Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Halos and Avatars Available for Pre-Order

The book Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God (Westminster John Knox Press), edited by Craig Detweiler of Pepperdine University, will be available for shipping in January, and pre-orders can be placed now through distributors like Amazon.com. The editor's introduction can be read here. The product description is as follows:

Craig Detweiler’s collection of up-to-the-minute essays on video games’ religious themes is for gamers, parents, pastors, media scholars, and theologians—virtually anyone who has dared to consider the ramifications of modern society’s obsession with video games. And there is a wealth of material to explore. From a feminist reading of the Left Behind video game to an examination of bioethics and theology in controversial games such as BioShock, this book takes on an exploding genre in popular culture. Detweiler’s well-researched work features interviews with the creators of some of today’s most popular games, who discuss their creative process and some of the deeper issues they seek to address. Essayists run the gamut from ESPN’s Matt Kitchen to Fuller Seminary’s Daniel Hodge.

Introduction: Halos and Avatars by Craig Detweiler

Section 1: Playing Games with God
1. From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrative Storytelling? by Chris Hansen
2. Ultima IV: Stimulating the Religious Quest by Mark Hayse
3. The Play Is the Thing: Interactivity from Bible Fights to Passions of the Christ by Rachel Wagner
4. Islamogaming: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us) by Kutter Callaway

Section 2: Halos
6. Myst and Halo: A Conversation with Rand Miller and Marty O'Donnell by Lisa Swain
7. Madden Rules: Sports and the Future of Competitive Video Games by Matthew Kitchen
8. Poets, Posers, and Guitar Heroes: Virtual Art for a Virtual Age by Andrew McAlpine
9. BioShock to the System: Smart Choices in Video Games by Kevin Newgren

Section 3: Avatars
10. 'Til Disconnection Do We Part: The Initiation and Wedding Rite in Second Life by Jason Shim
11. Role Playing: Toward a Theology for Gamers by Dan White Hodge
12. Cybersociality: Connecting Fun to the Play of God by John W. Morehead

Conclusion: Born to Play by Craig Detweiler

Appendix: Beyond "Turn that Thing Off!" Elevating the Gaming Conversation between Parents & Kids by Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin

"Detweiler and company add gaming to the growing field of religion and media studies. This groundbreakingbook includes spirituality, ethics, and theology in an analytic toolkit designed for parents and players as well as scholars and seekers.”
—Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication

“Every parent, every gamer, every pastor needs to get Craig Detweiler’s superb collection of essays ASAP. Your ability to connect to a digital culture depends on it.”
—Leonard Sweet, Professor of Evangelism at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey; and Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon

“Detweiler moves beyond the tired debate of whether video games are good or evil, probing a deeper, more interesting question: Where is God in the world of games?”
—David Thomas, author of “Video Game Reviews,” distributed by King Features Syndicate. He teaches critical video game theory at the University of Colorado, Denver

“As humanity becomes increasingly enmeshed with the interactive and the digital, we will need our spirit guides. Read this book to develop a balanced and informed sense of the way that the Spirit and the Game are starting to interact.”
—Edward Castronova, Associate Professor and Director of the Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University, and cofounder of www.terranova.blogs.com

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sacred, Celebrity and Theological Challenge

An excerpt from Gary Laderman's Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (New York & London: The New Press, 2009), p. 81:
"For many Christians, the fear that Jesus Christ is not the only truly divine celebrity, the sole source for true sacrality for the modern world, is an ongoing challenge to contemporary theology which has found itself increasingly displaced by and ill-equipped to deal with an Oprah or a Valentino, let alone a Bruce, Marilyn, or Elvis. The confusion and fear over the commingling of sacred and secular, and the possibility that people have multiple religious identities and identifications, some of which do not require a monotheistic God, is expressed in public culture through diatribe and jeremiads, sermonizing and, in some cases, soul-searching reflection."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Mormonism, Myths, and the Old Testament

Students of religion are aware that the religions differ on their understanding of the creation, and related to it, their views on the nature of the transcendent or the divine. This is certainly the case with evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. Both groups view the cosmos as the creation of God, but differ dramatically on their understanding of both the nature of the cosmos and the creator. Interestingly, they move conceptually in very different ways on this topic.

For evangelicals the cosmos is finite and dependent upon God for its origins and continuing existence. They differ on the degree of evolutionary development possible or actual within the cosmos on a number of levels (as evident in the debates between theistic evolutionists, progressive creationists, and young-earth creationists). Evangelicals also conceive of God as distinct, transcendent, and "other" in relation to the cosmos, existing as eternal and possessing "aseity," or non-contingency in relation to the cosmos or anything else for his existence.

By contrast Latter-day Saints move in very different conceptual circules in regards to the cosmos and the divine. For them matter is eternal and God is viewed as the creator in the sense of organizing matter into the shape of the cosmos. God himself is related to the cosmos not only as organizer, but also as a contingent and material being who has gone through a process of evolution and development, just as all human beings may experience.

Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints have debated these differing views of creation and creator for quite some time, both on philosophical and theological levels. While this level of discussion is important, in my view an even more significant aspect is missed in these discussions, that of myth. Robert Ellwood discusses the importance of myth:
[Myth] encodes in story the fundamental principles: its social organization and way of life; its essential rituals, taboos, and other institutions; its dreams and its fears. We need to always remember that a myth is not just a story; it is also architecture, music, ritual, art, people's names, the organization of society. More than '"ordinary" stories, however good or profound, real myths sets up a whole network of associations that may deeply dye many area of one's life.
Every religion has its myths, its powerful stories that include those of origins. These are important not only for the doctrines and theology that are developed out of them, but also for there explanatory power, and perhaps even more importantly, for the emotional impact they have on the individual, and by extension, their religious culture. The creation stories of Genesis represent the Hebrew creation myth that told them how their covenant-making God was also the creator of the cosmos and the people of the surrounding nations. This creation myth was later shared by the Christians as they became a separate and distinct subculture arising out of Judaism, and similarly, it became the foundation for the creation myth of the Mormon people as they arose out of more traditional forms of Christianity.

The point to be taken away from this post is that we must recognize the underlying significance of the creation myths to our respective religious cultures, and it is the power of these myths and not merely the doctrines derived from them that result in our strong convictions and disagreements on these matters. For example, because of their creation myth, evangelicals are scandalized by any suggestion that God might be material and evolve like the cosmos. For Latter-day Saints this is the most natural of perspectives because it flows from their creation myth. By focusing our discussions between our religious communities on the doctrines of creation and creator without connecting them to their respective myths we miss an essential element of understanding the emotive and intellectual power of our creation stories.

I'd like to make a suggestion that might provide some important tools for equipping evangelicals to be better prepared for addressing this issue. In 2010 Latter-day Saints will be studying the Old Testament. Evangelicals can pursue the same focus of study in order to better understand this portion of their Scriptures, and to better prepare them for discussion with Latter-day Saints. As a resource I recommend a resource to help with this in the form of John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Baker Academic, 2006). This book is helpful in that it paints a picture of the ancient near eastern context of the Old Testament as a corrective to evangelical assumptions that may color our (mis)interpretations formed by modernity in the West, and the creation-evolution and inerrancy debates. Among other topics Walton discusses the concepts of the world, the heavens, temples, and even magic and omens. A companion volume that connects the Hebrew creation story to the mythic is Robert Ellwood's fine introductory overview of the topic in his book Myth: Key Concepts in Religion (Continuum, 2008).

I hope a consideration of myth, and fresh perspectives on the Old Testament might help add new dimensions to our dialogue and understanding in the new year.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Laderman: Expanding Our Concept of the Sacred

I was recently looking through past articles posted at Religion Dispatches and found one I thought I'd draw attention to here. The article is by Gary Laderman, a scholar I have mentioned here previously. Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University, and the author of Sacred Matters, with the long but telling subtitle of Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (The New Press, 2009). Laderman's work in religion dovetails with my own interest in spirituality and pop culture and much of what he has to say in Sacred Matters could likewise be applied to phenomenon I have researched such as Burning Man Festival and hyper-real spiritualities.

The article is titled "ARIS Survey Gets 'Religion,' Misses Boat." It's point of departure is the American Religious Identification Survey . Laderman notes how various segments of American culture presented certain features of the survey, but in the process missed a significant facet of how Americans construct their religious identity and engage in a spiritual quest. Survey takers tend to think of religion in certain traditional categories related to God, Scripture, and participation in institutional worship settings. But Laderman suggests this misses a large part of the picture:
What if there were more to religious life in America than belief in God? More holy possibilities than those outlined in the so-called “Great Religions of the Book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—or other sacred texts like the Upanishads in Hinduism or the Tibetan Book of the Dead in Buddhism?

What if religion is better understood as a ubiquitous feature of cultural life, expressed through and inspired by basic, universal facts of life and fundamentally biological phenomena in human experience: suffering and ecstasy, reproduction and aging, family and conflict, health and death.

If traditional ways of thinking about religion miss an essential part of religious practice today what then might contemporary spirituality look like? Laderman continues:
So what if the sacred is not only, or even primarily, tied to theology or religious identity labels like more, less, and not religious? We might see how religious practices and commitments emanate from unlikely sources today: science and the pursuit of truth; music and the social ecstasy of concerts; violence and the glorification of warfare; celebrity worship and technological wonders; heroic doctors and evil villains; funereal spectacles and sexual compulsions; the Super Bowl and sacrificed soldiers; Elvis and drugs, both legal and illegal.
Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Laderman's suggestion it is worth considering. Perhaps we are missing out on understanding a significant part of America's spiritual quest because we're asking the wrong questions. And we're asking the wrong questions because we're not thinking about the sacred in the ways that increasing numbers of people are doing so. Perhaps the church needs to start asking new questions and think more holistically about what the sacred encompasses.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Questions From a Cup of Coffee

When I went to Burning Man Festival a few years ago one of the more interesting facets was a display of pictures of people holding up their written responses to the question "Why do you do what you do?" I think this is a healthy question to ask ourselves, and one which we should ask more often, particularly in church contexts.

I was reminded of this as I drove down I-15 in Utah and saw a billboard put up by a local church. The caption read "Church Caffeinated," and between the two words was the image of a large cup of coffee. My reaction to the billboard was a mixture of disbelief and confusion. For those outside of my Utah context some background might be helpful in understanding my reaction.

Nearly 70 percent of Utah's population is Latter-day Saint, and this religious subculture has a number of distinctive practices, one of which is a dietary guideline known as the Word of Wisdom that encourages members to avoid "strong drink," usually interpreted as caffeinated and alcoholic drinks. With this in mind it's not difficult to see how the connection between a local church and a taboo drink might not be well received by the local religious population. To feel the emotional force of this consider a billboard put up in the Bible belt by a local Rastafarian group with the image of a marijuana cigarette and the words "church high" used as a means of attracting new members.

In light of these considerations I wonder why the church who sponsored the "church caffeinated" billboard would advertise itself in a way that would put itself at odds with a significant religious practice of the dominant religious culture. Throughout history, as the church has expressed itself in different cultures those that are the most meaningful to these cultures are those that are contextualized, or framed in ways that reduce the "cultural distance" between those "planting" the church and those who will make up its participants.

I understand this is a fairly large church for Utah so I am trying to come to grips with their advertising audience and rationale. Perhaps the church isn't trying to communicate to the general religious culture, but instead is trying to reach evangelicals looking for a more contemporary church experience. Another possibility is that the church is aiming a portion of this marketing message toward disaffected former Latter-day Saints who might gravitate toward a symbol that opposes their former religious culture. Even with these possibilities in mind as explanations it seems curious to me why a church would use such a marketing approach, even aimed at these possible constituencies, that puts itself at odds with the local religious culture.

Maybe its time for the church in general, even when it thinks its doing something relevant and hip, to start asking itself "Why do I do what I do?" In so doing we can bring our communication strategies, and our theology, into dialogue with the cultures in which we live.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Graham St. John: Technomad and Global Raving Countercultures

While I was conducting research for my M.A. thesis on Burning Man Festival, one of the more helpful sources was the Australian scholar, Graham St. John who did research on a similar countercultural festival called ConFest. Graham has continued his research over the last several years and has focused on rave culture. Below is an announcement concerning his new book on the topic, Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox, 2009).

"Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures is the most wide-ranging and detailed of all the books on rave. More than the study of a musical movement or genre, Technomad offers an alternate history of cultural politics since the 1960s, from hippies and Acid Tests through the sound systems and 'vibe-tribes' of the 1990s and beyond. Like Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, Technomad makes unexpected but entirely convincing connections between people, movements and events. Like Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, St John's book introduces us to unknown heroes, committed geniuses and genuine revolutionaries. Beautifully written, with a genuinely international perspective on electronic dance music culture, Technomad is one of the best books on music I've read in some time."

- Professor Will Straw
, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University

Book description:

A cultural history of global electronic dance music countercultures, Technomad explores the pleasurable and activist trajectories of post-rave culture. The book documents an emerging network of techno-tribes, exploring their pleasure principles and cultural politics. Attending to sound system culture, electro-humanitarianism, secret sonic societies, teknivals and other gatherings, intentional parties, revitalisation movements and counter-colonial interventions, Technomad investigates how the dance party has been harnessed for transgressive and progressive ends - for manifold freedoms. Seeking freedom from moral prohibitions and standards, pleasure in rebellion, refuge from sexual and gender prejudice, exile from oppression, rupturing aesthetic boundaries, re-enchanting the world, reclaiming space, fighting for "the right to party," and responding to a host of critical concerns, electronic dance music cultures are multivalent sites of resistance.

Drawing on extensive ethnographic, netographic and documentary research, Technomad details the post-rave trajectory through various local sites and global scenes, with each chapter attending to unique developments in the techno counterculture: e.g. Spiral Tribe, teknivals, psytrance, Burning Man, Reclaim the Streets, Earthdream. The book offers an original, nuanced theory of resistance to assist understanding of these developments. This cultural history of hitherto uncharted territory will be of interest to students of cultural, performance, music, media, and new social movement studies, along with enthusiasts of dance culture and popular politics.


1. Introduction: The Rave-olution?

2. Sound System Exodus: Tekno-Anarchy in the UK and Beyond

3. Secret Sonic Societies and Other Renegades of Sound

4. New Tribal Gathering: Vibe-Tribes and Mega-Raves

5. The Technoccult, Psytrance and the Millennium

6. Rebel Sounds and Dance Activism: Rave and the Carnival of Protest

7. Outback Vibes: Dancing Up Country

8. Hardcore, You Know the Score

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Joseph Smith Jr.: Possibilities Beyond the True/False Prophet Dichotomy

How should evangelicals understand Joseph Smith Jr., founding prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Typically, with their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy and the idea of true prophet vs. false prophet, evangelicals have tended to view Smith through the lens of heresy. While such considerations should not be discarded by evangelicals, they might also be understood as limiting in terms of what we might understand about Smith himself as well as the Mormon faith he helped initiate.

A helpful volume is available that provides additional interpretive possibilities. It is Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, edited by Reid L. Neilson & Terryl L. Givens (Oxford University Press, 2009). This is a multi-contributor volume that attempts to move beyond the true/false prophet dichotomy. As noted in the Introduction:
One challenge in assessing the historical importance and relevance of Joseph Smith's thought has been related to the difficulty of moving beyond the question that arrests all conversation - the question that asks whether Smith was a prophet or fraud. These essays are rich in evidence that a variety of interpretive strategies can bypass this question in order to explore Smith's influence, historical impact, parallels with literary figures, and situatedness in new religious contexts. In addition, at least three of the essays directly address the challenge of transcending the insider/outsider schism in Joseph Smith studies (Maffly-Kipp, Mouw, and Hudson); their authors propose their own solutions.
Evangelicals will most likely be interested in Richard Mouw's contribution to this anthology with his chapter "The Possibility of Joseph Smith: Some Evangelical Probings." Here Mouw takes his cue from a late nineteenth century work by Herman Bavinck, described by by Mouw as "a staunch defender of Calvinist orthodoxy." Writing to fellow Calvinists about the need for openness in considering Islam, as well as other non-Christian religions, Bavinck wrote (as cited by Mouw):
In the past the study of religions was pursued exclusively in the interest of dogmatics and apologetics. The founders of [non-Christian] religions, like Mohammed, were simply considered imposters, enemies of God, and accomplices of the devil. But ever since those religions have become more precisely known, this interpretation has proved to be untenable; it clashed both with history and psychology.
Mouw was surprised by Bavinck's views. He writes,
Bavinck's observation that Islam has "become more precisely known" is even more poignant now than when he offered it in his nineteenth-century context. For one thing, we have come to understand better Islam as a system of thought. In the early days, Islam was seen primarily as a political and military threat--a circumstance wherein it is always tempting to demonize one's enemies. If, however, we are given an opportunity to study and dialogue with the other group's actual teachings in a leisurely manner, we must wrestle with the question of how those teachings have actually inspired deep commitments in the lives of sane people who sincerely accept their teachings.
Mouw goes on to argue that Bavinck's approach provides precedent for Christians in the more positive analysis of non-Christian religions. Moreover, Mouw argues that this same approach can and should be applied by evangelicals in their assessments of Joseph Smith Jr., thus providing broader interpretive possibilities.

For those evangelicals willing to accept such a posture, this volume provides a number of interesting insights into Mormonism's origins for reflection. For example, Mouw notes that Smith's theology "emerged in an environment shaped significantly by the high Calvinism of New England Puritanism." Catherine Albanese notes the metaphysical influences in Smith's culture in the form of hermeticism and Swedenborgianism. Richard Brodhead places Smith's conceptions of prophethood in the context of "forms of prophetism in the American 1830s." Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen suggest that "an essential distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism -- [is] the blend of the numinous and the mystic" in poles of experience. And Laurie Maffly-Kipp encourages the exploration of the LDS Church's temple rituals not only from the perspective of Masonic influences, but also "as a radical protest against the philosophical premises of Protestant revivalism."

In the opinion of this researcher, while evangelicals should not jettison the true/false prophet dichotomy within certain theological frameworks, this should not be understood as the only context in which to evaluate or understand Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Broader interpretive possibilities exist that will enrich our understanding of the origins, development, and continuing appeal of Smith and his teachings. Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries provides evangelicals with a template and possibilities that enlarge our views of a worldwide religion, and the faith of our neighbors and friends.

Friday, November 06, 2009

New Book: Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon

Academic approaches to studying magic and the occult: examining scholarship into witchcraft and paganism, ten years after Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

A collection of essays edited by Dave Evans and Dave Green
Contributions by: Ronald Hutton, Amy Hale, Sabina Magliocco, Dave Green, Henrik Bogdan, Phillip Bernhardt-House, R.A. Priddle, Geoffrey Samuel, Caroline Tully & Dave Evans.

Ten years on from the groundbreaking Triumph of the Moon: A history of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Professor Ronald Hutton, a selection of worldwide scholars, some ‘big names; some newer in the field, with nearly two centuries of hands-on pagan research experience between them, present a collection of researches inspired by, deriving from or just celebrating the immense impact of that seminal book. The topics cover many historical periods, many academic disciplines and it provides a wealth of information of use to academic scholar and interested freelance reader alike. Includes an extended essay by Ronald Hutton on the history of such scholarship, the state of it today and some of his thoughts for the future.

“Those engaging in Pagan Studies, provided that they speak and write in sufficiently public a manner, are inevitably going to mould the traditions that they are studying. Whether they are concerned with the history of forms of contemporary Paganism, or with their present nature, their work is going to have a lasting and continuing impact on the identities which Pagans assume and embody, and the manner in which they relate to society as a whole. I hope that this book will be read by people within the university system, and also by both Pagans and curious general readers: and my most important message is that all of them matter to the way in which Paganism is to develop in the next few decades, and probably for much longer: we are all weavers of the tapestry of time”- Ronald Hutton

ISBN 978-0-9555237-5-5 / 232 pages UK price £14.99 /US $22.50
Buy online from amazon.com

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Debate, Dialogue and Sales Scripts

Eric Reitan has written an interesting article for religion dispatches that touches on a documentary called Collision which presents the debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson. The article has implications not only for evangelicals as they engage atheists, but also in their engagement with those with religious commitments.

Reitan laments that as a result of the debates between Hitchens and Wilson nothing really happens to change the participants. He then goes on to describe why:

Put another way, Wilson advocates going into debates armed with a range of rehearsed responses and rejoinders—a flexible script, if you will. I am reminded of the scripts that novice salespeople are given, scripts which including the array of “rebuttals” they’re supposed to use in response to the various reasons customers might offer for not buying a product. For the salesperson armed with this flexible script, the human vulnerability of the single mother (one who expresses concern both for her children’s safety and for her precarious financial situation, for example) becomes a trigger for a set of prepared arguments that will ultimately result in a payment plan for a state-of-the-art, overpriced set of fire detectors.

One of the consequences of such scripts is that you don’t need to engage in an authentically personal way with the other individual and what she is saying. You just have to learn which objections or attacks to pluck from your toolkit in response to various challenges.

When it comes to selling a product, the purpose of such a script is clear: to keep the salesperson focused on making the sale, regardless of what the potential customer might say. But what is the purpose of using such a script in a debate? It certainly isn’t for the debaters to learn from one another, to be challenged by new ideas so that they might rethink and refine their own convictions. In a very real sense, it’s about preventing such transformations. When debaters rely on a flexible script, a challenge never triggers the question, “Could my opponent be right about this?” Instead, it sends them digging in their toolkit for the right retort. And when debaters lose, they are inspired to refine or expand their scripts, rather than the difficult work of revising the beliefs the scripts are intended to defend.

I think this insight is significant, and evangelicals need to reflect on it in various contexts. In my own experience I have participated in public debates with an atheist on three separate ocassions, and I will never do this again. Why? Because I felt like there was no interaction between my "opponent" and I, and no soul searching on the part of those in the audience. After the debate both "sides" went away feeling confirmed in their respective views.

I also think the debate format is what evangelicals assume or smuggle into their expectations when watching public dialogues between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. As a result such events become the kind of interaction where we each bring our personal scripts (and we hope our dialogue/debate representative has too) and do very little listening, and surely very little modification of our understanding of the beliefs and practices of others, or our own views as well.

The kind of dialogue that is needed is that advocated by Eric Sharpe: "The best dialogue is one in which those old-fashioned virtues of courtesy and mutual respect are allowed to have the upper hand of what our culture seems to be best at: points-scoring and vilifying the oppostion."

How might we engage in forms of interreligious dialogue that move beyond the sales scripts and preaching to our choir?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Christianity Today: Mormons, Evangelicals, and "Most Improbable Dialogue"

Richard Ostling, co-author with his wife Joan of Mormon America, has written an article on evangelical-Mormon dialogue for Christianity Today magazine. The article is titled "Most Improbable Dialogue" and it is found at htis link. The thoughtful Mormon blogger Aquinas has posted his commentary and corrections to some of Ostling's portrait of Mormon teaching at Summa Theologica. I would add that dialogues are also taking place on a community level, such as the one have been involved with for two years now, and which is poised for expansion. In my view these grassroots level dialogues are significant, perhaps even more than the academic dialogues that have been taking place for several years.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jan Shipps: Mormonism and the Primacy of Myth

Today I received a few books that are important in my PhD dissertation research on Mormon sacred narrative. One is Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition by Jan Shipps (University of Illinois Press, 1987). I thumbed through the Index and found the following excerpt relevant to my dissertation focus on myth, and through it another piece of confirmation as to my direction. In the chapter "History as Text" Shipps discusses parallels between the rise of Christianity and Mormonism and how distinctions are properly made in understanding them. In this context she writes:

For the purposes of this discussion, the most economical and unambiguous means of making such distinctions is developing definitions that all refer to the usual categories or dimensions - mythological, doctrinal, ritual/liturgical, ethical, social/institutional, and experiential - that scholars have developed over the years to facilitate discussion of religion. Here however, these dimensions need to be ranked so that the most significant is the mythological rather than the experiential (the classification very often receiving greatest emphasis in studies of specific religious traditions, because it is the one that includes the reports of direct encounters with the sacred that are turned into the founding stories of new religious movements), the doctrinal (the area so often stressed in apologetic works), or the social/institutional (the dimension that was the main focus o both the sociological and historical study of religion for many years and the one that remains the primary focus of much of the sociological study of the topic). Moreover, besides elevating the mythological dimension to primacy in this instance, it is extremely important to keep in mind that when it is used in religious studies, mythological does not refer to fairy tales, fables, and other forms of patent untruth. It refers to story, to accounts of beginnings (holding out possibilities both of devastation and renewal), of sin and redemption, of heroes, heroines, and life lived out in the larger-than-life "oldest days" when divinity is said to have dealt with humanity face to face, providing a foundation for culture.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween Guest on The Drew Marshall Show

Update: The archived program can be found here.

On Halloween I will be a guest, along with noted new religions scholar Gordon Melton, on The Drew Marshall Program, "Canada's Most Listened To Spiritual Talk Show." We will be discussing the paranormal. Information on the show's broadcast times, how listener's can call in when the program is on the air, and how to listen to this show once it is put in the archives, can be found at the show's website.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Satan and America

I recently connected with W. Scott Poole, an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He has written a book titled Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), and the following essay is adapted from that book. It originally appeared in The Post and Courier.

Is the president of the United States the Antichrist? Is there a powerful supernatural, and sinister supernatural, being who fights by the side of America's enemies? Will thousands of agents of Satan be active this Halloween, prowling the autumn night in search of victims?

While some might think ideas such as these belong in 15th-century Europe, they have played a significant role in the political rhetoric and cultural anxieties of contemporary America.

A September poll taken among New Jersey Republicans found that 35 percent believed either that Barack Obama was the Antichrist or were "not sure." In the Iraq War, during the assault on Fallujah in November 2004, Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl told the BBC that, "The enemy has got a face. He is called Satan and we are going to destroy him." And since the 1970s, rumors about "satanic covens" operating on All Hallows Eve have changed the nature of Halloween celebrations.

Americans have long held this fascination with the devil, so much so that understanding this shadow side to American history helps us understand much about American identity.

The Salem Witch Trials are perhaps the best known, though often misunderstood, examples of belief in Satan influencing public life. What is not generally known is that Salem was not the only outbreak of witch hunting in Colonial America. In the first 100 years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, close to 400 settlers faced accusations as witches. Witch hunts occurred in Virginia in 1706 and as late as 1779 in the newly opened Illinois territory.

Morality movements

In both 18th- and 19th-century America, successive religious revivals swept the nation under the guidance of leaders such as George Whitfield, Charles G. Finney and D.L. Moody. Preaching the central importance of a powerful conversion experience, these leaders also emphasized the dangers of the devil's snare.

By the 1830s and 1840s, the energy from these revivals helped generate numerous movements for reform. These movements, from temperance to abolition, used imagery associated with Satan to rally their troops in a moral crusade.

The Civil War itself became a moment when both sides saw the devil in the shape of their enemies. A pamphlet published by the Ladies Christian Commission, a Northern organization that helped provide support for the Union armies, described how the Union was "working for the downfall of the Antichrist." A writer in Upstate South Carolina called Satan "the first abolitionist."

In the 20th century, the birth and growth of new styles of the Christian faith placed the devil and his doings at the center of their faith and practice. Pentecostalism emerged in the early 20th century as a faith of the downtrodden, a belief that miraculous powers of healing and the language of angels could be alive and active in the modern Christian Church.

This belief in miracles, combined with a sense that these very miracles were signs of the end, also opened the door to the possibility that spiritual evil was alive and well in the world. By the 1970s, entire Pentecostal organizations were devoted to what became known as "deliverance ministries" that promised freedom from demonic powers.

Horror and fear

After America's tumultuous '60s, the popularity of the devil at the movies mirrored the growing religious fascination with his work.

Films such as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" signaled a new kind of scary flick, the "religious horror movie" in which dark spiritual forces became the monster. The films often proved to be fascinating and unsettling to Americans in the unsettled times of the late '60s and early '70s. "The Exorcist" in particular triggered strong reactions, with theater patrons not only screaming but also vomiting, passing out and reporting weeks of sleepless nights.

The combination of religious anxiety and pop culture fascination had some frightening results in the real world. In the 1980s, what scholars are now calling "the satanic panic" seized portions of the population.

Evangelical leaders accused heavy metal musicians of including coded messages in their music that would lead teenagers toward Satan worship. Rumors of active satanic cults kidnapping children became so common that, in 1985, the popular television news magazine "20/20" did an "expose" by Geraldo Rivera called "The Devil Worshippers."

Although deeply flawed in its reporting, network television's willingness to make use of urban legends and rumors brought worries about "Satan worship" to a peak.

A wave of panic and fear mongering ruined the reputations of innocent people. In some cases, law enforcement took these claims seriously, sometimes even making use of so-called "repressed memories" as their primary evidence. So-called "rumor panics" became common at schools and day-care centers.

The "satanic panic" of the 1980s grew out of the nation's long fascination with the devil, the fear and anxiety many Americans had felt since the late '60s, and the era's political conservatism.

The devil inside?

By the mid-1990s, fascination with the devil in popular culture, and popular theology, had reached fever pitch. Horror films such as "Stigmata" and "Devil's Advocate" regularly borrowed religious imagery. The wildly popular "Left Behind" series, authored by Tim Lahaye and Paul Jenkins, portrayed Satan as masterminding a takeover of the world's religions and its political structure at the end of time.

Making sense of the role played by the devil in American history helps make sense of the nation's self-understanding, its sense of identity. At every moment in American history, the devil has been the nation's secret self, the inspiration for witch hunts from Salem to the McCarthy era, a rumor and a panic running through the culture.

The devil we know has been, too often, the devil we have found in our political and cultural enemies.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Out of Our Heads: Challenging Materialist Notions of Consciousness

One of the areas that is of interest to me in theological reflection is the question of human consciousness and all the issues it raises, such as how we can trust our experience of self and the world as real and not illusion. Much of the scientific community explains consciousness as nothing more than the actions of the brain. This assumption is challenged with a book byAlva Noë titled Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (Hill & Wang, 2009). See the discussion of Noë's revolutionary challenge to materialist understandings of consciousness in this religion dispatches article. The book can be ordered via Amazon.com here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"A Pagan Republican Comes Out of the Broom Closet"

Religion dispatches recently included an article by Sarah Pike, religious studies professor at CSU Chico, that discusses a political campaign by a Neopagan in the Republican Party. In "A Pagan Republican Comes Out of the Broom Closet," Pike discusses Dan Halloran's run for a New York City councilman's position. Of course the great surprise in this situation is that the Republican Party is known more for its long associations with conservative evangelical Christianity, not Neopaganism.

Pike concludes her piece with these words:

It would have been impossible to find a Neopagan like Halloran running for political office twenty years ago, when most Neopagans kept their identities carefully guarded for fear of losing jobs or child custody battles. In neighborhoods all over the country, Neopagan communities have been treated suspiciously and outright persecuted by some Christian neighbors, law enforcement, and government agencies. Since for many Americans, the Republican Party is inseparable from conservative Christianity, Neopagans were surprised that the party stood by Halloran, and took it as a sign that not only is the makeup of the religious left and the religious right shifting, but that the country as a whole is becoming more receptive toward their religion.

This development is an interesting one as pluralism continues to shape the public square, including the political landscape. While the positive response of the Republican Party to Halloran's campaign is encouraging, it remains to be seen how conservative evangelicals will react to this.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cosmos as Divine Temple: Applications for Evangelicals

I recently became aware of a book that came out in May of this year. It is by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and it is titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009). The interesting thing about this book for me is that it looks at the literary and cultural context of the ancient Near East and what the Genesis creation narratives would have said to the Hebrews as it reflected their cultural context. This cultural and literary perspective provides the foundation for Walton's argument that the Genesis creation stories are functional rather than material in nature, and that this results in a portrait that is painted of the cosmos as a divine temple.

This volume includes a number of ideas that evangelicals will no doubt find provocative, but are nevertheless worthy of reflection. Consider this intriguing excerpt from Chapter 1, "Genesis is Ancient Cosmology":
Deity pervaded the ancient world. Nothing happened independently of deity. The gods did not "intervene" because that would assume that there was a world of events outside of them that they could step into and out of. The Israelites, along with everyone else in the ancient world, believed instead that every event was the act of deity -- that every plant that grew, every baby born, every drop of rain and every climatic disaster was an act of God. No "natural" law governed the cosmos; deity ran the cosmos or was inherent in it. There were no "miracles" (in the sense of events deviating from the "natural"), there were only signs of the deity's activities (sometimes favorable, sometimes not). The idea that deity got things running then just stood back or engaged himself elsewhere (deism) would have been laughable in the ancient world because it was not even conceivable. As suggested by Richard Bube, if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist. There is nothing "natural" about the world in biblical theology, nor should there be in ours.
I take away from this a few observations. Although Walton and most evangelical readers will consider this thesis in light of the creation/evolution debate, and I think this makes an important contribution in this arena, I would like to see evangelicals make application in two other areas. First, the idea of the creation narratives as a discussion of God's cosmic temple is a reminder of our neglect of a creation theology, including God's temple indwelling of his cosmos and our responsibilities as stewards of the creation. Second, I believe Walton's thesis presents a point of contact for Christian-Pagan dialogue.

I encourage evangelicals to entertain Walton's thesis with an eye toward a number of applications.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Glenn Beck and the Influence of Mormonism

It is quite natural for human beings to bring the totality of what they are and the influences on their lives to bear on their views, whether public or private. This includes their religious views and how they shape their opinions.

Religion dispatches includes an article by Joanna Brooks titled "How Mormonism Built Glenn Beck." The reader can see how the comments following the article reveal disagreements as to how well the author understands Mormonism and its culture, but I point out this article in order to make readers aware of the significance of religious beliefs in the public square in general, and the continuing rise of individuals with a connection to the Mormon faith who are involved in American political discourse in particular.

One significant facet that is missing in Brooks' analysis is Beck's "end times" views which represent an amalgamation of Mormon teaching and pretribulational dispensationalism found in popular books by evangelical "prophecy experts." Such thinking is reflected in Beck's largely pessimistic view of America's economic and political systems.

Readers might also note another facet of Brooks' piece in this comment:

..Beck’s spectacular rise suggests that evangelical conservatives (especially those under 40 who may not remember the anti-Mormon cult crusades of the 1980s) are increasingly willing to set aside their reservations about Mormons when it suits their pragmatic and political interests.
This is a reminder of the fluid nature of both politics and the religious landscape, including evangelicalism. It would seem that the portrait of Mormonism presented in previous decades by certain segments of evangelicalism is waning, as is the priority younger evangelicals give to such conceptualizations.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sacred Tribes Journal: Call for Articles and November Issue Content

This post presents two items related to Sacred Tribes Journal. The first is a call for call for articles, and the second is an announcement concerning a book review in the next issue of the journal due out in November.

First, the call for articles on Religion and Peace:
History demonstrates that incidences of violence are more likely to occur for at least two reasons. First, violence is likely to occur when one group, either minority or not, feels threatened. Second, violent acts will occur to the degree that one group is responsible for social control over another. These tendencies are exacerbated with the “war” rhetoric of fundamentalist movements around the world. Such rhetoric continues to communicate a message that is contrary to the teachings of many religious leaders who are seeking peace. Certainly religious people around the world are facing persecution. One must only recall that 70 million Christians have been martyred in the last 20 centuries; nearly 6 million of those were martyred by other Christians. Approximately 160,000 Christians are martyred each year. However, Christians are not the only religious group experiencing martyrdom. Eighty million Muslims and 20 million Hindus have been martyred for their faith as well. Respect for religious others is critical and should be mutual in order for there to be sustained peace among religious groups. When religious people understand each other as something different than antagonists or detractors opportunities for fruitful conversations open. When we show respect and strive for understanding our voices can be heard once more as a voice of peace and love rather an violence and intolerances. Sacred Tribes Journal would like to focus upcoming issues on religion and peace. Articles should focus on the intersection of religion and peace from explicitly religious perspectives. STJ is interested in articles that represent various faith traditions and their views of peace, practical application of efforts to sustain peace by religions as well as academic and theological studies on peace and religion. If you are interested in submitting an article for consideration, please see the guidelines for contributors. Your submissions can be sent to the editor (mcooper@sacredtribesjournal.org).

And the content for the November issue of the journal will include a book review of The Kingdom of the Occult by Walter Martin, Jill Martin Rische, and Kurt Van Gorden (Thomas Nelson, 2008). The review is written by Dr. Douglas Cowan, Professor of Religious Studies at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Evangelicals Sharing with Mormon Missionaries: A Mormon Perspective

Evangelicals sometimes ask me how to best share their faith with Mormon missionaries when they come knocking. Interestingly, one of the best series of suggestions comes from the thoughtful Mormon blogger, Aquinas, who recently shared his thoughts as he interacts with evangelicals on the topic. His post can be read at his blog Summa Theologica here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Film: "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers"

Today at the New Wine, New Wineskins conference I had the privilege of meeting a lot of great people, including Dan Merchant, producer of the newly released film "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers."

The film's website describes the project as follows:

If you were to meet ten average Americans on the street, nine of them would say they believe in God. So why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?

Dan Merchant put on his bumper-sticker-clad jumpsuit and decided to find out why the Gospel of Love is dividing America. After talking with scores of men and women on streets all across the nation, and also interviewing many well-known active participants in today’s “Culture Wars,” Dan realized that the public discussion of faith doesn’t have to be contentious.

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is a fast-paced, highly engaging documentary that explores the collision of faith and culture in America. After seeing Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, you’ll never talk about faith the same
way again!

The film opened yesterday in select theaters nationwide, and in its attempt to bring Right and Left together, it reminds me of the film Purple State of Mind. I hope I can find Lord, Save Us.. at a theater in Utah.

Halos and Avatars: Possible Cover Design: Update

Update: This book will be available on January 25, 2010 and can be pre-ordered here.

Earlier this year I wrote a chapter for the book Halos and Avatars (Westminster John Knox Press, forthcoming) that touches on video games and digital cultures. The cover is being designed right now. Here's a possibility. What do folks think?

Friday, September 25, 2009

America Bristles Under Pluralism with National Muslim Day of Prayer

This morning various national media outlets are reporting on a National Muslim Day of Prayer in Washington. This is not at all surprising in light of America's religious pluralism, and that minority religious populations are working in the public square for the same types of opportunities of religious expression as the dominant Christian population has had. The Muslim population in America is also becoming more organized and media savvy, and this is exhibited in their desires for a national day of prayer mirroring Christian activities like this. What is surprising is the protest that has been raised against the Muslim prayer activities by Christian leaders and conservatives. Apparently they are calling for these Muslims to repudiate Muslim terrorism during their event, but Muslim spokespersons respond by pointing out that while the acts of terrorism are opposed by their community, it is not appropriate to use a day of prayer for such repudiations. The national day of Muslim prayer, and the protest of Christians in response, is a reminder of the religious pluralism of America and that the conservative Christian community has yet to find a way in which to adequately grapple with this situation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Off to Conference and Multnomah

Tomorrow (Wednesday) I leave for Portland, Oregon to meet with the good folks at Multnomah Biblical Seminary to be a guest lecturer on new religions in their world religions class, to meet with their president to discuss theological education, and to be part of a conference put on by The Institute for Theology of Culture. The conference is Saturday.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Claremont Graduate University's Mormon Studies Program

Two items from the MormonConference.org email update caught my eye:

Father Alexei Smith and Robert Millet: "A Mormon-Catholic Conversation on Priesthood and the Sacraments"

Kristine Haglund: "Exploring Trends in Mormon Studies"

Both events will be held at Claremont Graduate University. Their School of Religion's Mormon Studies events web page can be found here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Suggestions for a More Careful Evangelical Assessment at Halloween

With the approach of October and the Halloween season evangelical websites, blogs and other media will begin to focus in greater measure on Wicca, Neopaganism and other expressions of Western esotericism or "the occult." With this in mind I draw my readers attention to my previous critical interaction with a fairly recent evangelical book on the topic in the form of Generation Hex and here:

For an alternative treatment of this topic I recommend Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega's dialogue book Beyond the Burning Times which I had the privilege of editing.

Readers might also benefit from academic explorations of the topic from my previous interactions with the authors on this blog including The Sign of the Witch, The New Generation Witches, and Teenage Witches.

I hope these suggested resources contribute toward more sober analysis by evangelicals this Halloween/Samhain season.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

New Pagan Census

Helen Berger is currently conducting an online questionnairre in order to update her Pagan Census. Pagan readers of Morehead's Musings are encouraged to click this link and to complete the census.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joseph Laycock: Vampires Today

The academic study of popular culture is an area of great interest for me. I spent some time in this area recently while reading a new book that explores those who adhere to the vampire identity, Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009), by Joseph Laycock. Laycock is an independent scholar and doctoral candidate studying religion and society at Boston University. I spoke with him recently about his new book.

Morehead's Musings: Joseph, thank you for your fine book on an interesting topic. It was a great read and a good piece of scholarship. I'd like to begin our discussion on a personal note. How did the subject of vampires become of interest to you as a research project with your religious studies background?

Joseph Laycock: Vampires are an interesting preoccupation. A personal interest in vampires tends to achieve a greater level of intensity than other types of interests. For instance, I consider myself a “coffee buff” because I own my own grinder. But prior to writing this research, I could not really have called myself a “vampire buff.” I had read a few Anne Rice novels, I enjoyed the occasional vampire movie, and I knew who Bela Lugosi was. But compared to a serious vampire enthusiast I was a poser at best. I had never even seen Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.

Like most people I began with a dim awareness that somewhere in the world there were people who considered themselves vampires. Then in 2006, I began listening to a podcast called Shadowdance. I am interested in popular religion, including esoterica and “new religious movements.” The podcast discusses these areas from the perspective of a practitioner and is really very thought provoking. After listening for a few months, one of the hosts (Michelle Belanger) did a show about her identity as a vampire. She also mentioned a research project that was currently being conducted by the Atlanta Vampire Alliance (AVA). I was living in Atlanta at the time and I decided to contact the AVA. They were friendly but cautious and I began to learn more about their work.

Morehead's Musings: In the Preface of your book you define several important terms. These include "real vampire," "the vampire milieu" and "the vampire community." Can you define these and talk a little about why they are important to understanding contemporary vampires?

Joseph Laycock: The terms “real vampire” and “vampire community” are commonly used by within vampire culture. When someone says that they are a “real vampire,” they do not mean that are actually undead or immortal. Rather, this term is used in contradistinction to “lifestyle vampires.” Lifestyle vampires or “lifestylers” are usually dedicated fans of vampire fiction and enjoy dressing as the undead. Real vampires believe that they are somehow biologically or metaphysically distinct from other people. The key difference is that lifestylers choose their identity while real vampires see their identity as a vampire as essential and unchangeable.

The term “vampire community” (often just “VC” in Internet communications) is a broad label that generally includes anyone who identifies as a vampire. Many different and conflicting ideas of vampirism coexist with the vampire community. Although formal groups exist within the community, it is not an organization or institution. It functions more as an identity group that all vampires are ascribed to. Vampires typically speak about the vampire community in much the same way that gays speak about the gay community or African-Americans speak about the black community.

The term “vampire milieu” was coined for the book and was not commonly used by any vampires I met during my study. Our culture has an evolving pool of ideas about vampires and self-identified vampires reference this milieu to express their identities. To understand real vampires, you have to study the archetypes they are referencing. Confusion arises because popular culture has turned vampires from vile animated corpses to a sort of alluring super-hero. The vampire milieu also includes occult writings about vampires, and theories of holistic health. Vampires may draw on any of this material in forming and describing their ideas. One model of vampirism is often quite different from another, but there remains a sort of family resemblance arising from the vampire milieu.

It is also useful to note that the vampire milieu and the vampire community are distinct entities. For example, vampires that “sparkle in sunshine” are now entrenched within the vampire milieu. However, (as far as I know) the vampire community has had little to do with this trope. This distinction is also important to any discussion of vampires and crime. Occasionally, the criminally insane will develop an obsession with the vampire milieu. One individual believed that an Anne Rice character ordered him to murder a friend. However, it is very rare that these individuals participate in the vampire community: While they may call themselves a vampire, they are not in communication with other self-identified vampires. I have found only two cases where such a criminal did not act alone and may have had contact with the vampire community.

Morehead's Musings: Most people might assume that all vampires consume blood due to the images we have picked up from folklore, cinema, and television. You discuss several different types of vampire experience. Can you briefly sketch these?

Joseph Laycock: The distinction between lifestylers and real vampires has already been discussed. Real vampires generally claim that they must “feed” in order to maintain their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Some real vampires, known as sanguinarians, feed on blood. This usually consists of small quantities taken from human donors. Psychic vampires do not drink blood but rather “feed” on the vital energy of those around them. Psychic vampirism has been part of occult literature at least since the 19th century. The idea that some people either borrow or take the energy of others is common throughout Asia and the Theosophical Society used this idea to re-imagine the Western idea of the vampire. There are also “hybrid” vampires who consume both blood and psychic energy.

Finally, I find it useful to make a distinction between the “awakened” and “initiatory” models of vampirism. The majority of real vampires believe that you cannot be “turned” or otherwise choose to become a vampire. Instead they believe that vampirism is an essential identity inherent from birth. The process of discovering one’s identity as a vampire is known in the community as “awakening.” However, there are several groups who view vampirism as a sort of apotheosis to be undertaken through ritual initiation. These groups tend to be associated with the Church of Satan and similar “left hand path” occult movements. There has been tension between the two models over what a “real vampire” actually is. However, some recent overtures have been made towards reconciliation.

Morehead's Musings: What are some of the ways in which contemporary vampire identities have been explained?

Joseph Laycock: The modern vampire community has been attributed to porphyria and other diseases, fantasy-prone personality, narcissistic personality disorders, pica (a mental illness characterized by eating dirt, plaster and other inedible substances), and sexual fetishism. It has also been described as an organized and dangerous cult. In sociological terms, the vampire community is a “deviant” group: Literally, one that deviates from social norms. Historically, one of the most effective ways to exert social control over deviance has been to “medicalize” it, reducing a complex social phenomenon to a listing in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Homosexuality appeared in the DSM until 1974.

The label “cult” is also tied to medicalization. Throughout the 1970s, various counter-cult groups tried to circumvent the first amendment by claiming that some religions practice brainwashing and therefore constitute an “information disease.” Polemical characterizations of the vampire community as a religion tend to present individual vampires as automatons whose identity has been absorbed into a larger movement. Descriptions of luring teenagers into vampire culture through the Internet echo the earlier label of “information disease.” I believe that an explanation of this community must look at the personal narratives of individual vampires as well as the larger social context.

Morehead's Musings: How does the vampire identity help to re-enchant the world in late modernity and how does this fit in with other expressions of re-enchantment?

Joseph Laycock: Sociologists used to believe in what is now called the “myth of universal secularization.” That is, a prediction that the social influence of religion and belief in the supernatural will continue to decline until both become nonexistent. The process of secularization now appears to be cyclical in nature, either because secular movements have inspired a backlash of religiosity or because the decline of traditional churches has left individuals free to explore supernatural belief systems.

The connection between modern vampires and “re-enchantment” was first made by Christopher Partridge. In his theory of re-enchantment, Partridge points out that as traditional religion is declining, new belief systems are proliferating. Furthermore, the distinction between deviant and legitimate religion has begun to narrow. Re-enchantment then argues that religion is not fading away so much as changing. The metaphysics of vampirism, as well as emerging new religious movements and popular occultism are all evidence of this change.

It has been suggested that a purely rationalist-scientific worldview is actually very difficult to maintain and leaves the average person dissatisfied. The anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl once claimed that “primitives” do not think in rational terms but rather experience the world through what he called “mystical participation.” In his posthumous work he reformulated his theory, suggesting that mystical participation occurs in all cultures and is simply easier to observe among primitives. Essentially, human beings are always balancing two different modes of thought. Wouter Hanegraaff has suggested that “disenchantment” can be thought of as the suppression of mystical participation in deference to a rational worldview. From this perspective, the vampire community can be seen as a restoration of this balance. I did not find the vampires to be unable to discern fantasy from reality. Rather they discussed their subjective experiences openly and sought ways to relate these experiences to a rational worldview without dismissing them.

Morehead's Musings: What types of elements have helped to create the vampire milieu?

Joseph Laycock: In my book I attempt to describe the evolution of the vampire milieu chronologically across four areas: Literature, film, and television; occult writing; metaphysical and holistic health; and vampirology. In reality, these areas all blend together. The vampire of Slavic folklore is largely left out because vampires do not actually think of themselves as undead. (For the same reason, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is of little importance to real vampires.) Occult groups such as the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn re-imagined the vampire as a being that feeds on subtle energy rather than blood. This set the stage for the modern understanding of psychic vampires. The novel I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Mattheson re-imagined the vampire again as a biological entity. This too influenced the vampire community. It also appears to have influenced the medical community, which has periodically sought to explain vampire legends in terms of known diseases. Finally, with the series Dark Shadows in the 1960s, the vampire became a symbol of tragedy, romance, and alienation. As a deviant hero, Barnabus Collins caused many people to identify with the vampire. Dark Shadows foreshadowed the vampires of Anne Rice and even Edward Cullens.

Metaphysical ideas associated with holistic health have also influenced how vampires see their condition. Western concepts of subtle energy such as mesmerism and the Freudian notion of libido were linked to vampirism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is now an interesting dialogue beginning to form between self-identified vampires and practitioners of qigong, reiki, and other health practices from Asia.

The last category, “vampirology” refers to a series of amateur studies on real vampires. This began with figures like Stephen Kaplan who opened a “vampire research center.” However, the most ambitious studies to date have been done by vampires themselves. The AVA has collected data from over 1450 individuals. While the academy can challenge their methodology, it is hard to imagine an outsider conducting a better quantitative analysis of this community. I believe that their findings will ultimately determine what it means to be a vampire. This indicates that the vampire community has begun to exert agency over the milieu.

Morehead's Musings: In terms of community, are most vampires solitary or do they seek group interaction, and how has the Internet played a part in this process?

Joseph Laycock: The AVA’s survey indicates that the majority of vampires are not part of any formal organization. However, vampires have always sought group interaction. In the 1980s vampires met through fan conventions for Dark Shadows and horror movies. In the 1990s vampires began communicating through zines and other small print media. The community appears to have been on the Internet for as long as it has existed, first using listserves, then forums, and now peer-networking sites.

The Internet generally has a leveling effect on religions. The Internet has not been kind to hierarchical religious organizations such as the Catholic Church or Scientology. On the other hand, non-hierarchical religions such as Paganism have flourished online. Initiatory religious groups such as the Temple of the Vampire seem to have been hurt by the transition to the Internet. The Vampire Bible and other copyrighted texts have been disseminated to the uninitiated online. By contrast, the awakened model of vampirism has flourished as many individuals have begun to rethink their identity after encountering the vampire community online.

The Internet has also brought many young people to the vampire community. More experienced vampires have tried to help by posting articles or even creating “checklists” for individuals who suspect they might be a vampire. The latest innovation is a series of youtube clips where vampires answer questions e-mailed to them about vampirism.

Morehead's Musings: Several new religions scholars have considered vampirism a new religious movement? Is vampirism a religion?

Joseph Laycock: The answer to this question depends on which model of vampirism is under consideration and what criteria of religion are being used. The vampire community runs a gamut from The Temple of the Vampire which claims to have legal recognition as a church to atheists who believe vampirism will one day be understood by medical science.

Certainly groups like the Temple of the Vampire are new religious movements. However, I have argued against categorizing the entire vampire community as a new religious movement. One reason being that a significant percentage of vampires describe themselves as Christian. Although vampirism is frequently explained in terms of metaphysical or supernatural beliefs, it appears that many vampires see their identity as a vampire as distinct from their religious affiliation.

Morehead's Musings: What types of reception have vampires received as they have become more above ground?

Joseph Laycock: In the United States, this varies greatly from region to region. In the Bible Belt, vampires are very cautious about keeping their identity a secret. I heard a story of at least one vampire who was “outed” to his community and asked to leave his church. By contrast, identifying as a vampire may not seem all that unusual in Los Angeles.

As the media seeks to capitalize on the current fascination with vampires, the vampire community has received an unprecedented level of attention. The AVA is contacted by a new television show or documentary about every month. Community leaders have been very active in monitoring this attention and curbing sensationalism. For instance, the show Trading Spouses was unable to find a vampire who would appear on their show. I believe that there has been a gradual shift from very sensationalistic coverage of the community (usually around Halloween) to more nuanced portrayals of vampires. By the same token, Vampires Today is not intended as a definitive text on this community. Rather, I hope to encourage further research on vampires and other emerging identity groups and suggest further areas of inquiry.

Morehead's Musings: Joseph, thanks again for your research in this area, and for your willingness to discuss your book. I wish you the best in your continued academic studies and work.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Progress on Tution Fundraising for University Durham PhD

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am scheduled to begin PhD dissertation research in January 2010 through the University of Durham in Mormon studies under the supervision of Douglas Davies. With a little over four months remaining in 2009 I have raised one third of the first year's tuition of approximately US$9,000. A major donation was made recently by a church in Utah that I finished serving as interim pastor.

I believe this PhD research will be of interest to several constituencies. First, it will add to the academic communities knowledge of Mormonism, an up and coming area of scholarly study in religion. Second, it will be of benefit to Mormons as an evangelical pursues a path of study that seeks to sympathetically understand an important facet of Mormonism, that of sacred narrative. Third, the dissertation will be of benefit to evangelicals who will gain an insight into Mormonism that is presently lacking with the evangelical emphasis on doctrinal analysis.

Those interested in learning more about this research project, and who might consider making a donation toward it, can contact me at johnwmorehead@msn.com. Following is the research proposal accepted by University of Durham:

“Sacred narrative as missing dimension in Mormon studies and evangelical-Mormon dialogue”

Mormon Myth and Sacred Narrative: The Missing Academic and Dialogical Dimension
Mormonism continues to be a popular and growing area of study in academia. A survey of the academic literature on the topic demonstrates a variety of research perspectives, including the historical, doctrinal, cross-cultural, and social scientific. Yet even with these varying academic frameworks certain dimensions are missing (Sorensen 2007) and very much needed in order to expand our understanding of this rich religious tradition in all of its multidimensional textures. This is particularly the case with the mythic dimension, or the sacred narratives and stories found within Mormon culture. Myths in this context are defined as a narrative or “story with culturally formative power” (Hexham and Poewe 1997, 81). Hexham and Poewe have suggested that many of the new religions that arose in nineteenth century America did so with an appropriation of certain mythic fragments. In their view, Mormonism arose out of a cultural milieu of an evolutionary mythology wherein its founder Joseph Smith “wove together many diverse myths into an integrated whole” (ibid., 94). Mormonism may be understood as a new religious movement that arose out of a major mythos of nineteenth century America, and in its continued development it has formed various subnarratives making up the mythic whole. With these considerations in mind, sacred narrative represents a neglected aspect of academic studies of Mormonism.

Sacred narrative is also absent in the evangelical-Mormon dialogue process that has been taking place formally since the 1990s. This is not difficult to explain. First, while Christian dialogue with world religions such as Buddhism and Islam have been going on for quite some time, Christian dialogue with the new religions is relatively new, and it has not received either the attention or scholarly focus as dialogue with world religions (Saliba 1993). Thus, it may be that those evangelicals involved in dialogue with Mormonism have not been as reflective on this process as have evangelicals in other interreligious contexts. Second, dialogue with the new religions, as in the case of evangelicalism and Mormonism (Blomberg & Robinson 1997, Millet & Johnson 2007; Millet and McDermott 2007), has taken place against the backdrop of concern over orthodoxy in contrast with heresy (Johnson 1997; Saliba 2003; Hexham, Rost & Morehead 2004) with an eye toward theological boundary maintenance (Cowan 2003). This is not always the case, particularly when Mormon scholars have dialogued with theologians beyond Protestant evangelicalism (Musser & Paulsen 2007), yet it is the case in general in regards to the evangelical-Mormon dialogue process. Given the significance of a unique set of beliefs and worldview in Mormonism, and its claims of uniqueness vis-à-vis the larger Judeo-Christian tradition, doctrinal and theological issues should not be divorced from the dialogue process, but additional room is needed for other perspectives, particularly those that may resonate more centrally with Latter-day Saint perspectives.

This is especially the case if an understanding of Mormonism is to take place from perspectives that attempt to understand Mormonism from the point of view of its adherents. In the process of interreligious dialogue evangelicals and other Protestants have tended to approach the religious other from vantage point of the Christian concern for doctrine. This reflects not only a dialogue starting from Christian presuppositions, but may also reflect lingering aspects of colonialism (Yong 2008). There is a great need for an academic study of a missing dimension of Mormonism wherein the research tries “sympathetically and imaginatively to enter into the lives and experience of those they are studying. By employing informed empathy, they can gain some access into the complex of intensions and experiences of religious adherents” (Sorenson 2007, 135-6). In our post-colonial, post-Christendom, post-9/11, globalized environment the need is perhaps greater than ever before to approach the religious other from perspectives that are empathetic, humble, and in keeping with the vantage point of adherents themselves. A study of Mormonism from the perspective of sacred narrative thus reflects a more sympathetic perspective in keeping with the ideals of religious studies and the socio-cultural needs of our time.

Dimensions of Mormon sacred narrative
Myth and sacred story (Sorenson 1981), and the related concepts of folklore (Edison 1989; Wilson 1998, 1995) are rich sources for understanding Mormonism, including its values and beliefs, as well as the personal and collective sources of meaning and identity for the Mormon people. Sacred narratives may be categorized under broad headings such as the Restoration, Revelation, Pioneers, Missionary Work, and stories of Courage, Healing, and Encouragement (Lyon, Gundry & Parry). They are found in a variety of cultural texts, including Mormon scriptures, General Conference talks, hometeaching messages from the First Presidency, the teaching curriculum of the LDS Church, books written by Church academics, fireside chats, and family circles. Other sources include cultural pageants and celebrations such as the Mormon Miracle Pageant and Pioneer Day, as well as dramatic theatrical productions, and Latter-day Saint culture-specific cinema.

An analysis of these sources reveals several important facets of sacred narrative within Mormon culture. These include the Joseph Smith Story/First Vision, founding Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim of heavenly visitation and a call to restore the Christian church. The power of this narrative lies not only within Smith’s experience, but also for Church members and converts as they place themselves in Smith’s experience thereby framing their personal identity and narrative within the larger narrative of the founding of the Church. Personal identification within the First Vision narrative might also connect the sacred and profane in daily Latter-day Saint thought and living as they read of Smith’s experience and revelations coupled with his continued work at farming and the mundane affairs of nineteenth century America. Smith’s narrative of the First Vision helps Latter-day Saint people realize the potential for their mundane lives to be punctuated by revelation even while this plays out against the ordinary and mundane affairs of life.

A second narrative thread is that of the Westward Trek or the Pioneer Narrative. This narrative is connected to a sense of persecution and martyrdom that links this narrative thread with that of the First Vision. The early Mormons experienced constant persecution, eventually leading to the murder of their leader and their expulsion from their homes which culminated in a trek West and a settling in what would become Salt Lake City and the beginnings of a vast geographical region under the Mormon influence. Here again the contemporary personal identification with this narrative thread is strong. Many Latter-day Saints identify with the pioneer stories as their family story, regardless of whether they have family members who crossed the plains. This narrative may also resonate with others as the Church extends itself globally. Many can imagine themselves as pioneers or trailblazers as the some of the first people to accept the gospel of the restoration in their family and nation.

The third sacred narrative is the Pre-Mortal Life. As the name implies, this story teaches that human beings pre-existed their present earthly lives and dwelt with God prior to taking on human flesh. With this foundational narrative in mind, this life is considered act two of a “three act play” of human existence. Dialogues with Latter-day Saints reveal how powerful and influential this narrative is, so much so that it even impacts child-rearing attitudes as parents considered the pre-mortal relationships with their children where a differing relationship may have existed.

A fourth and sacred narrative is the Missionary Narrative. The Missionary Narrative forms a kind of microcosm of the Mormon Plan of Salvation. Mormon missionaries leave home, are sent to a new area, spend a limited amount of time meeting people and sharing the gospel, making right ethical choices, touching the lives of other sand then returning home to loving parents. This missionary work parallels the Plan of Salvation as Mormons believe they leave the Pre-Mortal Life, enter a period of probation and mortality, only to return once again to loving Heavenly Parents. Viewed in light of the Missionary Narrative, Latter-day Saints can see their mortal life as a sacred mission in fulfillment of a probationary time of testing and in anticipation of restored relationships and progression that transcend mortality.


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