Wednesday, June 30, 2010

James Henderson: Christian self-diagnostics

A great article by kindred spirit Jim Henderson pursuing alternative ways of engaging others, in this case by interacting with atheists for their perspective on church! I especially like these two segments in the piece which need to be asked by Christians about those of all stripes in their lives:
"Atheists are also wary of being seen as "projects." Does continued contact and eventual friendship with the Christian in their life depend on them converting?"

"If you want to have influence, I said, you have to be willing to be influenced. If not, I asked, would anyone want to have a conversation with you?"

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Douglas Davies' Forthcoming Book on Mormonism: Jesus, Satan and Joseph Smith

Ashgate has its new catalog out in Religious Studies and Theology promoting its new titles for 2010. One that caught my eye as a forthcoming volume is Jesus, Satan and Joseph Smith: The Mormon Cosmic Triad, but listed as Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision on Ashgate's website. The book is by Douglas Davies of the University of Durham who has written two previous volumes on Mormonism, including The Mormon Culture of Salvation (Ashgate, 2000), and An Introduction to Mormonism (Cambridge University Press, 2002):
This book explores Mormon theology in new ways from a scholarly non-Mormon perspective. Bringing Jesus and Satan into relationship with Joseph Smith the founding prophet, Douglas Davies shows how the Mormon 'Plan of Salvation' can be equated with mainstream Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity as a driving force of the faith. Exploring how Jesus has been understood by Mormons, his many Mormon identities are described in this book: he is the Jehovah of the Bible, our Elder Brother and Father, probably also a husband, he visited the dead and is also the antagonist of Satan-Lucifer.

This book offers a way into the Mormon 'problem of evil' understood as apostasy, from pre-mortal times to today. Three images reveal the wider problem of evil in Mormonism: Jesus' pre-mortal encounter with Lucifer in a heavenly council deciding on the Plan of Salvation, Jesus Christ's great suffering-engagement with evil in Gethsemane, and Joseph Smith's First Vision of the divine when he was almost destroyed by an evil force.

Douglas Davies, well-known for his previous accounts of Mormon life and thought, shows how renewed Mormon interest in theological questions of belief can be understood against the background of Mormon church-organization and its growing presence on the world-stage of Christianity.

Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion

I just received a review copy of a new release by New York University Press, Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion by Lola Williamson. From the Preface:
This book is about Walter, Aaron, Jennifer, and others like them who have practiced meditation under the auspices of a Hindu guru for twenty or more years. It is also about the meditation movements in which they participate: Self-Realization Fellowship, Transcendental Meditation, and Siddha Yoga. These are three of many such movements that, taken together, comprise a new hybrid form of religion. This new religion combines aspects of Hinduism with Western values, institutional forms, modes of teaching, and religious sensibilities. Lying at the conjunction of two worldviews, this phenomenon could be called "Hindu-inspired meditation movements," or HIMMs. Through personal, historical, and cultural lenses, this book explores the contours of Hindu-inspired meditation movements and their implications for American culture.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy Conference: Mormon Engagement with the World Religions

Last week I had the privilege of attending the 2010 inaugural conference sponsored by the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy titled "Mormon Engagement with the World Religions: Perspectives and Possibilities with the Abrahamic Traditions." The event was held June 11-12 on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, an appropriate place for a conference on interreligious dialogue in that this location is the most religiously diverse area of the world as documented by Diana Eck of Harvard University in her Pluralism Project research.

When I first received the invitation to attend in May I was unsure if I would be able to participate. The recession has impacted my non-profit organization to the extent that no travel funds are available this year. If I was going to attend something dramatic would have to happen, and fairly quickly from the time of the invitation to the time of the event. After making my invitation known a few people came forward to assist. One colleague provided the airfare, and two individuals affiliated with the event donated my hotel room. My heartfelt thanks goes to these individuals who made my attendance and participation possible.

To provide context for the conference some background information is needed related to the founding organization, and the chapter that sponsored the conference. The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy (FID) was founded by Charles Randall Paul. The organization's website describes it as follows:
The Foundation is organized to promote and facilitate communication between people experiencing conflicts inspired by religious differences. It seeks to enroll and train religiously bi-lingual “interreligious diplomats” who can engage in deep dialogue encounters to decrease ill will and build trust even while in the midst of difficult conflicts.

Foundation membership affiliation is open to all persons who are willing to engage in respectful interreligious diplomatic exchanges and receive training from the Foundation. Members of the same religious or ideological persuasion are encouraged to inquire about forming chapters of the Foundation, guided by FID principles and methods but directed by local members working to achieve their goals for interreligious communication.

The Mormon Chapter was one of the first to be formed by FID, brought together under the leadership of Brian Birch who teaches at Utah Valley University. This inaugural conference by the Mormon Chapter was, as the conference invitation stated, "designed to explore various perspectives and methods for thinking about Latter-day Saints among the great traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It's aim will be to connect theology with practice in allowing space for Mormons to think more carefully about the activity of interreligious exchange and the possibility of mutual transformation."

The conference involved eight sessions over the course of two days. On Friday this included "The Latter-day Saint Approach to Interreligious Relations" with a presentation by Elder Bruce D. Porter of the First Quorum of the Seventy, "Latter-day Saints and Interreligious Engagement," a session on "Judaism," and concluding the day's events with "The Grand Fundamental Principle: The Theological Question of Religious Diversity." Saturday's presentations included "The Mormon Voice in a Pluralistic Society," "Catholic and Orthodox Christianity," "Protestant Christianity," and a session on "Islam." Each session involved a panel of presenters including representatives of the religious tradition under consideration, and LDS respondents. Each presenter spoke for twenty minutes, and ten minutes were provided for audience questions and answers with the panel.

Given that I am part of the Protestant Christianity tradition I was most interested in this panel where my colleague and WIIS affiliated scholar Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary was speaking. David McAllister-Wilson of Wesley Theological Seminary was another representative of this tradition, with Deidre Green from Claremont Graduate University and J. Spencer Fluhman of Brigham Young University responding. Unfortunately, the previous session went long and pushed the lunch hour back, and when this was coupled with my departure flight time I was unable to hear much of this session beyond a few minutes of Fluhman's opening remarks. Since the event's proceedings were videotaped I look forward to them being made available in the near future on the FID Mormon Chapter's website.

As to my thoughts on the conference, I believe that interreligious dialogue is an important task for representatives of all religious traditions to be able to engage in faithfully in regards to their own traditions, and effectively in terms of appropriate means of communication. In my view FID sets forth the right approach which they describe as respectful contestation. This approach avoids the two problematic extremes of liberalism and some forms of ecumenism on the one hand that dismiss the importance of truth claims (person over truth), and the other extreme of disrespectful forms of proclamation and dialogue (truth over person).

A few observations:

I was surprised and pleased to learn of Latter-day Saint efforts and successes in developing relationships and dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions that have been going on for several years. The work with Judaism and Roman Catholicism were especially interesting.

Elder Porter made a few statements that struck me as curious. At one point in the question and answer period he stated that dialogue and proselytizing were two different hats that were worn at different times. This can surely be the case, but not necessarily so, as the position of FID makes clear. Elder Porter also spoke of a uniformity of beliefs among LDS, and while the LDS Church has done a good job at providing teachings to be used throughout the Church with the aim toward this uniformity, what little scientific research I have come across in this area indicates some level of diversity, which is to be expected in a diverse population, even if there is an official and popular "center of gravity" for beliefs.

At several points during the conference I felt like a fly on the wall, and an uncomfortable one at that, as I watched and listened to another religious tradition wrestle with issues both intra- and inter- in regards to other religions. I found it refreshing that a group of Latter-day Saints was active in moving beyond its own religious community to understand and relate in the public square. Such interests compliment a faith very much interested in the process of proselytization.

If I were to offer a critique of the conference, I would like to have seen fewer people on the panel, and/or less time given to presentations so as to allow greater time with panel participants interacting with each other and the audience. In addition, I would like to have seen some incorporation of "practical" and grassroots examples of dialogue that moves beyond the institutional and academic levels to our neighborhoods.

One of the benefits of attending a conference like this is not only the event itself, but the ability to meet people, network, and develop relationships. As one example, Terry Muck and I were able to spend some time together, and we will be working with an initial group of charter members to form the Evangelical Chapter of FID. This chapter will put together an inaugural conference in the near future, and will work to equip Evangelicals to become effective participants in respectful contestation, and in the training of bi-lingual diplomats fluent in multiple religions who can engage in interreligious dialogue.

In a separate but related item, the Spring 2010 issue of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue is available for download. This issue focuses on theologies of religions, and it features an article on the subject by Matti Kärkkäinen of Fuller Theological Seminary with a number of respondents including myself in a piece simply titled "Supplemental Reflections." Readers may enjoy this discussion of a timely theological and cultural issue as it relates to interreligious dialogue.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Christian Research Journal on Avatar: Wishing For Greater Breadth in Pop Cultural Engagement

Given my interactions with the religious and cultural implications of Avatar in numerous postings on the Internet in various forums, I was intrigued to find that Christian Research Journal has an article on the subject in the latest issue of the publication, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2010). The article is titled "Avatar: A Postmodern Pagan Myth," and the piece is written by Brian Godawa. Godawa is a Christian screenwriter and author who frequently provides commentary on contemporary cinema for evangelical publications.

Given that Godawa's article appears in a publication written for an evangelical audience, and one interested in apologetic and theological forms of cultural engagement, the author's approach to his subject matter is not surprising. After summarizing the film's story Godawa moves to analysis from an evangelical apologetic perspective wherein he frames Avatar as "a postmodern pagan myth of nature worship," which includes elements of animism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism. Godawa concludes his article with discussion of James Cameron's abilities as a mythmaker for our time.

In my opinion Godawa's article is fine as far as it goes, and as stated above, it is not surprising to see this kind of treatment given the journal's perspective and the intended audience. However, there is a place for broadening the approach in interacting with popular culture in an effort to assist evangelicals in a broader and deeper understanding and engagement with the issues of the day. I think that Godawa's analysis falls short in the area of empathetic consideration, Christian reflexivity, and awareness of (or at least discussion of) Avatar's connection to broader cultural phenomena.

In terms of empathetic consideration, like many apologetic writings by evangelicals, Godawa's article demonstrates little by way of an attempt to sympathetically enter into the thought processes and affective dimensions of those who produced and consumed Avatar as a powerful piece of mythmaking. Numerous stories can be found of individuals who have had a deep connection with various facets of this film, from viewing the moon Pandoria as a utopia to which they wish they could escape, to those who have identified with the Na'vi as an oppressed people, to those who find a resonance with the eco-spiritual aspects of the film. Evangelicals will benefit in many ways from attempts at entering into the perspective of others as we form our understanding and critique.

An attempt at reflexivity is also absent in Godawa's analysis. Reflexivity is a process whereby the study of another culture provides the opportunity to step outside of one’s usual conceptions of cultural normality in order to not only understand another culture, but also to critically reassess one’s own culture and social location in light of the encounter with the cultural other. This stance is crucial as Gordon Lynch has stated:
"Judging popular culture on the basis of our own preformed religious and cultural assumptions, without allowing the possibility for these to be challenged or changed in some way by our study of popular culture, will not help us become better cultural critics or more thoughtful theologians."
Had Godawa adopted a reflexive stance in regards to Avatar, he and his readers might have a greater appreciation for the the claim that Christianity has played a significant role in the West's exploitation of indigenous peoples and the environment. Although this claim is often overstated in popular discussions of the subject matter, the church's failures in these areas must be acknowledged if we are to engage the post-Christendom West with credibility in the twenty-first century.

Finally, Godawa's analysis would have benefited from some discussion of the connection of the film to broader cultural phenomena. Specifically, as I have discussed elsewhere, Avatar taps into our dissatisfaction with our failed technological paradise and finds solace in a mythic narrative of indigenous peoples. Beyond this, Avatar also taps into the growing and increasingly popular eco-spirituality that Bron Taylor has called "Dark Green Religion." As discussed in a previous post, this nature religion “considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care..” The reference to “dark” in connection to the green is a dual referent, with application both to the depth of commitment of those to nature religion, and also to the possibility of a “shadow side” to the religion that “could even precipitate or exacerbate violence.” By connecting Avatar's portrayal of sacred nature not only to the Gaia Hypothesis, but also to Dark Green Religion, Godawa would have helped his readers not only understand Avatar's appeal better, but also made them aware of a significant new expression of the sacred, the religious, and the spiritual.

I am pleased to see an evangelical publication interact with contemporary film, and even more so that it engages one of the most popular films of all time, but it seems to me that we evangelicals have a way to go in providing a broader consideration of this topic. Only a broader approach will help us speak beyond the evangelical tribe.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Off to a Conference on Dialogue

Thursday evening I leave for a conference on interreligious dialogue to be held Friday and Saturday on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The event is sponsored by the Mormon chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy and it brings together Protestant evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims for the perspectives of the Abrahamic religions on dialogue with Latter-day Saints. I'll post my follow up comments on the conference next week.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

New Book on Psytrance

During my research on Burning Man Festival for my master of arts thesis, one of the more helpful research sources was Graham St. John. In a recent email he announced a new book he edited, The Local Scenes and Global Culture of Psytrance (Routledge, 2010):

This lively textual symposium offers a rich harvest of formative research on the culture of global psytrance (psychedelic trance). As the first book to address the diverse transnationalism of this contemporary electronic dance music phenomenon, the collection hosts interdisciplinary research attending to psytrance as a product of intersecting local and global trajectories. With coverage of scenes in Goa, the UK, Israel, Japan, Italy, the US, Portugal, The Czech Republic and Australia, the collection features a dozen chapters from scholars researching psytrance in worldwide locations, employing various methods, within multiple disciplines. With chapters offering significant contributions to our understanding of globalization and music cultures, scene demise and transformation, ephemeral and cosmopolitan assemblages, counterculture and paradox, psychedelicization and genre, virtual tribes and the Internet, the carnivalesque and the aesthetics of nonsense, festivals and the logics of sacrifice, and other topics, Psytrance will strike interest across anthropology, sociology and studies in popular music, culture, media, history and religion.

Psytrance: An Introduction. Graham St John

I Goa Trance

1. Goa is a State of Mind: On the Ephemerality of Psychedelic Social Emplacements. Luther Elliott
2. The Decline of Electronic Dance Scenes: The Case of Psytrance in Goa. Anthony D'Andrea
3. The Ghost of Goa Trance: A Retrospective. Arun Saldanha

II Global Psytrance

4. Infinite Noise Spirals: Psytrance as Cosmopolitan Emotion. Hillegonda Rietveld
5. Psychedelic Trance Music Making in the UK: Rhizomatic Craftsmanship and the Global Market Place. Charles de Ledesma
6. Re-evaluating Musical Genre in UK Psytrance. Robin Lindop
7. (En)Countering the Beat: Paradox in Israeli Psytrance. Joshua I. Schmidt

III Liminal Culture

8. DemenCZe: Psychedelic Madhouse in the Czech Republic. Botond Vitos
9. Dionysus Returns: Tuscan Trancers and Euripides' The Bacchae. Chiara Baldini
10. Weaving the Underground Web: Neotribalism and Psytrance on Jenny Ryan
11. Narratives in Noise: Reflexivity, Migration and Liminality in the Australian Psytrance Scene. Alex Lambert
12. Liminal Culture and Global Movement: The Transitional World of Psytrance. Graham St John


"Psytrance is an intriguing transnational phenomenon for anyone interested in popular music, subcultures, and alternative spiritualities and lifestyles. Although still relatively unexplored, it is an increasingly significant area of study in Sociology, Cultural Studies, Popular Music Studies and Religious Studies. A dynamic feature of a multi-faceted, global, psychedelic occulture, psytrance presents the scholar with a fascinating, if bewildering array of musicological, cultural, and spiritual confluences. Edited by Graham St John, the foremost EDMC theorist, this stimulating collection of essays by some of the key researchers in the field provides a genuinely insightful and engaging contribution to the study of psytrance, which students, tutors, and researchers will be turning to for many years to come. I warmly and enthusiastically welcome it." Christopher Partridge, Lancaster University

"The Local Scenes and Global Culture of Psytrance is a rich collection, full of pieces that combine the results of detailed fieldwork with up-to-date theorizing. I particularly like the way this volume goes beyond the longstanding preoccupation of popular music scholars with subcultural expression, and into a whole set of other, interdisciplinary issues. This book is very much about music, but it also tackles such phenomena as the global "festivalization" of culture, emerging forms of music-based religiosity, transformations in the nature of cultural labour, and shifts in the social meaning of travel. Psytrance comes across here as much more than just one more interesting musical niche. Interweaving technologies and bodies, the archaic and the contemporary, the local and the cosmopolitan, psytrance condenses within itself many of the key cultural dynamics of our time. The articles gathered here delve into those dynamics with skill and commitment, and the result is a book that should interest any scholar of present-day cultural expression." --Will Straw, McGill University