Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Ooze and Burning Man: Join the Discussion

As I've mentioned previously, The Ooze website, an emerging church site, has published my first Burning Man paper as an article in their Culture section. The second paper, the missional apologetic, is scheduled to be published January 18.

Below I have copied some of the comments posted at the site to my paper, and my responses. In addition, I have started a new thread on The Ooze discussion board with the title "What is Burning Man 'Saying' to the Emerging Church? You can view the original post and the comments here. Perhaps you'd like to join the discussion.
The photo accompanying this post comes from a large metal statue at Burning Man, one of three human figures facing The Man in a posture of worship and offering prayers of hope with the 2006 festival theme "Hope and Fear: The Future." The photo is byWaldemar Horwat, and copyrighted 2006.
Here are the comments on my Burning Man article:

Awesome! Thanks for providing this rich encyclopedic treatise - makes me want to attend next year.
Posted by Jon Redux Posted at 12/14/2006 8:49 AM

Very interesting to read. In the summer I work with a lot of people like this, and indeed some of them this year wanted to attend Burning Man, though I don't know if they ever did. This has helped me to understand them a bit more.
I was also wondering if you have ever checked out the Orthodox Christian Church as a Christian answer for these people at Burning Man. I mean the Orthodox are historical being the oldest Christian group still around, and they retain strong links to their past. Their call to lead the Christian life is way more than just the alter call, and I think their worship would satisfy any need for fantasy. I personally have seen or experienced nothing else like it. Just a thought. Thanks for sharing yours.
Posted by Stephen Posted at 12/15/2006 6:27 AM

There really isn't much value in this blatantly pagan ritual that contributes to the godward trek of the Christian. Certainly there are some interesting aspects in the phenomenon, but that doesn't excuse crass godlessness.
Posted by Spencer Posted at 12/20/2006 3:52 PM
I appreciate the comments on this article and hope that it continues to stimulate thinking related to the emerging church and missions in the post-modern and post-Christendom West.

As to Stephen's comments on the possibility of Eastern Orthodoxy being of interest and relevant to Burning Man participants, I think this falls short of being culturally relevant. We need to approach this as a subculture just as a missionary overseas would approach another culture and seek appropriate forms of engagement and the cross-cultural communication and embodiment of the gospel. I attemt to suggest one such approach in my next article on this, a missional apologetic that will be posted on the Ooze in January.

As to Spencer's comments, I find these unfortunate, and an example of the frequent closed mindedness we evangelicals often bring to alternative spirituality communities such as Burning Man. As my paper above indicates, Burning Man is culturally complex and it represents far more than mere godlessness as some evangelicals tend to write dismissively and superficially. In addition, Burning Man is not Pagan, although Pagan elements can be found within it. We simply have to do our homework on this, and demonstrate empathy for this subculture in post-modernity.
Posted by John W. Morehead Posted at 12/20/2006 7:12 PM

I just don't see the necessity of being "open-minded" to an "alternative" spiritual community. Isn't Christ the _only_ way to the father, in his own words?

While burning-man may be culturally complex, and there may be more to it than the patent dismissals that are given it, it is essentially pagan and evokes pagan imagery and practice. This article casually sweeps aside the accusations pointed at the festival about being a drug/sex/pagan festival as if they are untrue, but all of these elements are not only present, but a huge part of the "festivities," along with the art and community and whatever else.
Now, I don't believe a situation exists where one cannot learn of Christ, but to say that a festival such as this is a spiritual experience for us to learn from and emulate, well I find that not just hard to follow, but absurd.
Posted by Shepherd Posted at 12/24/2006 8:26 PM
Shepherd, thank you for reading the article, and for passing along your comments. Please allow me to respond to some of the items you mentioned.

First, while Christ is indeed the way in which God has chosen to reconcile the world with Himself, this does not mean that Christians do not have a responsibility to understand the various subcultures and people groups of the world as we seek to incarnate the gospel in their midst, and this includes the Burning Man subculture. In order to appropriately communicate Christ in deed and word we must be open minded, otherwise we will not understand those we seek to communicate with. This approach has been used in the history of Christian missions, just as Paul understood the various types of Pagan subcultures and used differing means of communicating with them (e.g., contrast Acts 14 with Acts 17).

Second, an examination of Burning Man and the academic literature surrounding it indicates that Burning Man is not properly understood as Pagan in the sense of Neo-Paganism, even while it draws upon the symbolism and religious ideas of various religions and spiritualities, including Neo-Paganism. Before Christians can say they disagree with Burning Man they must truly understand what they disagree with, and what they may find of value as well.
Third, my article does not casually sweep aside allegations of drugs, sex, and Paganism at Burning Man, but points out that the festival is far more than this, and that Christians and other critics have ben too quick to stereotype and dismiss this subculture in such a fashion. Our understanding and critique must have more complexity and depth. This is only fair to Burning Man adherents, and the only intellectually responsible thing to do. Perhaps we could paraphrase Jesus: "Judge others fesitvals as you would have them judge your Christian faith."
Finally, as to whether Christians can learn from Burning Man vs. merely having something to say to them, in the history of Chrisitan missions there is a long history of the recognition of the Spirit's moving in cultures and religions long before Christians arrived on the scene, and the church has learned to appreciate aspects of her own faith in light of the encounter with the religious other. As an example in the Burning Man context, Protestants have lost touch with a theology of festivity in connection with our liturgy, our celebration of the religious calendar, and in our expressions of worship and community. We can learn these lessons from Burning Man, if we have "ears to hear."

I appreciate your comments and concern, but this article is hardly absurd. Indeed, superficial dismissals by Christians such as yours appear to be the ones that are problematic. The Ooze community can do better. We have to if we want to speak with relevance in the post-modern West.

Posted by John W. Morehead Posted at 12/25/2006 1:36 PM

Friday, December 22, 2006

Liquid Church: Great Flexibility But a Missions Mix is Needed in the Fluid

When I first read the description of the book, Liquid Church (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), I was intrigued. The book noted that in the changing cultural environment of the West "the church must be like water - flexible, fluid, changeable." That the book was written from a U.K. perspective was also of interest to me in that I have found materials coming from the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand more beneficial on average than that coming from America. The dramatic post-Christendom context of these Western countries has forced church leaders to think outside the box in ways that many Americans have yet to grapple with.

Liquid Church is written by Dr. Pete Ward who teaches at King's College in London. Dr. Ward teaches in the area of popular culture and theology, and he has written on these topics as well well as on various aspects related to youth ministry.

My interest in reading Liquid Church, like that of Neil Cole's Organic Church (Jossey-Bass, 2005), is to gauge the extent to which those in the emerging church are aware of broader cultural trends in the West, how church forms may be reconceptualized in post-modernity, and the extent to which contemporary authors are interacting with various academic disciplines in order to help the church understand and respond to cultural challenges. In this regard I was pleased to see Dr. Ward not only consider issues of theology and ecclesiology, but also the insights provided by sociology and cultural studies.

The central thesis of Ward's book is a contrast between what he describes as "solid church" forms and "liquid church." Ward draws upon the writing of Zygmunt Bauman who explores contemporary Western culture and who notes that modernity has produced institutional expressions of church that tend to be more solid and rigid. Ward also describes various mutations of solid church that he describes as heritage site, refuge, and nostalgic community.

In contrast with solid church Ward notes that within modernity we are also observing cultural changes that evidence increasing fluidity. As Ward quotes Leonard Sweet on cultural change while drawing upon the metaphor of liquid:

"If the Modern Era was a rage for order, regulation, stability, singularity, and fixity, the Postmodern Era is a rage for chaos, uncertainty, otherness, openness, multiplicity, and change. Postmodern surfaces are not landscapes but wavescapes, with the waters always changing and the surfaces never the same. The sea knows no boundaries."

The shift of culture from modernity to postmodernity, from what Ward describs as solid culture to liquid culture, necessitates new expressions and understandings of church from solid church to liquid church. But while such talk often makes more traditional church leaders uncomfortable with the fear of abandonment of all of the past, Ward strikes a balance here. He states:

"I do not argue that we should abandon all existing patterns of church in favor of this new idea or proclaim that all is 'post' and that this heralds an impending apocalypse that will sweep solid church before it."

Instead of sweeping dismissal of solid church forms in modernity, Ward offers two suggestions. First, that mutations of solid church "has seriously decreased its ability to engage in genuine mission in liquid modernity." Second, that fluid expressions of church are essential in that they take "the present culture seriously and seeks to express the fulness of the Christian gospel within that culture."

As Ward describes the liquid church alternative he provides brief but helpful theological considerations such as what it means to be in Christ as compared to in the church, reflections on the body of Christ, and how the New Testament teaching on the Kingdom of God relates to the church, particularly in the context of liquid church in post-modernity.

Special attention must be drawn to Ward's discussion of liquid church in consumer culture. Ward notes the church's function within an increasingly diverse and competitive spiritual marketplace and this has resulted in the commodification of the church as expressed, for example, in the Alpha Course in the U.K. (later exported to the U.S.) and "seeker" church approaches such as that of Willow Creek Community Church. Ward states that he believes that "commodification is essential for evangelism," and he provides an example from the "What Would Jesus Do?" or WWJD product marketing. Ward views this positively and states that "WWJD managed to incarnate Christ inside this fairly arid world [of fashion-conscious adolescence], and it did so by commodification."

In this area I must share my disagreement with Dr. Ward on multiple fronts. First, while it is true that the church has been shaped by consumerism and commodification within modernity, and to a certain extent there has been some benefit from the utilization of marketing aspects related to the seeker movement, it would seem that the modern church which is so often concerned about the dangers of syncretism has already been compromised by syncretism in its combination of consumer culture with its expressions of church in order to reach the seeker and its creation of an evangelical subculture that is consumer driven, as evidenced by the emphasis on programs, buildings, and the production of evangelical products for religious consumers inside and outside the church.

Second, I find it hard to find much that is positive with the WWJD phenomenon, whether for adolescents, children or adults, and in my thinking this provides a negative example of commodification rather than a positive example of penetrating the culture. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate and beneficial to have our lifestyles of service and self-denial serve as our personal identifiers of connection with Jesus rather than WWJD bracelets.

Third, I strongly disagree with Ward's contention that commodification is essential for evangelism. Instead of commodification we ought to be considering contextualization through reflection on intercultural studies and missiology. This area represents another weakness in Ward's thesis in that while he does reference David Bosch's Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), he does not provide any indication that his theological and cultural reflection on liquid church has interacted with missiology or the history of Christian missions. This is especially evident in chaper 10 where he provides examples of worship for liquid church that include a contemporary setting from St. Paul's Cathedral in London and its use of a labyrinth, a medieval church before the Reformation, and Greek Orthodox worship. While I appreciate Ward's attempt to engage the history of the church in order to draw upon elements of the past for the present in worship (an example of influence from discussions of ancient-future worship?), he seems to lack recognition of the importance of cultural considerations related to missions wherein cultural forms of church are determined by the culture in order to inculturate expressions of worship appropriate for that culture.

Liquid Church provides a resource that will stimulate the thinking of those who are aware that something just is not quite right with many contemporary expressions of church in late modernity, and who want to take some initial steps in rethinking church in light of cultural change. But in my view the book demonstrates blind spots in the interaction between church and culture that would have been addressed through reflection on missions.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Religions and Folk Religion: Considerations Beyond Institutional Orthodoxies

After posting my ethnography paper on Eclectic Mormon Women on a few websites I received some positive feedback from Pagans and evangelicals alike. One of the helpful comments confirmed my own thinking related to the significance of folk religion as it relates to understanding new religions and world religions.

My friend and colleague Philip Johnson suggested four essays for further research on this topic, one of which was Richley H. Crapo, "The Grass Roots Deviance from Official Doctrine: A Study of Latter-day Saint (Mormon) Folk Beliefs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26/4 (1987): 465-85. In this article Crapo surveyed a number of Utah Latter-day Saints concerning their doctrinal beliefs. As the abstract notes, "in spite of the authority-based concept of revealed doctrine, actual beliefs at the local level may deviate from doctrinal positions issued by church Presidents." This was the case with the women I surveyed and interviewed in Utah who combined active Latter-day Saint practices and beliefs with various elements from the New Spirituality, Paganism, and Wicca. This eclectic mix resulting in folk religiosity happens in every religious tradition, including traditional expressions of Christianity, so we should not be surprised to find it among Latter-day Saints.

As I was reminded in my research, and in Philip's comments, the presence of folk-beliefs among Latter-day Saints at the grass roots level represents significant blind spots for evangelicals. Many evangelicals assume that a given adherent to a new religion holds beliefs consistent with institutional orthodoxy, but this may very likely not be the case. (Indeed, Mormonism emphasize participation in community, testimony, and ritual over doctrine or doctrinal conformity). In interactions with Mormons, for example, evangelicals frequently engage them by reminding them of either present institutional orthodoxy or a nineteenth century variant that is likely to no longer to be held by many Mormons. If folk-beliefs are held at a grass roots level then institutional orthodoxy as a starting point is flawed. It seems likely then that the presence of folk religious aspects within Mormonism represent apologetic and missiological blind spots that need to be addressed by the evangelical community. But despite the importance of such issues it is unlikely that they will be addressed by those in ministry to Mormons. Why? Since so few recognize the existence of Mormon neo-orthodoxy it is unlikely they will consider aspects of folk Mormonism.

Philip Johnson will be leading an intensive course on new religious movements at Salt Lake Seminary, with a special one-day intensive on January 2, and the rest of the week devoted to the intensive course from January 3-6. And in the spring semester Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary will be coming out over various weekends in February, March, and April for an intensive on world religions with an emphasis on "Exegeting Religious Cultures for Mission" as it relates to folk religions. These two scholars represent some of the best thinking in these fields, and their teaching should provide a helpful corrective to our reified understandings of new religions and world religions.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

First Burning Man Essay on

My first essay on Burning Man, "Burn, Baby, Burn, Christendom Inferno: Burning Man and the Festive Immolation of Christendom Culture and Modernity," can now be found at the emerging church site It is listed on the main page and in two installments with the first found here. It has received an initial comment, and a positive one. I hope that this exposure for the article can impact the emerging church, as well as the traditional and contemporary expressions of church as well.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Synchronized blogs on Church Syncretism

As time permits, I will be contributing to a new blog on the syncretism found in the American church. My friend and colleague, Phil Wyman has recently mentioned this on his blog:

Synchronizing a Blog on Syncretism

Attention all Blogmeisters!
On December 14 (which is a Thursday in my universe, in my locale we call this 12/14 because Americans do not place the numbers in sensible order, for you this might be 14/12 because you might drive on the wrong side of the road which is quite fun to do, especially in Antigua where the roads are narrow and lined with deep drainage ditches, goats, and mothers with babies - now back to December 14) some of us will be putting up a blog on the subject of syncretism in the Australian/Canadian/British or American Church. We are looking to identify in as many ways as possible the syncretism of today's church with today's culture. If you are up for the idea let me know. I will be coordinating the effort, and making sure everyone who wants to be in will get linked by all the other bloggers. There will be some e-mails going out as well sending people in our direction. On this blog you will be finding a discussion on "Syncretism in the Evangelical Church: The Consumerism of the Altar Call and the Sinner's Prayer." You can also find this request at Sally's Journey. Please send me this info: your name. your blog site, the specific subject you will cover on that day of December 14th - you know either 12/14, or 14/12.

Participants include:

Phil Wyman on "Syncretism in the Evangelical Church: The Consumerism of the Altar Call and the Sinner's Prayer"
Sally's Journey on "Time out from Tinsel"
Matt Stone on Family Values
Steve Hayes with an interesting turn about on where we find syncretism!
Mike Crockett on Church and Culture: a double-edged sword
Carl Nystedt on Syncretism: Pros and Cons
Billy Calderwood's Swimming in Divine Chaos
John Smulo's Blog

Eclectic Mormon Women Ethnography Paper: Beyond Morwics and Mormo-Pagans

I recently completed my ethnography project paper for the Mormon Culture course at Salt Lake Seminary. The paper is available for download, and it is designed to tell the stories and provide the cultural background of my informants who represent a signficant subculture. The title, abstract, and thesis are below.

"Daughters of the Moon: Eclectic Mormon Women and Their Search for a Place in the Light of the Sun"

The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun. - Isaiah 30:26

Abstract: Eclectic Mormon Women combine active LDS membership, beliefs, and practices with various forms of “alternative spirituality,” whether Neo-Paganism, the New Spirituality, or other forms of nature-based spirituality, esotericism, and mysticism. They connect their religious synthesis to aspects and precedents in Mormon history, cosmology, and practices, and yet find their spirituality at odds with LDS leadership. Their quest finds fertile ground in the post-modern shift to self orientations in spirituality in opposition to external and institutional authority. They represent a significant subculture within the LDS faith and a continued challenge to traditional expressions of authority and conceptions of the Divine.

Thesis: To most Mormon women religious life is defined in the ward, in the temple, at home, and in the local Mormon community. But for Eclectic Mormon Women the situation created from their spiritual synthesis is more complex, and as a result, they face continued struggles with a sense of place in the LDS Church. This paper will examine the basic themes that arise from their stories, and will consider the social, cultural, and spiritual developments in the twenty-first century Western world that provide an atmosphere conducive to their quest while providing continuing challenges to opposition to this eclectic synthesis from LDS leadership.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Report on Lausanne Consultation on Christian Encounter with New Spiritualities

The Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities of which I am a part has completed its report for Lausanne on the consultation in Hong Kong. It is posted here to promote the consultation and the planned activites of the future with the kind permission of the group's facilitator, Ole Skjerbaek Madsen. Further information on this Lausanne group can be found at

Lausanne Consultation on Christian Encounter with New Spiritualities
Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, Hong Kong
September 30th – October 7th 2006

The work Issue Group 16 from the Lausanne gathering in Thailand in 2004 continued their work with a recent consultation in Hong Kong. Through this meeting the new missional apologetic paradigm to new religions and new spiritualities was discussed, as well as the work of the issue group since 2004, and future planning took place. This includes a conference for 2008, and preparations for the continued work going into the preparations for the Lausanne gathering in connection with the 2010 centenary of the Edinburgh meeting.

The consultation was a follow up on IG 16 of the Lausanne 2004 Forum in Thailand. The participants of IG 16 and the 2006 consultation will continue their work as a Lausanne network on Christian Witness to New Religious Movements (NRM) and New Spiritualities (NS).

Through our sessions we confirmed the continuing development of an emerging new paradigm for a Christian engagement with the adherents and practitioners of NRM and NS.

This paradigm begins with and builds upon the insight of the 1980 Thailand report (LOP 11) that adherents of new religious movements are unreached peoples. The development of the NRM and NS affirms this insight in light of the spiritual reality of the Western world which calls for mission and Christian witness as a priority of the Western Church and Evangelical Christians. Furthermore the process of globalisation brings this development to the Two-Thirds world, especially in the big cities.

Since NRM and NS represent unreached peoples, they should be encountered missionally as any other unreached people group, i.e. the gospel should be contextually communicated to adherents and practitioners of new religions,

This new paradigm calls for an abandonment of the atmosphere of fear in the relationship with adherents of the NRM, of the automatic demonization of their spiritual practices, and of the typecasting of them as spiritual enemies.

The new paradigm looks upon the adherents of NRM and practitioners of NS as people whom God loves, potential disciples of Jesus Christ, and as neighbours for whom Christ died on the cross.

This does not mean that the discernment of spirits is abandoned in relation to NRM and NS, but it means that Christians should not be afraid of establishing friendships, of studying and understanding their beliefs, their practices, their hopes, their hurts, and their fears, and we recognize in and among ourselves the same beliefs, hopes, and fears shared in our common humanity and imago Dei.

In ministering among the people who comprise the NRM and NS, we are dealing with a group of people who many times have been deeply hurt by Christians, and who have suffered from rejection and suspicion from Christians. In the same group of people we find many who have misunderstood Christian teachings and practices, and who are unaware of the message and viability of Christianity in the post-modern world, but who nevertheless in their search for a spiritual dimension and meaning have found inspiration in new expressions of East Asian religions, in nature-based spiritualities such as Contemporary Paganism, Neo-Pagan movements, Wicca, and in various esoteric traditions.

A new paradigm includes learning from the NRM and NS, since their practice and beliefs may reflect the unpaid bills of the Church (LOP 45, par H), or failures of the church in engaging significant issues, and in so doing, creating a vacuum filled by NRM and NS. This reflection, as well as the discerning of the points of contact and the areas of potential conflict (LOP 45, par. G), may help the Church to understand the questions of post-modern men and women, and this in turn may help Christians to proclaim the gospel by meeting actual concerns instead of answering questions which may be of interest to the Church but which are often not raised by the people we seek to engage. The recognition of these unpaid bills and points of contact may help the Church to find new expressions of its life and spiritual practice, which may contribute to an atmosphere and the creation of a revitalized Christian community where the spiritual seeker and the new follower of Christ may feel more at home in Church and accepted in Christian fellowship. In addition to these positive aspects, the new paradigm also recognizes the reality of syncretism and therefore attempts to exegete religious and spiritual cultures, critically reflects on religious practices in light of historic Christianity, and develops culturally relevant Christian practices.

The consultation participants shared experiences and insights from American, Australian, and European settings and discussed religious phenomenology and a missiological models for cultural engagement.

The participants decided to continue as a network of missiologists, practitioners, and scholars from the 2004 IG as well as from this consultation, and from an invited group of participants over the course of the near future.

Goals and Conferences:
The IG 16 reached its goals established in the 2004 gathering in Thailand concerning forming a network and establishing a web portal, but the network will continue to work at reaching its additional goals of producing resources and working on cooperative projects. These goals will be addressed in part at the conferences scheduled for 2008 and 2010.

The network plans a conference in 2008 at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, USA entitled “Post-Christendom Spiritualities: The New Unreached People Groups”. The aim of this conference will be to continue to define and develop the new paradigm of Christian witness to NR and NS.

In the time leading up to the conference a call for papers from scholars and missional practitioners will go out that will solicit suggestions for academic papers. Some suggested topics of praxis, theology, and missiology include:

▪Developing a missiological model for engagement with NR
▪Defining Church in a post-modern world
▪A sociological analysis of NR and NS as the biggest mission field in the Western hemisphere.
▪The work of the Spirit in mission and New Spiritualities
▪Contemporary spirituality in relation to Christian tradition in cross cultural mission and/or the study of world religions
▪Creation and redemption in Christian theology
▪Goddess spirituality and the theology of God
▪Inter-religious apologetics in post-modernity
▪The emerging church and emerging spiritualities
▪Science and new religions
▪The Christian and the paranormal
▪Christian approaches to complementary or holistic medicine and energy healing

Co-authoring will be encouraged, and critical responses will be sought to papers from experts in the appropriate fields.

In the time leading up to the conference models and case studies of Christian witness to and presence among NRM and NS will be shared and prepared for workshops at the conference. The models and case studies may deal with subjects relating to the topics of academic papers and subjects such as:

▪Ethos in participating in neo-spiritual events
▪Offering guidance as Christians in relation to prophecy and Divination
▪Energy healing paradigm and Christian healing
▪Material for discipling converts from NRM and NS
▪The use of religious language in NS settings
▪Worship and ritual for Christians working in the NS milieu
▪Engaging with pluralist understandings of Jesus in NS

The conference is envisaged as taking place from a Thursday afternoon registration through Sunday lunchtime. The accepted abstracts will be used to produce a brochure for the conference with intention of attracting participants from a wide spectrum of academics and practitioners in the field.
The issue group will meet before and after the conference to ensure the material from the conference is taken forward to fuel progression in both learning and practice in this area.

One of the outcomes of the completion of the conference will be a book and other materials that will be produced as a record and collection of resources from the cutting-edge of theology and praxis in this area.

2010 Lausanne Forum:
Concerning the 2010 conference the Lausanne network on Christian Witness to NR and NS envisage these issues:

▪The need to recognise that the NR and NS are major unreached people groups that encompass the globe, if not increasingly the major unreached people groups in the developed nations of the Majority World where they often represent mainstream spiritualities that often replace or supplant traditional religions (including Christianity).
▪The new missiological challenge stemming from the spread and adaptation of such spiritualities as part of globalisation in developing nations.
▪The close linkage of the New Spiritualities to the spiritual search of women and young adults and its importance to this area of mission amongst these groups.

We therefore believe that the importance of this issue requires representation in the main plenary sessions for Lausanne as part of the programme for the 2010 conference, and this issue group offers to work with the conference organisers to enable this to happen.

The participants of the consultation extend their thanks to Areopagos for providing scholarship support for the attendance and participation of several members of the network at this consultation.

The network shares its insights in a discussion forum established as a Yahoo! Group of which membership is by invitation only.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I Left My Heart in San Francisco (or more precisely, Marin County)

Before relocating to northern Utah for graduate studies my family and I lived in northern California in the greater Sacramento area. This is not far from the San Francisco Bay Area, and over the years I had developed relationships with some great people associated with Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Marin County. This county is one of the more fascinating in the United States from the perspective of religious studies in that it has one of the highest rates of participation in or identification with alternative spiritualities which provides "a case study of particular changes occuring on the religious landscape of America" (Gary A. Tobin & Patricia Y.C.E. Lin, Religious & Spiritual Change in America: The Experience of Marin County, California [Institute for Jewish & Community Research, San Francisco, 2002]). This area also has one of the highest "unchurched" populations of the country (I hate describing people by what they aren't, or by what evangelicals wish them to be ["unchurched], but it's a common label).

As a result of the spiritual climate of Marin County, and my frequent visits to this area before my relocation, I developed a special fondness for it. I recently came across a fascinating quote in a book on Wicca that confirmed the highly influential nature of this region.:

"Within North American Neo-Paganism, California occupies a special position because of its status as the source of much of the 1960s counterculture, a movement that helped popularize Neo-Paganism (as well as other New Religious movements) throughout North America and the rest of the world. California has been at the vanguard of cultural production of a number of fronts, from the film industry to the manufacture and distribution of electronic and technological components; historian Ronald Hutton argues that its importance in the early twenty-first century global cultural scene can be compared to that of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E., Rome in the first century C.E., and Florence in the fifteenth." (Sabina Magliocco, Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America [University of Philadelphia Press, 2004, ]).

Although the cost of living is astronomical in this region, I would dearly love to connect with Christians who have the heart and finances to engage areas like this (and Salem with Phil Wyman) in the future. The strategic importance is tremendous.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Interview with Phil Wyman of The Gathering

Shortly after Halloween I mentioned the interesting story of Pastor Phil Wyman, whose ministry approach with The Gathering among Pagans and Wiccans in Salem ran afoul of Foursquare denomination leaders. John Smulo has a two-part interview (Part 1 & Part 2) with Phil where you can learn more about him, the controversy, and his exciting minsistry.

Phil's interview and story has also been favorably posted on The Wild Hunt Blog, a Pagan blog worth reading.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Burning Man Missional Apologetic Paper

I recently completed a paper for the Apologetic Traditions course at Salt Lake Seminary titled "Apocalyptic Man Ablaze: The Hope of Burning Man's Effigy Revealed in the Risen Holy Fool." The paper can be downloaded here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Gnosticism, Neo-Gnosticism and the Need for Evangelical Reflection

One of the papers I am finalizing this semester is one on Gnosticism. I am looking at Irenaeus's response to Gnosticism as expressed by Valentinus, and then noting the strengths and weaknesses of his approach, followed by theological and missiological reflections for engaging Neo-Gnosticism in the twenty-first century.

The study has been interesting as I reflect not only on how to interact with with increasingly popular and influential Neo-Gnosticism, but also how this expression of spirituality provides opportunities for evangelicals to see our own blindspots. Harold O.J. Brown, in his classic book Heresies, states that in the early history of the church "Gnosticism actually performed a service for the church, by compelling it to think the Gospel through and work out its implications." I think we still have some thinking to do and I'd like to suggest a few areas.

One of the defining features of second century Gnosticism was its dualism which emphasized the spiritual realm and viewed the material world as evil and corrupt as a product of the inferior deity of the Demiurge. I wonder whether many evangelicals might have adopted their own forms of dualism that rival those of ancient Gnosticism. Consider the following:

First. our understanding of soteriology in general, and particularly in connection with new religions and "alternative" spiritualities in the West, tend to be doctrinally and intellectually focused, a form of special gnosis. We tend to articulate a series of doctrinal propositions, sometimes several and of great theological complexity, and if these are embraced we connect this with a relationship with Christ and salvation. I recognize that soteriology and faith in Christ include cognitive dimensions, but perhaps we have made the knowledge issue primary at the expense of another facet. Gary Trompff, writing on the historic oscillation in the West between the esoteric and exoteric, writes that,

"[S]ince in [John's] Gospel Jesus is found saying 'I am the Reality (aletheia)' (8:46), the radical implication presents itelf that truth is found in the personhood of the Christ, not in the propositional thought of the philosophers, and that true freedom arises from relationship, indeed befriending discipleship, rather than correct epistemology."

Is there room for evangelicals to rethink the relationship between the cognitive and the relational in the Christian faith? How might theology be able to dialogue with sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and missiology to reframe our current perceptions?

Second, evangelical attitudes about the body tend toward the Victorian and Puritanical. We tend to lack a theology that connects the body, its nakedness and "genderedness," to the goodness of God's creation and reflecting sacredness as a part of what it means to be an embodied creature reflecting the divine. Is this our own form of Gnostic emphasis on the spiritual at the expense of evil matter?

Third, many evangelicals tend not to be involved in environmental causes and lack a theology of the creation and God's involvement with and within it beyond the creation-evolution debate. This is made even more problematic when this lack of care for the creation is tied to certain eschatological systems of "end-times" which anticipates redeemed humanity's removal from the created order and its pending destruction and recreation. How might we rethink a theology of creation in terms of its sacredness in connection with the creator rather than abandoning it to decay and our abuse?

Fourth, related to number three above, our most popular eschatology, particularly that popularized in the Left Behind novels, appears to be pseudo-Gnostic. Brown, writing on Marcion's views of the Old Testament, states that,

"Marcion's idea that the church really is not part of world history appears again, centuries later in a more orthodox form, in the view of J. N. Darby (1800-1882). Darby and the dispensationalists who follow him consder the church to be in a kind of parenthesis that really is not part of world history."

Do evangelicals really value the historical process, God's outworking of his telos for and within the created and historical order? And are these salvific purposes extended not only to humanity, but to the whole creation as well? Our most popular "end-times" scenario casts doubt on this. And to make matters worse, some of the methods used to arrive at these scenarios seem to resemble forms of numerology and hidden code deciphering that might have made many Gnostics and hermeticists blush.

In addition to the concerns above that I hope we can revisit in fresh ways, I wonder whether our engagement with Neo-Gnosticism has not only caused us to miss out on critical self-reflection, but has also been largely defensive rather than truly engaging. A few of the academic sources I have interacted with for my course paper have noted that while the early church put forward a defense for the church it failed to engage the questions that the Gnostics were asking and for which they provided answers that emerging orthodoxy saw as heretical. Are there ways in which we can not only recontextualize the faith, just as Paul reframed it for the Hellenic environment, but also take Neo-Gnosticism's quest seriously and engage the key issues of Western culture in the twenty-first century?

I hope we can answer these questions in the affirmative. But at times I think evangelicals are more Gnostic than the Neo-Gnostics.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

The image that accompanies this post is from a 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is titled "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent." This artwork depicts the often uneasy relationship in Catholic festivals between these two related celebrations. It may be surprising to some, but this conflict continues and has great significance for Protestants and Christians outside the Roman Catholic tradition as we engage Western culture.

The significance of festivals and festivity in Western culture first came to my attention as I conducted research for my seminar series on Halloween and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebrations for the Imaginarium at Cornerstone Festival in July of 2006. As I conducted this research I was struck by the long connection historically between cultures and festivals, and Christianity's participation in such events, particularly within Roman Catholicism. Carnival is a Catholic celebration with the Carnival season being a holiday period that is celebrated during the two weeks before the traditional Christian fasting of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week, and its forty days of observance are symbolic of forty day periods of religious significance found in the Judeo-Christian narrative, most especially Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness for a time of fasting and temptation. The excesses and social inversion of Carnival eventually gave way to a time of spiritual preparation in Lent.

I was also struck during my intial research on Burning Man at points of connection between festivals, festivity, and the Burning Man community's celebration (research that is ongoing for my masters thesis). Festival is the primary context of expression for the Burning Man community, and this presents serious challenges to Protestantism which has, by and large, lost a connection to festivals through the Reformation. While Roman Catholic and secular scholars have devoted serious attention to festivity, this is not the case with Protestants. Festivity is not taken seriously either as a cultural phenomenon or as a topic for scholarly exploration by most Protestants, and yet Catholic scholars have argued “that festivals belong by rights among the greatest topics of philosophical discussion.”

One of the Protestants who has addressed festivals is Harvey Cox who argued that human beings are “essentially festive and ritual creatures.” As homo festivus and homo fantasia, human beings express festivity and fantasy in festival as a form of “theatre of the body.” Cox argues that with the march of secularization and the continued rejection of festivity “Christianity has often adjusted too quickly to the categories of modernity,” and with this important facets of what it means to be human are neglected. As a result, Cox believes that there is a real need for Christianity in the West to develop a theology of festivity.

In light of this cultural void in regards to festivity there is much to be learned theologically from festivals as Max Harris suggests:

"The popular elements in patronal saints’ day festivals, like Carnival, have often been demonized as pagan or heretical...Could it be that popular religious festivals offer a source of theological wisdom, otherwise unarticulated and therefore unnoticed by formal theology, that is worthy of a place alongside sacred text, reason, and ecclesiastical tradition? Such a perspective would partly balance the standard sources of theology, which privilege clerical exegesis, educated reason, and authoritative legitimation of tradition."

I share Harris’ assessment about festivals in general, and the same could be said of Burning Man in particular. In light of the intriguing idea that Harris puts forward, and given the nature of Burning Man as a festive alternative community, evangelicals must consider festivity as a major theological and missiological topic for future exploration. Perhaps the festive cultural void, and our failure to balance the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of Christian spirituality, are quickly filled by secular and alternative community subcultures, such as Burning Man. If this is the case then our lack of a sound theology and praxis of festivity represents yet another "unpaid bill" of the church. We neglect these considerations not only to the detriment of others in Western culture, but for the church as well. If the Kingdom might be understood in some sense as divine celebration and play, we are neglecting important aspects of fulfilling our obligations in dancing with the King.

Friday, November 24, 2006

God and the War on Terror: Where Was God on 9/11?

I haven't been able to post lately do to a grueling end of semester schedule with various papers due in a few short weeks, but I thought I'd carve out just a little time to post a few thoughts.

In September I spent some time thinking about 9/11, as did many Americans, and one of the more interesting television programs that played during this time period was a Frontline piece that aired on PBS titled "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero." This program was especially gripping emotionally as it looked at individuals from various faith perspectives, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even one atheist, who wrestled with their faith as a result of their experiences in surviving the terrorist attack on 9/11 in New York. Unfortunately, many experienced a serious blow to their conceptions of God as they felt he somehow lost control or abandoned them during this series of events. As one interviewee put it:

"Since Sept. 11, the images that are most vulnerable to being smashed, suddenly, shockingly, are 'God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.' The test of any religion is, what do you do with the bad, and how much 'otherness' can you tolerate? Sept. 11 is so horrible -- and horrible for years and years to come -- that it can just smash any image of God who has a providential plan for me, those I love, my group, my nation, this world."

Beyond these heart wrenching stories two testimonies were especially interesting, that of a Christian who somehow felt that God delivered him from the Twin Towers (countered by a rabbi asking insightfully why God did not deliver others), and an atheist who used to trust in humanity but who lost even this in light of the imploding towers.

The program reminded me of the need for us to embrace some level of ambiguity in our faith, especially in light of the continually perplexing questions surrounding evil in the world. Sadly, evangelicals tend to prefer a form of Christian faith that is cognitively and theologically tight in terms of its intellectual perspectives, even on those issues where we have little to draw upon, in our scriptural canon. Perhaps this is why we prefer The Bible Answer Man to a program like The Bible Ambiguity Man. But perhaps we'd be a little closer to reality, and perceived with a little more credibility if we answered, "I don't know" to some of life's most difficult questions. Surely we believe that God has, in Christ, defeated the powers of evil and begun his new creation, but this does not mean that we have all the answers as to why evil still seems to be so powerful.

In light of my continued reflections on this I was pleased to find a recent lecture by N. T. Wright titled "Where is God in the War on Terror?" In his usual fashion, Wright avoids simplistic answers and provides words that will generate both understanding and challenge to Christians in the West. He concludes with the following:

"Where then is God in the War on Terror? Grieving and groaning within the pain and horror of his battered but still beautiful world. Stirring in the hearts of human beings the desire for a more credible structure of global justice and mercy. Burning into the imagination of human beings a hope that peace and reconciliation might eventually win out over suspicion and hatred, that the world may be put to rights and that we may anticipate that in the present time. My friends, we in our generation – and especially those of you in your teens and twenties – face a new world, full of possibilities for great good and great ill. I have argued this evening that the Christian gospel, revealing the mysterious God we discover in Jesus and the Spirit, offers a robust and rigorous framework for discerning where God is at work in the midst of the dangers and opportunities that confront us. All of us in our different callings are summoned to this task; some of you, perhaps, to make it your life’s work. Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is powerful. God is doing a new thing. Let’s get out there and join in."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Green Man: Burning Man 2007 Art Theme

After I returned from Burning Man earlier this year I reviewed the festival's website not only to read their reflections on the 2006 festival, but also to see what was in store for 2007. I was especially intrigued by the art theme for next year, The Green Man. Their website describes him this way:

"Peering outward from behind a mottled screen of vines and leaves, the Green Man does not speak or sleep; he waits. His meaning and his origins are largely lost to time — the Green Man wasn't named till 1939. We know, however, that this type of enigmatic figure was the work of artists, anonymous craftsman whose unsigned work adorns the crevices and walls of medieval cathedrals. This year we will appropriate the Green Man and the primeval spell he casts on our imaginations for a modern purpose. Our theme concerns humanity's relationship to nature. Do we, as conscious beings, exist outside of nature's sway, or does its force impel us and inform the central root of who and what we are?"

The history of the Green Man is fascinating and worth considering in his appropriation by Burning Man and other groups concerned with a ecology and a stronger sense of connection to nature and the cosmos. As the paragraph above mentions, the term "Green Man" came into existence in 1939 when Lady Raglan coined the term which refers to the image of a "foliate head or the head of a man sprouting leaves" that were "frequently found carved in the stonework of churches." This figure became a common motif in medieval sculpture. Although the figure has been adopted within many segments of Paganism as an ancient Pagan symbol appropriated by Christianity, the best evidence seems to indicate that the Green Man does not have Pagan origins. The noted Pagan historian Ronald Hutton in his book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Blackwell, 1991) provides an example of some of the fine scholarship against the Pagan origin thesis. As Weir and Jarman indicate, the origin of the Green Man is complex and can likely traced back to Christian artisans who incorporated the figure as part of an intention "to depict the Seven Deadly Sins - with the Green Man Representing Lust (Images of Lust: sexual carvings on medieval churches [B. T. Batsford, 1986]). Even so, "no one is disputing that..Green Men and the like have, over the last few decades, become paganised."

Even without an ancient and Pagan pedigree, the modern appropriation of the Green Man provides a rich and significant motif for those wishing to explore their place in nature and the broader cosmos. The Green Man is a figure to be engaged with not only by Pagans, but by all who care, or should care more deeply, for the environment. A few Christians have wrestled with such challenges. For example John Smulo has written and essay which address the need for Christians to place a holistic ecological ethic on their spiritual agenda, and Richard Thomas has written an interesting essay on "Jesus: The Green Man of the Bible" that he presented to the Pagan Federational International Conference in 2004.
The figure of the Green Man provides an interesting motif for Christian and Pagan alike to reflect theologically and ecologically on a significant facet of life in the twenty-first century. It might also provide a postive point for interaction between Christians and Burners at the 2007 festival.

Why Do Pagans and "New Agers" Have All the Sacred Sex?

As part of my continuing research and reflections on Paganism, Burning Man, and "alternative" cultures in Western post-modernity I am constantly reminded of the significance of sexuality. This topic, along with the related issues of nudity and gender identity, were major issues in workshops, personal expressions and experimentation at the Burning Man festival that I attended earlier this year.

Within the contexts of Paganism, the New Spirituality, and the Burning Man subculture sexuality is often refered to as "sacred sexuality." I found this label of interest and did a Google search on the topic. To my utter lack of surprise I discovered that while this is a popular label and topic for great numbers of spiritual people in the West, I couldn't find an exploration of the topic in terms of a connection between the sacred and sexuality by traditional Christians. Cornerstone Festival addresses this topic, and one of my friends and colleagues, Jon Trott, addresses this on one of this blogs, but it doesn't seem to be a topic that a lot of traditional Christians tackle.

The reader might be scratching their heads wondering what I mean by all this. After all, don't evangelicals constantly speak out against what they consider to be abuses of sexuality in the form of pornography, prostitution, and the need for sexual fidelity in marriage? Of course we can find lots of discussions like this, but in my take the emphasis in all of this seems to be on the negative, stating all the things we're against rather than a broader treatment that addresses the positive aspects of sexuality, and which connects this to the sacred and to the divine.

After all, isn't God the Supreme Lover who brought creation into existence through the Spirit as the ultimate expression of love and creation? And didn't he bless the human race with the gift of sexuality and the intimacy of physical "knowing" in the Hebraic sense before our expression of sexuality became yet another facet of human existence that is broken by our alienation from the Spirit as the source of life? When husband and wife come together in sexual union is this too not a part of what it means to reflect the nature of the creator, the male and female aspects in union for pleasure as well as pro-creation? Is there not a sense then that our discussion of sexuality should move beyond its reserved expressions akin to Victorian or Puritanical stereotypes in order to embrace a positive and holistic sense of sacred sexuality from a Christian perspective? I don't know that I have any profound theological insights to offer on this topic, and I know that to raise it for conservative Christians is to risk shock and offense, but perhaps Pagans, New Spirituality adherents, Burners, and others articulating sacred sexuality have something positive to say to evangelicals. At least it's worth considering.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Holy Fools in Post-Modernity: Jesus as Holy Fool

I am continuing to wade through several piles of journal articles and books for three major papers for seminary. I shouldn't be taking time away from study for a blog post, but one area of reading has been particularly interesting.

For my Apologetic Traditions paper I am writing a missional apologetic for Burning Man. One of the research trajectories I have been pursuing is the concept of holy fools contextualized within post-modernity. I have found several resources that have shed light on this topic and the apologetic. One source is an article by Peter Phan from Theological Studies journal titled "The Wisdom of Holy Fools in Postmodernity." Phan believes that that paths of communicating wisdom in the past, such as mythos or "the form of dramatic narratives explaining the origin and operation of the universe and the place of humans within it," as well as logos or forms of communication that involve discursive reasoning, are inappropriate means of communicating wisdom within the context of the failure of modernity and the rise of postmodernity. Instead, Phan argues for morosophia, the path of foolish wisdom. Phan states that "the 'wise fool' is believed to possess a source of knowledge that his more akin to supernatural and inspired wisdom," and he connects this to Paul's discussion of the cross of Christ as God's folly in 1 Corinthians.

This theme is picked up and addressed at length in another resource I am drawing from by Laurence Welborn in an article for Biblical Interpretation titled "MOROS GENESTHO: Paul's Appropriation of the Role of the Fool in 1 Corinthians 1-4." Welborn notes that most commentators assume Paul is referring to Pagan perceptions of the absurdity of the notion of a crucified and rising God inherent in the Christian gospel. Welborn takes exception to this assumption and argues persuasively that Paul is likely framing himself as messenger and his gospel message in light of the Greco-Roman stage comedy that involved a fool character known as a mime or a clown. Paul draws upon this motif for two purposes. First, "the adoption of the role of the fool was a strategy praticed by a number of intellectuals in the early Empire." The fool provided the freedom "for the utterance of a dangerous truth." Second, the identification with the fool and a message of foolishness enabled him to communicate the paradox of God's wisdom being displayed to the world through means considered foolish by normal human standards of wisdom.

This brings me to the consideration of Jesus as the Holy Fool. I recognize that to use this terminology is to court charges of blasphemy by Christians. Other Christians who have described Jesus this way have received serious criticism, including Michael Frost who wrote Jesus the Fool: The Mission of the Unconventional Christ (Lion Publishing PLC, 1994;, expanded and updated version forthcoming through Urban Neighbors of Hope), and Elizabeth-Anne Stewart who wrote Jesus the Holy Fool (Sheed & Ward, 1999). Before you send along your comments of complaint, consider the case for Jesus as Holy Fool.

Stewart notes that we often think of Jesus with various titles such as Christ, the Word, Savior, Messiah, High Priest, Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of God, Jesus as Lord, but rarely if ever do we consider Jesus as Holy Fool. A biblical case can be made for this motif and if we don't consider it Stewart suggests that "we not only miss a theme of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, but we also immunize ourselves against the breath of the Holy Spirit."

Stewart reminds us that Holy Foolishness is found in the Hebrew Prophets such as Jeremiah wearing a loin cloth, Hosea marrying a prostitute, Isaiah walking barefoot and naked, and Ezekiel lying on his side for extended periods of time. Stewart then connects this to the "foolish" aspect of the gospel stories about Jesus, from the table fellowship he extended to social outcasts that served as "a mockery of traditional expectations" of the escthatological banquet, to Jesus being called a madman, to his articulation of the Fool's Path that "involves emptying oneself to find fullness, letting go to possess, losing life to find it. ..."

Stewart believes that considering Jesus as the Holy Fool provides an important facet for enriching our understanding of him, and within the context of post-modernity I believe it also provides an important motif for communicating the gospel. And while I hope the church in the West can consider the possibilities provided by Jesus the Holy Fool it represents a perspective that is radically challenging to our Christologies, ecclesiologies, and understandings of Christian spirituality. As Stewart states:

"Following Jesus is a radically different proposition for example, than following 'my buddy Jesus' and practicing a Christianity which can only be described as self-indulgent. Precisely because contemporary Western Christianity has become disconnected from the Holy Foolishness of Christ and from the Dionysian elements of religion, the person of Jesus has been 'tamed' into a marketable construct far removed from the gospel Jesus or from the living Christ who can still be encountered in Third World nations. ... [The Western church] cower[s] in dread before the figure of the Dionysian Christ because he is too passionate, too alive, and too challenging to be attractive."

"Those who tame Christmas into a birthday party for children or who reduce Easter to a celebration of the rites of Spring are following a Jesus who bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels. In their Christianity, there is no place for Jesus the Clown, or Jesus the Jester or Jesus the Trickster; such a Jesus is too demanding, too disturbing, too ridiculous. And yet this Jesus, vested as 'a personification of festivity and fantasy,' in an age which has lost both, and wearing both grease paint and halo, 'is able to touch our jaded modern consciousness as other images of Christ cannot.'"

I am looking forward to weaving the strands of the holy fool into a powerful missional apologetic framed in a context for Burning Man. I sense a similar power for Christians as holy fools to follow Jesus the Holy Fool as they embody the foolishness of the gospel in the post-modern West.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Smoldering Times?

I recently posted on Phil Wyman's struggles with his former denomination, the Foursquare Church, that severed their affiliation after Phil's approach at engaging Pagans apparently made the leadership of this conservative denomination uncomfortable. I wonder what kinds of alternatives Christians might be more comfortable with. While I hope the following falls into the category of the aberrant and extreme rather than representative of Christian sentiments and approaches, Matt Stone of Eclectic Itchings recently made me aware of a story in The Times online that discusses the clash between Catholics and Pagans in Glastonbury.

Apparently the clash came as Pagans were celebrating Samhain, and a group of Catholics were in town as part of "Lightswitch@glastonbury festival, the eighth such event organised by the Catholic charity Youth 2000."

As the Pagans engaged in their celebrations a group of "militant Christians cast salt at them in an attempt to 'cleanse' the town of paganism." As the clash went from bad to worse, "police were called after militants told locals that they wanted to cleanse the town of paganism, cast salt around to exorcise 'evil' spirits and called one woman a 'whore witch.'"

To their credit, Youth 2000 distanced themselves from these actions: "Charlie Connor, the managing director of Youth 2000, said that aiming 'blessed salt' at pagans was in direct contravention of the spirit of Youth 2000. 'For the avoidance of doubt, Youth 2000 does not condone or encourage this kind of behaviour from anyone. We fully agree that differences on matters of faith cannot and should not be resolved by any kind of harassment.'”

Several thoughts come to mind when reading this story.

First, this event is similar to a Pagan-Christian clash in the United States from a few years ago. A group of Pagans were consecrating the opening of a Pagan bookstore in southern California and in response a group of Christians surrounded the participants of the outdoor event with their cars while playing loud Christian music and shouting Bible verses. The tossing of salt and epithets by Catholics in the United Kingdom sounds just as lacking sensitivity and appropriateness as the actions of evangelicals in the United States.

Second, salt surely has a connection with Christian spirituality, but Jesus' discussion of it as a metaphor for the positive impact of the Christian life upon culture sounds more in keeping with a sound Christian theology and lifestyle than casting salt at those perceived as spiritual enemies.

Third, Christians forget that many other religious and spiritual groups have a far greater sense of historical consciousness than do Western Christians. For Pagans and Witches the deplorable persecution and execution of alleged Witches in America's past, known as the Burning Times, are etched on the Pagan consciousness leaving a continuing negative impression about Christianity and Christians that continues to this day. Engaging in the kinds of behaviors as those of the Catholics at Glastonbury resurrects and reinforces the negative perceptions and stereotypes Pagans have of Christians pushing the story of Jesus further out of reach for fresh consideration by Pagans.

Thankfully we have moved beyond the Burning Times in terms of the criminal prosecution and execution of Witches and Pagans in the West. But it seems as if the fires of inappropriate engagement between Christians and Pagans have not burned out completely. Perhaps the twenty-first century, characterized by post-Christendom and a growing interest in Neo-Paganism, will see a smoldering times as representatives from Christianity and Paganism continue to clash. Surely Christians can and must do better if we are to emulate the lifeways of Jesus who engaged first century Pagans in ways very different from many of his twenty-first century followers.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Let's Not Get Too Cozy with Pagans? Foursquare Church and The Gathering

A few years ago I was privileged to meet Phil Wyman, Pastor at The Gathering church in Salem, Massachussets. Phil has a wonderful ministry that uses dialogue and other methods to engage the local Wiccan community and other Pagans. We referenced Phil's work in a footnote for a chapter on Wicca in our book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004). At the time I met Phil his church was part of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. But this has changed. In a recent article in The Salem News, Phil states that the denomination has decided to sever the affiliation of the church with their organization. During the Phil's emotionally-laden meeting with organizational leaders he was asked how he could be friends with Witches, to which he replied, "We live in Salem. How could you not?"

I suppose for all the talk of conservative evangelicals about wanting to be like Jesus and extend fellowship to those considered spiritual outcasts in society, as many perceive Wiccans and Pagans, apparently this pushed the boundaries of acceptability and comfort for the Foursquare folks. This kind of response by churches to cutting-edge ministry to groups that are bogeyemen for evangelicals is unfortunately not uncommon.

Interested readers might want to visit Phil's website to learn more about his ministry, including his dialogue with Pagans called "Circle and Cross Talk."

Update Nov. 1: Phil recently made me aware of the original article that broke this story which appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The article can be found here. The article has some interesting quotes, including a statement from a United Methodist pastor in Salem who stated that Phil appeared "too familiar, too cozy, too amicable with that [Wiccan] community." Another comes from a Foursquare official who stated that "Phil had a strategy and methodology that was significantly different from how we perceive church life." Both of these statements are revealing, and indicate where not only Foursquare Church may be on different approaches at interacting with Pagans, but where many evangelicals are likely at as well.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Discerning Halloween

Tomorrow is Halloween. Usually at this time of year many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have been up in arms for some time warning of the alleged evils of Halloween in books, tracts, websites, and probably podcasts by now. We all know the claims, but in case you haven't heard them, Halloween is allegedly evil because of Pagan origins, twisted because it celebrates death, satanic because of its occult-related icons, and harmful because children pretend to be monsters with their costumes. But is this "received wisdom" really the best way of understanding the holiday from a sound Christian perspective?

My friend Lint Hatcher provides an alternative worth considering. Lint was one of the brain childs, along with Rod Bennett, behind the now (unfortunately) defunct Wonder magazine. He has provided Christians with a resource in the form of a book titled The Magic Eight-Ball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween. This book answers the specific allegations mentioned above and does so in a very entertaining manner. You can preview Lint's book here, and take an in-depth look through Lint's press kit that he assembled, that not only gives you a great look at his book but also demonstrates his great desktop publishing and artistic work.

Before you toss that horror and sci fi collection, or denounce the "evils" of Halloween from your pulpit or in your church newsletter, consider the case Lint puts forward.

Friday, October 27, 2006

EMNR Erases Part of Its Past

Today I was writing my curriculum vita and including various publications I've worked on, including published and unpublished items. A few items I wanted to include were unpublished papers that are available electronically. As a time saver I clicked on my blog and went to the articles in the right hand column and clicked on the links for papers I delivered in previous years at the annual conferences for Evangelical Ministries to New Religions. To my surprise my papers have been removed from the Research Papers section of the EMNR website. In addition, the papers from my colleagues that used to be available in the past, such as those by Jon Trott and Philip Johnson, have been removed as well. (Note the hole now present elsewhere on their website in a 2001 e-mail newsletter to members which mentions my presentation but the link to the paper is now dead.)

I find the removal of these documents troubling. On the one hand EMNR can choose to include or not include any papers it wishes. Since I am no longer a member of EMNR I can understand how the decision might have been made to only include papers by current members. On the other hand, when I wrote the papers I was a member in good standing in EMNR, and served on the board, including holding the positions of vice president and president in various years.

So why the removal? It seems on the surface that unfortunately two things have happened. First, EMNR appears to have sanitized its history by removing traces of a previous member and board member who's present views they find distasteful. This is curious since counter-cult methodology critiques some of the new religions for cleaning up their history and revising their sacred writings.

Second, while protesting loudly that one of their bogeymen has nothing valid to say in his criticisms, through this action EMNR has validated some of the criticisms of sociologist Douglas Cowan, Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Renison College, who wrote Bearing False Witness?: An Introduction to the Christian Countercult (Praeger, 2003). In this book and his previous Ph.D. thesis, Cowan stated that the counter-cult methodology involves a form of reality maintenance, and raised the concern that their reasoning and activities are lacking in part because of a lack of peer review. The removal of papers by a former member critical of the counter-cult movement and its methodology involves a form of reality maintenance that seeks to expunge troubling ideas from the past. In addition, any possibilty for the peer review that might have come from interacting with the ideas presented in these papers is now lost.

I'm not going to lose any sleep over this development, I just wonder, "What's going on EMNR?" I hate to see these well-meaning folks continue to marginalize themselves within evangelicalism and beyond.

Update 10/29/06: After conducting some Internet research this weekend I came across one of the motivating sources for EMNR's decision to remove my papers and those of my colleagues from their website. Dwayna Litz, who took great exception with Cornerstone Festival's Imaginarium presentations that touched in part on the Mexican Day of the Dead and Halloween, apparently contacted EMNR's board and shared her concerns over my views. You can read Dwayna's concerns here. The apparent connection between EMNR's decision and Dwayna Litz is very troubling as even a casual reading of her concerns indicates that not only fails to accurately understand the Bible as it relates to new religious movements (not to mention a basic sound theology), but she also fails to understand the views I expressed in my papers, as well as those of my colleagues Jon Trott and Philip Johnson. If EMNR's board expresses views in sympathy with those of Ms. Litz, and finds it necessary to placate this segment of evangelicalism/fundamentalism, then it confirms that I made the right decision to sever my ties with this organization and to pursue my approach as a separate methodology.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Teen Spirituality: American and Australian Contrasts

Simeon Payne, one of the members of the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities that I am a part of, passed along a copy of some data on "The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers," from a publication out of Australia, Pointers Vo. 16, No. 1 (March 2006). The publication is produced by the Christian Research Assocation and I have found previous issues of this publication helpful in assessing Australia's spiritual climate in contrast to America's.

The subject of this issue of Pointers is of particular interest to me in that I am intrigued by youth alternative subcultures and spiritualities, such as Goths, Raves, and to a certain extent we could include Burning Man there as well.

The article on teen spirituality takes a book by Christian Smith as its point of departure. In 2005 he published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press), which caused spawned a debate in the United States. The Christian Research Association is building on the research from this book through their Australian 'Spirit of Generation Y' study. The result is an interesting contrast of teen spirituality among young people in Australia and the United States.

The article mentions that "Australians are considerably more likely to believe in reincarnation, astrology, the possibility of communication with the dead and the powers of psychics and fortune-tellers than are US young people."

The article also noted that American teens are more likely than their Australian counterparts to have some connection or involvement to a church, particularly a Protestant or evangelical group, and that there is a correlation for these teens who show less interest in alternative forms of spiritual exploration.

Yet even though American teens are more active in church than those in Australia, the article states that, "The spiritual dimensions of life are close to the bottom of the list in terms of what they really consider important." Christian Smith states in his book that for American teens religion is "somewhere in the background" rather than the forefront of their lives:
The majority of US teenagers are not rebellious toward religion but are generally rather positive about and conventional in living out religion. This fact should not, however, be presumed to mean that religion is among the most important concerns in the majority of US teenagers' everyday lives. ... However generally positive teens may feel about religion, when it comes to getting specific about religion in their lives, most teens seem simply to accept religion as a taken-for-granted aspect or presence that most operates in the background of their lives.

Like their parents and other adults in the U.S. and Australia, teens pursue a consumerist approach to religion where the individual picks and chooses what is useful in personal application. This consumerist framework led Smith to state that:
For most US teenagers, religion is something to personally believe in that makes one feel good and resolves one's problems. For most, it is not an entire way of life or a disciplined practice that makes hard demands or changes people. Stated differently, for many US teenagers, God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience. ... Thus, one 14 year-old white Catholic boy from Ohio told us, "Faith is very imortant, I pray to God to help me with sports and school and stuff and he hasn't let me down yet, so I think it helps you."

Several things should be reflected on as a result of this study by parents and youth pastors in America:

1. While American teens demonstrate greater involvement in Christian church's than their Australian counterparts, this trend could change as the country continues its journey in post-Christendom culture.

2. The result of secularization in the West has been a spiritual re-enchantment process involving an interest in alternative spiritualities and a declining interest in Christianity. While the situation is far more advanced in the United Kingdom and Australia, the social and cultural process of re-enchantment and post-Christendom is moving across the Western world and unless our changing social circumstances are recognized and engaged with appropriately, in the future we may see statistics about teen spirituality in the U.S. that more closely resemble those of other Western countries.

3. Related to number 2, we might recall George Barna's survey which stated that "twentysomethings" who had previously been active in church life during their teen years are tending to leave the church as they enter their twenties.

4. Although American teens are more active in churches and Christian spirituality than are Australians, this has not made Christian spirituality a priority of life, nor does not seem to have made an impact in how teens live their lives.

5. We might also consider the importance of the media as to how it shapes the spiritual lives and understandings of teens. Related to this Lynn Schofield Clark has an interesting book that parents and youth pastors should consider reading titled From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 2003).

If our young people really are the priority that churches say they are in programs, buildings, and funding, then we have our work cut out of us in making the Christian faith are more foundational and meaningful aspect of the lives of young people. It seems clear that something new needs to be done.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Gospel of the Living Dead

I purchase and read a lot of books for my seminary studies and ministry research. As a result, I am on a lot of mailing lists for book publishers. Most of the catalogs don't include titles that interest me, but today I received a promotional postcard for a new book from Baylor press that's right up my alley in a number of ways in terms of my interest in the intersection between religion and popular culture, and my appreciation for the horror genre of literature and film. The book is by Kim Paffenroth and it's titled Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor University Press, 2006). Here's the book's description from the Baylor website:

This volume connects American social and religious views with the classic American movie genre of the zombie horror film. For nearly forty years, the films of George A. Romero have presented viewers with hellish visions of our world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls. This study proves that Romero's films, like apocalyptic literature or Dante's Commedia, go beyond the surface experience of repulsion to probe deeper questions of human nature and purpose, often giving a chilling and darkly humorous critique of modern, secular America.

And the Table of Contents:
Introduction: The Themes of the Current Zombie Movie Genre
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)Romero's First Look at Hell, Sin, and Human Nature
2. Dawn of the DeadM (1978)Consumerism, Materialism, and the Fourth Circle of Hell
3. Day of the Dead (1985)Violence, Perverted Reason, and the Lower Circles of Hell
4. Dawn of the Dead (2004)Limbo and the Partial Victory of Reason and Virtue
5. Land of the Dead (2005)The Deepest Abyss of Hell and the Final Hope
Conclusion: The Meaning and Future of Zombie Movies

Now, if you're one of my critics who takes exception to my interest in horror, before you start writing the next issue of Apostasy Alert, hold on for a few moments. I'm tempted to respond by simply providing a quote I heard attributed to R. C. Sproul: "If you can't appreciate what's funny about zombies eating human beings then I can't explain it to you." Perhaps this came from Sproul, or at least I'd like to think so. But if that isn't persuasive consider a few things about what horror says about human nature, religion, and popular culture.

My friend and colleague Philip Johnson passed along a paper written by Paul Teusner as part of his Master of Theology studies at Melbourne College of Divinity. The paper was titled "Resident Evil: Horror Film and the Construction of Religious Identity in Contemporary Media Culture." The author discusses myths and rituals that play a part in cultural meaning making, and then interprets horror as a form of ritual activity as the "audiovisual mass media has become...the common ritual of the people." He also discuses how horror films include theological conversations about issues of importance to religion and the human polace in the cosmos. He concludes by noting the implications of horror for contemporary theology and that the church will continue to marginalize itself it it does not recognize such things, and the increasing significance of the media forreligious identity and mythic expression.

I know that horror is not everyone's bag, and that's ok. But perhaps we'd better at least take the media's role in Western culture more seriously, as well as the place that myth plays in the re-enchantment process where horror, sci fi and fantasy play a part.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Paranormal Popularity

The latest bulletin from ReligionLink came out and the title is "Popularity of paranormal soars." The bulletin uses the results of the recent Baylor University survey on religion in America as its starting point. Recall in a previous post on this blog that the poll showed great interest in the paranormal. Below is the introduction to the bulletin, and the entire piece may be found here. This item should be of interest not only because Americans are more inclined to think of the paranormal near Halloween with our stereotypical understandings of the various influences on this holiday, but also because it should raise a series of questions for the church.

The interest in the paranormal is found outside and inside the church. What does this say about the church's neglect (other than denunciation) of the issues of spiritual powers and divine guidance?

Many interested in the paranormal use various forms of divination. Christians assume this is biblically off limits when they traditionally cite certain Old Testament texts, but what about those in the Old and New Testaments that appear to involve forms of divination that are viewed more positively?

How will the church engage the many people involved in various forms of folk magic and nature-based spiritualities where the paranormal is more readily accepted?

Here's the introduction to ReligionLink's bulletin:

As children know, Halloween is a time to let the imagination run wild. A new survey of religious beliefs, however, shows that adults do the same, and not just for Halloween. Baylor University’s expansive survey, released in September 2006, found what it termed a “surprising level” of paranormal belief and experience. According to a 2005 Gallup Poll, about 75 percent of Americans hold some form of belief in the paranormal – extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation or channeling.

Some religions, such as Wicca or neo paganism, draw deeply from the wells of reincarnation and spells. Some traditions or cultures mix elements from traditional, organized religion with the supernatural. Yet most religions are laced with elements of mysticism or the surreal: Consider a voice coming from a burning bush, water turned into wine, lamp oil that lasted eight days, prophets and angels in the Quran.

October is a rich time to explore why so many people believe in the paranormal and how those beliefs are reflected in everyday actions and popular culture. After all, religion and the paranormal share a common challenge: Just because we can’t prove it, does that mean it’s not there?

Why it Matters
Both nonbelievers and people of faith keep blurring the lines between what they’re sure about and what they sense could possibly be. Ordinary people have had dreams that came true, encountered coincidences that don’t feel like coincidences, felt the presence of someone they love who has died. Many wonder: How big is the world, and what does it mean to believe in the divine?