Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Life, the Universe & Everything Symposium Presentation

I will be presenting a paper at the Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE): The Marion K. "Doc" Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy. The symposium will be held February 19-21 on the campus of Brigham Young University. My paper is titled "Cinefantastique to Theofantastique: Fantastic Cinema and Interreligious Dialogue." In it I will discuss the literature and cinema of the fantastic that provides a sense of wonder and entertainment, but also frequently serves as a place for the exploration of the transcendent. Mormons recognize this in the many science fiction writers who are Latter-day Saints, while evangelicals tend to look to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as patron saints of fantastic literature. I will suggest that given science fiction's ability to provide a sense of distance between controversial subject matter and the audience, and John Lyden's notion that film often performs a religious function in Western culture, that science fiction and fantasy cinema should be considered as a venue and medium for interreligious dialogue. The schedule for LTUE can be viewed here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Barna Survey on American Feelings About Wicca

The latest issue of The Barna Update touches on the subject of their national survey said to reveal the feelings of Americans on Wicca. Some of the results of the survey include the following excerpts:

A slight majority of Americans (55%) say they have not heard the term "Wicca."

Among the 45% who have heard of, the segments most familiar with Wicca include people younger than 60 (50% are familiar with the name, compared to 35% of older adults); Christian evangelicals (65%); Skeptics (61% of atheists and agnostics); Asian Americans (52%); upscale adults (62%); and those who describe themselves as socio-politically liberal in most cases (55%).

Among those who have heard of Wicca, nearly two-thirds (62%) described it as an organized form of witchcraft. Smaller proportions defined Wicca as a form of Satanism (7%) or as a religious cult (7%). About one-fifth (18%) said that although they were familiar with the name, they knew little or nothing about Wicca.

When asked to express their view of Wicca, 6% held a favorable view (2% very favorable and 4% somewhat favorable), and 52% held unfavorable views (7% somewhat unfavorable and 45% very unfavorable).

Perhaps the most intriguing response was from the remaining 43% who said they did not know what they thought of Wicca or had no particular opinion about it.

Those who possessed a "very unfavorable" view were most likely to be found among residents of the South and Midwest (52% of whom had a very unfavorable opinion); born again Christians (67%); and socio-political conservatives (61%).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Song: "The Christians and the Pagans"

A dear Pagan friend of mine, Luna Aileen, from the Eagles Kindred here in northern Utah sent me an email this morning pointing me toward this video with the song "The Christians and the Pagans." I appreciate the spirit of the song as it describes members of these communities sitting together for understanding. For what it is worth I point my Pagan and Christian friends and dialogue partners to it for reflection.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

John Drane: After McDonaldization

John Drane is a spiritual consultant to both traditional and emerging churches in the U.K. and internationally, and a professor of practical thelology in the U.S. at Fuller Seminary in California. He is the author of a number of books, and his most recent is After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry and Christian Discipleship in An Age of Uncertainty (Baker Academic, 2008). In this volume Drane presents the case for a reinvigorated style of ministry and asks what it means to be Christian in a post-Christendom context. Over the weekend he made time for an interview on the thesis of his book.

Morehead's Musings: Professor Drane, I have long benefited from your writing and reflections on the church in the West or the Global North as you prefer to refer to it in your latest book, To put down a proper foundation and context, can you briefly summarize the cultural challenges posed by our post-Christian environment and why these issues need to be squarely faced by the church?

John Drane: I think former General Eric Shinseki, now an Obama nominee, put it succinctly when he commented that "If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less". The biggest challenge may not actually be coming from the cultural environment, but from within the church, where for a generation now we have consistently failed to understand the seismic changes that are sweeping through the whole world system today – but which in reality began almost 50 years ago. Many Christians who lived through the cultural revolution of the 1960s (and who are now the leaders of our major denominations) failed to embrace cultural change then, and as a consequence have been like the proverbial deer caught in headlights as the pace of change has accelerated. Underlying that was the remnant of a Christendom mindset that misunderstood the nature of the relationship between cultural forms and the Christian gospel, failing to realize that in order to stay the same the gospel has always had to change if its challenge is to be heard authentically in diverse circumstances. Paradoxically, this was the very generation that pioneered faithful contextualization within missionary contexts in the non-western world, but failed to see that the West itself was a missionary situation. So in short, while cultural change is real, and is here to stay, I think it’s too easy to blame external circumstances for the challenges we now face.

Morehead's Musings: For those not familiar with your book The McDonaldization of the Church upon which your new book builds and suggests ways forward, can you describe the McDonaldization thesis and its application to the church?

John Drane: The McDonaldization thesis is a specialized version of Max Weber’s understanding of the social process, and especially focuses on the extreme rationalization of late 20th century cultures made possible through the development of technology and the consequent multiplication of rules, regulations, and fixed procedures, and the general growth of bureaucratic systems. The word "McDonaldization" stems from sociologist George Ritzer’s observation that the fast food industry embodies what might be regarded as one of the most extreme forms of such rationalization. As anyone who has ever worked in this environment will know, there is only one way to cook and serve a burger – and even those whose only experience is as customers easily recognize that not only is every fast food meal the same as every other one, but the way in which it is served (even the words used by servers) is going to be identical in all the outlets. Ritzer identified four marks of McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. In reflecting on this, he concluded that the growing emphasis on this sort of rationalization in every aspect of our lives is forcing us to operate in a mechanistic way that marginalizes individuality and creativity and as a consequence is arguably a major cause of the disillusionment and existential agony now felt by many people. When I came across that, it seemed natural to wonder how all this might relate to the church. In particular I asked whether we have allowed our churches and their structures – not to mention the ways we worship – to be taken over by the creeping rationalization of modernist culture, and whether that over-rationalized way of being might actually be damaging the spirituality of those in the church, as well as being missionally counterproductive in relation to individuals for whom the rest of life was already over-McDonaldized, and who were looking for freedom from that rather than more of the same. It wasn’t hard to identify the four marks of McDonaldization in inherited forms of church – and just as easy to see that this was at odds with a biblical understanding of faith. Wherever we look, authentic biblical faith recognizes – indeed celebrates – diversity. The prophets raised creativity to an art form that was at times bizarre, but always engaging. Jesus went out of his way to accommodate the most eclectic mix of people among his followers. And even Paul (often claimed to be the creator of a rationalized form of belief) never insisted that all his churches be identical, knowing that for the gospel to be contextualized in Philippi was going to be different from its contextualization in Corinth, Jerusalem, or Rome. Meaningful contextualization in our globalized world is now less a matter of geography (though that is still important in some places), and more a matter of culture and interest groups.

Morehead's Musings: One of the interesting concepts for me in your book was your suggestion that we are moving into the Conceptual Age. Borrowing from Daniel Pink's concepts from his book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Trade, 2006) you identify Western culture as having moved from an Agricultural Age, to an Industrial Age, to the Information Age, and now into the Conceptual Age. How do you define the Conceptual Age and why is this significant for the church to understand?

John Drane: I like the notion of the conceptual age because it seems to me that we are in a place where we need a serious reconceptualization of just about everything we think we know. We face unprecedented challenges to our entire existence and it is clear that the paradigms inherited from the past are in large measure a cause of the mess we’re now in, and for that reason alone are unlikely to be answer to the problem. The global financial crisis is just the latest manifestation of this. We also face the reality of environmental degradation. These things have largely been brought about by our current ways of being, which means that doing more of the same is unlikely to be the resolution of things. We do urgently need to find, as Daniel Pink says, “a whole new mind” – and that for me means taking the spiritual far more seriously than has been the case for a very long time.

Morehead's Musings: Another interesting suggestion you offer is that the church needs to develop a twenty-first century eschatology that positively engages with hedonism. You state that if hedonism "is the way in which many people confront and deal with life today, then in one sense that set of behaviors and rituals actually is their spirituality." This struck me because I have had similar thoughts as it relates to my reflections on a theology of play and ritual in connection with Burning Man Festival. How might the church dialogue with culture theologically in this area in order to develop such an eschatology?

John Drane: I think it also has something to do with the articulation of a biblically inspired anthropology. Writers like Nancey Murphy and Joel Green have identified some of the new questions in light of neuroscience but I would also want to approach this through exploration of what, exactly, does it mean for humans to be “made in God’s image”. It seems to me that we have lost touch with our most basic sense of value and purpose in life, and this has a tendency to induce a questioning of our worth and an inability to see our true place in the wider cosmos, which leaves us only with consumerism and hedonism as ways of filling the vacuum. For me, the Lord’s Prayer articulates the challenge quite simply: we are exhorted to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. But a lot of Christians seem to hear that differently, as “let me come to your kingdom, when I die, because that’s where your will is truly done, unlike the earth where I live now”. By paying more attention to a world we don’t live in, and which is not ours to control, and ignoring the world where we can make a difference, we are missing something central to the gospel.

Morehead's Musings: After some discussion of the contemporary "holistic milieu" in Western spiritual experience you challenge the church's "inherited pattern of gathering in congregations [that many assume] will be at the centre of church life." In what ways might Christians be thinking beyond this paradigm for church in ways that seeks to develop new senses of spiritual community, especially in ways that enable us to engage the urban tribes?

John Drane: It’s not that I want to close down the habit of congregational gathering, more that I suspect it is a way of being that is in transition, and eventually may come to be seen as a cultural manifestation of an era and a way of being that is now past. Clearly, church as it is now connects meaningfully with many people, otherwise no-one at all would be in the churches we now have. For me, this is more about the glass being half full or half empty, and my concern is with the half that is empty, by which I mean those many people groups with whom current ways of being church will never connect in meaningful ways. In relation to the new “urban tribes”, then there might well be a different specific answer for different times and places, because not all such tribes are identical, even though they might share many characteristics in common. But speaking more generally, one of the main things that have attracted the urban tribes (and many others as well) to President-elect Obama has been his assurance that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, and new ways might actually be better for human flourishing. From a Christian angle, for me that means a renewed recognition that life is a whole, there is no sacred/secular divide, and we need to ask new questions that begin with something like, “what does faithful discipleship look like in this time and place?”

Morehead's Musings: I think you would agree that the church can be transformed itself by engagement with new urban tribes. What is the potential for transformation for the church in creativity and imagination as it engages artists, poets, filmmakers, and bohemians?

John Drane: One of the things I really like about this forward-looking vision is that it would also take us back to our scriptural foundations. Who are the movers and shakers in the Bible? Well, the prophets were clearly artists and poets (quite often dramatists and mime artists as well), as indeed was Jesus (one of the most challenging things he ever did was to draw a picture, see John 8:8, though he mostly told stories which is what filmmakers do today). And they were all bohemians, if by that you mean people whose lifestyles are anything but conventional.

Morehead's Musings: Drawing from Daniel Pink again, you note that the changing cultural context of our time calls for people who can "synthesize rather than analyze." Can you touch on this and expand on it as to what you are calling for and how such people, particularly in leadership, might be of great help to the church?

John Drane: You could put this in a different way by saying that what we need today are big picture people, those who see beyond the immediate, and who are two or three steps ahead in understanding the likely future consequences of each small action we might do today. Call them strategic leaders, if you like. Actually, we have too many managers and very few leaders. Remember that nobody is a leader unless somebody is following. People today are moved to follow by someone who has a vision – a big project that transcends our own individual lives, and opens up the possibility of new worlds and new opportunities, and in the process pulling together strands that others never see. That’s not to say that analysis is irrelevant, because visionary leaders often have no idea how to bring their big ideas to fruition. But it’s not the managerial skills that will inspire us to new possibilities.

Morehead's Musings: You share your own personal struggles in the book in coming to your present thoughts on the church and at one point you state that "I only came to that realization because I was prepared to listen to what was going on in a cultural context that in many ways was quite alien to any of my previous experience." Would you describe your experience as a paradigm shift, and how might we develop these listening skills to transform our understanding of the challenges of the day?

John Drane: For me personally, I don’t think I would describe it as a paradigm shift, but it might be when projected onto the bigger screen of church life more generally. One legacy of Christendom is that churches seem to think they have an automatic right to be heard whenever they make pronouncements about things. You see that in the U.S. just as clearly as in the older cultures of Europe. We need to earn the right to be participants in the cultural conversations of our day, and our credibility will only be guaranteed when we start engaging with the questions people are actually asking, rather than the ones we think they should be. You only know what those questions are when you listen. Actually, talking about listening to the culture as if it’s some alien thing out there may not be the best way of putting it, because we are all already a part of the culture in which we are called to be faithful followers of Jesus. But some Christians seem to be in denial about that, and when they’re in the church (though not usually in the rest of their lives) adopt a mindset that puts faith and culture in opposition to each other. Not only is such denial spiritually corrosive in itself, but it also prevents us seeing where God is already at work, and inhibits effective engagement with the many conversations already taking place.

Morehead's Musings: You suggest that the church "begin with the agenda of those who are asking the questions of purpose and identity, rather than with the agenda of the Church." And as a result of this you also suggest that the church shift from being in the service and the experience business to putting energies into the transformation business. Can you touch a little on what you mean by this?

John Drane: I first started thinking about this when I did a survey of how churches present themselves on their websites, and one of the first things I noticed was that if you wanted to know how to follow Jesus then for the most part a church website would not be the place to look. Most of them have the sort of information that I guess needs to be available, but would only interest committed members (things like rotas for who arranges the flowers, who staffs the crèche, and so on). Many churches say very little about their beliefs, but among those that do there is a similar internal preoccupation, using buzz words like "Bible-believing" (who are the Christians who would say they don’t believe it?) or "welcoming and affirming" (what Christian would say they are not?) – or offering creedal statements couched in language that doesn’t really tell people what you are about, but constitutes a social marker to distinguish yourself from some other type of church (usually one you disapprove of). All of that only makes sense to an internal market, where you have people who want a church, and their major question is, which one? In a churched culture (such as the U.S. still is, to a considerable extent), you can still grow a church by offering that sort of religious service to the existing constituency, and you might even gain a few new people by offering a bigger or better experience than some other church in the neighborhood. But the real missional challenge doesn’t focus around questions of that sort. Increasing numbers of people know next to nothing about Christian belief, and are completely baffled by internal arguments about interpretation of scripture or theological angles. They are looking for something that will give meaning and purpose to life. In effect, they will say, “cut the crap: just show me that it works”. That invites us to be into what I called the transformation business. Even more scarily, I speculate in the book about what might happen if we were only paid by results, if our promises of transformative experience actually delivered. One of our biggest challenges is the discrepancy that is all too often found between what we offer and who we are. A previous generation talked about the need to practice what we preach. I might ask why so many churches have so many angry people in them if we are really as transformed as we say we are. Which ultimately comes down to a missional question, for who wants to join a bunch of angry people?

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Drane, thank you again for taking time out of your busy traveling, consulting and teaching schedule to discuss your new book. I highly recommend it as the latest of a series of helpful and thought provoking volumes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

PhD Application to University Durham Accepted

I received word today that may application to the University of Durham in the Theology and Religion Department for a PhD through their research programme was approved. Now comes the hard parts in terms of raising the funds to pay for my tuition, as well as the obvious research and thesis writing.
For those interested in the subject matter my proposal to University Durham is reproduced below.

Mormon Myth and Sacred Narrative: The Missing Academic and Dialogical Dimension
Mormonism continues to be a popular and growing area of study in academia. A survey of the academic literature on the topic demonstrates a variety of research perspectives, including the historical, doctrinal, cross-cultural, and social scientific. Yet even with these varying academic frameworks certain dimensions are missing (Sorensen 2007) and very much needed in order to expand our understanding of this rich religious tradition in all of its multidimensional textures. This is particularly the case with the mythic dimension, or the sacred narratives and stories found within Mormon culture. Myths in this context are defined as a narrative or “story with culturally formative power” (Hexham and Poewe 1997, 81). Hexham and Poewe have suggested that many of the new religions that arose in nineteenth century America did so with an appropriation of certain mythic fragments. In their view, Mormonism arose out of a cultural milieu of an evolutionary mythology wherein its founder Joseph Smith “wove together many diverse myths into an integrated whole” (ibid., 94). Mormonism may be understood as a new religious movement that arose out of a major mythos of nineteenth century America, and in its continued development it has formed various subnarratives making up the mythic whole. With these considerations in mind, sacred narrative represents a neglected aspect of academic studies of Mormonism.

Sacred narrative is also absent in the evangelical-Mormon dialogue process that has been taking place formally since the 1990s. This is not difficult to explain. First, while Christian dialogue with world religions such as Buddhism and Islam have been going on for quite some time, Christian dialogue with the new religions is relatively new, and it has not received either the attention or scholarly focus as dialogue with world religions (Saliba 1993). Thus, it may be that those evangelicals involved in dialogue with Mormonism have not been as reflective on this process as have evangelicals in other interreligious contexts. Second, dialogue with the new religions, as in the case of evangelicalism and Mormonism (Blomberg & Robinson 1997, Millet & Johnson 2007; Millet and McDermott 2007), has taken place against the backdrop of concern over orthodoxy in contrast with heresy (Johnson 1997; Saliba 2003; Hexham, Rost & Morehead 2004) with an eye toward theological boundary maintenance (Cowan 2003). This is not always the case, particularly when Mormon scholars have dialogued with theologians beyond Protestant evangelicalism (Musser & Paulsen 2007), yet it is the case in general in regards to the evangelical-Mormon dialogue process. Given the significance of a unique set of beliefs and worldview in Mormonism, and its claims of uniqueness vis-à-vis the larger Judeo-Christian tradition, doctrinal and theological issues should not be divorced from the dialogue process, but additional room is needed for other perspectives, particularly those that may resonate more centrally with Latter-day Saint perspectives.

This is especially the case if an understanding of Mormonism is to take place from perspectives that attempt to understand Mormonism from the point of view of its adherents. In the process of interreligious dialogue evangelicals and other Protestants have tended to approach the religious other from vantage point of the Christian concern for doctrine. This reflects not only a dialogue starting from Christian presuppositions, but may also reflect lingering aspects of colonialism (Yong 2008). There is a great need for an academic study of a missing dimension of Mormonism wherein the research tries “sympathetically and imaginatively to enter into the lives and experience of those they are studying. By employing informed empathy, they can gain some access into the complex of intensions and experiences of religious adherents” (Sorenson 2007, 135-6). In our post-colonial, post-Christendom, post-9/11, globalized environment the need is perhaps greater than ever before to approach the religious other from perspectives that are empathetic, humble, and in keeping with the vantage point of adherents themselves. A study of Mormonism from the perspective of sacred narrative thus reflects a more sympathetic perspective in keeping with the ideals of religious studies and the socio-cultural needs of our time.

Dimensions of Mormon sacred narrative
Myth and sacred story (Sorenson 1981), and the related concepts of folklore (Edison 1989; Wilson 1998, 1995) are rich sources for understanding Mormonism, including its values and beliefs, as well as the personal and collective sources of meaning and identity for the Mormon people. Sacred narratives may be categorized under broad headings such as the Restoration, Revelation, Pioneers, Missionary Work, and stories of Courage, Healing, and Encouragement (Lyon, Gundry & Parry). They are found in a variety of cultural texts, including Mormon scriptures, General Conference talks, hometeaching messages from the First Presidency, the teaching curriculum of the LDS Church, books written by Church academics, fireside chats, and family circles. Other sources include cultural pageants and celebrations such as the Mormon Miracle Pageant and Pioneer Day, as well as dramatic theatrical productions, and Latter-day Saint culture-specific cinema.

An analysis of these sources reveals several important facets of sacred narrative within Mormon culture. These include the Joseph Smith Story/First Vision, founding Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim of heavenly visitation and a call to restore the Christian church. The power of this narrative lies not only within Smith’s experience, but also for Church members and converts as they place themselves in Smith’s experience thereby framing their personal identity and narrative within the larger narrative of the founding of the Church. Personal identification within the First Vision narrative might also connect the sacred and profane in daily Latter-day Saint thought and living as they read of Smith’s experience and revelations coupled with his continued work at farming and the mundane affairs of nineteenth century America. Smith’s narrative of the First Vision helps Latter-day Saint people realize the potential for their mundane lives to be punctuated by revelation even while this plays out against the ordinary and mundane affairs of life.

A second narrative thread is that of the Westward Trek or the Pioneer Narrative. This narrative is connected to a sense of persecution and martyrdom that links this narrative thread with that of the First Vision. The early Mormons experienced constant persecution, eventually leading to the murder of their leader and their expulsion from their homes which culminated in a trek West and a settling in what would become Salt Lake City and the beginnings of a vast geographical region under the Mormon influence. Here again the contemporary personal identification with this narrative thread is strong. Many Latter-day Saints identify with the pioneer stories as their family story, regardless of whether they have family members who crossed the plains. This narrative may also resonate with others as the Church extends itself globally. Many can imagine themselves as pioneers or trailblazers as the some of the first people to accept the gospel of the restoration in their family and nation.

The third sacred narrative is the Pre-Mortal Life. As the name implies, this story teaches that human beings pre-existed their present earthly lives and dwelt with God prior to taking on human flesh. With this foundational narrative in mind, this life is considered act two of a “three act play” of human existence. Dialogues with Latter-day Saints reveal how powerful and influential this narrative is, so much so that it even impacts child-rearing attitudes as parents considered the pre-mortal relationships with their children where a differing relationship may have existed.

A fourth and sacred narrative is the Missionary Narrative. The Missionary Narrative forms a kind of microcosm of the Mormon Plan of Salvation. Mormon missionaries leave home, are sent to a new area, spend a limited amount of time meeting people and sharing the gospel, making right ethical choices, touching the lives of other sand then returning home to loving parents. This missionary work parallels the Plan of Salvation as Mormons believe they leave the Pre-Mortal Life, enter a period of probation and mortality, only to return once again to loving Heavenly Parents. Viewed in light of the Missionary Narrative, Latter-day Saints can see their mortal life as a sacred mission in fulfillment of a probationary time of testing and in anticipation of restored relationships and progression that transcend mortality.

Bibliography/Works Cited

Bitton, Davis. 1994. The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Blomberg, Craig and Stephen E. Robinson. 1997. How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Bradford, M. Gerald. 2007. “The Study of Mormonism: A Growing Interest in Academia,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1: 119-74.

Cowan, Douglas E. 203. Bearing False Witness?: An Introduction to the Christian Countercult. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Davies, J. Douglas. 2003. An Introduction to Mormonism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

____. 2000. The Mormon Culture of Salvation. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

____. 1991. “Pilgrimage in Mormon Culture,” in Makhan Jha (ed), Social Anthropology of Pilgrimage. New Delhi: Inter-India.

Dawson, Lorne L. 1998. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edison, Carol. 1989. “Mormon Gravestones: A Folk Expression of Identity and Belief,” Dialogue 22, no. 4 (Winter): 89-94.

Fackre, Gabriel. 1997. The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Hexham, Irving and Karla Poewe. 1997. New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Hexham, Irving, Stephen Rost and John W. Morehead II, eds. 2004. Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional.

Jenkins, Philip. 2000. Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Philip. 1997. “The Aquarian Age and Apologetics,” Lutheran Theological Journal 34:2 (December): 51-60.

Johnson, Philip, Anne C. Harper and John W. Morehead, eds. 2004. “Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World (‘New Age’).” Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 45. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and Morling Press.

Krieger, David. 1993. “Communication Theory and Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Summer-Fall): 331-53.

Lash, Nicholas. 1986. Theology on the Way to Emmaus. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Lyon, Jack M., Linda Ririe Gundry, Jay A. Parry, eds. 1997. Best-Loved Stories of the LDS People, Vol. 1. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company.

McDermott, Gerald R. 2000. Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions? Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Mortenson, Viggo, ed. 2003. Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.

Millet, Robert L. and Gregory C.V. Johnson. 2007. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical. Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing Company.

Millet, Robert L. and Gerald R. McDermott. 2007. Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Mitchell, Hildi J. 2002. “Postcards from the Edge of History: Narrative and the Sacralisation of Mormon Historical Sites,” Journeys 3, no. 1: 133-57.

Muck, Terry. 1993. “Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (December): 517-529.

Musser, Donald W. and David L. Paulsen, 2007. Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Olsen, Steve. 1996-97. “Celebrating Cultural Identity: Pioneer Day in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” BYU Studies 36, no. 1: 159-177.

____. 1980. “Community Celebrations and Mormon Ideology of Place,” Sunstone 5, no. 3 (May-June 1980): 40-45.

Phillips, Timothy R. and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. 1996. The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals & Postliberals in Conversation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Robinson, Stephen E. 1991. Are Mormons Christians?. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.

Saliba, John A. 2003. Understanding New Religious Movements, 2nd ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

____. 1992. “Mormonism in the Twenty-first Century,” Studia Missionalia 41: 49-67.

____. 1993. “Dialogue with the New Religious Movements: Issues and Prospects,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, no. 1 (Winter): 61-80

Sorenson, John L. 1981. “Ritual as Theology,” Sunstone 27 (May-June): 11-14.

Swidler, Leonard, 1983. “The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20, no. 1: 1-4.

Tacy, David. 1990. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue. Louvain: Peeters Press.

Wilson, William A. 1998. “The Study of Mormon Folklore: An Uncertain Mirror for Truth,” Dialogue 22, no. 4 (Winter): 95-110.

____. 1995. “Mormon Narratives: The Lore of Faith,” Western Folklore 54, no. 4 (October): 303-26.

Yandell, Keith E., ed. 2001. Faith and Narrative. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yong, Amos. 2008. Hospitality & the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tom Boellstorff and an Ethnography of Second Life

As part of my continuing reflections on the cultural, sociological, and theological implications of digital technologies, including videogames and virtual cultures, one of the resources I have found helpful is Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008). Boellstorff is associate professor in the department of anthropology at University of California, Irvine, and editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist. We finally coordinated our schedules for an interview by phone on the topic, but the technology used to record our conversation failed us, and all that remains are Tom's responses to my last two questions. Even so, they provide some insights into the significance of virtual cultures like Second Life, and the value of Tom's research.

Morehead's Musings: How have forms of cybersociality result in the creation of new "electronic tribes"?

Tom Boellstorff: Well, I wouldn't call them tribes exactly, but they do represent new ways of connecting people. The fact that people can use a blog or website or something like that to share information and notes is important, so we need to remember that people can get together not just in virtual worlds, but also in blogs and websites, and many people in Second Life have these and interact with others through them as well. And these are not reducible to each other. But there are possibilities inside a virtual world that are different from what you can do with a web page, but once again the virtual world phenomenon is broader that shares some things in common with other aspects of the Internet, but there are some aspects of it that are unique and unprecedented.

Morehead's Musings: In your research in Second Life what surprised you most about your conceptions of selfhood and community that had to be revised as a result?

Tom Boellstorff: One thing that really did surprise me but it shouldn't have, was an interesting parallel with my Indonesia research was that things weren't as different as I expected them to be. In my research on gay Indonesians my assumption was you go half way around the world to a very different place, and sometimes as researchers we feel that if you haven't found something that's really different that we haven't done our job, that we're really supposed to find something interesting, cool, and things that are really different. One thing I learned as a researcher is when you find things that seem the same, and in some cases are similar in certain ways, then we really have to stop and think about it because many times people don't. When you go into Second Life to do research as I have you find that it's very different and very interesting and I can mention a couple of things that I mention in the book.

My main surprise was that you go into Second Life and find grass, and trees, and the ocean, and people hanging out in their houses and watching television, going shopping to buy a shirt, or getting into a fight with their lover, but things that actually in a way are not different from what they do in the actual world is taking place. But this can be interesting too because you can ask why people would rather go into a virtual world at all, and another question is sometimes we see things that look very similar but if you scratch under the surface for a second you see that they are actually quite different. But the continuities with the actual world are very important for researchers because virtual worlds have gone become places with millions of people in them in just a few years, and if they were absolutely, completely, and utterly different from anything that came before how in the world would you understand it? So the similarities are very important.

In terms of differences there are some really big differences that are important to talk about. One of the biggest is embodiment. In a virtual world you can change the way you look with the click of a mouse, you can change your race, your height, you can become an animal, and in most of these virtual worlds you can have different embodiments. So it's not just that you can become a man or a woman or animal or person, but a man for one hour to go to a party and afterwards become a woman again, and then turn into an elf, and then after that turn into a human again. So it's not just that it's changeable, but that it's easily changeable. Ideally though, you don't have to only pick one thing. In the physical world to change your embodiment is extremely difficult. It's very hard to change your race or gender, and some people can do the latter just with clothes or hormones, but changing your body in any significant way is nearly impossible. But to go back and forth in embodiments, or to become a fifty feet tall dragon and then to become a two feet tall dwarf because you feel like it is not something you can do in the physical world. You can't have two bodies in the physical world, whereas in Second Life you can have as many as you like through your avatars, so that's another significant difference. So there are many differences between the actual world and the virtual world and embodiment is one of the major differences.

In terms of community there is almost less difference because community in the physical world for many years now hasn't been as closely connected to place as it used to be. So let's take the community I work in, the gay community, is that an area, is it just in bars, is it where people live, is in magazines, or what does it mean to talk about community in this sense? This is the same when whether we are talking about the African-American or Jewish community, these are no longer defined in relation to senses of places in limited geographical terms. I think the notion of community has been exploded beyond its connection to place for some time now. So virtual community for people is less of a stretch. An interesting thing in virtual worlds is you almost get a relocalization of community in some cases. You have instances where places in the actual world are connected to virtual places. The ideas of community are obviously changing as well, but these are obviously always moving targets, because what this means in Indonesia or California or Nebraska is different and changing. Representations of community in the virtual world adds other dimensions to our ongoing transformations of senses of community. And identity conceptions are being reconfigured in the same way.

Morehead's Musings: Tom, thank you again for your interesting anthropological ethnographic portrait of Second Life, your ongoing research in this area, and for making time in a busy academic schedule to discuss these things. I hope others will look into this phenomenon from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including theology.