to as your book hits the shelves in October?

Gerald McDermott: They will find discussion of most or all the major issues separating Evangelicals and orthodox from Mormons, such as whether the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures are new revelation, whether the Mormon Jesus is different from the Jesus of orthodoxy, and contested discussions of: the Trinity, the fall and atonement, church and sacraments, the relation between grace and works in salvation, baptisms for the dead, second chances after death, and whether nearly all are saved.

Morehead's Musings: Were there any things that surprised you about your exchanges with Bob during the course of the writing of this book?

Gerald McDermott: From both Bob’s books and our conversations I have learned that Bob and others have been bringing a new emphasis on grace to the LDS community. It has not reached the point where we now agree on all dimensions of grace, and I don’t know to what degree Bob’s thinking about grace has permeated the LDS community. But I have been surprised to hear and see what Bob has said and written as a leader in that community. I also discovered that there was more emphasis on grace in the Book of Mormon and other parts of the LDS canon than I had imagined and that Mormons worship Jesus as a God. Now there are also passages in the Book of Mormon that suggest works righteousness, and I don’t know how the overall picture of salvation is presented at the local level. But I was pleasantly surprised by a number of passages in this book that do teach grace forthrightly. I must add, however, that while Mormons worship Jesus as fully God, they also believe Jesus grew into being God—a notion that implicitly rejects the orthodox doctrine of eternal pre-existence of the second person of the Trinity.

Another surprise was the Trinitarian language—without using the word “Trinity”—I found in the Book of Mormon, particularly after reading explicitly anti-Trinitarian messages by Joseph Smith later in his career. I conclude in my part of our book that Smith changed his mind mid-stream, after the completion of the Book of Mormon, and preached a new theology quite foreign to his earlier one, and that the LDS community seems to have followed this later Smith rather than the earlier one.

So there were these surprising discoveries, but of course there are still significant problems in Mormon theology for Evangelicals. As I tried to show in the book, these doctrinal differences separate not only Evangelicals from Mormons, but Mormons from the general stream of orthodox Christianity.

Morehead's Musings: As you know, some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue have been controversial, and even deemed inappropriate by some evangelicals, such as the dialogue between Greg Johnson and Bob Millet. Some of the criticism has been very harsh, not only on the substance of the debate, but also in personal criticisms directed at both participants. Do you have any comments about their specific dialogue?

Gerald McDermott: From my knowledge of Greg and Bob’s dialogue—and I have not read all of it—it is appropriate and helpful. They put on the table the deep divide between the two communities, but do so in a cordial and friendly way. They do not minimize historic differences—and it is important that they not do so—but without the personal rancor and explicit demonization that is common in some circles.

I think there is a tendency among some to regard with suspicion any Evangelical or orthodox Christian who engages in friendly dialogue with religious people outside those communities. This is wrong, and quite ill-suited to disciples of Jesus. Paul, for example, who was the premier evangelist and missionary of the New Testament, told the pagans in Athens (Acts 17) that their own poets had truth, and they had some connection—even if remote—to God. In other words, the Athenian pagans, while mired in religious ignorance, were nevertheless groping for the same God whom Paul knew to be the Father of Jesus Christ. He tells them, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (17:23). That is, their ideas about God were nearly all wrong, but the object of their misguided worship was still the same God who had revealed himself to Paul as the true and living God.

Paul quoted some of their own poets:

For “in him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” (17:28)

Paul was probably quoting Epimenides (6th cent. BC) and Aratus (4th cent. BC). The astonishing thing here is that Paul, who apparently believed that Greek religion was abysmally ignorant of the true God, still conceded—in a sermon highlighting Greek religious ignorance!—that the religions had some access to some true notions of the living God.

My point is not that Mormons are pagans. They are not, since at least Bob and Mormons like him use the Bible and speak of Jesus and redemption through Him—even if their view of Jesus is significantly different from the orthodox view of Jesus. But Paul treated these pagans with respect, and seems to have enjoyed their respect and friendship as well (Ac 19.31). He was careful to acknowledge truth where he saw it, even in a very foreign religion. Some of Bob and Greg’s critics seem to regard any such friendship and acknowledgement of truth as prima facie signs of heresy. And I wonder how much they think of Paul’s admonition to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4.15) in their relationships with Mormons.

Morehead's Musings: As I have researched the broader issues of interreligious dialogue, and then apply these reflections to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, it appears as if many Evangelicals are more comfortable with debate between representatives of these faiths, but not dialogue. This may be the case for some in the LDS community as well. What types of adjustments do Evangelicals need to make in terms of theology and lifestyle to more fully prepare themselves for dialogue as a form of engagement between representatives of differing religious communities in the 21st century?

Gerald McDermott: Well, as I have already suggested, we need to think more deeply about what Paul means by “speaking the truth in love.” We also need to reflect on the fact that some of the pagan “Asiarchs” in Ephesus were such friends of Paul as to intervene to save him in a hostile environment. Can we imagine what kind of patient and friendly and respectful dialogue Paul had engaged in with them? We can be certain that Paul would have talked with them about their religion, but also that they would not have been his “friends” (Ac 19.31) or risked their own skins to help him if he had treated them with anything less than respect.

The implication for theology is to remember that those who disagree with us also have the law of God written on their hearts (Rom 2.15), and that some may be “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 13.34). Jesus obviously felt the scribe in the latter passage was still mistaken, but He did not demonize him. Rather than denouncing him, He commended him, and implicitly invited him to further fellowship and conversation—which some might call dialogue.

Does our lifestyle permit that kind of exchange?

Morehead's Musings: Gerry, thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us about this important topic.

Monday, September 10, 2007

New Social Networking and Discussion Groups on Facebook

Last week I accepted an invitation from a friend and colleague to create a profile for myself and to join a few discussion groups on Facebook. For those who may be unfamiliar with it, Facebook is an interesting website that facilitates social networking. My profile may be found here. In addition, I recently created three new discussion groups, including Christian Dialogue with New Religious Movements (a closed group available by invitation or approval only), Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue (also a closed group), and a group feature a discussion about Philip Johnson and Gus DiZerega's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion Publishing, forthcoming, that can be found here.

I'd encourage readers to get involved with Facebook, to network with others, and to review the various discussion groups this website has to offer.

Interview with Stephen Prothero on Religious (Il)Literacy

One of the aims of this blog is to facilitate understanding about both new religions and world religions. Before anyone can say they disagree with a given religion's beliefs or practices, or before we can even share their own faith appropriately, we must have a basic and fair understanding of other religions. This is most definitely the case in our ever-shrinking world where pluralism and globalization are significant social and cultural forces, where many of the world's conflicts reflect ongoing religious tensions often fueled by stereotypes, and where America's neighborhoods now reflect an increasing diversity of religious expression.

And yet, while the need for religious understanding has never been greater, apparently religious illiteracy is rampant in America. This is the claim made by Dr. Stephen Prothero, Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, and author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't (HarperOne, 2007). This book has been nominated for several awards, and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks. In this volume, Dr. Prothero has pointed out a deficiency in American thinking, with devastating local and international ramifications. He has consented to answer a few questions for this blog's readers.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Prothero, given the name places in national media in which you've given interviews, thank you for making time to share your thoughts with my readers in a much smaller reading audience. To begin, what drew your attention to America's illiteracy in terms of understanding of religion?

Stephen Prothero: I think I got hit here from a lot of different angles, but one of the hardest hits was from my students. I've been teaching for about 15 years, and recently I finally realized that I just couldn't assume that they knew what I meant when I referred to Matthew (Matthew Perry?) or a variety of Bible characters and stories. So I started quizzing my incoming students on very, very basic information about Christianity and the world's religions. And I found that they did quite poorly. In fact, only about one in six passed my exam, which asked such simple questions as, "Name the first five books of the Bible" or "Name one Hindu scripture."

Morehead's Musings: Can you give us some examples of this problem? You found great ignorance concerning even the dominant religion in the U.S., that of Christianity, even among Christians, but you also found that this lack of awareness involves religions across the board, isn't this correct?

Stephen Prothero: Americans know shockingly little about Christianity, Judaism, and the Bible, yes. Most cannot name even ONE of the four Gospels. Most don't know that Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible. And one in ten think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. But things are even more grim when it comes to religions outside the Judeo-Christian canopy. In fact, many American teenagers cannot even NAME Buddhism or Hinduism when asked to name the major religions of the world. And understanding of Islam is poor at best, even among America's political leaders.

Morehead's Musings: To what do you attribute this religious illiteracy historically?

Stephen Prothero: I have two chapters on this in Religious Literacy, so it's hard to summarize all that here. Suffice it to say that the Religious Right is wrong to pin this downturn to secularists and to trace it to the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court rulings against prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools. For the most part it was religious people, and evangelicals especially, who pushed the Bible out of public schools, and they did so in the middle of the nineteenth century. Moreover, churches have done a very, very poor job teaching the basic stories and doctrines of Christianity. For the last century and a half or so they have been focused far more on loving Jesus than on understanding him, and on feeling their way into religion rather than thinking their way in.

Morehead's Musings: In an article you did for Beliefnet you noted that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had a large number of official economic experts to assist here, but only one informal expert on religion. This is a staggering fact! What types of ramifications do you see for this lack of awareness of the religions, whether in the political sphere on a national or international basis, or whether between neighbors of differing religions in America?

Stephen Prothero: Well, this is a scandal. The only reason it makes ANY sense is if religion doesn't matter. But of course it does. If we want to understand what moves people overseas to act politically and economically and militarily then we need to understand religion, because in many cases religious beliefs and practices are key motivators for these behaviors. And in many cases religion is a more powerful motivator than grasping after power or after money. It sounds self-serving, but I don't see why the Secretary of State shouldn't have an advisor concerning every major world religion at her fingertips. Can we really understand what is happening in China or North Korea without understanding Confucianism, for example? Or the strife in Sri Lanka without understanding Buddhism and Islam?

Morehead's Musings: What have you suggested as a remedy for this situation within the boundaries of the separation of church and state?

Stephen Prothero: I think we need mandatory religious studies courses in our public schools. One on the Bible--what it says and how it has been used over the centuries, in art, literature, and above all American politics. And another on the great religions of the world. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it plain that such courses are not only constitutional but necessary, as long as the subject of religion is being TAUGHT rather than being PREACHED.

Morehead's Musings: It appears that most seminaries and Christian universities have yet to make courses in world religions, new religions, or intercultural studies a required part of training for future pastors and Christian ministers. Might not the religious diversity America's neighborhoods and our current religious illiteracy indicate a change is needed in theological education in this area?

Stephen Prothero: This is a great point. I wish I had taken it up more fully in Religious Literacy. Of course there are seminaries that do reckon with some care to the religions of the world. At Boston University's School of Theology there is a "Core Texts" course that covers the scriptures of the great religions. But such courses are typical only at the more liberal seminaries. I have to say, however, that seminaries aren't doing a good job teaching their graduates about Christianity, much less Daoism and Jainism. Many Lutheran seminarians know next to nothing about Luther and many Methodist seminaries know even less about the Wesleys.

Morehead's Musings: Also in your beliefnet article I referenced previously, you suggest that not only should the general American population have a greater religious literacy, but that we should expect this of our presidency. While much of the controversy in religion and politics recently has surrounded Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith, you suggest that we move beyond this and ask the broader questions. How might we be thinking more strategically about how religious and cultural literacy impacts (or should impact) our foreign policy and how this in turn impacts what we should be looking for our our presidential candidates?

Stephen Prothero: My point in this Beliefnet piece is that we should have a "religious test" for the U.S. presidency. Not the sort of test outlawed in the Constitution ("Are you a Christian?") but the sort of test included in my "Religious Literacy" book. Before I am going to vote for any politician for president I want to know if they can tell a Sunni from Shiite. So my point about Governor Romney was this: I don't care if he's a Mormon or whether Mormons are really Christians. I want to know what he knows about Hinduism and Islam, and whether he is ready therefore to deal with a crisis, should it come, in Kashmir.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Prothero, thanks again for taking time to answer these questions. I hope that my readers pick up a copy of your book and expand their awareness of the religions.

Stephen Prothero: Thank you, John, for bringing my book to the attention of your readers.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Phil Wyman and "I Am What's Wrong With the Church"

My friend and colleague Phil Wyman of The Gathering in Salem (in photo on the right) has an article titled "I Am What's Wrong With the Church" that appears in the September/October 2007 issue of The Plain Truth magazine. It's a great article that includes Phil's experiences in Salem as a Christian among Witches and Neo-Pagans, and the negative response by his former denomination, the Foursquare, to his friendships with local Pagans and his preferred forms of engagement with the local subcultures. As Phil writes about Pagans:

"They practice a religion misunderstood and demonized by Christian pastors. They understand what it means to be persecuted for their faith, but they have experienced this persecution from evangelical Christians who have believed the tall tales and urban myths about today's Witches.

"The church in the 21st century does not identify with their needs, and the television version of Christianity appears to be no more than parlor tricks played upon gullible crowds by ministers who are as much magicians as they are preachers."

As Phil reflects on Christianity in his local context, and on the broader national stage he writes,

"My despair and hopelessness is found quite close to home though. I find it in myself. I am what's wrong with the church.

"I find that I can quickly jump to conclusions about people. The way they look, the way they talk, the style of lives they live; these are the things which cause me to disassociate with people or mark them as a lost cause.

"I worry that the church has become too superstitious to see my Neo-Pagan friends as regular people who, like ourselves, were created in the image of God. The church is afraid of their 'magic,' and refuses to connect with them in any manner except a rebuke, and maybe an exorcism rite. Is this same attitude in me?"

I encourage you to download and read Phil's article. It's a bitter pill for Christians to swallow, but I think it's the right prescription for what ails us. The problem with the church is many times the attitudes of the very Christians who comprise it.