Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New Blog Launched! - TheoFantastique

I've been meaning to start a new blog for a while now, one devoted to the enjoyment and exploration of myth and archetype as expressed in fantasy, science fiction and horror in popular culture, with all of its connections to human religiosity. I just launched TheoFantastique, and have copied previous posts from this blog touching on popular culture over there.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

New Interviews Coming

My blog posting has slowed down with the new semester of seminary. I have never been much on keeping blog etiquette anyway in terms of the frequency of postings, responding as often as possible to comments, etc., but this final semester is very busy and my research and writing is taking precedence over other activities.

I will continue to post the occasional thoughts as they come to me from my reflections in seminary and ministry, but over the next few weeks I hope to complete several interviews that will be posted here for reader's enjoyment.

One interview will be with John Bracht who is currently serving in a pastoral role in Canberra, Australia. John wrote an intriguing masters thesis on Mormonism in the 1980s, touching in part on the Mormon concept of God. He has also written for academic publications on the topic of Mormonism, and this interview will provide his unique perspective on Mormonism and the ways in which evangelicals understand and respond to it.

Another interview will be with Chad Martin. Chad is an artist with formal theological training (a great combination) who lives in Pennsylvania. He wrote an intriguing article published in the journal Worship a few years ago on Carnival as a theology of laughter and a ritual for social change. His thoughts on festival and ritual for the church relate to my Burning Man studies, and they have great implications for a fantasy and festivity starved Protestantism in the West.

My third interview will be with Dr. David Wilkinson. Dr. Wilkinson is Principal at St. John's College and part-time teacher in the Department of Theology and Religion in connection with University of Durham in the U.K. He is the author of a number of books and articles dealing with science, religion, and apologetics. What intrigues me about his interests and perspective is his interest in the relationship of theology to popular culture, and his call for fresh forms of apologetics in the postmodern West that take popular culture seriously and which engage the imagination as well as the intellect.

On another front, I had a great time last Sunday evening with a small group affiliated with the K2 Church in Salt Lake City. I was asked to come speak on Burning Man and its relevance to the local church and missions in the West. I made a brief presentation and presented some thoughts for orientation and then spent the next two hours answering questions. It was a lively event filled with people who want something more out of church and Christian the Christian experience in America as they try to live the Kingdom and be missional in our local neighborhood contexts. The group is intellectually digesting our time together and I will meet with them in the future for more discussions.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

New Ooze Article and Discussion Thread

The discussion on my first article on Burning Man and what this subculture "says" back to the emerging church continues at The Ooze, making it a hot topic. As of this post there were 90 replies and 573 views. Although in my opinion the vast majority of comments have missed the point, at least the dialogue is continuing.

The Ooze just published my second Burning Man article titled "Apocalyptic Man Ablaze." I started a discussion thread on this which can be found here. In the thread I raise the following questions from the article for reader's to consider and comment on:

1. With the post-modern preference for the embodiment of wisdom, how might Christians embody wisdom as they follow Jesus as the incarnation of divine wisdom?

2. What do you think of the Christological idea of Jesus as holy fool? Is this sacrilegious, a rediscovery of a lost biblical idea, a valid tool for sharing Jesus?

3. Harvey Cox talked about the need for festivity and fantasy in the church? Have we lost this and how might we recapture it in the present?

4. Cox calls for a metainstitution to proclaim festivity and fantasy in the world which has lost both. Can the church be this metainstitution? What forms of church might be necessary to accomplish this?

I encourage you to reflect on this and join the discussion on The Ooze. I look forward to your comments.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Apologetics as Dialogue

Philip Johnson's recent visit to the United States for the teaching of an intensive course began the first day with a concluding session for the prior semester's Apologetic Traditions course. This included a healthy supplementary reading packet of some good materials. One of the articles included in this packet was written by Keith Mascord of Moore Theological College in Australia on the topic of "Apologetics as Dialogue."

After a summary discussion of various approaches to apologetics the author turns to consideration of dialogical apologetics as developed by David K. Clark of Bethel Theological Seminary, but which has also been discussed by Graham Cole of Ridley College in Australia. This approach is understood as a "person-specific, multi-method approach" that differ from other apologetic approaches that tend to be "content-oriented."

Mascord provides an important qualification to this recommendation of dialogical apologetics by way of definitional considerations that avoids compromise situations among dialogue participants. To support the approach he is defining and advocating, Mascord quotes Alistair McGrath:

"It is both logically and practically possible for us, as Christians, to respect and revere worthy representatives of other traditions while still believing - on rational grounds - that some aspects of their world-view are simply mistaken."

McGrath concludes in this quotation by stating:

"Dialogue thus implies respect, not agreement, between parties - and, at best, a willingness to take the profound risk that the other person may be right and that recognition of this fact may lead to the changing of positions."

It is this latter aspect of dialogue that may pose the greatest challenges and perceptions of threat to the participants and observers of certain expressions of interreligious dialogue, such as the Mormon-evangelical dialogues on scholarly and popular levels.

I will quote the last few paragraphs of the article, and while this will make for a lengthy blog post, these ideas are worthy of reflection. Mascord writes:

"It is this sort of dialogue that I believe a Christian can and should be engaged in. Dialogue, understood in this way, can still be genuine dialogue, for a number of reasons. It is genuine in the sense that the Christian is open to being corrected and challenged, and this even though such dialogue proceeds from a basis fo firm conviction that what one believes as a Christian is true. Dialogue is also genuine in the sense that the Christian can learn and grow through the process. McGrath notes that significant doctrinal developments within Christian theology have often taken place in response to dialogue with those outside the Christian faith. He mentions the example of how dialogue with 'protest atheism' led to a rejection of the long held belief that God cannot suffer or experience pain.

"McGrath sums up the point:

Dialogue is one pressure to ensuring that [the] process of continual self-examination and reformation continues. It is a bulwark against complacency and laziness and a stimulus to return to the sources of faith rather than resting content in some currently acceptable interpretation of them.

"It is my contention that a fresh approach to understanding the work of apology is needed. This is not only so because the old debate between the various apologetic schools now seems somewhat dated, but also because the world we live in, and want to evangelize, has become increasingly pluralistic. The need to listen, the need to be caringly sensitive to those we speak with as we commend the gospel, and as we persuade people of its truth, is greater now than it has been for some time (perhaps since the time of the New Testament!).

"If we do not engage in 'dialogical' apologetics, we simply will not be heard or understood. Nor, I think, will we deserve a hearing if we are not willing to respect people enough to listen, as well as to speak."

This form of apologetics is challenging to various segments of evangelicalism, including those engaged in apologetics to new religions and in the context of religious pluralism, as well as those engaging post-modernity, but I believe it holds great promise.

I try to practice these ideas in my own work among the new religions and alternative spiritualities. Dialogical apologetics would seem ideally suited and especially needed in the post-Christendom, post-modern Western world. My hope is that more Christians will see the value of this approach and incorporate it in their missional endeavors.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wicca As America's Third Largest Religion?: Unfortunate Evangelical Sensationalism

I was recently made aware of an item that was circulated by PRWeb. The item takes the form of a press release which was dated for April 21, 2005, with the title "Christians and Pagans Agree, Wicca Emerging as America's Third Religion," and the byline "Christians and Pagans agree that the Wiccan community is growing at an exceptional rate, and is projected to be the Third Largest religion by 2012." While Wicca and other forms of Paganism are certainly growing in America and the West, the sensationalism of these claims caught my attention and I'd like to provide a few comments that come by way of analysis of this item.

First, the press release became almost immediately suspect, not only because of the provocative title, but also because of one of the sources quoted in the item. Steve Wohl, a Christian and author of the book Hour of the Witch is quoted as saying, "we are now in a turning point and that Wicca would emerge as the third largest faith in America and would directly challenge Christian ideals of church and state." After a review of Mr. Wohl's website it appears that he provides yet another example of problematic, inaccurate, and sensationalistic Christian treatments of Wicca. The quotes he provides in the press release can easily be challenged as factually inaccurate, and the quotations seem more intent on alarming Christians than in accurately assessing Wicca and its relationship to the important issues of religious pluralism, tolerance, and freedom.

Second, the sensationalistic treatment of Wicca and other expressions of Paganism is an ongoing problem for Christians who have an unfortunate history of this practice, sometimes with very damaging results. The sensationalistic reporting of Wicca is akin to historic caricatures such as that illustrated in the image that which accompanies this post which depicts a common Christian stereotype of Witches as consorts of Satan.

Third, there is an unfortunate tendency to inflate the growth of Paganism and Wicca (as well as Witchcraft) by representatives on both sides of the metaphysical divide, whether Christian or Pagan. While reliable statistics are difficult to come by due to several factors, and a variety of estimates have been suggested, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 listed the number of Wiccans in the United States at 134,000, and when coupled with other forms of Paganism they arrived at a total Pagan adult population of 614,000. With the inclusion of children the number goes to 800,000. If we compare this figure with other religions in the United States, such as the 1.1 million Buddhists, 1.1 million Muslims, 2.8 million Jews, and some 159 million adherents of Christianity, then the numbers of Pagans in the United States is relatively small.

This is not to minimize or downplay either the growth of Paganism or its significance in the American religious marketplace. Great size is not necessary for a religion or spirituality to have significant impact in the marketplace of ideas, as demonstrated by various expressions of neo-Buddhism, Do-It-Yourself Spirituality, and Paganism. The influence of these religions and spiritualities is increasingly felt in the contemporary spiritual quest as well as in popular culture, even though the numbers of adherents or practitioners is relatively small. Thus, the new religions and alternative spirtualities represent a significant facet of American religious and spiritual life for the twenty-first century.

I hope that those interested in Pagan studies, particularly the media and evangelicalism, can be encouraged to seek out reliable sources of information on Paganism and can reflect on it carefully and critically. The increasing religious diversity of the public square, not to mention fairness in understanding and representation, makes these considerations more important than ever.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Little Mosque on the Prairie?

Some readers of this blog might remember the 1970s television series Little House on the Prairie which ran from 1974-1983. The series told the story of a family living in the American West in the 1870s. Plotlines usually involved family struggles which included a moral element, and it was not uncommon to find the Ingalls family going to the town church, and the local minister actively involved in the affairs of the townspeople. This piece of television entertainment reflected American culture in the 1970s and early 1980s. The situation is very different in the early twenty-first century.

Various media outlets have reported on a new series out of Canada titled Little Mosque on the Prairie. As the Saskatchewan News Network reported, this comedy "focuses on the small Muslim community in the little Prairie town of Mercy. Many of the town's residents are leery of their Muslim neighbours, who are unsure how to assimilate into the community."

The article continued by quoting the writer of the series who stated, "I knew that something like this was going to get a lot of attention," said Nawaz. "It's the first Muslim comedy in North America. We're breaking new ground. When you're a pioneer, and under the current political climate, it was going to raise eyebrows."

The presence of this type of television program in North America is significant in a post-9/11 environment, not only politically, but also in other cultural ways, and provides an opportunity for evangelicals to engage in careful reflection. It provides a graphic example of religious pluralism in the West which raises important questions of theology, praxis, and cultural engagement. Christians in America are used to living as a majority faith in a Christendom culture. The presence of religious pluralism and the increasing insertion of other religions into the public square poses a challenge to evangelical conceptions of both the relationship of Christianity to national identity, religious liberty, the nitty gritty of day-to-day living among "religious others," not to mention questions related to evangelism and missions.

Thus far few segments of evangelicalism, whether traditional, contemporary or emerging church, seem prepared to consider the significance of religious pluralism. It would seem that the changing landscape of Western culture may force us to consider its implications.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Seminary New Religions Course Assigment: Yule Sabbat With Eagles Kindred

One of the means of assessment for the new religions intensive course at the seminary this semester involved an opportunity to attend a Yule Sabbat in December. I thought it might be instructive to share the results of my observations here.

Given my relationship with a Pagan member of the Ogden Pagan Community Builders group from Yahoo!, I attended a Yule Sabbat celebration associated with this group which was held on Saturday, December 23 at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Ogden. This Sabbat celebration was conducted by Eagles Kindred, a Pagan group representing Odinism, Ásatrú, and Norse Paganism. In keeping with this assignment’s parameters, the first portion of the paper will consist of a description of the Yule Sabbat ritual celebration, and the second portion will include my impressions and reflections on the meaning of this gathering for Pagan participants.

Sabbat Ritual

Soon after my arrival I met with my contact, Luna Aileen, and she immediately introduced me to one of the two individuals who would be leading the evening’s celebration. He was cordial, and had heard of me previously through Luna. I discovered later that several members of this gathering had heard of me through Luna, as well as through my interaction with various Utah Pagan Yahoo! Groups. Most were fine with my attendance that evening, and one even voiced their appreciation for having read the ethnography I wrote on Eclectic Mormon Women. Another woman, however, was uneasy with my attendance at the Sabbat, and she would later approach me to share her concern over how I might describe the evening’s events in my paper, and what I might do with my report. She said I seemed nervous around this Pagan group, and when I assured her this was not the case, and that this was not my first time among Pagans, she told me that she was nervous around me, which led me to believe that she might have been experiencing a case of projecting her concerns on me as a result of my presence at the Sabbat. Her reaction, coupled with the curiosity that other Pagans expressed, provides an indication that Christians and Pagans still have a long way to go in terms of understanding and interacting with each other.

Before the event began I took note of the room’s arrangements. The event took place in a fellowship or banquet hall type of room in the lower level of the Unitarian Church. The room included several tables and chairs set up for dining which resembled what Christians might expect to see at any potluck gathering. In front of the dining tables was a table filled with food, and in front of the room was a table where various items were set up that would play a role in the ritual of the Sabbat. This table included several candles, three different types of animal horns, large and small pieces of wood including a staff with Nordic runes carved into them, a small evergreen tree, and something that resembled a crystal ball. Other elements included a small horse statue, a Viking warrior, a bowl, and types of drink including water and a beverage with alcohol (possibly mead, honey-wine). Behind the table on the wall hung a banner with the words “Eagles Kindred,” referring to the Ásatrú group hosting the evening’s event, and below the wording was the figure of an eagle and on either side were symbols comprised of three interlocking triangles.

The event was begun by the lead facilitator. He wore a green robe and took the long staff from the table at the front of the room and called for the ritual to begin by declaring the area a space of hospitality, a place of peace, and for all discord to be left outside. The ritual for the event included three parts and began with a group meal that the facilitator told me was an important part of the Yule Sabbat ritual. Before a meal a prayer was offered to the gods for the meal and the evening’s ritual.

Toward the end of the meal I had a discussion with one of the leaders about the meaning of the rune symbols carved on the staff and horns on the table. He told me that they are both an alphabet and also are believed to have the power to unleash the power of the gods for magic and for divination. I was told that Ásatrú practitioners believe that when Christians pray they access the same sources as those accessed through the runes.

After dinner the leader explained the background for the evening’s events and what these events would include. He discussed the Pagan Wheel of the Year and the place of the thirteen days of Yule within it. He described the god Odin as one of the deities overseeing Yule. Thor was another deity that received great recognition during the evening’s ritual. The facilitator said that through the evening’s ritual Thor would be sending his energy to participants and they would be sending their energy to him.

The second phase of the ritual, the blot, involving a ritual sacrifice offering of liquid to the gods, began after the tables and chairs were put away and a circle of chairs was arranged in the center of the room. Everyone took a set and then the lead facilitator recited words in an Icelandic language as he faced in the four directions of north, south, east, and west. He then repeated these words in English as he consecrated the space and the lives of those present to Thor. The leader, with the assistance of another leader also wearing a ceremonial robe, went around the circle and offered either an alcoholic drink or water to each person who then made a toast as a symbol of their sacrificial offering. As they offered their toasts and pronounced “Hail, Thor!,” they asked that the power and might of Thor might be poured into the horn containing the drink. As each person offered their hails to Thor the group repeated this in unison. This portion of the ritual was completed with the facilitator staying “Hail and farewell,” which was repeated by everyone in unison.

The third portion of the ritual was the sumbel, or ritual toast of three rounds. In the first round a toast was offered by each individual to their patron deity who had blessed them during the year. Patron deities mentioned included Odin, Frejya, Freyr, Diana, the Goddess, Athena, Isis, and more general offerings to the gods. The second round of toasts was offered to the ancestors who had passed on, and the third round of toasting was more general, and included well wishes to the community.

Meaning to Participants

The remaining part of this assignment is to reflect on why this Yule Sabbat ritual celebration is meaningful for those who participated. In order to understand this more directly and appropriately, toward the end of the meal during my conversation with one of the leaders I asked him why the celebration of the Yule Sabbat was meaningful for him. He told me that for him this was a great time of year in that that which separates us from the gods is especially thin during this time of the year and thus it represents a wonderful time to commune with them. As the leader shared with me I was able to catch a sense of the emotional satisfaction he took from his own celebration of Yule, and how he was able to share this with members of his family, and others who were present at the Sabbat ritual. His joy and satisfaction seemed as meaningful as that which might come from any Christian who reflects joyfully on the birth of Christ during the Christmas season.

Beyond this personal story, in my observation of those Pagans present at this Yule Sabbat they appeared to be enjoying a real sense of community with each other as they came together to eat, fellowship, and participate in religious ritual that connected them to each other, the gods, and the seasonal cycles of nature. As a part of this community participants seem to find a sense of self-identity and self-affirmation as well. One Pagan shared with me that when she participates in Paganism and in the Pagan community, particularly in community rituals such as the Yule Sabbat, she feels that she can really be herself. While she was part of another religious community in the past, and one of a more traditional nature with a connection to Christianity, she found this unsatisfying and restrictive in its institutionalism, and by contrast she now has the freedom to express herself within Paganism.

Another aspect, and one which is admittedly likely found only among a minority of Pagans, was illustrated in the Utah Pagan Yahoo! Groups. My contact in Eagles Kindred, Luna, posted a comment in some of these groups which drew attention to a concern she had that surfaces during the Yule time of year, a concern that is also shared with other Pagans. Luna’s post provided a link to a video on the increasingly popular YouTube website, produced by a Pagan who noted the various aspects of the Christmas celebration that have been appropriated by Christians and secularists from Paganism. The self-produced video mentioned elements such as the wreath, the Christmas tree, the Yule log, and the offering of gifts, and shared the video producer’s concern that these symbols and traditions of the Christmas season celebration have been borrowed from Paganism without any acknowledgement of the source. I discussed this concern with the leader from Eagles Kindred, and he said that this was not a concern for him, but he was aware that it may be a concern for some Pagans, particularly those who may come to the practice of Pagan pathways out of a Christian background. With this consideration in mind, a small number of Pagans may find the Yule Sabbat celebration meaningful as a means of identity construction and boundary maintenance in relation to Christianity and secular culture.

It would seem in light of these differing aspects of the Yule Sabbat celebration among Pagans that the reasons for the meaningful nature of it is diverse, and for many of the same religious, social, and personal reasons that any member of any religion or spirituality might find their differing pathways and practices significant.

I found this assignment beneficial for me in that it afforded me with another opportunity to engage the Utah Pagan community, and to learn about a tradition within Paganism, Ásatrú and Odinism, that I had heard of previously but had never researched and engaged.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Busy Week - A Few Items

Philip Johnson is in Utah from Australia leading an intensive course in new religious movements at Salt Lake Theological Seminary. I am a part of this course and am busy with lectures and reading this week. I will catch up with other courses and ministry activities next week and can only make brief entries in blogging this week, but I wanted to note a few items.

First, John Smulo has launched a new website or blog called "Missional Apologetics." Drop by and take a look at how a new model of apologetics is shaping up.

Second, there is an interesting interview with the noted sociologist Peter Berger where he shares his thoughts on religion and globalization. These considerations are relevant to mission in the West, and emerging and contemporary church leaders should take note.

Third, I had an opportunity to observe a Yule Sabbat on December 23rd as a course assignment for the new religions course. The Sabbat celebration involved the Eagles Kindred group, a Neo-Pagan group from the Odinist and Asatru tradition. I would like to thank this group, and my contact from the Ogden Pagan Community Builders Yahoo! Group for allowing a seminary student to observe this celebration and get to know this community. I will post my observations and reflections next week.