Friday, February 25, 2011

Robert Schreiter Interview on Local Theologies

In the past I posted on an interesting book by Robert J. Schreiter titled Constructing Local Theologies (Orbis Books, 2002). In my previous post I discussed Schreiter and his ideas related to local theologies as follows:

Schreiter is a Catholic theologian who is part of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. I found his Catholic perspective, as well as his theological and cultural savvy to be extremely helpful in reflecting on theological contextualization. In his view contemporary pluralism presents a "multiplicity of new pastoral and theological problems unprecedented in Christian history." Schreiter discusses some of these unique challenges that arise in a variety of forms, such as the asking of new questions in differing cultural contexts, questions that impact even the most routine issues of church life often taken for granted in the West:
"Indeed, so many new questions were emerging that the credibility of existing forms of theology was weakened. For example, questions about the eucharistic elements: How was one to celebrate the Eucharist in countries that were Muslim theocracies and forbade the production of importation of fermented beverages? What was one to do in those cultures where bread products such as bread were not known, in which the unconsecrated bread itself became a magical object because of its foreignness? Or how was one to celebrate baptism among the Masai in East Africa, where to pour water on the head of a woman was to curse her with infertility? How was one to understand Vatican Council II's opening to non-Christian religions in countries in southern Asia where Christianity seemed destined to remain a minority religion?"
In order to address these questions in ways that are theologically and culturally responsible, Schreiter suggests that we need to develop local theologies. He defines this as a form of theology that "begins with the needs of a people in a concrete place, and from there moves to the traditions of faith," and which involves a "dynamic interaction among gospel, church, and culture." Schreiter sees this starting place with culture as a strength as it begins "with the questions that the people themselves have" rather than the concerns of the church that often result in a theology and ecclesiology disconnected from local cultures.

I have been trying to get with Schreiter for some time for an interview to discuss questions of mine that have arisen over the course of my own dialogue between theologies, (sub)cultures, and various religious groups. Following are my questions and Schreiter's responsive thoughts.

Morehead's Musings: Protestant evangelicals are used to thinking about theology in terms of received historical theologies like Calvinism or Wesleyanism. Yet you describe a need for "local theologies." Why are these Protestant historical theologies examples of local theologies even if Protestants don't recognize them as such, and how do you define local theologies in terms of new expressions of theology in cultural and subcultural contexts?

Robert Schreiter: Theologians of whatever denominational stripe or inclination think their theology works above or apart from the context because of its subject: God. But even those who affirm biblical literacy have to contend with the fact that the Bible was written down by finite humans. Take a look at the document that came out of the October 2010 Capetown meeting of the Lausanne Covenant. (Incidentally I have an article appearing on the mission theology of the Lausanne Covenant's three big meetings, appearing in April in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research).

The theology of, say, John Calvin can be seen as local inasmuch as his writings were shaped by a response to a specific historical circumstance--reform of the Church in the 16th century. Local or contextual theologies are sensitive to context, but they are not determined by it.

Nearly all Western theologians seem to have difficulty accepting the limitations of their formulations. I get requests all the time (especially from Europe) to talk about the "universal" in the "local" theologies.

Morehead's Musings: Many evangelicals have been wary of sociology and have usually not brought it into dialogue with theology. How might a sociology of knowledge be significant for local theology formation?

Robert Schreiter: What I call a "sociology of theology" (that part of the book is widely quoted) is really built on a sociology of knowledge, i.e., a realization that all knowledge is situated, even as it reaches out beyond its situatedness. My point was to say that the location (monastery, university, oppressive situations) shape the form that theology takes. Another way is to look at theology's addressees: for whom is it intended, and what counts for them as genuine knowledge?

Morehead's Musings: I have been impressed with the missionary work of Catholics historically, particularly Jesuits like Matteo Ricci. Were they involved in the development of local theologies as you discuss, drawing upon the cultural tools they had available to them in their time?

Robert Schreiter: Was Ricci a local theologian? In many ways he (and perhaps even more, his contemporary Roberto de Nobili in India) was, albeit ahead of his time? Such local theologies arose when it became clear that the received theology Ricci and others were trying to transmit could not be understood or was regularly misunderstood by its intended audience. It is this disconnect that prompted the beginnings of contextual theology in the 1970s. It was certainly the reason I was drawn into it.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in your book you state: " cultures where human growth is not seen as personal achievement, but as discovering the underlying and unchanging patterns of the universe and coming into conformance with them, wisdom theology will find a ready home. The ideal of a fulfilled human life becomes one where a conformity to those archetypes of existence is carried out. One thinks of the Greek concept of paideia, the quest of the alchemist, and the discovery of the unity of the atman and the Brahman in Indian religion in this regard." At another point previous to this you reference the importance of kinship to theology for other groups. Here I am thinking that the former insights would have great relevance in a theology for Western esotericism and Paganism, and the latter with Latter-day Saints (Mormons). While we might think of wisdom and kinship theologies as being relevant for the peoples of Asia and Africa, in the West aren't esoteric and Latter-day Saint theologies examples of the types of connections between various subcultural groups and local theologies that can be made?

Robert Schreiter: One work you might consult is by the Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson: her Friends of Apostles and Prophets which is on the doctrine of the communion of the saints. You will get some good connections by looking at what has been written on Christians' relations with the ancestors, especially in Africa and East Asia.

Morehead's Musings: One of the greatest challenges for Protestants, particularly evangelicals with their concern for orthodoxy over against heresy, has been the fear of syncretism. But with this concern in mind you suggest that syncretism raises the question as to how serious we are about contextualization. With the lack of success in missions in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu cultures, it would appear that we need to be more bold and experimental in the formulation of local theologies. In this regard you write: "Is there a Buddhist way of being Christian, or a Hindu way of being Christian? Those two great traditions have been able to accommodate Christianity, but Christianity does not seem able to accommodate them." You then mention Christian "exclusivist thought patterns," and ask "Are those thought patterns essential to Christianity or do they represent certain cultural categories only?" How might those wishing to develop new local theologies that begin with the prisms of other traditions do so in ways that engage in healthy forms of syncretism, as religious studies understands the term (as opposed to theologians who view it as wholly negative).

Robert Schreiter: Syncretism continues to be a touchy subject across most of the religious spectrum. Practice is outstripping theory on this one. Robert Putnam in his recent book American Grace found some 80% of average Christians (across the spectrum) accepting a "pluralist" position on Christ and other religions, despite the tenets of their churches. It seems to have grown out of the experience of the goodness found in believers of other faiths. I took up the question of syncretism again in The New Catholicity. On double belonging, see Catherine Cornille, Many Mansions? and Paul Knitter's recent book on how he considers himself a Buddhist Christian.

Morehead's Musings: Thank you for your thoughts on these issues. I look forward to your IMBR article.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Interview at

A new interview with me has been posted at where I discuss not only my thoughts on the origins of vampires in folklore and mythology, as well as vampires in popular culture and as an identity group, but also on figures like Bill Schnoebelen and Don Rimer. The interview can be read here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Don Rimer: Occult Expert or Merchant of Fear?

Update 1/22/12: Don Rimer passed away on Saturday, 1/21/12.

As I keep in touch with various aspects of my research interests at times I find a few surprises. In this case it came not from my direct research, but in something related to it.

I was researching the vampire subculture and checking in with a few websites related to this, as well as on Pagan websites I frequent, and found mention of a gentleman claiming to be an expert in "the occult", and using this "expertise" to lead seminars and provide consulting on "occult ritual crimes" for law enforcement, as well as the media and various civic groups. The individual is Don Rimer, and I found him mentioned on both vampire and Pagan websites as someone who keeps quite busy presenting his views on the dangers of everything from Afro-Caribbean religions to the vampire culture to various fantasy-role playing games. Given these claims I thought it was worth exploring.

My research led to me learn that Don Rimer is a retired police officer, who now presents seminars through the Oklahoma Gang Investigators Unit. His views on "ritual crime and the occult" can be found in a document on the OGIU website titled "Ritual Crime and the Occult (the New Youth Subculture)" from 2009. This document casts quite a wide net of concern, and in so doing, I detected several problematic areas, troubling in that it comes from a self-described expert, and someone providing guidance to law enforcement and thereby impacting lives in significant fashion.

Due to my concerns, yet perplexed as to why someone would present misinformation in the name of expertise and be sought out for thousands of presentations, I thought I would share some bibliographical suggestions with Mr. Rimer via email in terms of good scholarly literature that might help shape his understanding of the issue. In response, Mr. Rimer stated that he gained his accurate knowledge of the groups in question through study with Wiccans, Vampires "and those who worship Satan." He also claimed that the document at the OGIU site was an "old edition" and that he had sent them a new one to be uploaded. As of the date of this post the document I originally reviewed is still there, and the same misinformation is presented by Mr. Rimer in the name of "occultic expertise."

After my exchanges with Mr. Rimer I thought I would solicit feedback from academic colleagues of mine who specialize in these areas, as well as representatives from the religious communities and identity subcultures who are knowledgeable about the issues, and Rimer's views on the matter. Without exception, everyone confirmed my suspicions. In fact, while Rimer has had some contact with those in the Pagan community, I could not track down anyone willing to agree that he accurately describes Paganism, and his claims about learning from vampires may be limited to magazine articles and random conversations at vampire clubs as well as newspaper articles on alleged "vampire killings," hardly the stuff of good ethnographic research and scholarly study.

My colleagues did point me toward additional resources that discuss Rimer and his problematic views on the "occult." These include a lengthy consideration of Rimer at Witchvox ( In addition, I benefited greatly from those associated with the Atlanta Vampire Alliance and their research materials through Suscitatio Enterprises, LLC ( These sources are worth interacting with, not only for accurate understandings of Paganism, Wicca, and the vampire subculture, but also for correctives to Rimer's misinformation on these and other subjects.

It is not necessary to repeat the critiques of Rimer offered in the sources mentioned above, and others that can be found online, but I would like the reader to come away with the following:

Problematic terminology and definitions
Rimer uses the term "occult" not only in a pejorative manner for various expressions of Western esotericism, but also as a blanket term for a diverse group of unrelated religions, spiritualities, and identity subcultures.

Imagined connections
Rimer makes inappropriate connections between various elements to alleged "ritual crime." Of course there are crimes, sometimes very grisly, but isolated cases of crime are not necessarily connected appropriately, nor do they flow out of, the groups he describes as dangerous.

Unfamiliarity with scholarship
Rimer is unfamiliar with the good body of academic materials on this subject matter, as well as the related to topic of satanic panics. In fact, in comments made to me he seems to hold academics at a distance and privileges his lay approach at "expertise." He doesn't have to be a scholar, but he should be familiar with the academic material related to the subjects he's instructing others on.

Counter-cult influences
Rimer also appears to be influenced by Protestant evangelical counter-cult approaches to the subjects he lectures on, which tends to lump diverse phenomena together with a primary concern that whatever religion or spirituality that is non-Christian is somehow connected to the demonic.

Despite the serious flaws in his approach, and the misinformation contained in his presentations, Rimer continues to be sought after and provides input to law enforcement, including training on how to identity alleged occult ritual crime. One of his most recent cases took place in Chesapeake, Virginia, where a woman was arrested for killing pigs and burglarizing a church. Thankfully in this story Rimer is quoted as (rightly) saying that there is nothing to link the woman with satanic worship. But Rimer's strange understanding of the things he labels as "occultic" will eventually lead him to mislead law enforcement, perhaps hampering the arrest of real criminals, or leading to the arrest of innocent people in the fervor of satanic panics.

My advice to law enforcement and other civic groups is to seek out responsible sources of information for their knowledge of religious and spiritual groups, as well as identity subcultures. Mr. Rimer seems more like a merchant of fear than an occult expert.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mormons, Folklore, and the Paranormal

Recently I posted an interview with the authors of Paranormal America (NYU Press, 2010) which presented sociological analysis of paranormal adherents based upon the American Religious Identification Survey. This type of research is very helpful as it not only touches on those who accept paranormal phenomena, but also in its conclusions in regards to the paranormal and how it relates or doesn't relate to those within various religious traditions.

One religious group not considered in this survey was the Mormons. Not to worry. There is a forthcoming book that addresses the place of paranormal experiences and folklore in Mormon history.

Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore
W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen
5.5 x 8.5, est 256 pages

ISBN 978-0-87421-838-1
paper $21.95 (available April)

ISBN 978-0-87421-823-7
e-book $18.00 (available July)
Cain wanders the frontier as a Bigfoot-like hairy beast and confronts an early Mormon apostle. An evil band of murderers from Mormon scripture, known as the Gadianton robbers, provides an excuse for the failure of a desert town. Stories of children raised from the dead with decayed bodies and damaged minds help draw boundaries between the proper spheres of human and divine action. Mormons who observe UFOs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries find ways to explain them in relation to the church’s cosmology. The millenarian dimension of that belief system induces church members to invest in the Dream Mine, a hidden treasure that a would-be heir to Joseph Smith wraps in prophecy of the end times. A Utah version of Nessie haunts a large mountain lake. Non-Mormons attempt to discredit Joseph Smith with tales that he had tried and failed to walk on water.

Mormons gave distinctive meanings to supernatural legends and events, but their narratives incorporated motifs found in many cultures. Many such historical legends and beliefs found adherents down to the present. This collection employs folklore to illuminate the cultural and religious history of a people.

Elaine Thatcher, Foreword
W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen, "Between Pulpit and Pew: Where History and Lore Intersect"
Matthew Bowman, "A Mormon Bigfoot: David Patten's Cain and the Conception of Evil in LDS Folklore"
W. Paul Reeve, "'As Ugly as Evil,' and 'As Wicked as Hell': Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons"
Matthew Bowman, "Raising the Dead: Mormons, Evangelicals, and Miracles in America"
Michael Scott Van Wagenen, "Singular Phenomena: The Evolving Mormon Interpretation of Unidentified Flying Objects"
Kevin Cantera, "A Currency of Faith: Taking Stock in Utah County's Dream Mine"
Alan L. Morrell, "A Nessie in Mormon Country"
Stanley J. Thayne, "Walking on Water: Nineteenth-Century Prophets and a Legend of Religious Imposture"
My thanks to aquinas of Summa Theologica for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Special Edition of Sacred Tribes Journal on Dark Green Religion Online

It was many months in the making, from initial concept, to the solicitation of articles, to article submission, editing, formatting and eventually publishing, but the special edition of Sacred Tribes Journal, Volume 6, no. 1 (Spring 2011) is now available. This edition focuses on Dark Green Religion and the book of the same title by Bron Taylor.

This edition of the journal includes an extensive interview with Taylor, responses by Christian environmentalists Loren Wilkinson and Peter Illyn, interations by Taylor with Wilkinson and llyn's essays, and a response to this by Wilkinson. The issue also includes my film review of Avatar, and commentary on the book The Lost World of Genesis One, both of which dovetail with applications to Dark Green Religion.

I couldn't be happier with the way this turned out, and I hope that this volume opens the door for ongoing dialogue in various venues on this topic between those concerned with this form of spirituality from whatever perspective brought to it. The special edition can be found here.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Academic Conference on Religion Satanism

From the sociology of religion email list:

Satanism is a subject that has always drawn a lot of media attention as well as interest from the general public. Scholarly studies of the subject, however, have more often focused on socially constructed "Satanic Panics" than on Satanism as a religious alternative in itself. Recently, this has begun to change, and anthologies such as Contemporary Religious Satanism (Ed. Jesper A Petersen, Ashgate, 2009) have started to fill the gaps in scholarly knowledge concerning Satanism. A further attempt to remedy the situation was made when the first ever international scholarly conference on Satanism was organized in Trondheim, Norway, in 2009. The conference was a great success, and resulted in an anthology that will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. In September 2011, we welcome you to Stockholm, Sweden for the follow-up to 2009's gathering of specialists.

Keynote speaker: Marco Pasi

Deadline for abstracts: May 22, 2011.
Submit your abstract to: and
(remember to submit abstracts to both organisers).

Papers dealing with most aspects of Satanism are welcome (including Satanism in literature, cinema, etc). However, we discourage papers treating "the Satanic panic", "Satanic ritual abuse", etc, as these themes have received sufficient scholarly attention. Conference fee will be announced later.