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.