Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Carl Raschke: GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn

Carl Raschke (PhD, Harvard University) is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at the University of Denver. In addition, he serves as an adjunct faculty member at Mars Hill Graduate School and is the author of twenty books. He recently returned from traveling over the holidays and has made time to discuss his most recent book GloboChrist.

Morehead's Musings: Carl, thanks again to you and Baker Academic for your help in my taking a look at this book. How did the subject of postmodernism come to capture your interest in GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Baker Academic, 2008) and your earlier volume The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004)?

Carl Raschke: I have been reading and reflecting on what these days is called “postmodernism” since the late 1970s when I began to publish more technical, philosophical, and theological books and articles on the subject. My book The End of Theology, available as a reprint these days through The Davies Group publishers, was a pioneering work in an emerging field that is now quite establishment and mainstream. Because I was already known as “Professor Postmodernism,” but I also had a reputation as a committed evangelical, or evangelical sympathizer (depending on how you specify those terms), Baker asked me to write The Next Reformation as a way of explaining how postmodernity was quite compatible, in contrast to much of the know-nothingism and trashing of the word by certain self-appointed “authorities” out there, with biblical faith and commitment. In light of the fascination of younger Christian pastors and academics with “postmodernism,” Baker then launched the series which includes my latest book, which represents an effort to expand the parameters of the earlier conversations.

Morehead's Musings: You define your subject matter in the book beyond evangelical concerns over epistemology to include "the growing anxieties over what is happening under the impact of the forces we call globalization and the political, cultural, and religious upheavals that arise in its wake." Why do you think many evangelicals in the West so focused on epistemological issues and have missed the broader implications of the global change?

Carl Raschke: What we have experienced in the past twenty years in the evangelical world is a grievous – perhaps we should even say “gruesome” - disconnect between theological reflection and God’s actual call upon our lives. The problem began at least two generations ago when evangelicals felt they had to mount an ongoing “fundamentalist”, or literalist, defense of the truth of Scripture against the attacks of Darwinists, historical reductionists, and the many varieties of “scientism”. The so-called “battle for the Bible” was really a clash of sectarian epistemologies and, in retrospect we can see, had little to do with the truth or authority of Scripture. But, ironically, the evangelical magisterium at the time felt the only way it could defend its biblical convictions – after all, that’s what makes an evangelical in the first place – was to fight with the captured armaments of the enemy which for decades, ever since Bertrand Russell, had been used against them. The preferred weapon was a form of Anglo-American philosophy that idolized the “scientific method” and was known as logical positivism.

Logical positivism became obsolete in the secular academy in the early 1960s and was effectively brought to its knees – rightly – by the French and German “post-structuralists” who were later renamed postmodernists. The second, and even greater, irony is that in attacking postmodernism as a philosophical movement – what is really under attack, however, if you read the polemics carefully, is some vague notion of contemporary culture as a whole that has nothing to do with any substantive, academic issues – the evangelical old guard is attacking their own liberators. It’s not unlike the Shia militias in Iraq who started shooting at the American forces who saved them from the oppression of Saddam Hussein.

The third irony is that in insisting on a now irrelevant, obsolete, and discredited form of late modernist epistemological certainty as the basis for Christian faith – the total opposite of the Augustinian dictum of fides quaeranas intellectum and the Reformation principle of sola fide – the old guard has essentially destroyed the credibility for non-believers of that which it sought fanatically to make credible, which it never really succeeded in doing anyway. It’s the contemporary version of “tithing mint and cumin” while neglecting what the gospel is really all about. As we are now witnessing with the collapse of the so-called “Religious Right” in America and the rise of what Phillip Jenkins calls the “next Christendom,” the old guard will have its reward.

Morehead's Musings: You critique both "carping old-guard evangelicals" and those in the postmodern "emerging church" equally in this book. How would you describe the errors of both camps? And how do you see this internal squabble as "simply a replay of the modernist-fundamentalist debates of a century ago."

Carl Raschke: The “error” can be summed up in a simple characterization – a narrow sort of time-bound, uniquely American, religious parochialism that has exhausted itself in an ultimately inconsequential fight that has come to be known as the “culture wars.” Call it our own contemporary Christian version of the Thirty Years War. And like the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, it has left living and committed faith prostrate in this country.

Morehead's Musings: In your discussion of global postmodern Christianity you state that "Westerners cling to the outmoded modernist assumption that Christianity is basically the same, or should be the same, everywhere in the world." How has this assumption kept evangelicals from moving beyond the culture wars within the church to consider the broader issues of global Christianity and contextualization?

Carl Raschke: God is always the same from age to age, but he accomplishes his will and purpose in a vast variety of different ways and by using myriad historical actors and heterogeneous cultural forms and expressions. The danger from the human side is that believers easily confuse these forms and expressions with the ultimate will and purpose of God himself. In a biblical sense we call this confusion “idolatry.” As the Hebrew prophets showed us, true believers always tend to confuse this with “truth.” The history of idolatry from the golden calf worshippers to Ahab to the “false teachers” which the apostolic writers constantly reference is one of those “believers” who thought they could “improve on” the epistemological uncertainty of walking in faith by providing us with a “once and for all” and non-contextualizable version of “Christian truth.” We are called constantly as Christians to contextualize because God is always contextualizing. That’s what we really mean when make the very biblical statement that God is sovereign and in control of human history. Otherwise, faith would be nothing more than a simple form of propositional assent, as it is in Islam, or some timeless illumination of a putative eternal “truth” (i.e., Gnosticism). History, especially the history of Christianity itself, is the record of God contextualizing.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in your book you state something that will likely be considered provocative by evangelicals: "To be Christian is not simply to believe in the divinity of Jesus or to subscribe to a set of doctrines, although historically these epistemic tests of the faith have not been inconsequential. It is both to reveal Christ in who we are and to see the face of Christ in those we encounter". Can you expand on this idea of incarnational Christianity that you have in mind and how it relates to the epistemic and doctrinal aspects usually conceived of in terms of self-definitions by Western evangelicals?

Carl Raschke: If you may permit me, I would like to invite you to examine the very premises of your own question here. You ask me to justify somehow incarnational Christianity in terms of “epistemic and doctrinal aspects” of the “self-definitions” of Western evangelicals. First, I would question whether there really are such “epistemic and doctrinal aspects” in the first place, unless you are subtly offering a certain theological position as normative for all evangelicals. Can you really find a common “self-definition” among Calvinists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Southern Baptists, etc. other than the different ways in which they all adhere confessionally and theologically to the Reformation precept of sola Scriptura? But, of course, it is that adherence which distinguishes evangelicals from other forms of Christianity for the most part anyway, and the distinction has little to do with epistemology or even “doctrine.” I can’t think of one set of “doctrines” that define all, or even most, evangelicals. It’s not the Westminster or the Augsburg Confession or the Chicago Statement on inerrancy, although I’m sure there are quite a few evangelical theologians who are convinced to this day they’ve distilled the whole of evangelicalism with the Chicago statement. We’ve also got the issue of Pentecostals who consider themselves “evangelicals” (in my mind they are without question), though there are other denominations that deny it.

Of course all evangelicals subscribe to the ancient creeds, particularly the Nicene and the Chalcedonian, but so does Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and that of course begs your question. The bottom line, as Luther discovered half a millennium ago, is that you can’t ultimately “define” Christianity, let alone “evangelical” Christianity, “epistemically”. Epistemologies are time-bound and culture-bound. God’s reality, his promise, and his faithfulness are not. That’s why we have to keep going back to Scripture and read it faithfully in our own language and through our own cultural lenses so that the Spirit, as Augustine pointed out long ago, will reveal its timeless meaning at a particular moment in time.

As for the premise that Christianity is “incarnational”, that doesn’t need to be defended theologically and it certainly isn’t dependent on any “epistemology.” As Lamin Sanneh points out, it’s the very core of the Christian revelation, as the Fourth Gospel proclaims. As I’ve put it myself, the Christian revelation is not a text (otherwise, we might as well become Muslims); it is not a doctrine (otherwise, we evangelicals are far more Roman Catholic than we want to admit); it is a person. That’s what makes the Christian revelation unique. And as Christians we share in the death and resurrection, the “eternal life” of that person, who dwells or “tabernacles” with us wherever we go, wherever we are gathered together. Luther in The Freedom of a Christian, the most important and powerful Reformation tract ever written that more than any document perhaps does “define” evangelicalism, wrote that to be a Christian means that “we are Christs to each other” (the phrase I quote extensively in GloboChrist), he was merely boiling down the whole approach of sola Scriptura into an essential statement of what the Christian revelation really amounts to. The Christian revelation cannot be contained in a doctrine. The revelation is a relation.

Morehead's Musings: In your discussion of Islam and the idea of competing revelations with Christianity and its rapid growth in the Southern Hemisphere, you cite the "fatal attraction to contemporary consumer culture" that represents a great weakness for Western Christianity. Must it overcome its own "demons" in this area before it can hope to grapple adequately with the challenge of Islam?

Carl Raschke: Yes. Without doubt. The fatal attraction is of course even more fatal because we’ve made Christian practice and participation in the West a matter of consumer satisfaction. Bells and smells, or candles and sandals? Do you prefer electronic guitars and pastors with tattoos, or traditional hymns to a bellowing organ? No matter, we’ll package and customize your spiritual life in a manner that works for you and you’ll be comfortable with. “Seeker-friendly” really means user-friendly. That’s what I call “Burger King Christianity” after the hamburger chain’s famous slogan – “have it your way.” Of course, Jesus was the opposite of P.T. Barnum, whose motto was to give ‘em what they want. Unfortunately, the majority of churches in America these days aren’t much different from Barnum and Bailey circuses. Having it our way and having it God’s way is the simple difference between sheer idolatry and profound faith. Hopefully, the sudden collapse of the global consumer economy since I finished writing the book may be God’s wake-up call to all of us. We can’t have it our way necessarily any more.

Morehead's Musings: You state that one of the facets of global Christianity must be its "rhizomic" nature. Can you briefly define Gilles Deleuze's concept of the rhizome and how you see it as applicable to global Christianity?

Carl Raschke: Sure. I won’t use Deleuze’s philosophical language to explain the rhizome, but just think of an iris, which is a rhizome. If you plant iris bulbs one fall and several years later dig them up to transplant them, you will be amazed how all those “bulbs” are now a rapidly spreading and interlinked network of tubers that manifest above ground as an iris bed. The ginger plant is another classic example of a rhizome, and many of those weeds in your garden you can’t ever seem to “root out” because they are spreading everywhere beneath the soil have rhizomic properties. What distinguishes rhizomic growth from what Deleuze calls “arboreal” growth (i.e., roots and shoots) is that the rhizome does not depend on soil, moisture, and sunlight for growth as much as its own internal system of nourishment, which is usually underground In other words, all the parts are dependent on each other and nourish each other as they grow. The rhizome goes where it grows and grows where it goes. That’s why Paul’s “church planting” was so successful and why the early church grew so fast, despite intense persecution.

Western Christianity has lost its rhizomic relationality and “global” connectivity, which the early church had in abundance. Because cultures in the global south have adopted a church model that follows these trajectories of rhizomic relationality – actually, many of them, particularly in Africa, are just trading on natural kinship and extended family ties, but with a distinct difference – this “next Christendom,” as Jenkins terms it, is expansive and dynamic, while Western Christianity with its individualistic and “arboreal” culture of spiritual consumerism is slowly dying. Most churches in America are simply glorified mom-and-pop shops (“Jesus boutiques”) that cater to very local constituencies with their own spiritual tastes, which are constantly changing or becoming obsolete. They can’t, and won’t, survive the global changes that are already happening. Have you noticed that certain grasses – e.g., Bermuda grass, another rhizome – always survive droughts and winter kill, while arboreal forms perish?

We talk a lot about in Christianity about the “body of Christ,” which was Paul’s term, adapting for the early church the dominant political metaphor of his day for the interdependence of the different ethne or “nations” under the rule of Rome. The term “body of Christ” was simply a way of saying the risen Lord is now the true “head” of this vast and connected corpus, rather than Caesar. We don’t have a global empire any longer, Hardt and Negri’s book Empire aside. But we do have an interlinked and incredibly interdependent dynamic world linked through communications and diplomatic and trade relations. Animating those worldly relations with the relationality embodied in Christ – Christ not just “for me”, but “for each other” – is what the church of the twenty-first century has as its “postmodern” version of the Great Commission.

The church as Christ-rhizome, the GloboChrist. God’s great “iris bed” to come.

Morehead's Musings: Carl, thanks again for an engaging book, and for discussing it here. I hope it spawns more discussion.

Monday, December 22, 2008

HALOS AND AVATARS: Playing Games with God Conference

I have been asked to submit a chapter for consideration for a forthcoming book through Baker Academic that deals with video games and digital cultures. Those who have their submissions accepted will meet in southern California early next year to discuss and present them at the HALOS AND AVATARS conference. The Brehm Center website describes this event:

Been swept up in a Halo marathon? Run from the law in Grand Theft Auto? Floated through Second Life as a furry avatar? Where is God amidst these imaginative activities?

From Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games like World of Warcraft to Social Networking sites like Facebook, virtual selves and digital communities are on the rise. Electronic entertainment (like videogames) has surpassed movies in both profit and influence. Yet, little research has covered the sacred aspects of videogames and digital cultures. The field is literally wide open. Leading thinkers and game designers will converge in Los Angeles for the next Reel Spirituality conference on February 28, 2009.

What sacred symbols are found within the games or universe you’re exploring?

Can religious rites be extended into virtual worlds?

What does real ministry look like amidst digital cultures?

Bring your avatar and your questions to Reel Spirituality 2009.

Reel Spirituality Conference and 15th Annual City of Angels Film Festival

Watch January 1, 2009 for the date: slated for late February or early March. The Reel Spirituality Conference will focus on electronic video games from formats like Playstations and Wii to phenomenon like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and Second Life.

The City of the Angels Film Festival celebrates the best new, spiritually charged films.

Click here to register for HALOS AND AVATARS.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pagan-Christian Dialogue: Moving Beyond Our Skepticism

In a recent post I mentioned the new edition of Sacred Tribes Journal that is available. Its contents includes two reviews of Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), a volume I was privileged to edit. The reviews of the book have brought it to the attention of the Pagan community on the Internet once again on places like the Strange Onion Peelings and The Wildhunt blogs. The continued interest and positive reception of the book is good, but some of the discussion surrounding the issue of Pagan-Christian dialogue is more concerning.

On the Strange Onion Peeling, blogger James French expresses skepticism concerning differing views of religious pluralism between Pagans and Christians, and in the comments responding to this Chas Clifton writes:

"I tend to agree with the overall point of your post, which is why I avoid interfaith pow-wows. Those folks just don’t “get” polytheism, immanence, sacred sexuality, and other components of contemporary Pagan ways. They want to know just enough about us to convert us — or to find something about our ways to praise while ignoring the “icky” parts."

On The Wildhunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters is appreciative of the dialogue process, and the new voices in Christianity among "missional Christians" attempting to chart a new way forward between our communities. Even so, he understands why his fellow Pagans maintain a skeptical and perhaps pessimistic stance on the dialogue process.

After reading some of this commentary over the last couple of days I'd like to share my thoughts with Pagans and Christians interested in these issues

First, I want to express my thanks for those on both sides of this issue to those who are interested in Beyond the Burning Times, and who are reading through it for reviews for their religious communities. I think this is a significant volume that was put forward with the best of intentions and a lot of hard work for everyone involved.

Second, I acknowledge that Christians and Pagans do have different views over issues like religious pluralism, and it is precisely because we do have our differences that the dialogue process needs to continue. Should we continue to either ignore, stereotype or demonize each other merely because we disagree? More dialogue on such important issues informed by careful philosophical and thealogical/theological reflection will help us understand and clarify our perspectives, even if we don't persuade each other of the legitimacy of these perspectives.

Third, my hope is that projects like Beyond the Burning Times, and the handful of Christians developing a new way of understanding and engaging our Pagan friends will be accepted as a good faith effort that can build enough trust for our relationships and continued dialogues to move forward.

Fourth, I respectfully disagree with the sentiments expressed by Chas Clifton in his comments on Strange Onion Peeling. There are Christians who are making a good effort at understanding Paganism, including the aspects he specifically mentions. Therefore, we do "get it," even though we have a long way to go in our understanding. And we are not attempting to understand just enough of Paganism to combine it with a nicer approach in order to convert people. Yes, we feel an obligation to be obedient to Jesus' command to "make disciples," and in so doing share the pathway of Jesus when it is appropriate and desired, but we do not view people as mere objects for evangelism. There is a far broader agenda at work here. To assume otherwise perpetuates the stereotypes we desperately need to move beyond.

In light of the comments on this topic in the blogosphere over the last few days I have contacted a select group of my Christian academic colleagues with the suggestion that we try to arrange a public Pagan-Christian dialogue at an educational institution in the near future. This has been done successfully and helpfully in the evangelical-Mormon context, and it needs to be done in the Pagan-Christian context as well. Such an event would enable us to discuss important issues like religous pluralism, and would hopefully move us beyond the present moment of skepticism. I hope others will join me in maintaining a more positive spirit, and in putting a public dialogue forum together to build upon the book exchange.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Symbolic Significance of Shoes

One of the things I really enjoyed about my graduate studies that looked at understanding cultures was the ways in which elements within cultures can mean very different things in diverse cultural contexts. I continue to find the study of such things helpful, and it is applicable to a recent event that made the international news.

The media has shown the clip of an Iraqi journalist tossing his shoes at President Bush many times, and much of what I've seen tends to trivialize the event, or present it with tongue in cheek (as in, isn't it funny what that crazy Iraqi did?). But the episode is rich with cultural symbolism and meaning that Americans would do well to reflect on.

Two new stories in Religion Dispatches discuss this. The first is "The Shoe Thrower: What Bush Didn't Understand" by Mark Woodward. Following is an excerpt:

"Throughout the Muslim world, and in most of Asia, shoes are ritually impure. They are “dirty” in more than the material sense of the word. One does not, ever, wear shoes or sandals in mosques, shrines, temples, or in most instances in peoples’ homes. In my travels in Asia over the past three decades I have often encountered signs at the entrances to holy places reading something like: “Boundary of Holiness. Footwearing Strictly Prohibited.” Muslims remove their shoes and wash their feet, hands, and faces before prayer to purify themselves.

"There is also a long history of diplomatic impasses and political conflict stemming from the refusal of western envoys to remove their shoes while visiting Muslim and other Asian capitals, and the refusal of Asian monarchs to make exceptions to accommodate Westerners’ discomfort at the thought of appearing shoeless in official capacities. To throw a shoe at a visiting head of state and erstwhile ally is very close to the ultimate expression of disgust and defiance."

The second article is "Missing the Anger for Shoes" by Hussein Rashid which provides another perspective on this incident. Regardless of the specifics of the interpretation it appears that there is an important symbolic significance to the shoe throwing incident, one that does not bode well for American foreign policy in Iraq or our continued perceptions in the Muslim world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sacred Tribes Journal, Vol. 3, no. 2 Now Available

Volume 3, Number 2 (Fall 2008): 97-216
ISSN 1941-8167

Editor's Introduction

Volume three number two of Sacred Tribes Journal is now online. Our second volume of 2008 features three articles on religious movements, three book reviews and a movie review. In addition, we have included a report on a recent consultation on new spiritualities. The articles are of special note. Each gives descriptive accounts of religious movements both in the United States and abroad. Two of the articles are written by emerging scholars of religion and Sacred Tribes Journal is proud to publish the first articles of their promising careers.

The volume begins with an article on vampire religion co-authored by David and Kiara Falk. David Falk is an Master of Divinity candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School researching Egyptian Gnosticism and is also completing an MA in Biblical and Near Eastern Archaeology and Languages. Kiara Falk is a MA student at TEDS researching the vampire hysteria during the Enlightenment. Their article analyzes a recent survey focused on practitioners of vampirism. After discussing the demographics and trends of the religion the Falks do a comparative study of vampirism and contemporary Paganism. The article concludes with information about various vampire religions found on the Internet. The Falks’ descriptive article makes a nice contribution to the study of this emerging religious movement.

Our second article describes a new religious movement in Korea. The author, Seung Min Hong, is a Korean student studying at Trinity Graduate School. He is currently completing a MA in Communication and Culture with a focus on religious studies. Hong’s article describes two sects whose focus of worship is Kan Jeung San, a self-proclaimed incarnate god. This Korean movement with nationalistic tendencies has grown to over seven million adherents since 1974. Of the two sects, Jeung San Do is the most active in propagating beliefs with seven religious houses in the United States. Hong asserts that understanding this movement will help in understanding the religious climate of Korea and her people.

Finally, Harold Netland makes an important contribution in understanding Zen Buddhism. Netland is Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has lived much of his life in Japan. Among his publications are Encountering Religious Pluralism (InterVarsity Press, 2001); Globalizing Theology (Baker Academic, 2006) edited with Craig Ott; and Spirituality Without God? Buddhist Enlightenment and Christian Salvation (Paternoster, forthcoming) written with Keith Yandell. Netland addresses the issue of the impact of globalization and modernization on a religious movement. With particular focus on Buddhism’s transmission to the West, he uses the example of D.T. Suzuki and his ability to contextualize Zen. The article clearly suggests that religions are influenced by cultures as well as influenced by those who are leading them. In order to understand religion in a globalized context, it is insufficient to simply know about religious history, we must also know about the people who are practicing religions, the cultures where they emerge and their leaders.

In addition, this issue includes links to the video lectures of the Trinity Consultation, and the most recent entries for the Sacred Tribes Journal Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Call for articles for theme issue on Mormonism and Evangelicalism and Dialogical Theology and Apologetics

Sacred Tribes Journal is an electronic publication devoted to the academic exploration of new religious movements. The editors of this publication are currently seeking submissions for consideration that will comprise a special theme issue related to Mormonism.

The academic conversation between evangelical and Latter-day Saints has been taking place for some time. At times this has been dialogical, and at other times scholars from both sides of the religious divide have put forward ideas and responses in forums representative of their own religious communities without direct interaction with opposing points of view. While such approaches to scholarship have their benefits, a dialogical form of academic engagement can be especially helpful. One recent and promising example of this is found in Donald W. Musser and David L. Paulsen, eds., Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies (Mercer University Press, 2007). This volume is important in that it avoids the tendency among evangelical and LDS scholars to engage in their discussion and scholarship in their own religious communities independent of direct interaction with the religious community they are writing about.

In addition to these considerations much of the dialogue and scholarly effort up to this point has been defined by boundary definition and maintenance concerns for both communities, and with the question, “Is Mormonism Christian?” lingering in the background, and at times in the forefront of interaction. While self-identity and definition are important considerations for both religious communities, there are also broader perspectives to consider that can help us understand each other more. Sacred Tribes Journal would like to serve as a forum for such exploration.

There is also the possibility for fresh perspectives to come outside of Latter-day Saint and evangelical Protestant frameworks. Broader Christendom and other places in the academy may contribute the results of their observations on evangelical-LDS interactions that may help address potential blindspots and provide for additional understanding.

Call for Submissions
The editors of Sacred Tribes Journal are planning on a special theme issue devoted to Mormonism and evangelicalism that will involve dialogical approaches to theology, and perhaps apologetic approaches. A collection of evangelical and Mormon scholars will be put together and these submissions will be reviewed by representatives of the other religious community so that a response can be offered. Issues discussed in papers may include the following:

• Perceptions of the state of affairs since How Wide the Divide?.

• The extent to which apologetic arguments and counter-arguments have been understood and responded to since The New Mormon Challenge and the FARMS response and critique of this work.

• Ethical-ritual practice perspectives.

• The place of narrative and culturally-formative stories play in understanding Mormonism in contrast with creedal and systematic theology perspectives of Protestantism.

• How narrative and ritual provide overarching hermeneutical frameworks within Mormonism in its biblical interpretation.

If you are interested in submitting an article for consideration, for general considerations please see the guidelines for contributors, and for specific questions related to this issue please contact John Morehead at johnwmorehead@msn.com.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Jesus as Archetype Shaman?

In the recent edition of Jesus Manifesto there was an article by my friend and colleague, Phil Wyman of the Gathering in Salem. The article is titled "Jesus as the Archetype Shaman". I have copied it below for reflection and feedback. How might this concept be received by those in tribal cultures? What about the idea in the Neo-Pagan community? On to Phil's article:

Ascent to the heavens, descent to the underworld, an experience of death and resurrection, acting as a psychopomp to the lost souls of dead humans, story-teller, cultural icon and outcast, healer, exorcist…these are the works, and the personal experiences of a Shaman.

These are also the things which set Christ apart as unique in human history. These are things of which He is an exemplary model, and humanity’s ideal for spiritual excellence and success. These elements are identified by religious historians as the signs, and activities of a Shaman. It is the contention of this article (and any following articles on the subject) that the Nazarene was the ideal of shamanic power and practice, and therefore The Archetypal Shaman.

This concept is not a new one. Others such as Peiter Craffert, and John Pilch have already done studies along these lines. Their ideas have been considered revolutionary by some, and heretical by others. Both Craffert and Pilch have appeared to have cast Jesus as the Galilean Shaman, at the expense of the orthodox Christian position of Messiah, and resurrected Lord of Heaven and Earth.

In contrast I understand Jesus to be the Savior of all humanity by means of His death and resurrection, and the unique Son of God. My position here in this article, and those that might follow is that Jesus carries many characteristics of the ideal Shaman, and exemplifies the power aspects, and ecstatic experiences of shamanism. In a shamanistic culture Jesus would have been viewed as the greatest of all Shamans, and both previous and subsequent Shamans would be a viewed as a diminishing of shamanic power, but coming from Jewish culture he was obviously held as the greatest of all prophets (and even more than that) to those who would follow Him.

By saying this I am not saying that all Christian ministers should become Shamans, nor am I saying that Jesus saw Himself as a Shaman. This is a simple presentation suggesting only that the things Jesus did are things Shamans all over the world have attempted to do throughout history, and that Christ is the exemplar of the experiences of the Shaman, and the goals which the Shaman seeks to accomplish. Deeper concepts, and further conclusions, which the reader may come to are their own surmisings, and not those which I am presenting here.

The Shaman is a type of medicine man who works for the community to bring healing, and prosperity. He battles evil spirits seeking to trouble humanity. Usually through ecstatic experiences of trances and soul travel the Shaman will discover healing remedies known only to God, or the gods. The Shaman may also lead the souls of those who have died to paradise through the same ecstatic soul journeys.

Eliade Mircea’s landmark book “Shamanism” published in 1951, held this as a central theme: That the diminished powers of Shamans were an oft repeated mythos across the continents and islands in which elements of shamanism could be found. Somewhere in the stories of ancient Shamans there was an archetypal Shaman whose powers far exceeded those of more recent history.

The degradation of power and also of an open and clean communication with the unseen realm of gods, goddesses and spirits is a repeated theme in the mythic stories in shamanistic cultures. This mirrors the story of the Fall in scripture. Once humanity walked in complete confidence before God - without shame, and in open and direct communication with Him. The hunt for a return to paradise underlies the story of our Christian scripture, and underlies the traditional stories of shamanism as well, and so the worlds of shamanism and Christianity meet at a common place.

“More than once we have discerned in the shamanic experience a “nostalgia for paradise” that suggests one of the oldest types of Christian mystical experience.” wrote Eliade in the epilogue of the English edition of his book.

I am convinced Jesus answers the “nostalgia for paradise,” and by doing so becomes the archetype of the Shaman.

More to come. Follow me as I follow Christ through the world of Shamanism.

Author Bio: Phil Wyman pastors a church in Salem, MA. His friends are Witches, Druids, Pagans, and Shamans - and some Christians too. His wife, Bev, is recovering from hand surgery right now, so he is being a nurse at home, but their 10 year old greyhound Holly is probably doing a better job of it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Religion and Games: Beyond Ruffled Feathers to Critical Reflection

The latest email announcement for the always interesting Religion Dispatches included mention of a story that caught my eye. It is by S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, titled "Is Religion a Game?". I will warn my readers who may click the link above to read the story that the subject matter will likely be offensive, at least at first. But I hope readers can move beyond this to engage the more serious issues raised by Plate. As film director Terry Gilliam has said, "Frankly, if your religion is so vulnerable that a little bit of disrespect is going to bring it down, it's not worth believing in."

In the article Plate raises serious questions related to the overlap if not connection between religion and games, especially in light of a controversial new game:
"The buzz last week was a new board game (yes, board game, as in folded cardboard tables and dice and cards) called Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination. Following essentially the same strategy as Risk minus the armies, Playing Gods has each player assume the role of a different god or prophet in their attempt to take over the world. As the game’s website suggests: “This is done by spreading your believers, converting the followers of other gods, or killing them off with Acts of God.” The satiric figurines include a laughing Buddha with automatic weapon, Moses about to bash someone with stone tables held high, Muhammad armed with saber and hand grenade, Jesus wielding a bladed cross, and Kali with sword, shield, and severed head (oh, wait, that’s Kali’s typical depiction, see left). Denver University’s Professor of Religious Studies, Carl Raschke, claims in USA Today that the new game is “too stupid to go far,” and that may be so."
Hearing of such a game readers are, again, likely to have their ire raised, but the connections between gaming, and the broader considerations of play, have been recognized by scholars of various stripes. I have commented on this previously when I drew attention to C. S. Lewis's recognition of an encounter with transcendence in the joy experienced through play, and Peter Berger's inductive theological argument that play represents one of the "signals of transcendence" in the mundane world.

Plate concludes:
"If we want to understand religions, we have to understand their game-like qualities, and that religion might, at the heart of it all, be a game. Which does not make it trivial. Games can have high stakes. Games can entrance people to the point of risking much, if not all: cars and condos, wives and lives, fortunes and families. Games excite, annoy, produce joy and anguish, and take their players to great extremes of emotion and rationality, even as the player may still say “its only a game.” So, here’s a call to learn about religion by playing games. And vice versa. Choice and chance, destruction and creation, role-playing and playing one’s heart, are all at the center of the worlds that we call religions. We may live in our world, but play in another."
It would seem that play and gaming theology represents a fruitful avenue for those willing to take it seriously and to explore its potential. Can Christians move beyond their ruffled feathers to engage in critical reflection on such things?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evangelicals and Western Esotericism

At the Trinity Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities held at Trinity International University last month, one of the plenary sessions addressed developments in the "New Age movement" as part of a broader history of Western Esotericism. This session involved a paper presented by the noted new religions scholar J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion. (This session and others can be viewed at Sacred Tribes Journal for those who create a user ID and then Login and click "Course Lectures.") During his presentation Dr. Melton reminded evangelicals that Western Esotericism is a significant religious tradition no longer relegated to the margins of popular culture that needs to be taken seriously and interacted with more positively. This positive engagement involves a number of areas, including a more informed and accurate understanding of the tradition, respect for its adherents, and in engagement with its growing numbers of practitioners.

I was fortunate to be the respondent to Dr. Melton's paper, and among other things I shared the following:
"[W]hile evangelicals have tended to marginalize and dismiss those involved in Western Esotericism with simple labels like “the occult,” often followed by simplistic responses that involve denunciation through biblical proof-texting, Dr. Melton reminds us that “we are not dealing so much with a marginal phenomenon, but a significant aspect of the popular culture.” Although the numbers of people involved directly with Western Esotericism remains small, as Dr. Melton himself has discussed, nevertheless the impact of Western Esotericism in popular culture is significant, so much so that scholars like Christopher Partridge refer to “popular occulture.” In Partridge’s discussion of this he states “(1) that occultural worldviews have been an important source of inspiration for popular culture, (2) that popular culture has in turn been an important source of inspiration for the formation of occultural worldviews, and consequently, (3) that popular culture is beginning to have a shaping effect on Western plausibility structures.” Western Esotericism represents a respectable and enduring religious phenomenon that must be taken seriously by evangelicals in the twenty-first century.

".. near the end of his paper in his brief sketch of an initial Christian response to Western Esotericism Dr. Melton includes several helpful thoughts, including the need to conceptualize it as “a distinctive religious tradition analogous” to various world religions rather than as a deviant tradition to be marginalized, the call for the Christian community to own up to and move beyond its unloving and unChristian responses to esotericists that fall far short of the divine calling to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the reminder that in our daily experience we are likely to live and work with esotericists and thus new ways of living the Christian faith must be developed that move us positively into the future."

It is my hope that viewpoints like those expressed at the recent conference at Trinity, the Trinity conference itself, and volumes like Gus diZerega and Philip Johnson's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), represent new and increasingly influential senses of understanding of the new religions, including Western Esotericism, and a new ways of interacting with its practitioners. Even so, while a new evangelical model is gaining strength it does so against the backdrop of more traditional evangelical treatments of the new religions and the Western Esoteric tradition as evidenced by new books appearing this year, including those commented on previously on this blog: Dillon Burroughs and Marla Alupoaicei's Generation Hex (Harvest House, 2008), and Linda Harvey's Not My Child: Contemporary Paganism and New Spirituality (Living Ink Books, 2008). A new book has recently been released that adds to the evangelical literature from this perspective, the late Walter Martin, Jill Martin Rische, and Kurt Van Gorden's The Kingdom of the Occult (Thomas Nelson, 2008). I have high expectations for this recent volume in that I hope it rises above the recent volumes on Western Esotericism that operate from a confrontational tone. In addition, I hope that this new book engages the growing body of academic literature on Western Esotericism, and compliments more informed understandings of this religious tradition with more positive aspects of engagement such as interreligious dialogue.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Religious Disaffiliation and Migration

My work on a new resource from WIIS quickly moving from pre-production to the production phase has given me an opportunity to revisit one of my areas of research interest, that of sociological insights on the processes of religious affiliation and disaffiliation. In the past I have posted on religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints, and with this post I take up that issue again with reference to further reflections on the implications of an article by Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, "Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism," from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28, no. 2 (1989): 180-200.

Movement from one religious organization to another takes place constantly in a variety of contexts and for a variety of reasons, and the author's of this article frame it in terms of "moving to a new country" and taking "citizenship in a new spiritual country." With this imagery in mind, those who change churches or religious organizations may be likened to immigrants moving from one country to another. But what does this process of religious migration look like under careful analysis?

In their research, Bahr and Albrecht drew upon two state-wide surveys in Utah among Latter-day Saints in the early 1980s and considered the results in light of their further research on religious disaffiliation, the creation of new roles of "ex" identity, and interviews with disaffiliates. Several aspects of their research struck me, not only in what it tells us about religious disaffiliation in general, but also in the implications for evangelicals working among new religions.

First, due to the small number of interview subjects the authors consider their findings "exploratory and illustrative or sensitizing. They are not statistically generalizable in any way." Further, they did "not attempt to generalize [their] findings to religious disaffiliates generally, or even to Mormon disaffiliates." I hope to find more current research done along these lines with a greater survey sample that will permit statistical generalizations, but if no such research has been conducted it needs to be financed and conducted so that we might further understand the process of religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints, a topic that has not received nearly as much attention as religious affiliation. In addition, small survey samples related to methodological considerations should remind evangelicals that current claims about migration among Latter-day Saints into evangelicalism are anecdotal in that the research work has yet to be done, and perhaps we too should resist generalizing our understandings of "what works" among Mormon disaffiliates.

Second, Bahr and Albrecht draw upon the role theory work of Helen Ebaugh in her description of the "role-exit process" in a variety of relationship contexts. She defines this as involving four stages that include "doubting one's role commitment, searching for viable alternative roles, experiencing a 'turning point' which reduces dissonance and mobilizes resources to exit, and creating an 'ex-role'". Role theory and the four-part process of role-exiting provide a helpful framework for understanding the process of disaffiliation which might be studied further by evangelicals.

Third, the authors are cautious in the interpretation of disaffiliate accounts of prior group membership. They remind us that such accounts are "flawed" in that they "reflect only a single point of view - that of the disaffiliate - in a social process that involves scores, if not hundreds, of actors." Further, Bahr and Albrecht note that the narratives of disaffiliates often "tend to interpret the past in ways that reduce personal dissonance about the decision taken. As a consequence, the perceptions of a typical former Mormon about an event are likely to be more anti-Mormon." Yet even with these cautions concerning disaffiliate accounts the authors find value in them. They state that "the partiality of the observers is not reason to dismiss their reports as useless" since every human observer involves bias, "preconceptions and perceptual 'screens' which limit the scope and accuracy of his or her observations." These considerations are helpful reminders of the need for caution in interpreting disaffiliate accounts, and that the many negative portrayals of Mormonism in evangelical literature may help "color" disaffiliate accounts even further beyond the individual's experiences and perceptual reconstructions.

Fourth, the patterns and processes of disaffiliation are interesting. Bahr and Albrecht's research indicates that "[a]pparently most apostates from Mormonism were never truly 'in' the faith" in terms of being deeply devoted "fervent followers." Most maintained marginal commitment levels of belief and identification. In terms of the disaffiliation of "fervent followers," while four out of six cited "intellectual defection" as a major part of their exiting process, the authors note that "[f]or even the most committed seeker, the intellectual struggle was only part of the process, since it occurred in a context of personal problems, disappointments and betrayals." This feature of disaffiliation is a reminder that the process involves multiple factors of causation, and that intellectual issues are processed and strongly influenced within the important context of social relationships.

Finally, in the conclusion of the article one of the points raised by the authors is worth noting when they state:
"It is also probable that patterns of disaffiliation observed among former Mormons in Utah are quite unrepresentative of former Mormons elsewhere. Both the dynamics of disaffiliation and the options of reaffiliation are likely to be quite different outside Utah, where Mormons do not represent the 'establishment' and typically are a small minority rather than the majority."

I share the authors' feelings that their research is tantalizing. There is a great deal to be learned about why people join and leave religious groups, particularly in the new or minority religions. I hope that fellow evangelicals express greater interest in the body of academic literature on religious affiliation and disaffiliation that will help us understand the fascinating dynamics involved in people's lives.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Attacks on LDS Institutions in Wake of Prop. 8

Anyone who pays attention to the news since the national elections has heard of the various protests and attacks against institutions connected with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to their financial contributions to and support of Proposition 8 in California. This proposition defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and it was supported by a variety of conservative religious groups, including the LDS Church. As a result of the proposition passing the LDS Church has been the most vilified by those supporting homosexual marriage. Recently envelopes have been mailed to various locations connected to the Church with suspicious white powder substances in acts of domestic terrorism. This morning my daughter's school, Syracuse Junior High, was in lock down due to the adjacent LDS seminary being the latest receipient of this "gift of protest." Local police, Hazmat crews, and the FBI are now probing the seminary as students and teachers pursue their educational goals with a cloud of fear hanging over their day.

Regardless of your views on gay marriage, this is hardly the way that Prop. 8 detractors should go about their protests. It will not positively persuade voters to support gay marriage legislation in the future, and it represents the latest expressions of anti-Mormon bigotry. My hope is that the public will speak out against such hate crimes and bigotry, regardless of their political views on gay marriage.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Summum: Minority Religions, Public Space, and Religious Liberty

Over the last few weeks I've heard news broadcasts about a minority religious group in Salt Lake City that has made national headlines, but until yesterday I had not heard the group's name. Yesterday I finally heard the group identified as Summum, a group readers may never have heard of before. I only became aware of this group in November of last year through Gordon Melton. There is very little that has been written academicaly about this group, and this fact, coupled with the current legal issues the group is involved in, make it an item of great interest.
As Summum's website describes the group:

"In the fall of 1975, Claude "Corky" Rex Nowell (Founder) began to have a series of encounters with highly intelligent beings who he now refers to as the Summa Individuals. He describes them as beings who untiringly work the pathways of spiritual evolution, and who were referred to as the "Neters" in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. During his encounters, he received instructions concerning the underlying principles (Laws of Nature) which establish and maintain the universe. During these same encounters, the Summa Individuals would change his name to:

Summum Bonum (Amon) Ra

Soon after his
initial experience, Corky founded a non-profit organization, giving it the name "Summum," a Latin term meaning "the sum total of all creation." The principles introduced to him were described as a "neverending story" and form the foundation for the philosophy of Summum. They are nothing new and have always existed. As an eternal work, these principles were presented to Corky who in 1980, would legally change his name to Summum Bonum Amon Ra for governmental purposes and to reflect his spiritual path. He generally goes by Corky Ra."

Summum has made national headlines through a legal challenge currently before the Supreme Court. As the Salt Lake Tribune has described it, the Court "agreed to hear an appeal from the city of Pleasant Grove, which wants to block Summum from displaying its own monument beside the Ten Commandments in a municipal park. That monument, if erected, would include Summum's seven guiding principles."
This case involving issues of religious freedoms in the public square in relation to a minority religion is one to watch, with commentators suggesting that the ruling will be significant, and set precedent for similar issues related to public religious displays. The Supreme Court will likely rule on this case in the spring.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Lure of the Dark Side - Correction

Correction: The author if the review mentioned below brought to my attention that I confused two books on similar subject matters, both involving contributions by Christopher Partridge. The one I posted on is a multi-contributor volume, and the one reviewed with the excerpt below is from a short volume by Partridge alone titled Understanding the Dark Side (Chester Academic Press, 2006). I have read Partridge's paper that makes up the latter book, but not having seen The Lure of the Dark Side I can only guess that perhaps it, or at least much of what it proposes, overlaps with the shorter volume. At any rate, they make for an interesting study on Westenr demonology, the new religions, and popular culture. My thanks to the Sub Ratione Dei blog for bringing my error to my attention for clarification among readers.
One of the more interesting aspects of studies in new religious movements is the influence of Christian views of demonology on the topic. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from a major interpretive lens through which the new religions are construed by many evangelicals as manifestations of the satanic, to the the incorporation of streams of Christian demonology within the beliefs of the new religions themselves.

Christopher Partridge and Eric Christianson have edited a volume that explores the influences of Christian demonology on the new religions and popular culture in the book The Lure of the Dark Side: Western Demonology, Satanic Panics and Alien Abduction (Equinox Publishing, 2008). The book was recently reviewed here with an excerpt from this review below:
"Although the subtitle promises to be a survey of western demonology, Satanic panics, and alien abduction Partridge’s survey is more a deconstruction of UFO religion and the eclecticism of its sources. The extra-terrestrial religious ideas may have had their origin in theosophical strains of Eastern thought but the religion of groups such as Heaven’s Gate is in fact more rooted in western demonology, specifically the adaptation in popular culture of the idea of the nephilim (Gen 6: 1-4). In the space of a short lecture Partridge has done a good job at delineating the dialectic between theory and popular culture and so, from the perspective of those interested in alternative and fringe religions the author has done a good job in charting the field. However, for those like my self who do not spend much time thinking about the theology of the Raelians a more interesting phenomenon - why as the stranglehold of ‘Christian’ understandings of the world been dissipated have these religions relied on parodies of Christian demonologies. In understand that popular culture is tapping into a latent understanding in invoking such ideas from Christian sources - however, the fact that the UFO religions have followed suit strikes me as a far more interesting question both theologically and sociologically."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Blomberg on Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue Since "How Wide the Divide?"

I recently learned of a presentation by Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary that presents a history and reflections on Mormon-evangelical dialogue since the publication of How Wide the Divide?. The presentation is titled "How Wide the Divide? Eleven Years Later, Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation.” The fine Summa Theologia blog mentioned this, and the presentation is available for download on the Internet by clicking here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Application to Uni Durham for PhD Studies

After being encouraged by many people for the last couple of years to pursue PhD studies I finally found a program and an institution that fits my needs and research interests. Yesterday I took the initial steps for an online application to the University of Durham in their Theology and Religion Department. Over the course of the next two weeks I will compile the follow up documentation to be sent to complete the review of my application.
I have proposed a research degree that looks at the significant yet neglected aspect of sacred narrative within Mormonism that will provide for a better understanding of that faith within the lives of its adherents. I would also like to argue that it seems to be a missing dimension in Mormon-evangelical dialogue.
As I have mentioned previously, I have exchanged a few emails with Douglas Davies about this possibility and he has expressed his appreciation for sacred narrative within Mormonism as a topic for academic research and possible supervision of this topic. Davies is the author of two books on Mormonism, including An Introduction to Mormonism (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and The Mormon Culture of Salvation (Ashgate, 2000).
My applicaiton for PhD studies represents a significant step of faith in that I will have to raise the funds for tuition, $10,000 U.S. each year over the course of up to six years part-time study.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Reflections: National Student Dialogue Conference II

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to attend Standing Together's National Student Dialogue Conference II. This event was held October 24-25 on the campus of Utah Valley University. It was co-sponsored by a number of organizations, both evangelical as well as Latter-day Saint, including institutions like UVU, Fuller Seminary, BIOLA University, Brigham Young University, and my own Western Institute for Intercultural Studies.

Unfortunately, my schedule only permitted me to attend one of the plenary sessions on Saturday, a discussion between Dr. Dennis Ockholm of Azusa Pacific University, and Dr. Spencer Fluhman of Brigham Young University. Their discussion topic revolved around the question, "Was the Restoration Necessary?" I found Dr. Fluhman's presentation refreshing and helpful in that he stated he was pleased to find evangelicals who were open to dialogue with Latter-day Saints, and he expressed his own openness to such things and a breadth of interpretive options within his understanding of the question for discussion during this session.

A couple of elements within Fluhman's presentation and his interactions with Ockholm stood out for me. First, Dr. Fluhman spoke of a development in Smith's notion of an apostasy that was evolving and fluid. Early on it was not primarily doctrinal, but over time it shifted to an inclusion of doctrinal elements.

Second, Fluhman noted that Joseph Smith's story of the First Vision developed over time in relation to his own changing relationship with traditional Christianity and its increasing opposition to his message. Dr. Fluhman reminded us that our recollections and presentations of the past vary and develop in light of present circumstances. As Smith's relationship with various Christian communities of his time worsened, his description of his vision changed, eventually arriving at a place where the vision incorporated a strong sense of restoration in light of a state of apostasy in 19th century Protestantism.

Finally, related to the above item, Dr. Fluhman also stated that in his view many Latter-day Saints have an ahistorical (and I would add acultural) view of their faith where divine truths fall in people's laps (Fluhman's words) free of historical considerations. As I heard Fluhman describe this situation it dovetails with my own feelings that evangelicals often think of Mormonism in the same way, and fail to give due consideration to historical and cultural considerations in light of LDS theology. In addition, evangelical beliefs are often ahistorical and acultural as well, and Fluhman's words serve as a reminder for both religious communities to become more holistic in their thinking about the issues that inform evangelical-LDS dialogue.

I believe that the National Student Dialogue Conferences serve an important function in both bringing evangelical and Latter-day Saint students together to discuss important issues, and in providing a forum for scholars on both sides of the religious divide together to bring their academic expertise to bear on the issues, thus providing a good foundation for student interactions. I hope others found this conference as helpful and significant as I did.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Trinity Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities Assembles International Cadre of Top-Notch Scholars and Practitioners

From October 16 to 19 Trinity International University served as the site for a post-Christendom spiritualities consultation co-sponsored by Trinity, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s issue group on postmodern spiritualities and new religions, and the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. The consultation brought together leading evangelicals scholars and practitioners from around the world representing countries including Australia, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, as well as various locations from around the United States. This combination of geographical locations, coupled with differing areas of specialty and emphasis in approach, provided a refreshing depth and diversity to a consideration of new religions.

The format for the consultation consisted of ten plenary sessions and a number of parallel sessions. With the exception of the final plenary session, each plenary presentation was followed by a respondent. The four day event began with putting the consultation in the context of the Christian study of new religions by Dr. Michael Cooper of Trinity International University. Following his presentation, a plenary session with Dr. Stephen Kennedy of Trinity Graduate School addressed an important and neglected topic in evangelical circles; that of the rights of indigenous people to sacred sites. Dr. Kennedy discussed the legal, ethical and religious aspects of this topic, especially with reference to the struggles of Native American peoples, which provided the consultation with an empathetic perspective with which to begin the consultation.

The following day Dr. Cooper of Trinity Graduate School discussed the continuing evolution of the Western religious landscape from ancient paganism to contemporary Neo-Paganism. This was connected to the increasingly eclectic spiritual questing of Westerners and the place of Neo-Paganism in this spiritual milieu. He argued that the emphasis on personal religious experience legitimized the cognitive bargaining of Western religious people. The late morning saw Dr. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion present on changes in the “New Age” or New Spiritualities, and specifically on the significance of Western esotericism as a major religious tradition that needs to be taken seriously be evangelicals and addressed in more positive fashion, particularly in the area of engagement.

Dr. Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary presented the next plenary message with some interesting reflections on identity construction in light of traditional and modern ways of engaging in this process in contrast with more fluid forms in postmodernity. Dr. Muck then made application of this to missiology as he drew out implications for how a sense of Christian identity might fit into this mix.

Dr. James Beverley of Tyndale Seminary concluded the second day’s plenary sessions with a consideration of the emerging church movement. While criticism was included in his discussion, he also acknowledged positive aspects of this movement and what it might be saying back to more traditional and contemporary expressions of church for evangelicals.

The third day of the conference brought a new round of plenary sessions that began with Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary sketching the contextualization spectrum in Muslim contexts and then making application to evangelical-Mormon dialogue. This contextualization spectrum approach has now moved beyond Islam into expressions in Hindu and Buddhist contexts, and Dr. Blomberg’s presentation helped put the issue on the agenda for evangelical missiologists in the Mormon context as well.

Dr. James Chancellor of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary led the next plenary session that looked at changes in the The Family/The Children of God since the death of its founder, particularly in the area of sexual ethics. Dr. Chancellor’s presentation involved elements that provide the tools necessary for a fresh analysis of The Family as observers consider the possible shift of the group from a lesser tension with society and with evangelicalism in the categorization of “cult” to sect.

Dr. Ross Clifford of Morling College provided a plenary session that helped communicate the significance of the new religions in popular culture as he discussed the importance of a combined pastoral approach with a subjective evidential apologetic for post-Christendom spiritualities. Dr. Clifford’s presentation may have been the most emotionally stirring, and it helped academic and layperson alike in their understanding of the pastoral challenges faced by the local church in appreciating and connecting with those impacted by post-Christendom spiritualities and its approach to the spiritual quest.

The final plenary session for the third day was that of Dr. Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College who discussed the church’s earliest theologians and apologists and how they responded to the religious movements of their culture in the first centuries of the Christian era. Dr. McDermott’s presentation was a reminder for the church to consider all of the resources at her disposal, including its historical past, in formulating contemporary understandings of and approaches to the new religions.

The final day of the conference involved a panel discussion on the topic of syncretism and contextualization in missions. Participants included Ross Clifford, Gerald McDermott, Gordon Melton, Terry Muck, and Ole Skjerbaek Madsen of In the Master’s Light in Denmark, with John Morehead serving as panel moderator. This panel looked at the significance of syncretism in intercultural engagement and the communication of the gospel. It defined the terms and issues involved, considered syncretism that takes place in American and Western church contexts that is often not recognized, and while urging caution in contextualization in light of syncretistic possibilities the opposite danger of under-contextualization for fear of syncretism was also noted.

In addition to the plenary sessions a number of parallel sessions were held throughout the conference. These were presented by plenary speakers as well as by other conference attendees, including many students of Trinity International University. Parallel session topics included looking at the neo-spiritual milieus, new approaches to understanding Mormonism, American Buddhism, possible spiritual aspects of hip hop, the Druze, new religious movements in Illinois, a pneumatological contribution to a theology of religions, Burning Man Festival as new spiritual outlet, and Western Christianity.

Another facet of the conference was the meeting of the Lausanne issue group on postmodern spiritualities and new religions in connection with the consultation. Group members from five countries met to discuss the history of the issue group since 2004 and its ongoing accomplishments and activities, including the Trinity Consultation associated with the work of the issue group.

The content of the Trinity Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities will soon be available as part of an educational resource that will include video sessions and a training guide. This resource will be of value to Christian academic institutions as well as churches and will be made available in the near future. You can see the lectures online by clicking on the Course Lectures link at Sacred Tribes Journal.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Traveling to Trinity International University Conference

Tomorrow morning I leave for Deerfield, Illinois and the international conference on new religions and post-Christendom spiritualities at Trinity International University. I will be out of town through Sunday and as a result will not be blogging. The plenary sessions for this conference will be made available over the Internet via live webcast. Click here for the details.

Look here next week for posts related to conference reflections.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Coffeehouse Theology: Helpful Book Brings Together Theology and Culture

I was asked to partcipate in a blog tour for the new book Coffeehouse Theology (Navpress, 2008) by Ed Cyzewski, and after looking over the book I was more than pleased to accept the invitation.

Early on in my Christian life in the study of theology I gravitated toward various theologies that developed within the history of the church and complimented this with studies in systematic theology. While I still have great appreciation for these approachs to theology, over the last several years I have been much more concerned with practical theology and missional theology. Coffeehouse Theology is a book in keeping with these approaches to theologizing. Cyzewski devotes eleven chapters to the process of developing a contextual theology, one that brings the teachings of Scripture into ongoing dialogue with church tradition, the voice of the global (and increasingly non-Western) church, as well as culture and the Christian's local context. Cyzewski's inclusion of all of these elements in the process of theologizing, particularly bringing theology into dialogue with culture and listening to the voice of the global church, is refreshing and often neglected in volumes on theology written by Americans.

If any critique were to be offered, Cyzewski's approach to theologizing reminded me of missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen's notion of the "missional helix," a four-strand, interpenetrating and ongoing process wherein theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation come together in a local ministry context. Coffeehouse Theology might have been strengthened by making the connection to Van Rheenen's concept, and by drawing upon illustrations of how this process has worked in the history of Christian missions. It might also have been strenghtened through interation with theologians like Robert Schreiter and his discussion of local or contextualized theologies. But then again, any book can be strengthened, and these concerns should not detract from the many helpful aspects of this volume.

For those who would like to explore Coffeehouse Theology further before consideration of adding this volume to the reading list see the following:

Introduction: http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=2125
Post on Emergent village: http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/why-i-wrote-yet-another-book-on-contextual-theology
Blog Tour Schedule: http://inamirrordimly.com/2008/10/01/the-coffeehouse-theology-blog-tour-schedule/
Ed Cyzewskis's blog: www.inamirrordimly.com

Please take a look at these materials and consider picking up a copy of Coffeehouse Theology. It will serve Christians as a helpful means of better understanding God, Scripture, yourself, and your culture.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Not My Child: Contemporary Paganism, Youth Culture, and Evangelical Monstrosity

In my Internet research recently I discovered a new book that addresses Paganism and youth, Linda Harvey's Not My Child: Contemporary Paganism and New Spirituality (Living Ink Books, 2008). The publisher was kind enough to send a copy for my review, and over the weekend I had an opportunity to thumb through the volume. It includes an introduction and six chapters that present an all too common conservative evangelical perspective on youth interest in Paganism, the core tenets of Paganism, spiritual consequences of Paganism, the dangers of a Pagan lifestyle, and suggestions on what parents can do in interacting with their teen on Paganism in contemporary society.

Unfortunately, this book is just what I feared it would be, yet another alarmist and poorly researched volume that in my view will do little to help Christian parents and young people understand Paganism in America and the West. Some of the problems I noted in the book included alarm bells over aspects of popular culture allegedly influenced by Paganism, including not only the evangelical whipping boy Harry Potterbut also Buffy, Sabrina, and Charmed, and also Internet videogame World of Warcraft, the cartoon and card games Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, Christopher Paolini's dragon fantasy books Eragon and Eldest, and various forms of animation including Sailor Moon and Hellboy. Japanese animation, or anime, was also pointed too as an example of a genre "suffused with sorcery as a core activity." As this book addresses various facets of popular culture unfortunately no effort is made at putting forth a recognition of fantasy and fairytale where all types of mythical creatures exist in a magical context that involve little to no connection to real-world spiritualities and religions and their practices.

The author also decries the formation of various school clubs that are cited as alleged examples of the rise of Paganism and the ways in which it is making inroads into youth culture. These include anime clubs, Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, and the card game Magic: The Gathering clubs.

In one section of the book subtitled "Pagan Rites vs. Christian Rights" conflicts in the public square between Christianity and organizations like the ACLU and the People for the American Way are deplored, and there is mention of the Veterans Administration decision to allow pentacle symbols on gravestones for Pagan soldiers, but this is framed as if preferential treatment is given to Paganism while Christianity is losing ground. There is no mention of Christianity's continuing dominance in the public square, or acknowledgement that Christians might consider supporting pentagram headstones for Pagans out of a sense of fairness and respect for the burial rights/rites of others.

In one especially disconcerting section of the book, under the subtitle "Reimagining Western Civilization," the author discusses the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts as an example of where "an increasingly disproportionate amount of class time is spent on subjects that distort history." Unfortunately, neither the brief discussion on this topic nor the bibliographical materials cited to support it give much evidence of depth or breadth in consideration of this unfortunate aspect of American Christian history, and the author never offers an apology for the inappropriate actions of her spiritual forebears that continue to impact Pagans and Witches and Christian relations with them.

In her discussion of the dangers of Paganism Harvey points toward her concerns over the "explosion in 'body modification" as a shift, in her view, toward a more tribal form of culture. One of the forms of body modification that concerns Harvey is piercing, and yet I wonder whether the author herself, or perhaps her children, have their ears pierced and yet they don't think twice about such practices or connect them to tribalism and Paganism. Harvey is correct in noting that there is a retribalization going on in the West, and that the growing interest in body modification is significant, but more sober assessments of the cultural social significance of such trends are needed that move beyond the alarmist tone adopted by Harvey. (For an interesting video documentary analysis of this topic [defined differently than Harvey has mind] see Modern Tribablism: Uncovering America's Primitive Soul (low-fi filmworks, 2001); and for an academic exploration see Michel Maffesoli, The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society [Sage Publications Limited, 1996].)

As her chapter on the dangers of Paganism continue Harvey includes a discussion of Burning Man Festival:
"Amid exhibits of avant garde art and sculpture are drumming, drugs, chaotic music, and sexual abandon. There are no rules, except the most minimal to ensure safety. The climax is the burning of a gigantic person figure in a rite of simulated pagan worship."
Unfortunately, the only source Harvey cites for her research on Burning Man is a reference to the festival's website. No further bibliographical sources are cited, including the few academic explorations of the festival and alternative culture. Harvey gives no indication of having engaged in participant observation for her research on the festival either. Thus, it is not surprising to see the mischaracterization of the festival with an emphasis on the more salacious aspects that tend to surface in sensationalized media treatments. Sadly, Harvey has followed the trend of the media and has not taken the time to dig deeper as to the variety of meanings of the festival or what its increasing and continued popularity might say back to Christians, particularly in light of the feelings of some Burners that this alternative culture represents an alternative to "Christian-inspired, bore me to death" society.

Evangelicals and the Monsters We Create

I was seriously disappointed by this book, and when I considered that another recent book by evangelicals in the form of Generation Hex (Harvest House, 2008) comprise but the latest of a long line of shallow and sensationalist treatments of Paganism, it led me to reflect on evangelicals and the monsters we create. Jeffrey Cohen edited a book titled Monster Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 1994) with the idea that "Monsters provide a key to understanding the culture that spawned them. So argue the essays in this wide-ranging and fascinating collection that asks the question, What happens when critical theorists take the study of monsters seriously as a means of examining our culture?"

Just like other parts of society we evangelicals in our subculture create our own monsters. One of our leading monsters at present seems to be Paganism. Islam and homosexuality are other creatures in our laboratory. I wonder why we create them. That we do can hardly be denied when we consider the plethora of books we write on the topic and the sensationalist tone that often accompanies them.

One of the tricky things about monsters is that they often come back to haunt their creators. Sometimes they ask us some thorny questions too. Consider Frankenstein's monster, stitched together from corpses by his master as a means of empowerment. Dr. Frankenstein is quickly repulsed by his creation for which he wishes to take no responsibility. The rest of Mary Shelley's story is devoted the disastrous results of Frankenstein's creation, not only in Frankenstein's decision to create such life, but also in his later refusal to take responsibility for it. At one point the creature asks the docttor why he was created. If our production of monsters in film, television, and books tells us something about ourselves, to the extent we are willing to be critically reflective, what does evangelical monstrous creation and resultant fear of stereotypical Paganism tell us about ourselves? I'm afraid if we reflect on this monster we may not like the answers.