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?