Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Laderman: Expanding Our Concept of the Sacred

I was recently looking through past articles posted at Religion Dispatches and found one I thought I'd draw attention to here. The article is by Gary Laderman, a scholar I have mentioned here previously. Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University, and the author of Sacred Matters, with the long but telling subtitle of Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (The New Press, 2009). Laderman's work in religion dovetails with my own interest in spirituality and pop culture and much of what he has to say in Sacred Matters could likewise be applied to phenomenon I have researched such as Burning Man Festival and hyper-real spiritualities.

The article is titled "ARIS Survey Gets 'Religion,' Misses Boat." It's point of departure is the American Religious Identification Survey . Laderman notes how various segments of American culture presented certain features of the survey, but in the process missed a significant facet of how Americans construct their religious identity and engage in a spiritual quest. Survey takers tend to think of religion in certain traditional categories related to God, Scripture, and participation in institutional worship settings. But Laderman suggests this misses a large part of the picture:
What if there were more to religious life in America than belief in God? More holy possibilities than those outlined in the so-called “Great Religions of the Book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—or other sacred texts like the Upanishads in Hinduism or the Tibetan Book of the Dead in Buddhism?

What if religion is better understood as a ubiquitous feature of cultural life, expressed through and inspired by basic, universal facts of life and fundamentally biological phenomena in human experience: suffering and ecstasy, reproduction and aging, family and conflict, health and death.

If traditional ways of thinking about religion miss an essential part of religious practice today what then might contemporary spirituality look like? Laderman continues:
So what if the sacred is not only, or even primarily, tied to theology or religious identity labels like more, less, and not religious? We might see how religious practices and commitments emanate from unlikely sources today: science and the pursuit of truth; music and the social ecstasy of concerts; violence and the glorification of warfare; celebrity worship and technological wonders; heroic doctors and evil villains; funereal spectacles and sexual compulsions; the Super Bowl and sacrificed soldiers; Elvis and drugs, both legal and illegal.
Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Laderman's suggestion it is worth considering. Perhaps we are missing out on understanding a significant part of America's spiritual quest because we're asking the wrong questions. And we're asking the wrong questions because we're not thinking about the sacred in the ways that increasing numbers of people are doing so. Perhaps the church needs to start asking new questions and think more holistically about what the sacred encompasses.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Questions From a Cup of Coffee

When I went to Burning Man Festival a few years ago one of the more interesting facets was a display of pictures of people holding up their written responses to the question "Why do you do what you do?" I think this is a healthy question to ask ourselves, and one which we should ask more often, particularly in church contexts.

I was reminded of this as I drove down I-15 in Utah and saw a billboard put up by a local church. The caption read "Church Caffeinated," and between the two words was the image of a large cup of coffee. My reaction to the billboard was a mixture of disbelief and confusion. For those outside of my Utah context some background might be helpful in understanding my reaction.

Nearly 70 percent of Utah's population is Latter-day Saint, and this religious subculture has a number of distinctive practices, one of which is a dietary guideline known as the Word of Wisdom that encourages members to avoid "strong drink," usually interpreted as caffeinated and alcoholic drinks. With this in mind it's not difficult to see how the connection between a local church and a taboo drink might not be well received by the local religious population. To feel the emotional force of this consider a billboard put up in the Bible belt by a local Rastafarian group with the image of a marijuana cigarette and the words "church high" used as a means of attracting new members.

In light of these considerations I wonder why the church who sponsored the "church caffeinated" billboard would advertise itself in a way that would put itself at odds with a significant religious practice of the dominant religious culture. Throughout history, as the church has expressed itself in different cultures those that are the most meaningful to these cultures are those that are contextualized, or framed in ways that reduce the "cultural distance" between those "planting" the church and those who will make up its participants.

I understand this is a fairly large church for Utah so I am trying to come to grips with their advertising audience and rationale. Perhaps the church isn't trying to communicate to the general religious culture, but instead is trying to reach evangelicals looking for a more contemporary church experience. Another possibility is that the church is aiming a portion of this marketing message toward disaffected former Latter-day Saints who might gravitate toward a symbol that opposes their former religious culture. Even with these possibilities in mind as explanations it seems curious to me why a church would use such a marketing approach, even aimed at these possible constituencies, that puts itself at odds with the local religious culture.

Maybe its time for the church in general, even when it thinks its doing something relevant and hip, to start asking itself "Why do I do what I do?" In so doing we can bring our communication strategies, and our theology, into dialogue with the cultures in which we live.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Graham St. John: Technomad and Global Raving Countercultures

While I was conducting research for my M.A. thesis on Burning Man Festival, one of the more helpful sources was the Australian scholar, Graham St. John who did research on a similar countercultural festival called ConFest. Graham has continued his research over the last several years and has focused on rave culture. Below is an announcement concerning his new book on the topic, Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox, 2009).

"Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures is the most wide-ranging and detailed of all the books on rave. More than the study of a musical movement or genre, Technomad offers an alternate history of cultural politics since the 1960s, from hippies and Acid Tests through the sound systems and 'vibe-tribes' of the 1990s and beyond. Like Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, Technomad makes unexpected but entirely convincing connections between people, movements and events. Like Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, St John's book introduces us to unknown heroes, committed geniuses and genuine revolutionaries. Beautifully written, with a genuinely international perspective on electronic dance music culture, Technomad is one of the best books on music I've read in some time."

- Professor Will Straw
, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University

Book description:

A cultural history of global electronic dance music countercultures, Technomad explores the pleasurable and activist trajectories of post-rave culture. The book documents an emerging network of techno-tribes, exploring their pleasure principles and cultural politics. Attending to sound system culture, electro-humanitarianism, secret sonic societies, teknivals and other gatherings, intentional parties, revitalisation movements and counter-colonial interventions, Technomad investigates how the dance party has been harnessed for transgressive and progressive ends - for manifold freedoms. Seeking freedom from moral prohibitions and standards, pleasure in rebellion, refuge from sexual and gender prejudice, exile from oppression, rupturing aesthetic boundaries, re-enchanting the world, reclaiming space, fighting for "the right to party," and responding to a host of critical concerns, electronic dance music cultures are multivalent sites of resistance.

Drawing on extensive ethnographic, netographic and documentary research, Technomad details the post-rave trajectory through various local sites and global scenes, with each chapter attending to unique developments in the techno counterculture: e.g. Spiral Tribe, teknivals, psytrance, Burning Man, Reclaim the Streets, Earthdream. The book offers an original, nuanced theory of resistance to assist understanding of these developments. This cultural history of hitherto uncharted territory will be of interest to students of cultural, performance, music, media, and new social movement studies, along with enthusiasts of dance culture and popular politics.


1. Introduction: The Rave-olution?

2. Sound System Exodus: Tekno-Anarchy in the UK and Beyond

3. Secret Sonic Societies and Other Renegades of Sound

4. New Tribal Gathering: Vibe-Tribes and Mega-Raves

5. The Technoccult, Psytrance and the Millennium

6. Rebel Sounds and Dance Activism: Rave and the Carnival of Protest

7. Outback Vibes: Dancing Up Country

8. Hardcore, You Know the Score

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Joseph Smith Jr.: Possibilities Beyond the True/False Prophet Dichotomy

How should evangelicals understand Joseph Smith Jr., founding prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Typically, with their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy and the idea of true prophet vs. false prophet, evangelicals have tended to view Smith through the lens of heresy. While such considerations should not be discarded by evangelicals, they might also be understood as limiting in terms of what we might understand about Smith himself as well as the Mormon faith he helped initiate.

A helpful volume is available that provides additional interpretive possibilities. It is Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, edited by Reid L. Neilson & Terryl L. Givens (Oxford University Press, 2009). This is a multi-contributor volume that attempts to move beyond the true/false prophet dichotomy. As noted in the Introduction:
One challenge in assessing the historical importance and relevance of Joseph Smith's thought has been related to the difficulty of moving beyond the question that arrests all conversation - the question that asks whether Smith was a prophet or fraud. These essays are rich in evidence that a variety of interpretive strategies can bypass this question in order to explore Smith's influence, historical impact, parallels with literary figures, and situatedness in new religious contexts. In addition, at least three of the essays directly address the challenge of transcending the insider/outsider schism in Joseph Smith studies (Maffly-Kipp, Mouw, and Hudson); their authors propose their own solutions.
Evangelicals will most likely be interested in Richard Mouw's contribution to this anthology with his chapter "The Possibility of Joseph Smith: Some Evangelical Probings." Here Mouw takes his cue from a late nineteenth century work by Herman Bavinck, described by by Mouw as "a staunch defender of Calvinist orthodoxy." Writing to fellow Calvinists about the need for openness in considering Islam, as well as other non-Christian religions, Bavinck wrote (as cited by Mouw):
In the past the study of religions was pursued exclusively in the interest of dogmatics and apologetics. The founders of [non-Christian] religions, like Mohammed, were simply considered imposters, enemies of God, and accomplices of the devil. But ever since those religions have become more precisely known, this interpretation has proved to be untenable; it clashed both with history and psychology.
Mouw was surprised by Bavinck's views. He writes,
Bavinck's observation that Islam has "become more precisely known" is even more poignant now than when he offered it in his nineteenth-century context. For one thing, we have come to understand better Islam as a system of thought. In the early days, Islam was seen primarily as a political and military threat--a circumstance wherein it is always tempting to demonize one's enemies. If, however, we are given an opportunity to study and dialogue with the other group's actual teachings in a leisurely manner, we must wrestle with the question of how those teachings have actually inspired deep commitments in the lives of sane people who sincerely accept their teachings.
Mouw goes on to argue that Bavinck's approach provides precedent for Christians in the more positive analysis of non-Christian religions. Moreover, Mouw argues that this same approach can and should be applied by evangelicals in their assessments of Joseph Smith Jr., thus providing broader interpretive possibilities.

For those evangelicals willing to accept such a posture, this volume provides a number of interesting insights into Mormonism's origins for reflection. For example, Mouw notes that Smith's theology "emerged in an environment shaped significantly by the high Calvinism of New England Puritanism." Catherine Albanese notes the metaphysical influences in Smith's culture in the form of hermeticism and Swedenborgianism. Richard Brodhead places Smith's conceptions of prophethood in the context of "forms of prophetism in the American 1830s." Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen suggest that "an essential distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism -- [is] the blend of the numinous and the mystic" in poles of experience. And Laurie Maffly-Kipp encourages the exploration of the LDS Church's temple rituals not only from the perspective of Masonic influences, but also "as a radical protest against the philosophical premises of Protestant revivalism."

In the opinion of this researcher, while evangelicals should not jettison the true/false prophet dichotomy within certain theological frameworks, this should not be understood as the only context in which to evaluate or understand Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Broader interpretive possibilities exist that will enrich our understanding of the origins, development, and continuing appeal of Smith and his teachings. Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries provides evangelicals with a template and possibilities that enlarge our views of a worldwide religion, and the faith of our neighbors and friends.

Friday, November 06, 2009

New Book: Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon

Academic approaches to studying magic and the occult: examining scholarship into witchcraft and paganism, ten years after Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

A collection of essays edited by Dave Evans and Dave Green
Contributions by: Ronald Hutton, Amy Hale, Sabina Magliocco, Dave Green, Henrik Bogdan, Phillip Bernhardt-House, R.A. Priddle, Geoffrey Samuel, Caroline Tully & Dave Evans.

Ten years on from the groundbreaking Triumph of the Moon: A history of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Professor Ronald Hutton, a selection of worldwide scholars, some ‘big names; some newer in the field, with nearly two centuries of hands-on pagan research experience between them, present a collection of researches inspired by, deriving from or just celebrating the immense impact of that seminal book. The topics cover many historical periods, many academic disciplines and it provides a wealth of information of use to academic scholar and interested freelance reader alike. Includes an extended essay by Ronald Hutton on the history of such scholarship, the state of it today and some of his thoughts for the future.

“Those engaging in Pagan Studies, provided that they speak and write in sufficiently public a manner, are inevitably going to mould the traditions that they are studying. Whether they are concerned with the history of forms of contemporary Paganism, or with their present nature, their work is going to have a lasting and continuing impact on the identities which Pagans assume and embody, and the manner in which they relate to society as a whole. I hope that this book will be read by people within the university system, and also by both Pagans and curious general readers: and my most important message is that all of them matter to the way in which Paganism is to develop in the next few decades, and probably for much longer: we are all weavers of the tapestry of time”- Ronald Hutton

ISBN 978-0-9555237-5-5 / 232 pages UK price £14.99 /US $22.50
Buy online from amazon.com

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Debate, Dialogue and Sales Scripts

Eric Reitan has written an interesting article for religion dispatches that touches on a documentary called Collision which presents the debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson. The article has implications not only for evangelicals as they engage atheists, but also in their engagement with those with religious commitments.

Reitan laments that as a result of the debates between Hitchens and Wilson nothing really happens to change the participants. He then goes on to describe why:

Put another way, Wilson advocates going into debates armed with a range of rehearsed responses and rejoinders—a flexible script, if you will. I am reminded of the scripts that novice salespeople are given, scripts which including the array of “rebuttals” they’re supposed to use in response to the various reasons customers might offer for not buying a product. For the salesperson armed with this flexible script, the human vulnerability of the single mother (one who expresses concern both for her children’s safety and for her precarious financial situation, for example) becomes a trigger for a set of prepared arguments that will ultimately result in a payment plan for a state-of-the-art, overpriced set of fire detectors.

One of the consequences of such scripts is that you don’t need to engage in an authentically personal way with the other individual and what she is saying. You just have to learn which objections or attacks to pluck from your toolkit in response to various challenges.

When it comes to selling a product, the purpose of such a script is clear: to keep the salesperson focused on making the sale, regardless of what the potential customer might say. But what is the purpose of using such a script in a debate? It certainly isn’t for the debaters to learn from one another, to be challenged by new ideas so that they might rethink and refine their own convictions. In a very real sense, it’s about preventing such transformations. When debaters rely on a flexible script, a challenge never triggers the question, “Could my opponent be right about this?” Instead, it sends them digging in their toolkit for the right retort. And when debaters lose, they are inspired to refine or expand their scripts, rather than the difficult work of revising the beliefs the scripts are intended to defend.

I think this insight is significant, and evangelicals need to reflect on it in various contexts. In my own experience I have participated in public debates with an atheist on three separate ocassions, and I will never do this again. Why? Because I felt like there was no interaction between my "opponent" and I, and no soul searching on the part of those in the audience. After the debate both "sides" went away feeling confirmed in their respective views.

I also think the debate format is what evangelicals assume or smuggle into their expectations when watching public dialogues between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. As a result such events become the kind of interaction where we each bring our personal scripts (and we hope our dialogue/debate representative has too) and do very little listening, and surely very little modification of our understanding of the beliefs and practices of others, or our own views as well.

The kind of dialogue that is needed is that advocated by Eric Sharpe: "The best dialogue is one in which those old-fashioned virtues of courtesy and mutual respect are allowed to have the upper hand of what our culture seems to be best at: points-scoring and vilifying the oppostion."

How might we engage in forms of interreligious dialogue that move beyond the sales scripts and preaching to our choir?