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:

Post on Emergent village:
Blog Tour Schedule:
Ed Cyzewskis's blog:

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.

Friday, October 03, 2008

LDS Religious Disaffiliation Narratives

In my continuing research in religious studies I have found the sociological material on religious affiliation of great interest and help. The material on religious disaffiliation is just as helpful, and evangelicals might consider the implications of some of this material in their understanding of new religions and their interations with their adherents.

In my interactions with a Latter-day Saint I recently came across two academic articles, including Stan L. Albrecht and Howard M. Bahr, "Patterns of Religious Disaffiliation: A Study of Lifelong Mormon Converts, and Former Mormons," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22/4 (Dec. 1983): 366-79, and another, Howard A. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, "Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism" from the same publication, 28/2 (Jun. 1989): 180-200. According to the former article, some 22% of those who left Mormonism became Roman Catholics, and only 5% bcame "Baptist, Born-Again Christian." In addition, the majority, 42%,  appear not to join any Christian church, including evangelical ones, but instead opt for various forms of atheism or agnosticism. Richley Crapo's research from 2007 reports differently in that while the largest segment of former Mormons identify with nonbelief, 34% identified with Protestantism and 22% with Roman Catholicism.

While some readers may scoff at such studies given their publication in the 1980s, similar findings were reported recently at the recent Sunstone Symposium meeting in Salt Lake City. In the session titled "Purposeful Strangers: Examining Ex-Mormon Narratives and Reasons People Give for Leaving the Church" involving a paper by Seth Payne and a response by Ryan Wimmer, their research confirms that of the 1980s studies. This presentation touches on sociological studies in religious disaffiliation, secular anti-Mormon critiques of Mormonism, evangelical counter-cult critiques, and ex-Mormon narratives. Several elements of this presentation (available on CD or in MP3 from Sunstone) are noteworthy.

First, the presenters note that no recent scientific survey work has been done to confirm why people leave the LDS Church or the religious or irreligious direction their lives take after their departure. This is significant in that evangelicals are prone to make statements about the effectiveness of theological and rational apologetics aimed at "worldview annihilation" in regards to Mormons which then allegedly leads to migration into evangelical churches. Although some religious migration undoubtedly takes place, such claims as to why and the numbers of people involved in the process are merely anecdotal, and my hope is that funding can be found for scientific surveys that can provide good data for a better understanding of the religious disaffiliation process in this context.

Second, even without good, current scientific data, as noted above, scientific research from the past, and more recent informal research, indicates that those who do leave the LDS Church are more likely to become atheistic and hostile to all forms of religion, including and particularly Christianity. Rather than ex-Mormons for Jesus, often they become ex-Mormons for atheism.

Third, another interesting facet of the Sunstone seminar was that secular "anti-Mormon" critiques tend to be more prevalent than evangelical ones, and that many of the secular arguments against Mormonism can be turned against traditional Christianity. For example, while evangelicals are quick to cite the "secular" argument of DNA against aspects of Book of Mormon genetics, many of the same scientists quoted in a popular video on this topic could argue against popular interpretations of the Genesis story in regards to human origins.

Fourth, Payne makes the important observation that while the General Authorities inform the faith of Latter-day Saints they do not dictate it. Thus, we should expect to find diversity and heterogeneity in Mormon faith and practice rather than the homogeneity often assumed by evangelicals on a popular level.

Fifth, another interesting aspect of the study was a discussion of how ex-Mormon narratives take on a distinctive flavor that need to be studied by scholars carefully in order to understand them and the dynamics that inform them. One area I would like to see included in future survey research is how evangelical counter-cult depictions of Mormonism shape ex-Mormon concepts of Mormonism and the LDS Church.

In my estimation the body of literature on religious disaffiliation has much to say to evangelicals seeking to understand those in new religions. It can help us understand why people join particular groups, why they choose to disaffiliate with some, reaffiliate with others, and many times never to affiliate with organized religion again. It can also provide a means of critique for evangelical assumptions about the efficacy and appropriateness of their critical interactions with Latter-day Saints.