Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Afrika Burns Synchroblog: Burning Man Regional Burn

I am amazed at times how blogging is able to impact people around the world. A while back I was contacted by Nic Paton of the Emerging Africa blog who shared his appreciation for my research, reflections, and writing on the Burning Man Festival. Nic and a group of fellow travelers recently returned from a trip to a regional burn as part of Afrika Burns and he invited me to particpate in a synchroblog. My participation in this provides me with an opportunity to introduce some of my work in this area to new readers coming by my blog as a result of the synchroblog, and to remind other readers of the significance of this festival and alternative subculture. In this post I will point toward my work on Burning Man Festival in Nevada, and will suggest three helpful resources for further exploration.

To begin, readers might be interested in my previous blog posts on various facets related to Burning Man:

"Dance, Festivity, Christianity, and Burning Man"

"I've Been Burned"

"Burning Man: A Few Impressions After the Red Pill"

"Burning Man, Communitas and the Church"

"Carnality, Burning Man and Alternative Culture"

"What is Burning Man Saying to the Contemporary Church?"

"Burning Man and the Emerging Church"

"The Green Man: Burning Man 2007 Art Theme"

"The Fight Between Carnival and Lent"

"Burning Man and Play Theology"

"Burning Man, the Temple, and Memorial Day"

Readers might also be interested in the interview I did on Burning Man and my graduate thesis that can be found here. In addition, my thesis can be downloaded in its entirety at this link.

Beyond my own research and writing on the topic I'd like to recommend a few resources that I have found helpful and which provide for continuing reflection. The first relates to understanding the general social and cultural context in which Burning Man arises. This resource comes in the form of a book by Gordon Lynch, The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century (I.B. Tauris, 2007). In this interesting volume Lynch examines an ideology arising out of the religious Left that crosses various religious boundaries and which represents a significant form of progressive spirituality. While Lynch only mentions Burning Man once in the volume, as he describes the values and key elements of this progressive spirituality it is clear that it has affinities with the values and spiritual quest of Burning Man.

Moving from the general to the more particular, one of the sources I benefited from during my thesis research was Graham St. John who touched on Burning Man in connection with his own research on alternative cultural events in Australia and the U.K. St. John has an interesting blog called Edgecentral, and his doctoral thesis can be downloaded here.

Finally, one of the elements I interacted with in my thesis in the context of church in the West was a theology of play and the related issue of festivity. This was one of the more difficult areas of my thesis to get past my supervisor, but I believe it is one of the most significant in that Burning Man features play and festivity as major facets of expression, and these are ones that are sadly lacking in various expressions of Western Protestantism. After completing my thesis I discovered Robert K. Johnston, The Christian at Play (William B. Eerdmans, 1983), which represents a modification of his doctoral thesis on the topic. I was pleased to see him interact with many of the same play theologians I interacted with, and I took Johnston's willingness to take up this topic in a major fashion as vindication of my own intuitions on the significance of this topic. Readers will benefit from a consideration of Johnson's research on play theology in application to Burning Man.

(Photo accompanying this post from Burning Man 2007, captioned as "Brooke performs in the Fire Conclave on the night of the burn," by photographer Scott London. Copyright London and Burning Man LLC.)

Please visit the other websites that touch on the Afrika Burns experience as part of this synchroblog:

Photographs on Signs of Life : Rob Mills and Mike de Freitas

Tim Victor on Tim Victors Musings : Afrika Burns

Ant Paton on CapeConversation : Wondering about the wilderness, by Ant Paton

Rob Mills : Signs of Life

Emerging Africa : Afterburn: A Karoo Flowering

Mike de Freitas on CapeConversation: Afrika Burns, a Christian response, by Mike de Freitas

Nic Paton : a baptism of joyful fire : Afrika Burns synchroblog

RuZl on Liquid Light : a desert underground

Roger Saner on Future Church : An oasis of silence

Other writings of note:

From the mouth of the Man himself : What is Burning Man?

John W Morehead: Burn, Baby, Burn, Christendom Inferno: Burning Man and the Festive Immolation of Christendom Culture and Modernity

John W Morehead: Apocalyptic Man Ablaze: The Hope of Burning Man's Effigy Fulfilled in the Risen Holy Fool

Overtone Music blog : Afrika Burns: Backwater Art Back In Fashion

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Irving Hexham on New Religions: Concluding Interview

A while back, Irving Hexham, a Canadian scholar of new religions, participated in the first installment of an interview on this blog where he shared his background. Readers might refer back to that first installment, as well as Irving's website for helpful background information. In this second and final installment Irving shares his thoughts on new religious movements.

Morehead's Musings: I noted in preparing for this interview that you did your master's thesis on Glastonbury Festival. I have an interest in a cross-cultural perspective on festivals such as this that relate to my Burning Man studies. Can you tell us a little about your thesis?

Irving Hexham: As far as I know it was the first British, perhaps even the very first, study of the New Age Movement by an academic. Because of the University of Bristol's word limit of 10,000 words it was really short, but I tried to make up for lack of space with adequate footnotes and appendices. Several years ago I made it available in a slightly revised form, revised in the sense of updating the language where things no longer made sense, on the web. It can be found at:

Shortly after I completed the thesis I submitted a book proposal to Inter-Varsity Press in Britain. It was rejected because "no one knew what the New Age Movement was" and they really wanted a more relevant book dealing with "cults."

Morehead's Musings: I have benefitted from your writings and perspectives over the years. I recently reviewed an article you wrote in 1980 for the journal Crux. Several things you said in that article struck me. In one place you wrote that, "Many evangelicals find it easy to detect heresy and sense unorthodox beliefs. Few know how to deal with a dynamic religious situation or cope with religious change. Christians generally are conditioned by the historic creeds to think in static theological categories." You wrote this in the 1980s, but do you think this counsel is still needed today, and if so, in what ways?

Irving Hexham: First, let me say that with Sir Karl Popper I believe that there is a place, and an important place, for dogma. We need boundaries and creeds to provide believers with boundaries. What I meant at the time, and still think is important, is that many new religions are in the process of formulating their doctrines on the basis of religious experiences. Therefore, what they may say today could change tomorrow. This is not some sneaky was of avoiding truth. It simply reflects the dynamic nature of such movements and the need to recognize that, especially in their early stages, new religions often do not really know what they believe and certainly have not reflected on how their beliefs are related to the historic Christian tradtion.

Morehead's Musings: In this article you also note how important it is for Christians to bring their theology in dialogue with other disciplines like sociology, not only so that we might understand the beliefs of others, but also to assist in our "understanding our place in God's world." Do you think this interdisciplinary approach might be even more important now in our age of globalization and religious pluralism?

Irving Hexham: Absolutely. We need to develop strong inter-disciplinary approaches. But, a caution is needed here. Far too often in Religious Studies an interdisciplinary approach means not that one has mastered several disciplines but rather it is an excuse for not mastering any discipline. Anyone who wants to use, say History and Sociology, needs to master both historical and sociological methods not simply get by without really knowing either.

Morehead's Musings: In your writings in the past you have lamented how evangelicals have tended to understand and write about the new religions, particularly the New Spirituality ("New Age"). Do you think this situation has changed much, and do you see any developments in this area?

Irving Hexham: Things are definitely changing as a new generation of Christian scholars begins to take over. Yes, I'd say things are much better today with people like yourself developing dynamic approaches to other religious traditions.

Morehead's Musings: Let's talk about some of your books that touch on religious studies. In New Religions as Global Cultures (Westview Press, 1997) can you briefly summarize the thesis that you and your wife and co-author, Karla Poewe, put forward, that new religions should be considered global cultures?

Irving Hexham: What we meant by this was that to understand many, if not most, new religions one has to see them in a global context recognizing that they draw many of their beliefs and practices from cultures other than North America or even Western Europe. Once created, however, these new religous cultures span the world. Thus the Unification Church borrowed ideas about marriage from Confucian ethics while German members of the Church put these ideas into practice in Germany just as Brazilians adapted them to Brazil. So one gets a cross-fertalization that can only be understood in terms of its origins and propagation globally.

Morehead's Musings: Why is this perspective helpful in understanding and engaging the new religions in contrast to conceptions of new religions as little more than heretical religious systems?

Irving Hexham: To take the Unification Church again, although many Christians were very upset with it, there is nothing inherently wrong with an arranged marriage along Confusican lines. Today I have Indian friends at the University of Calgary who are Christians from one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world - Indian Christianity traces its roots to Thomas the Apostle and although we know very little about its origins we know that thriving Christian communities existed in India by the end of the second century. Yet these Christian Indians, just like Unification Church members, were married in India through a system of arranged marriages. Surely this is not something to get upset about. The Bible says nothing about dating or how marriages should take place. Why then impose a rather modern Western view of courtship on the world?

Morehead's Musings: I was intrigued by your discussion of the importance of myth to new religions. Can you summarize some of your thinking here?

Irving Hexham: Myth is a hot topic in Religious Studies and one about which a lot of junk has been written. Generally, it is seen as some super spiritual state or form of knowledge. The approach Karla Poewe and I take is radically different. Following anthropological practice we define myth as "a story with culturally formative power." Therefore, any story can function as a myth provided it motivates people to act in certain ways. What is important here is the function of the story not whether it is true or not. We are looking at myth in an anthropological sense as a story that motivates becasue people believe it to be true. For anthropological, but not theological, purposes there is no need to ask if the story is true. Our question is, "Does it move people to act in certain ways?"

Morehead's Musings: It might be helpful to connect this to some examples. Can you share some examples as to how myths surface and are important to the New Spirituality ("New Age") and Mormonism?

Irving Hexham: In Britain Glastonbury was regarded as a place of "power" where ley lines crossed. Therefore some people moved there because they believed it was the place where King Arthur was buried. In Mormonism the story of the Mormon trek to Utah functions as a myth to inspire piety and even help convert people. Yet the trek took place and in this sense is a true historical event.

Morehead's Musings: Do you have any research projects in the works?

Irving Hexham: Yes I am completing a book for Zondervan on World Religions and working on what I call "Ancestral Neo-Paganism" which is a unique form of neo-paganism connected to National Socialism in Germany. I am also working on aspects of the New Atheism where several writers claim that Christians and Christianity caused or created National Socialism. This is incorrect but is a belief that is growing in popularity. So there is a lot of work to do.

Morehead's Musings: Irving, thank you for your time and thoughts. I hope this discussion has stirred interest in your writings, your scholarship, and your website.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Interview with Clive Marsh: Theology Goes to the Movies

Clive Marsh studied at the Universities of Wales (Bangor), Tubingen, and Oxford. His doctoral studies, on the theology of Albrecht Ritschl, included three months at the Lutheran School at Chicago. He now lives in Leicester (UK).

After three years in chaplaincy and youth work, he became a lecturer in Christian theology, first (1989-1995) at the Wilson Carlile College (Sheffield, England), then (1995-2000) at the College of Ripon and York (England). He spent seven years as Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in Great Britain and is now Principal of the East Midlands Ministry Training Course, based at the University of Nottingham (UK).

He has a particular interest in Christology, having undertaken much study of the Historical Jesus early in his academic career. His main concern is to explore how Christian theology works, given its complex place within many different cultures. His interest in theology and film has grown out of this.

He has published a number of books including Albrecht Ritschl and the Problem of the Historical Jesus (Edwin Mellen, 1992), Explorations in Theology and Film (Blackwell, 1997, co-edited with Gaye Ortiz), Jesus and the Gospels (2nd edn., Continuum 2006, co-written with Steve Moyise), Cinema and Sentiment: Film's Challenge to Theology (Paternoster, 2004), Christ in Focus: Radical Christocentrism in Christian Theology (SCM Press 2005), Christ in Practice: A Christology of Everyday Life (DLT 2006) and his most recent volume Theology Goes to the Movies (Routledge, 2007). He is also a contributor to the new volume edited by Robert K. Johnston, Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline (Baker Academic, 2007).

Dr. Marsh has agreed to share some of this thoughts about our mutual interest in theology and film.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Marsh, thank you making some time to discuss theology and film. As a theologian, can you tell us how you can to be interested and involved in theology and film studies?

Clive Marsh: It was simply a matter of responding to students in a context where I had to teach Christian theology. I needed to enable people who wanted to study theology critically to do so in both an interesting and engaged fashion. The first students I taught knew the Bible pretty well, and had a basic grasp of themes from the history of Christian thought. But even Christian students often found texts from Christian history rather 'dry'. Meanwhile, they were watching films and listening to songs, and there was a constant interplay between these and the beliefs they espoused. So it was a rich basis for theological exploration.

Morehead's Musings: Everyone brings a certain theology of culture and cultural engagement to their interaction with film (or lack thereof). What type of theology of culture serves as the foundation for your interaction with film?

Clive Marsh: If you mean 'what particular theological convictions make the enterprise possible', then it's the doctrines of creation, incarnation and Holy Spirit which are especially important. God is tangled up in the process of creation, and is working with creation all the time. A strong doctrine of incarnation prevents references to 'creativity', 'spirit', 'inspiration' and 'spirituality' becoming too diffuse and divorced from embodied reality. If your question is about which particular theological traditions have helped me get to where I have, then I must admit I owe much first to Liberal Protestantism (Schleiermacher through to Tillich), for helping me see the complexity of how church and world interrelate (and how the former is not always good and positive, and the latter not always bad). From there I have been able to draw on many other movements and traditions in putting together a 'theology of creativity' - using classical texts from early Christianity about incarnation and iconography, and, more recently, the insights of post-liberalism and narrative theology to help me see the importance of community and story in how meaning is discovered or made. The real challenge to contemporary Christian theologies of culture is to explore how such meaning-making happens in contemporary society in a way which respects 'church' as a concept and social reality, without resorting to some stifling form of ecclesiocentrism.

Morehead's Musings: In your recent book, Theology Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Critical Christian Thinking, one of the areas you discuss is the role that cinema plays in late modern Western culture. Can you touch on this for us?

Clive Marsh: Cinemas are significant because they are one place where people 'step outside' the routines of life to engage in an experience which is life-enhancing. I stress that it is one place, and one habit. I am not saying it is somehow especially privileged. Music, theatre, sport are other examples of similar practices and need similar theological (and not just sociological or psychological) attention. It can, of course, easily be claimed that cinema is 'escape' and that people go to the cinema for some light relief, a good night out, some family fun, or whatever. Indeed, that's what lots of cinema-goers say they are doing. But the empirical data being gathered about the place that the cinema plays in many people's lives is starting to show just how significant the practice proves for people. People do 'escape'. But it helps them reflect on life, experience a good emotional shake-up, helps them to focus on something and be attentive in a way they may not be anywhere else, outside of work, during the week. Cinema is, in other words, not simply 'escapism' is a negative sense. This means that it often has some of the functions of religious practice, whether or not people are explicit about the philosophical or theological frameworks within which they do their cinema-going, or consciously 'process' what the film does for and to them.

Morehead's Musings: Is there an increasing need for theologians and pastors to interact with film?

Clive Marsh: Well if what I've just said is true - that cinema is almost a "religion-like" activity - then theologians and pastors cannot but be interested in films and in popular culture generally. Analysts of culture who are unsympathetic to religion are not going to want to come to the conclusion that sociologists of religion are reaching. It is a scary thought for hardened secularists or opponents of religion to consider that popular culture might be having a religious function. But if it is true then it matters hugely what popular culture is doing - whether or not it is religiously inspired or intending to evoke any kind of theological or religious response. One problem is that for me as a Christian theologian to say this is that it may sound as if I'm saying our task is therefore to enable lots of 'good', or 'Christian-friendly' popular culture. That's not what I am saying at all. Popular culture is not to be labelled 'good 'or 'bad' by any simple test of whether it's 'Christian' or not. Yes, there are ways of teasing out good and bad features of all culture (highbrow and lowbrow) - though it's not an easy task, and will always provoke dispute. And it's not best done on theological grounds alone. Theological conversation happens around all culture, Christian or not (and what is 'Christian culture' anyway?). So theologians and pastors simply need to be better equipped to know how to do this, and to help people they relate to in their communities (academic and religious) to do this.

Morehead's Musings: Can you share a few examples with us as to how film is touching on, as you say in your book, "a systematic theology through film," as film touches on God, human beings, and redemption?

Clive Marsh: I naturally simply want to people to read Theology Goes to the Movies! But The Truman Show and Bruce Almighty are two obvious contemporary 'ways in' to discussions about what and who God is. Touching the Void provokes questions about 'spirit', and what a human being is, as does Amadeus. Crimes and Misdemeanors and 21 Grams are great films through which to explore the notion of redemption. The Piano invites reflection about baptism and the sacraments more generally. Will that do for starters? I don't, though, want to leave readers with the impression that I think it's just the theme of a film that makes them theologically interesting. I also want to stress that it's the viewing experience that makes films theologically important and stimulating. Theology is, after all, more than just words.

Morehead's Musings: How might Christian engagement with film be more theologically, culturally, and cinematically informed?

Clive Marsh: If people get excited about film, then I'd expect them to want to know (and therefore investigate) more about the films they watch. That goes for Christian cinema-goers too. Don't be satisfied with just watching a film once. Watch it again. Watch the DVD with all the 'add ons'. Read the reviews (before and after). And then let your believing and theological thinking interact with the way you process the film watching experience. But to do that means probably knowing more about Christian theological traditions than many churchgoers often do. So it means exploring the history of Christian theology a bit. How many churches have classes through which people can dig around in the history of doctrine, to let doctrine come alive as a contemporary framework of thought within which people live their lives? Or how many churches encourage (and financially support) its lay people to take basic theology courses at college or university? Yet that's what the Church as a whole needs. And that's what informed cinema-going needs, in order to be theologically rich.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Marsh, once again, thanks for sharing your insights. I hope that readers seek out copies of your new book and your previous volumes as well.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue: Ramifications of "Disparity of Concern"

I am still continuing to reflect on the Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue Conference held in Salt Lake City recently. I ordered the CDs of the plenary sessions to accompany my notes that I took during the conference, and they have been helpful as I review my reflections from the time, and as I continue to develop them.

An interesting concept surfaced in the question and answer period in the first plenary session between Craig Hazen and Grant Underwood, that in my view undergirds many of the difficulties in evangelical-Mormon dialogue. In response to one of the questions from the audience, Craig Hazen mentioned a phenomonen that he called a "disparity of concern." This refers to very different concerns over eternal matters in terms of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and the afterlife between these two religious sytems. As Craig painted the picture, in his understanding of the afterlife for Latter-day Saints the evangelical can gain more with a modification of belief and praxis within an LDS worldview, but the evangelical has a positive position in the afterlife even given his aberrant views and practices from the LDS perspective. By contrast, for many evangelicals the Latter-day Saint has much to lose from their beliefs and practices in the eternal scheme of things, as they are viewed as heretical from the evangelical viewpoint. This very different view of things and their soteriological ramifications leads to the disparity of concern, one which is far stronger in the evangelical community toward Latter-day Saints than perhaps it is in the Latter-day Saint community toward evangelicals.

I think this consideration is important for our reflection, not only as an idea in an of itself, but also how it impacts, consciously or subconsiously, various other aspects of evangelical-Mormon understandings and interactions.

First, the strong sense of soteriological disparity of concern on the part of evangelicals often leads to a strong emotional sense of urgency in the proclamation of the message, which, in my view, often short circuits or prevents more careful reflection on important issues related to effective cross-(sub)cultural communication. This was illustrated for me as I watched an informal dialogue between an evangelical and a Latter-day Saint during lunch during the conference. After an hour's worth of exchange, the Latter-day Saint stated in exhasperation that he had wasted an hour of time because his evangelical dialogue partner had made no attempt to understand his position, but instead, seemed intent on merely proclaiming his message and concerns. After watching this dialogue it was evident to me that the evangelical had no ability to enter into the thought-world, empathetically or otherwise, of the Latter-day Saint, and thus he was unable to understand his dialogue partner accurately or to frame the message he wanted to communicate in terms that would be favorably received by the receptor. The difficulty in this miscommunication scenario was the overriding disparity of concern on the part of the evangelical that could not be held onto in balanced and holistic fashion with other concerns so as to faciliate effective communication.

The second example of the ramifications of the disparity of concern came to me as I recently read a newsletter from a counter-cult ministry that addressed Mormonism. The article used a presentation titled "What Would Jesus Say to a Mormon" by Denver Seminary's Craig Blomberg as a point of departure. While the article viewed Blomberg's comments favorably, nevertheless, the author argued that Blomberg did not go far enough. In the counter-cult author's opinion, Christ would go further with a Latter-day Saint to point out various points of Christology as reflected in the form of biblical and creedal orthdoxy in contrast with perceived Latter-day Saint heresy. I am aware that I'll probably get myself into trouble with evangelicals by probing this issue, but I wonder: Would Jesus have argued in such fashion with a Mormon (or any other religious or spiritual group), and if so, how much doctrinal detail would he have gone into? Perhaps evangelicals need to rethink their assumptions in this area.

If the evangelical-Mormon encounter represents a form of cultural or subcultural communication (and I have argued elsewhere that on the level of ethnicity or self-identity that Mormonism is rightly viewed in a unique subcultural sense necessitating cross-cultural understanding and communication) then questions arise as to how evangelicals might appropriately communicate their concerns with their Latter-day Saint friends and contacts. The disparity of concern often faciliates a communication of the charge of heresy, followed by aspects of creedal Christological orthodoxy that the evangelical believes the Latter-day Saint must make assent to both mentally and in terms of personal faith commitments. If Paul's exchange with the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17 provides some kind of model for such cross-cultural and interreligious exchanges, then some contextualized presentation of Christian truth claims, and an appropriate correction and alternative to competing worldviews seems in order, nevertheless, what type of information and doctrinal ideas should be communicated? Is a full blown, post-Nicean Christology in order, or indeed, even essential? Many of our evangelistic methodologies assume so.

In a previous blog post I addressed issues related to this in a discussion of correct knowledge and doctrinal mininalism. In this post I considered two missiological resources that looked at the question of essential biblical Christological issues related to soteriology and the separate issue of worldview transformation. I then concluded, in part:

It appears from the biblical evidence that a minimal amount of correct knowledge and doctrine was presented to and accepted by the “convert,” and our tendencies toward more extensive evangelistic formulas might be not only unbiblical, but also put the doctrinal cart before the horse. Rather than expecting potential converts to have more extensive and orthodox theological views, perhaps this is something that should be developed over time as individuals mature in the discipleship process.

I believe the twin issues of Christological (and theology proper) minimalism, as well as the proper place for worldview transformation, are key issues for theologians and missiologists in an age of increasing religious pluralism, and in the evangelical encounter with new religions where dialogue appears to be gaining a greater place on the agenda. To my knowledge these issues have not been addressed in any substantial fashion in places like the Evangelical Theological Society or Evangelical Missiological Society. It is time for us to put them on the respective theological and missiological agendas.

As I reflect on these issues and their application to evangelical-Mormon dialogue I wonder whether they do not represent examples of the ramifications and impact of the disparity of concern. Is it possible that evangelicals have allowed their soteriological passions and the affective impact of the disparity of concern for Latter-day Saints to prevent them from critical reassessment of their theological assumptions?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Spirituality and Popular Culture Conference: A Journey of Spirit and Faith in Connection with The Sundance Film Festival

One of the areas of research exploration for me since completing my graduate degree has been in the area of so-called "practical theology" (what does this label so about other forms of theology?) and popular culture, particularly film studies. As part of this research I will be participating in an event sponsored by a Salt Lake Theological Seminary that involves a two-day film viewing and discussion forum in connection with the Sundance Film Festival followed by a course of study that looks at differing genres of film that engage the spiritual in popular culture. Among other texts already in my collection, some of the materals I have been engaging for this include:

Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings Finding God in Popular Culture (Baker Academic, 2003)

Robert K. Johnston (ed), Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline (Baker Academic, 2007)

Gordon Lynch, Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles Anderson and Michael Sleasman (eds), Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, 2007)

Major promotion for the event and the course have yet to take place from the seminary, but following is a description for those who would like to consider their participation.

Utah is the home for one of the great national film gatherings, the Sundance Film Festival. In order to take advantage of this important cultural event, Salt Lake Theological Seminary is putting together an event that will benefit both church and community, the Spirituality and Popular Culture Conference. This event features Christians with expertise in theology, popular culture, and cinema.

Participants include:

Craig Detweiler, a recognized author, screenplay writer, film professor and co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary (where he also teaches). He was the screenwriter for the Disney film The Duke as well as Extreme Days. He co-authored the book A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture with Barry Taylor, which has been used as a textbook by many Christian media students and by others seeking to find religious meaning within the entertainment industry.

Marc Lougee is a Canadian filmmaker who has been involved with a number of projects. Marc's most recent film, a stop-motion animation production of The Pit and the Pendulum, has been showcased at a number of film festivals and has won several awards. This film was executive produced by animation legend Ray Harryhausen (Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Clash of the Titans) and Fred Fuchs (Francis Ford Coppolla's Dracula, Frankenstein). Visual Effects for the film were produced by Switch VFX, Toronto.

John Morehead is a researcher, scholar, and writer on intercultural studies and alternative spiritualities in the West. He also works in the area of spirituality in popular culture. One of his research areas is in myth and archetype in popular culture, often expressed through the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. He has taught at Salt Lake Seminary on film and faith, and regularly discusses these topics on his blog TheoFantastique, a unique combination of popular and academic explorations of spirituality, the fantastic, and pop culture.

We invite your participation in this two-part conference on Saturday and Sunday evenings, January 19 and 20, 2008. Contact Salt Lake Theological Seminary for more information on times and location for the films and panel discussions, and the course that follows.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Death or the Reappropriation of the Mythic God? - Revised and updated

Last week I was reviewing various magazines and books at my local Barnes and Noble, and an article listed on the cover of the October-December 2007 issue of What is Enlightenment? magazine caught my eye. The article is titled "The Death of the Mythic God" by Carter Phipps, which involves an interview with Jim Marion, a former Catholic monk and author of The Death of the Mythic God: The Rise of Evolutionary Spirituality (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2004). The article begins with a summary of modernity's impact on Western civilization in the general decline of Christianity with the perceived sense of its waning credibility, accompanied by the increase in interest what were once "fringe" or "non-traditional" spiritualities such as new religious movements, "New Age" or New Spiritualities, and various Eastern philosophies and religions.

The interview begins with this foundation having been laid, and in Marion's view this signals not only a credibility gap in Christianity and certain conceptions of God and religious pathways, but also a shift in human evolution to a new form of spiritual consciousness. As Marion describes it:

"Over the last fifty years -- probably longer, but especially in the last fifty years -- modern psychology has shown that people progress in consciousness from one level to another to another, and every time you go up a level in consciousness, your worldview changes. That includes your idea of who or what God is. So a person who operates, for example, at a rational level of consciousness has a very different idea of God than a person who operates at a mythological level of consciousness. The average person in the West, and probably in the East, too, has basically conceived of God in mythological terms for most of the last three thousand years."

For the purposes of clarification Marion goes on to define a mythological concept of deity as "a conception of God as a ruler, a punisher, a patriarch -- all of the traditional male symbols of God. This God actually intervenes at times in human affairs, and, if we pray, creates miracles."

I find this interview of great interest for a number of reasons.

First, the article correctly notes the cultural, social, and religious state of affairs in the Western world wherein Christendom culture has collapsed and various forms of once alternative spiritualities have now moved toward the center, at least in terms of influence and credibility for spiritual exploration for increasing numbers of people. Those Christian workers ministering within this environment still seem not to have taken notice of the import of this new context for ministry, including those in the emerging church movement. New contextualized expressions of Christian community will have to adequately wrestle with all the facets of late modernity/postmodernity, and not only the epistemological ones. For whatever reasons, several important facets of Western cultural change still don't show up on Christian radar.

Second, Marion's metaphorical description of the death of the "mythic God" is interesting in that while traditional expressions of Christianity are indeed struggling in the West as noted above, the conceptions of God in these forms of Christianity do not equate in general to the stereotypes that Marion puts forward. Surely some people at various times in history, both in the past as well as in the present, may have conceived of the Christian God in such terms, but not as a general concept. I hope that Marion's book is more thorough than the magazine interview in interacting with historical sources and good academic materials on Christianity in the West in order to support his views. Beyond this, it would be one thing for him to argue in this fashion in relation to Christianity, or even the broader Abrahamic monotheistic religions in general, but in the interview Marion expands this claim to encompass not only the "Western myth of what God is," but also also "the Eastern cultures, they also have a lot of mythological miracles." Marion's negative assessment of religious beliefs with the death of the mythic God and the dawning of a new religious consciousness seems to impugn not only Western Christendom, but also a great many cultures and their conceptions of the divine in the East as well. I understand that Christians are many times perceived as arrogant with their exclusive claims to religious truth, but Marion seems to provide a similar example of arrogance from the perspective of the New Spirituality. We have only now, with the rise of Western spiritual thinkers modifying Eastern philosphy and spirituality, been able to evolve to a place of accurate and adequate views of God and spirituality?

Third, and this is where I'd like to focus my post, I think Marion has got it all wrong in terms of the death of the mythic God and his hopes for a new evolutionary consciousness. Perhaps we could hold onto our shovels for just a little while longer to see if the mythic God can rise to the tune of the funeral dirge so many are playing for the divine. I think this is certainly possible, but only with a return to and embrace of the concept of the mythic God, not in Marion's stereotypical conceptions, but rather, a God of mythos properly construed for our times in the West.

In my thinking one of the mistakes of Western Christendom was an uncritical embrace of modernity. With this came a desire for scientific credibility in an age that esteemed the rational. Thus, the theological agenda of the church focused on issues of biblical inerrancy and the Bible's creation story. While these debates were important and understandable in light of the cultural and social circumstances in which they arose, nevertheless, in a desire for intellectual credibility in the marketplace of modernity's ideas something of the mystery, wonder, magic, and even the mythic was lost in Christianity and its conception of God, nature, and Christian spirituality.

I recently greatly enjoyed my reading of Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor's A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture (Baker Academic, 2003) and found much that I resonated with, and much that supports my thinking in this post. The authors quote sociologist Zygmun Bauman and note that he called modernity "a war against mystery and magic." They also note the church's need to recover "big mythological truths," and state that the church can "obsess over the lost truths of traditional dogma or embrace the much, much larger picture." In their view this would include recapturing a re-enchanted sense of Scripture and the Christian story after years of demythologizing in response to modernity, and they conclude by saying "[a]t the end of all the demythologizing arises a profound commitment to remythologizing our culture and our faith."

In our age where people hunger for powerful stories and narratives to live by, and where fantasy, science fiction, and yes, even horror are increasingly popular, often functioning as mythic stories that facilitate a spiritual quest, it seems to me that what Western Christianity desperately needs is not a retreat from the mythic God, but a resurrection of a mythic God for late modernity. Perhaps it is time to turn to our artists and other mythmakers to help us rediscover this conception of God in our experience and the pages of our Scripture so that the Spirit of myth which entered history in Jesus of Nazareth may be communicated in fresh ways in our time.

Concluding Workshop Thoughts on Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue

I thought it might be helpful to post my concluding thoughts from my workshop at the National Student Dialogue Conference on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue which also represent my summary thoughts from the Salt Lake Theological Seminary course I will be wrapping up on this topic on November 30. These conclusions are directed at both the participants in both public and private dialogue, as well as those critical of some expressions of this dialogue process. My hope is that both parties reflect on and impliment such suggestions:

1. A consideration of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and cross-cultural missions, provides helpful sources of reflection that are applicable to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

2. Evangelical-Mormon dialogue is not often defined or categorized, and those involved in the process might benefit from proactive reflection in this area and the adoption of a particular definitional statement related to the process.

3. Those with concerns about certain expressions of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue might likewise benefit from reflecting on the definition and typology of dialogue to ensure that it has not been confused with debate and polemical forms of engagement.

4. Evangelical-Mormon dialogue participants might consider Richard Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue” and how this might be modified for the challenges of the dialogue process between Christianity and new religious novements and adopted in modified form as guidelines for the process.

5. The “heresy-rationalist paradigm,” as reflected in the “counter-cult community,” informs much of the evangelical perspective on Mormonism and Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. This paradigm needs to be reconsidered in light of broader theological and missiological issues.

6. An interdisciplinary perspective is needed for a more balanced assessment of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, and the metaphor of the missional helix as articulated by Gailyn van Rheenen provides a useful tool for such analysis and praxis assessment.

7. In light of missiology, the “disposition and attitude of the missionary” is the key point of contact and common ground in dialogue. In addition, “interreligious dialogue as an emotion or attitude toward people of other religious traditions,” indeed as a “mood, a spirit, an attitude of love and respect towards neighbors of other faiths” is extremely important in the 21st century Western context of pluralism.