Saturday, December 17, 2011

At the Crossroads, Again: Mormon & Methodist Encounters in the 19th and 21st Centuries

The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is very pleased to announce the second conference hosted by the Mormon Chapter on February 24-5 in Washington DC. The event will be hosted by Wesley Theological Seminary and will be entitled "At the Crossroads, Again: Mormon & Methodist Encounters in the 19th and 21st Centuries." The conference is designed to bring practitioners and scholars from both traditions into a conversation to build understanding, trust, and friendship. Attached you will find the conference announcement with further details. Wehope your schedule allows you to attend.

Scheduled Participants include:

Frances Adeney, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Senator Robert Bennett
David Campbell, University of Notre Dame
Kathleen Flake, Vanderbilt University
Terryl Givens, University of Richmond
Eileen Guenther, Wesley Theological Seminary
Elaine Heath, Southern Methodist University
Matthew Holland, Utah Valley University (President)
David McAllister-Wilson, Wesley Theological Seminary (President)
Warner Woodworth, Brigham Young University
others to be announced

The conference website can be found here.

Links to the 2010 Mormon Engagement with the World Religions Conference

Video Footage

Conference Schedule & Information

We are also pleased to note that February 2012 will be a banner month for outstanding conferences on Mormonism on the East Coast as more than a few of our FRD Mormon chapter colleagues will be participating in a Columbia University event on Mormonism and politics in early February ( Jana Riess is among the organizers and will be sending more information soon.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse

Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse
Edited by: Joseph Gelfer

December 21 2012 is believed to mark the end of the thirteenth B'ak'tun cycle in the Long Count of the Mayan calendar. A growing number of people believe this date to mark the end of the world or, at the very least, the end of the world as we know it: a shift to a new form of global consciousness. 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse brings together for the first time a range of scholarly analyses on the 2012 phenomena grounded in various disciplines including religious studies, anthropology, Mayan studies, cultural studies and the social sciences.

2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse will show readers how much of the 2012 phenomenon is based on the historical record, and how much is contemporary fiction. It will reveal to readers the landscape of the modern apocalyptic imagination, the economics of the spiritual marketplace, the commodification of countercultural values, and the cult of celebrity. This collection brings much-needed academic rigour and documentation to a subject of rapidly increasing interest to diverse religious and other communities in these crucial closing years before we experience what will be either a profound leap in the human story or, less dramatically, just another mark in time.

Michael D. Coe, Yale University
1. Introduction
Joseph Gelfer
2. The 2012 Phenomenon: New Uses for an Ancient Mayan Calendar
Robert K. Sitler, Stetson University
3. Maya Prophesies, 2012 and the Problematic Nature of Truth
Mark Van Stone, Southwestern College
4. Mayanism Comes of (New) Age
John W. Hoopes, Kansas University
5. The 2012 Milieu: Hybridity, Diversity and Stigmatised Knowledge
Peter Lentini, Monash University
6. Chichén Itzá and Chicken Little: How Pseudosciences Embraced 2012
Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University
7. Roland Emmerich’s 2012: A Simple Truth
Andrea Austin, Wilfrid Laurier University
8. The 2012 Movement, Visionary Arts and Psytrance Culture
Graham St John, University of Regina
9. In a Prophetic Voice: Australasia 2012
Joseph Gelfer
10. Approaching 2012: Modern Misconceptions vs. Reconstructing Ancient Maya Perspectives
John Major Jenkins, independent scholar

Monday, December 05, 2011

Reconfiguring Ecclesiology in Participatory Culture

The more I participate in and study various aspects of contemporary American and Western culture the more I recognize that the church is ill prepared to participate in relevant ways. We need to be asking ourselves why the church is still largely a passive culture, whereas the rest of the society in which we find ourselves is now a participatory culture.

This has dawned on me the more I study things like Burning Man Festival, science fiction festivals, and even with the recent viewing of a documentary on George Lucas which referenced thousands of fan films that wanted to make their contribution to the universe and mythology of Star Wars. Think of YouTube pages, blogging, Twitter, personally created playlists on iTunes, and any number of other technologies we draw upon every day. People want to be active participants in the creation of what matters most to them. Yet church worship services involve coming to a building at a time designated by others, standing when you are told to stand, sitting when you are told to sit, singing songs (and in the styles and forms) chosen by others, and hearing a message crafted by others and then being told what to think about it and how to act on it in your own life.

The church in the 21st century American and Western contexts must be thinking about what it means to reconfigure ecclesiology in participatory culture. Where is this on the agenda of the emerging and missional church movements?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"You're Not a True Muslim:" The Challenge of Religious Understanding and Self-Representation

This clip is from a talk show with Anderson Cooper where he includes those on the reality show All-American Muslim from the TLC channel. This program follows the lives, joys, and struggles of various Muslim families in America.

One of the interesting facets of this clip is the reaction of a woman in the audience to the guests from the show, and their religion. Several thoughts come to mind that relate not only to American's wresting with Islam, but are equally applicable to other minority religions that are also viewed with suspicion.

First, although the Muslims in the television program define themselves in terms of their religious practices and beliefs, the woman in the audience presumes to know more about their religion, and its "true" representation than the adherents do. Allowing self-representation in religion is crucial.

Second, related to the thought above, there is a frequent problem in the Evangelical subculture about the understanding of a given religion as the only true and right way to understand that religion. Any other representation by adherents is held to be inauthentic and deceptive.

Third, from these it follows that we must recognize diversity in religious traditions, and that these traditions change, develop, and evolve over time. Religious adherents disagree among themselves about how to interpret their tradition, so it seems difficult for outsiders to adjudicate as to which expression within a diverse tradition is the only true one.

Fourth and finally, we must be willing to work through the difficult process of listening to the religious other, and then wresting with our preconceptions in a process of dialogue so as to come to grips with religious diversity and complexity in our religiously plural environment. All-American Muslim seems to be the best type of program to help us wrestle with difficult post-9/11 issues.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Vanguard Trailer on Islamophobia

I watched this program a few days ago and was pleasantly surprised at its balanced presentation of post-9/11 concerns for Islamic terrorism in the U.S. and UK, balanced by the equally disturbing Islamophobia in the two countries. Such things make a strong case for the need for good religious dialogue programs, such as my work with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Transitions Bonus Video Part 1: Notes for Church Planters

Notes for Church Planters from WIIS on Vimeo.

We have finalized the video Bonus Materials for the Transitions project. The first part has been uploaded to Vimeo, which includes thoughts on contextualized church planting in Mormon culture. The second installment will be uploaded next week and will include responses to significant issues for Mormons. Both videos will be part of the Transitions website Preview page.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Guest Essays: Patheos Book Club and Square No More

I contributed a couple of guest essays for various websites today. First was my piece "Mysticism, Paranormal, and the Super-Story," at the Patheos website on religion, which interacts with issues raised by Jeffrey Kripal's book Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

The second piece was a guest post on Phil Wyman's blog Square No More. The post is titled "Who are the Cultural Creatives, and Why Should Evangelicals Care?". The post looks at the significant subcultural movement called Cultural Creatives, a label taken from the book on the topic by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (Three Rivers Press, 2001). The people that comprise this movement are found at Transformation Festivals like Burning Man, and I suggest we have much to learn from them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jeffress on Romney and Mormonism: Back to the Future for Evangelicals?

Last week the race for the Republican presidential nomination briefly resembled the shape it took in 2007. Four years ago it was Mike Huckabee who raised concerns about fellow Republican Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. The same sentiments about Romney’s religion were raised again more recently at a Values Voters Summit sponsored by conservative evangelical organizations. Governor Rick Perry was a speaker at this event where he was introduced by Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Jeffress turned an opportunity for Perry to rally evangelical voters into a national controversy when he used the event to label Mormonism a “cult” and to claim that Romney “is not Christian.”

This is not the first time that evangelical concern over Romney’s Mormonism and allegations of its incompatibility with presidential office has been raised on the national stage. Several months ago Warren Smith made headlines in a piece he wrote for Patheos where he stated that “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church,” a title that echoed that of another evangelical in 2008 who warned then that “a vote for Romney was a vote for Satan.”

In the 1960s Protestant America was concerned about the possibility of a Roman Catholic president in John F. Kennedy. Having navigated that religious hurdle it is clear that other religions are still of great concern, not only for Protestants and other evangelicals, but also many other Americans, particularly when it comes to Mormonism. In a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum 53% of Americans had a favorable view of Mormonism, while 27% viewed the religion negatively. Among Protestants the impressions were slightly more negative, with the positive views at 46%, and the unfavorable ones coming in at 39%. When respondents were asked to summarize Mormonism in a single word, negative ones were offered more than positive, with terms like “polygamy” and “cult” topping the list. These largely negative opinions of Mormonism are all the more striking when they are compared to American opinions about Islam in the same Pew poll. Tellingly, the positive and negative views of Mormonism and Islam are almost identical, even while many in the poll acknowledge they had little awareness of and no personal contact with Mormons or Muslims.

In the wake of the controversy over Pastor Jeffress’ comments about Mormonism we are reminded of the impact of religion on politics, and that many evangelicals have concerns over the religion of presidential candidates, particularly those that find their headquarters in Salt Lake City. But it would be a mistake to think that all of evangelicalism understands the Mormon religion as a cult and seeks to relate to individual Mormons in terms of cultism. Two elements among evangelicals need to be considered, including the mindset of the “younger evangelicals,” as well as those engaged in dialogical approaches.

In 2002 Robert Webber wrote a book titled The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Baker Books, 2002). In this volume Webber discussed the diversity of Protestant evangelicalism, and developments in this subculture’s religious landscape. He defined “younger evangelicals” to include anyone “who deals thoughtfully with the shift from 20th- to 21st-century culture.” Although Webber had primarily generational mindsets in mind, his definition rightly moves beyond age considerations. These shifts involve different attitudes to theology, culture, and other religions.

Some of these differing attitudes are evident in certain evangelical approaches to Mormonism. In 2002 Salt Lake Theological Seminary produced a resource called Bridges, which framed Mormonism as a religious culture with a unique social identity. Although its producers recognized significant theological differences with Mormonism, they discouraged the use of the term “cult” and the corresponding theological category. More recently, this shift in understanding has continued in evangelical publications such as the book Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor (Zondervan, 2011) by Ross Anderson. In the Introduction, Anderson answers the question “Is Mormonism a Cult?.” After noting the association of cultism with groups like Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown in popular media, Anderson states that, “This kind of labeling leads to a narrow, inaccurate view of the LDS people. I believe that Mormonism is theologically in error, but we don’t need to assign a pejorative label to sustain that claim.” Additional examples could be cited, but these illustrate that a new mindset is present within evangelicalism that includes a willingness to consider Mormonism in less pejorative terms, even where substantial theological disagreement is recognized.

In addition to the “younger evangelicals” and their desire to understand Mormonism more in terms of religious culture than cult, there is also an evangelical move that demonstrates more interest in dialogue than denunciation. A number of examples can be cited in this regard. For several years a group of evangelical scholars have been meeting on an annual basis with their Mormon counterparts. The venues for these meetings differ, but relationships have developed and a deeper understanding of their religions has occurred on both sides of the divide. Such dialogue has also taken place on a grassroots level in various places in Utah where small groups of evangelicals and Mormons have met in homes. These meetings began with shared common stories of personal testimonies of faith, and have then progressed to more difficult and in-depth issues of doctrine and practice.

Beyond these dialogical activities, the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD) also promises to contribute positively to evangelical and Mormon interactions, as well as to America’s broader interreligious environment. Founded by Charles Randall Paul, a Latter-day Saint, FRD describes its efforts as involving “[i]nterreligious diplomacy [that] builds respect and trust between people of integrity who hold opposing religious or ideological beliefs. The goal is not to resolve inevitable differences but to sustain them in peaceful tension by engaging in dialogue that includes sharing personal testimonies and respectful contestation.” FRD has established chapters within various religious traditions so as to help train those within these traditions in more appropriate and effective forms of dialogue. Recently, the Evangelical Chapter was formed as it seeks to involve evangelicals on academic and grassroots levels in dialogue.

American evangelicals have a long way to go in navigating the challenging waters of American pluralism and post-Christendom. For years it was a given that America’s presidential candidates would bring some kind of traditionally Christian background to office. The presence of candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman bring a renewed awareness of the diversity of America’s religious landscape, and the implications for the political sphere. Although many evangelicals still bristle at the idea of president from a religion with a long history of conflict with the religious mainstream, a small and growing movement is present within the evangelical subculture that must also be considered for a complete understanding of this significant facet of America’s religious and political landscape.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

God's Ghost Busters: When Will Evangelicals Move Beyond Church Lady Approaches to Halloween and the Paranormal?

The Halloween season is upon us, and while many are enjoying this time of festive celebration with its ghosts and goblins, not everyone finds pleasure in such things. It is not uncommon for Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists to express grave concern over the alleged dangers of the holiday itself, as well as the various elements associated with it. Many times books are released touching on evangelical concerns related to this time of year, and thanks to The Wild Hunt I was recently made aware of the 2011 contribution to this evangelical phenomenon.

God's Ghostbusters: Vampires? Ghosts? Aliens? Werewolves? Creatures of the Night Beware! (Defender Publishing LLC, 2011) was published last month, just in time for the multi-author contributors of this volume to register their concern about all things horrific. Much can be learned about the perspective and background of this book by considering the product description (with additional insights provided by this YouTube clip):

Recently some 300 exorcists flocked to Poland for a week-long congress to examine the current fashion for vampirism the world-over and the apparent connection between this fascination and a surge in demonic possession.

This comes as the world is experiencing an explosion of ancient occultism combined with wicked fascination for ghosts and all things paranormal. In the United States alone, there are now more than two hundred thousand registered witches and as many as 8 million unregistered practitioners of “the craft.” On college and high school campuses, vampires, werewolves, and other “creatures of the night” are esteemed as objects of desire and idolized by young men and women who view them as cult icons of envious mystical power. Church goers are enchanted by the darkness as well. An April 13, 2011 article “Mysticism Infecting Nazarene Beliefs” was preceded only a few days before by a Telegraph article describing how a “surge in Satanism” inside the church has sparked a “rise in demand for exorcists” within traditional religious settings.”
If readers are looking for an analysis of horror in popular culture, as well as various aspects of Western esotericism, and the paranormal, coupled with academic theological analysis, this is not the volume in which such things can be found. (Many of the weaknesses of other evangelical books on this topic apply to this volume as well.) The contributors are obviously out of their depth in addressing the subject matter with competency. A few examples of this include the fact that statistics are provided that cannot be substantiated and which confirms the worst fears of evangelicals regarding certain minority religions. The volume also gives no indication of awareness of sound demographic studies on Paganism, minority religions and identity groups, or the paranormal. It also continues to connect various minority religious traditions, as well as the paranormal, with Satanism, demonstrating a misunderstanding of Satanism, as well as the paranormal and minority religions themselves.

What this volume actually does is tell us more about the contributors, their audience, and the sociophobics of the religious other within the evangelical subculture than it does about Western esotericism, minority religions, or the paranormal. In reflecting on this volume I couldn't help but be reminded of Dana Carvey's Church Lady character on Saturday Night Live. This character makes audiences laugh because of not only the confirmation of stereotypes, but also because of the one-dimensional nature of her concerns about the culture around her where Satan is behind every alleged transgression. In the same way the theological analysis of this volume is thin and simplistic, trotting out a well-worn dualism, with satanic forces seemingly far more powerful and present than the divine.

I hope that one Halloween season evangelicals will demonstrate a willingness to stop bearing false witness against their neighbors involved in various facets of popular occulture, and that they move beyond a response worthy of the Church Lady.

Related posts:

"Interview with the authors of Paranormal America"

"Wicca as America's Third Largest Religion?: Unfortunate Evangelical Sensationalism"

"Summary Thoughts: New Book Generation Hex"

Monday, October 03, 2011 Are Aliens Part of God's Plan Too? includes an essay with the intriguing title "Are Alien's Part of God's Plan Too?: Finding E.T. Could Change Religion Forever." The essay mentions a gathering of "Christian thinkers" at the 100 Year Starship Symposium that considered the ramifications of intergalactic travel. As one of the participants put it in regards to the theological aspects of the symposium:

In other words, "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?" as philosophy professor Christian Weidemannof Germany's Ruhr-University Bochum titled his talk at a panel on the philosophical and religious considerations of visiting other worlds.

This issue is a pressing one for theologians who interact with contemporary cosmology and astronomy, and it presents challenges not only to assumptions about life on earth and its relation to the divine, but also about soteriology and incarnation.

See the previous post of mine on "An Astrotheology of Extraterrestrial Life" and a presentation by theologian Ted Peters on the issue that relates to this topic.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Jeet-Kei Leung: Burning Man and Transformational Festivals

The Wild Hunt blog recently posted on the video above: Jason Pitzl-Waters wrote:
The TEDx Youtube channel recently uploaded a talk by Jeet Kei Leung from TEDxVancouver 2010 on transformational festivals. The half-hour presentation focuses on West Coast-oriented festivals and events like Faerieworlds and Burning Man and talks about how these events re-merge spiritual/religious practices with secular festival culture.
As Jason offers his commentary on Leung's work he also connects this idea of transformational festivals to Dragon*Con, a fascinating idea which has merit as I've noted in the religious elements in the Star Trek subculture and in my past posts elsewhere (see below) on the similarities between Burning Man Festival and Dragon*Con.

Near the end of Leung's analysis he summarizes some of the key elements in these festivals. His mention of co-creation in participation, and returning a sense of mythos are especially significant for those in Western Christendom with ears to hears the winds of change among the cultural creatives.

I'm glad to see others picking up on the spiritual and religious significance of these events, and I'm looking forward to Leung's book.

See my related posts "Star Trek as a Religious Phenomenon," "Star Trek Conventions as Sacred Pilgrimage," and "Fan Culture Documentaries: Back to Space-Con, and Four Days at Dragon*Con."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Books on Demand: Burning Man Festival Book

Books on Demand now includes a listing for the forthcoming book version of my MA thesis on Burning Man Festival. Please take a look at the page, and consider posting it on your Facebook profile and Twitter if to promote research in Burning Man studies and religion and pop culture.

Burning Man Festival: A Life Enhancing, Post-Christendom, "Middle Way"

flap text of the book

Burning Man Festival is an intentional community and alternative cultural event involving 50,000 people that meet annually in the desert of Nevada. Scholarly analysis of the festival tends to interpret it through Victor Turner’s framework of liminality and ritual. While this perspective sheds valuable light on understanding the event, other theoretical frameworks are helpful, including the “homeless mind” and secondary institutions thesis of Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner used to explain the 1960s counterculture, updated by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead to include the turn to the self now involving life-enhancing secondary institutions. Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone also presents promising interpretive options for understanding this event. From these perspectives, Burning Man may be understood as an alternative cultural event that functions as a secondary institution and new spiritual outlet in rejection of mainstream institutions and religion.

LAP Lambert Academic Publishing
ISBN 978-3-8454-7517-2, paperback, 88 Pages

The book is also available via

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Foundation for Religious Diplomacy Announces Launch of Evangelical Chapter

For Immediate Release
18 September 2011

Foundation for Religious Diplomacy Announces Launch of Evangelical Chapter

Evangelical Christians have been part of the history of religious dialogue in various contexts, including ecumenical dialogue with representatives of the branches of Christendom beyond Protestantism, as well as with world religions such as Buddhism and Islam, and more recently, the new religious movements, including Mormonism and Neo-Paganism. But among many Evangelicals dialogue has a negative reputation. It is often equated with liberalism, and as a result, to suggest that dialogue has a place among Evangelical engagement with the religions is suspect.

But in our increasingly pluralistic, post-9/11 world, religion has often contributed to social and religious tensions, and at times, even conflict. In light of this troubling scenario appropriate forms of dialogue would seem to be an important tool for not only evangelism, but also understanding and work toward peace and justice.

Yet despite the great need for dialogue, many Evangelicals are unprepared for such efforts. What type of approach is appropriate? Many groups and diplomatic strategies employ conventions that emphasize commonalities between groups and advocate “tolerance” of differences between them. The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD) claims that this is not enough – and, in fact, may work against the interests of peace.

“Merely ‘tolerating’ others can be a sign of disrespect that leads to resentment – or worse. When people feel they cannot express their most cherished beliefs in a respectful hearing, they will often disassociate from their social group,” claims Randall Paul, president of FRD. “It is vital that we provide opportunities for every one who holds strong convictions about truth or the best prescription for living well to fully share those in legitimate ways.”

According to Terry Muck, board member for FRD and Evangelical Chapter member, “Our position is that rather than discouraging this type of missional activity through dialogue, we should be about helping religious groups do their advocacy in the context of peaceful, respectful conversation and dialogue with others who are similarly committed to promoting their religious commitments.”

People with deep religious convictions believe they serve the world best by expressing their truth claims honestly and completely. Discouraging this expression in the interest of cooperation is often counterproductive to building trust between people who deeply disagree. FRD recognizes that differences and tensions can be healthy for a family, a community, or a society if people can express their deepest convictions forthrightly and without anger. This can best happen in face to face encounters with careful listening and mutual sharing of convictions and experiences.

In order to facilitate an appropriate form of dialogue that does justice to the real differences among religious traditions, and to do so in ways that are respectful, the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy will work to develop “bi-lingual” members of the chapter through programs and activities to dialogue with particular religious groups that want to engage more deeply with Evangelical Christianity.

Evangelical Chapter Statement of Purpose
The purpose of the Evangelical Chapter is to promote opportunities for education about dialogue between Evangelical Christians, and then to promote such dialogue in various forums between Evangelicals and members of other religious communities.

* * *


John W. Morehead is Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. He is co-editor and contributing author for Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach. He is also the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, and co-founder and editor of Sacred Tribes Journal. John also provides expertise to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization issue group on “The Church and the New Spiritualities.” He has been involved in interreligious dialogue in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism.

Chapter Members

Michael T. Cooper is associate professor of Religion and Contemporary Culture and director of the MA in Cultural Engagement at Trinity Graduate School in Deerfield, Illinois. Dr. Cooper has contributed numerous articles and chapters dealing with the revival of Pagan religions in the West and has presented conference papers on the subject at London School of Economics, University of Bordeaux, San Diego State University as well as others. He is the author of Contemporary Druidry: A Historic and Ethnographic Study (2010) and editor of Perspectives on Post-Christendom Spiritualities: Evangelical Reflections on New Religious Movements and Western Spiritualities (2010). He is a senior editor of Sacred Tribes Journal, research fellow at the Western Institute of Intercultural Studies, and founder of the Timothy Center for Sustainable Transformation.

Gerald McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Roanoke College and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. An ordained Anglican priest, he serves as Teaching Pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Roanoke. McDermott’s most recent books are The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology; (with Michael McClymond) The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press); God’s Rivals: Why God Permits Different Religions—Insights From The Bible And The Early Church (IVP); Mormons and Evangelicals: Exploring the Boundaries (Regent College Publishing), co-authored with Brigham Young University theologian Robert Millet; and World Religions: An Indispensable Guide (Thomas Nelson).

Terry C. Muck is dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of nine books, including Ministry and Theology in Global Perspective: Contemporary Challenges for the Church, and Christianity Encountering World Religions, co-authored with Frances Adeney.

Bob Robinson is Senior Lecturer at Laidlaw College in New Zealand, and its associated Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School of Theology. He holds the MA from the University of Canterbury, and the PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of London. He worked in Singapore for a number of years before completing his doctoral dissertation: a Christological analysis of the recent Christian-Hindu encounter now published as Christians Meeting Hindus: an Analysis and Theological Critique of the Hindu-Christian Encounter in India (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2004). He speaks and lectures widely on issues related to the constructive defense of the uniqueness and finality of Christ and advocates the incarnational and dialogical way of Jesus as the best way of reaching out to the new spiritualities.

Loren Wilkinson joined the Regent College faculty in 1981. He has written many scholarly and popular articles developing a Christian environmental ethic and exploring the human relationship to the natural world in its environmental, aesthetic, scientific and religious dimensions. Loren’s teaching interests include Christianity and the Arts, Philosophy, Earthkeeping and his popular “Creation, Wilderness and Technology” course that takes place on a summer boat trip. His books include Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources and Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (co-authored with Mary Ruth Wilkinson). He is currently working on a book entitled Circles and the Cross: A Trinitarian Response to Some Contemporary Religious Movements.

Questions concerning the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy ( can be directed to John Morehead, chapter director, at

Friday, September 09, 2011

Reflections on "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero"

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

This week I caught the majority of a rerun of a special edition of Frontline, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero on PBS that looks at 9/11s impact on people of faith. If you haven't seen this, it is an amazing, emotional, and thought provoking program that made me think of my work in religious studies and dialogue.

First, there is the story of a Lutheran minister in the program where he shares his experiences after praying and participating in a multifaith memorial service in New York on Sep. 23, 2011. Unfortunately, after participating in this memorial in pastoral fashion, the minister received hate mail from his own denominational members accusing him of not only heresy, but also of being a terrorist attacking the faith he is sworn to protect. This is a reminder of the challenges the Evangelical community faces in a pluralistic environment where pastoral and dialogical issues arise concerning those of other religions.

Second, there is a comment by a rabbi that was spot on. He stated that some have looked at those who engaged in the terrorism of 9/11 and said that this is not true Islam, while others have said it is the only true expression of Islam. The rabbi feels that this is misguided. He says that the terrorists of 9/11 tapped into something in their tradition that motivated the attacks, just as members of other religions have tapped into aspects of their religious traditions as justification for violence. In his view we have to acknowledge the dark side of religion which can be both a great and motivating power for good as well as for evil. Not do to this, in the rabbi's view, is to sanitize our religions inappropriately.

Third and finally, watching this program it made me realize even more that dialogue certainly includes elements of persuasion and proselytization, but these should not be the only (or perhaps even the primary) reason for engaging in dialogue. With the world in need of understanding, peace and justice post-9/11, dialogue has far greater potential beyond our ability to persuade the other toward conversion. Unfortunately, when they are willing to consider dialogue as something beyond taboo, many Evangelicals view it as little more than another form of proclamation and evangelism, and miss out on greater opportunities for what this form of communication and relationships can achieve.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reflections on Injustice: Dan Stidham and the West Memphis Three Case

Morehead's Musings: Mr. Stidham, thank you for your willingness to do a follow up interview on the West Memphis Three case (previous interview here) in light of last week's surprising release of Damien Nichols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin. Before we move to questions related to an update on the case, can you comment on your legal work since you served as defense attorney for one of the defendants, and how you have stayed involved as this case developed over the years?

Dan Stidham: I served as Jessie Misskelley’s court-appointed trial counsel, and was involved in all of his appeals up until 2008. At that time I became a full-time State District Court Judge here in Arkansas, and could no longer serve as counsel for Mr. Misskelley. In addition, I had become a witness in the case with regard to the Rule 37 appeals for both Mr. Misskelley and Mr. Baldwin. I could not be a lawyer, a judge and/or a witness in his case all at the same time. After 2008, I continued to serve as an “unofficial” advocate for all of the West Memphis Three and the fight for their freedom. I often referred to myself as the “Cheerleader” after that time. The Rule 37 hearings lasted on and off for two years.

After the trial ended in 1994, I made a promise to Jessie that I would continue to fight for him for as long as it took to get him released for a crime that he did not commit and correct this injustice. After 18 years and 78 days, I was finally able to fulfill that promise a week ago and it was an awful good feeling I must say to be in the Courtroom watching it unfold. I would have gladly spent another 18 years if that would have been necessary, but I am glad that they are now finally free.

Morehead's Musings: Since the original conviction a number of interesting developments occurred over the years, such as new DNA evidence. Can you sketch some of this, and how it seemed to strengthen the case for the innocence of the WM3 rather than the State of Arkansas?

Dan Stidham: During the latter stage of the appeals and the quest for new trials for the WM3, the defense team was never charged with proving that any particular individual or individuals were actually responsible for the crimes, though that would have been a huge bonus and made it even easier and more clear that the WM3 were not responsible for the deaths of the three eight-year-old kids. Through the use of the best forensic technology and experts available including DNA analysis, the defense was able to demonstrate that no reasonable jury would convict these kids in the event a new trial be granted. Of course, the State fought us “tooth and nail” for many years before an agreement for testing the evidence was reached. There were several DNA profiles taken from biological material found at the crime scene and on the bodies, but not once did any of it point back to, get linked or relate to, in any form or fashion, the WM3. DNA in a hair found in one of the ligatures used to bind one of the victims was found to match Terry Hobbs who is victim Stevie Branch’s father. Another DNA match was discovered on a tree stump where the bodies were found which belonged to David Jacoby who was with Terry Hobbs on the day of the murder. There is also a partial DNA sample that was taken from one of the penile swabs done at autopsy that does not have enough genetic markers to definitively state that it belongs to any particular individual as compared to the rest of the population, but there was enough markers to exclude all known samples in the case including all three convicted men. Just in the past two weeks, two other “foreign” DNA samples were discovered on some shoelaces that do not match any known samples in the case again excluding the WM3.

Also, witnesses began to recant their 1993 and 1994 statements and defense investigators uncovered additional new evidence that lead to the inescapable conclusion that these kids were absolutely innocent. The legal team continued to expand to include lawyers from all over the country, and none of us, including the celebrity donors, were going to let this injustice stand. Then suddenly the media finally realized that the nonsensical drama that was presented in court in 1994 to obtain the convictions against the WM3 was not what they had been told it was, and what was left of the State’s case completely unraveled.

The prosecution’s theory was that the case was a Satanic Ritualistic Homicide. The problem with this is that just like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, there is no such thing as a Satanic Ritualistic Homicide. The FBI’s own Ken Lanning has never been able to document a single case of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide anywhere on the planet. Similar studies in the UK have revealed the same thing. Thus, as it became more and more apparent that there were going to be new trials in the case, the state was going to have to use the only evidence that they had left which was Misskelley’s Satanic Ritualistic Homicide false confession. Some of your readers will point to other statements Misskelley said, or may have made, subsequent to the trials Misskelley is so mentally handicapped, he would say or admit to anything. I know this because I have been the only person on the case who has watched this unfold over the course of the past 18 years. I could get him today to admit to killing JFK in Dallas in 20 minutes or less and he wasn’t even born yet in 1963. He and I could sit down and solve every “unsolved” murder in the country if people were still willing to believe in false confessions. Those who use Misskelley’s false confession as evidence of guilt for the WM3 simply do not understand the dynamics or the psychology of interrogations and false confessions. If they themselves were ever submitted to the same mental torture that Misskelley endured then they would immediately understand. Another example of a coerced confession would be any one of our pilots who are interrogated and forced to give false confessions even though they are trained on how not to do this. No human can withstand mental torture for very long, especially someone who is mentally handicapped.

Frankly, “Yea,” “Uh-huh,” and “Okay” are not words consistent with a real confession. This is what you find in the Misskelley statements. Police officers today are trained not to ask leading questions and look for information from suspects that only that only someone who was actually at a crime scene would actually know about. Police and Prosecutors (for the most part) today understand these dynamics and no reasonably intelligent police officer or prosecutor today would even file charges based on such ridiculous evidence, much less accept Misskelley’s statements as either accurate, or as an indication of guilt.

In 1993 and 1994, very few people in the world understood the concept of false confessions. One of the three who did, was with me in the courtroom at the Misskelley trial and Judge Burnett refused to allow him to testify or qualify him as an expert. Ironically, two weeks later in the Echols-Baldwin trial, he allowed a so-called expert in the occult to testify despite the fact that he had an illegitimate mail order PhD from a diploma mill to allow prosecutors to present evidence of a Satanic Ritualistic Homicide, again a phenomenon that simply doesn’t exist. Simply put, the judge allowed junk science to be injected into the trial and scientifically reliable evidence to be excluded.

“Satanic Panic” convicted the WM3 and the hard work of many people from all around the world refused to let this injustice stand. To try and get a conviction, the State would have had to overcome the best experts and lawyers in the world, and try to prove the first ever Satanic Ritualistic Homicide in the world. No small task I can assure you. The new experts stated that what police and prosecutors thought was sexual mutilation in 1993 was actually post-mortem animal predation.

Morehead's Musings: Observers, particularly those who have followed the WM3 case for years, were stunned last week when it was learned that a meeting in court was scheduled involving the defendants, their families, and legal authorities in Arkansas. Speculation then followed that some kind of deal was in the works, and to everyone's great surprise the WM3 were freed. How did this deal come about?

Dan Stidham: I wasn’t in the room when the plea deal was reached, however, Mara Leveritt reported the exact details of how it happened in the Arkansas Times recently. I defer to her on this issue. I will say that the State of Arkansas, obviously, really wanted this case to go away, and the WM3 wanted to be out of prison for something that they did not do, especially Damien Echols who had been on death row and solitary confinement for over ten years. A rarely used legal doctrine allowed both sides to accomplish their goals, thus ending a case that could have gone on for even more years.

Morehead's Musings: I watched the press conference with Prosecutor Scott Ellington after the announcement that the WM3 were being released, and the deal seemed curious if not contradictory to an outside observer. On the one hand the state had the WM3 admit guilt yet allowed them to maintain their innocence. They also had to agree not to bring civil suit against the State. And when reporters asked in follow up about whether the State still thought the WM3 were guilty, the response was yes, but that the hope was that the three had been rehabilitated. As someone who is familiar with this case, but with no legal background, it seems to me that the State wanted to cover itself legally and politically, while also getting out of an increasingly difficult case from a public relations perspective. Is this view off base? What are your thoughts?

Dan Stidham: There should be no politics in justice, no where, no how, but your view and the reports in the media seem to indicate that “this view” could possibly be on base. I will say that I was proud of the courage the Arkansas Supreme Court displayed for remanding the case back to the trial Court because former Judge, now State Senator, David Burnett earlier had refused to even consider the new and overwhelming evidence in the case in earlier hearings. This was about a two year process as I recall do conduct this appeal.

I also think that despite the allegations of “politics” being invoked by some people in the case, issues I cannot address personally, Prosecutor Scott Ellington has shown considerable courage in agreeing to the “Alford” plea. He deserves great credit for this decision, demonstrated an ability to make tough decisions, and has taken considerable heat over this which I believe is quite unfair. He simply doesn’t deserve it. After all, this case is a case he inherited just last year and he made none of the original decisions that were made in the case back in 1993 and 1994.

Mr. Ellington announced on Thursday that despite the fact that he considers the case “closed” he would consider any new evidence brought to him and would prosecute the real killers if adequate proof was presented to him. Again, quite a courageous move on his part. Also, Governor Beebe recently publicly stated that he would pardon the WM3 if the real killers were discovered. I applaud the Governor’s position in this regard, as it is the right thing to do.

Judge David Laser also deserves credit for his leadership in taking on the issues in this case and accepting the plea that freed the WM3. It was clear to me that he took considerable time and in reviewing the overwhelming amount of evidence in the case. Had the “Alford Plea” not been entered, I truly believe he would have taken the courageous step of granting new trials for the WM3. But this would have meant more time for the Defendants behind bars and perhaps more countless appeals, etc.

These victim’s families deserve better than they got from the WMPD and they deserve closure. I will personally continue to work on this case and others have also pledged their continued support to find the real killers as well. This “Alford Plea” was by no means perfect justice, but it is justice, nonetheless. A man is off death row and three innocent persons who have spent half their lives in prison for something they didn’t do are free at last.

Morehead's Musings: For me this case was a reminder that legal evidence is never interpreted in a vacuum. Some have recently written on this case in connection with "cognitive bias." What part might negative stereotypes of heavy metal music, the Goth subculture, minority religions like Wicca, and fears over the occult have played in how evidence and the defendants were interpreted?

Dan Stidham: Negative stereotypes played a huge role in the case. In fact, I was invited yesterday to write a law review article on that very subject. We in the criminal justice system must be very careful not to let fear, prejudice, bias, and culture, or sub-culture issues interfere with our ability to interpret facts and evidence. Just as there should be no politics injected into our criminal justice system, there is no room for stereotypes of any kind there as well. It can lead to injustice, something that I personally cannot tolerate in any form or fashion. The goal of our criminal justice system is truth and justice and to allow fear and panic to rule the day is wrong and it erodes public confidence in our criminal justice system. There is a reason that the statue, and icon of justice, “Lady Justice” has a blindfold on.

Morehead's Musings: What lessons would you like people to take away from the tragic experiences of the WM3 in this case?

Dan Stidham: Wow. There are so many. First of all, that sometimes things are not always as they first appear. That we should never let anything like this happen again to anybody and that there are a myriad of things that we can do to prevent them from happening, and we should be doing them all right now.

Let’s not let fear and prejudice be invoked into any criminal trial. Let us demand that our Courts and legislatures mandate that all interrogations be recorded from beginning to end so that we can see what really happens in the interrogation room. This protects the police as well as the defendant.

If we are not going to let polygraph evidence to be introduced into evidence in Court, then let’s stop letting the police use it as a “tool” to extract false confessions from people, especially the mentally handicapped. The first vote from the jury in the Misskelley trial was 7-5. Mr. Crow and I had convinced 5 of 12 jurors that there was “reasonable doubt” in the case. Imagine what the turnout might have been had the jury been allowed to hear Dr. Richard Ofshe (who has a real PhD and a Pulitzer Prize) testify about the nature of the false confession….and hear Warren Holmes testify that Misskelley had actually passed the polygraph test that the WMPD told him that he had “flunked” and that he was “lying his ass off.” It might have saved him, Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, from 18 years and 78 days that can never be restored back to them.

Interestingly, in 1993 only Minnesota and Alaska required full recording of all confessions in felony cases. Today, 17 States require it either through Court mandate or legislative mandate. We must all work together to get this number up to all 50 States. We are making progress. We must continue to find ways to improve our criminal justice system that is already the best the world has to offer. But we make mistakes sometimes and we must never let our ego keep us from correcting these mistakes.

We must also not forget all the other wrongfully convicted defendants, some of which who are now on death row and who didn’t have the luxury of HBO documentaries and major donors to assist them with their appeals. Even the most casual observer can look at the Innocence Project’s website and see that the number of exonerations due to DNA evidence is skyrocketing. Faulty eye witness testimony, false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, and junk science like hair and fiber comparisons which can mislead juries are at blame. With the number of these cases, we know there are other innocents out there some of which who are death row and some of which who have already been executed for crimes that they did not commit.

Lastly, a lesson I would like people to take away from this case is the power of prayer and the power of never giving up. Winston Churchill once said: “Never, never, never, give up.” We didn’t and we prevailed. There were many dark days over the course of the past 18 years and every time I got down or depressed, I would get and email or a letter from someone on, or the other side of the planet thanking me for standing by my client and not giving up. I would like to thank each and every one of these folks who contacted me, encouraged me and sustained me in those darkest days. They truly inspired me and kept me going forward.

Morehead's Musings: Since your work with the WM3 you have developed a speaking program where you touch on things like false confessions and satanic panics. Can you tell readers a little about your seminar work and how they might get in touch to schedule you for their event?

Dan Stidham: I have been speaking about the case on college campuses and at professional seminars around the country for the past 18 years talking about this particular injustice and the ways that we can prevent cases like this from happening again. Fortunately, I get to add a few more slides and a happy ending to my power point presentation. I hope to keep getting invited to speak about the case even though the case is now over so that the next generation of lawyers, judges, prosecutors and police officers can learn from the mistakes of the West Memphis case and what we can do to improve our system of justice. The WM3 case has already become an icon for injustice in America and hopefully the invitations will keep coming my way. I really enjoy speaking about the case.

Information about my public speaking program, which I am in the process of up-dating can be found at

I have also decided to write a book about my experiences in the case. I have been kicking around the idea for years but until now I could never decide if I really wanted to re-live the pain of the past. Now that this pain has been strongly mitigated by the freedom of the WM3 it made my decision both easier and obvious. I plan to get started this weekend. The truth of what happened and why it happened must be told. I also think it might be therapeutic for me personally to write this book.

Morehead's Musings: Mr. Stidham, thank you so much for your ongoing work on behalf of the WM3.

Dan Stidham: Thank you for your kind and generous words and the opportunity to follow up with our earlier discussion for your readers. I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to thank a couple of people without which the freedom of the WM3 would not have been possible. If I tried to name everyone, there is always the danger of leaving someone out as there are so many folks who worked for so many years on this case. Despite the danger, let me acknowledge a few folks like John Phillipsborn, who is without a doubt the best lawyer I have ever encountered. Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger who first brought this case to the attention of the world through their HBO documentaries and to the attention of people like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Johnny Depp who along with countless others donated money to fund the defense and particularly the DNA testing. Eddie Vedder is perhaps the most incredible and generous individual that I have ever met.

Of course, Lori Davis and Mara Leveritt’s work was instrumental. Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh also donated funding for the case. Obviously, their generosity helped tremendously to bring about justice in this case. My many thanks, and best wishes to them for their support.

Old friends like Grove Pashley, Burk Sauls, Kathy Bakken and Lisa Fancher also had a huge impact on this case along with new friends like Amy Berg who is working on a documentary on the case.

I would also like to take time to thank my children who let their Dad miss a few ballgames and other things while they were young so I could keep this case alive long enough for help to arrive. And when the cavalry arrived, did they ever! Also my parents deserve credit for instilling in me the qualities I needed to do my work on this case and live my life. My family was as proud of what happened on Friday as I was. Thanks.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Transitions completed

Readers may recall my previous post regarding my work on Transitions, an resource designed for those who have made the decision to migrate out of Mormonism and into traditional Christianity. I am pleased to announce that the video and workbook are the first three chapters are available for viewing on Vimeo.

Transitions : the Mormon migration from religion to relationship - PART 1 from WIIS on Vimeo.

Transitions Part 2 - Relationships from WIIS on Vimeo.

Transitions Part 3 - Church Culture from WIIS on Vimeo.

For more information on Transitions see the website at

We are holding the first seminar related to this resource titled "Using Transitions in Congregations," September 17 from 8:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. The seminary is free and is for pastors and other coaching people to assist others using Transitions as a tool for former Mormon immigrants. This event will be held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 8575 South 700 East in Sandy. Email for a flyer with more information and to pre-register.

Friday, August 19, 2011

West Memphis Three Freed!

In the past I have discussed the tragic case of the three young men known as the West Memphis Three who were convicted and imprisoned for eighteen years for allegedly engaging in a satanic or occult crime on three boys in Arkansas. This link includes my analysis, and this one is an interview with Dan Stidham, the defense attorney for one of the men.

Although the evidence against them years ago was weak to non-existent, and later DNA evidence failed to link them to the crime (even pointing toward another individual), the legal system and politicians in Arkansas seemed content to refuse to reconsider the case. The, seemingly out of the blue, a meeting was called involving the young men, their families, and the legal system. Today, we watched with a mixture of amazement, shock, and happiness, as the men were released after a plea deal was agreed to. The deal makes no sense in that the three had to plead guilty, and yet were allowed to maintain their innocence while recognizing the court had sufficient evidence to convict them at a new trial. They are also barred from filing a civil suit against the state. This strange plea deal seems aimed less at justice and fairness in the case, and more toward the Arkansas legal and political system saving face and covering their asses as the conviction and sense of injustice became an international incident.

As we rejoice over the freedom of the West Memphis Three this is time to remember that facts and evidence are not interpreted in a vacuum, but take their meaning and plausibility in social and cultural contexts. When this is tainted by satanic panic it can have dire consequences.

For those interested in learning more about this case see the book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt (Atria Books, 2003)), and the documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Krista Tippet On Being: The Civil Conversation Project

The new email for Krista Tippet's On Being program focuses on The Civil Conversations Project. The email describes the project in this way:
Restoring Political Civility
Conservative Christian voices are prominent in our most heated debates. Evangelical educator Richard Mouw has wisdom on navigating fear, and the temptation it brings to distort the truth about those we see as enemies. This is part of the Civil Conversations Project — ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces.

How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?
Tippet goes on to interview Mouw which includes some interesting exchanges on this much-needed subject matter. After quoting a passage from of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah on seeking the Shalom, the peace of others, Mouw elaborates:
And how do we look at what was in that context, you know? Hebrew people in exile trying to figure out how in the world they're going to relate to a pagan culture. And then God says, seek their Shalom, seek their well-being, you know, even if you disagree radically with them. And then in the New Testament, the Apostle Peter says that we have to honor all human beings and have a regard for their well-being. I take those to be sort of different ways of getting at a very common Biblical theme. What does it mean for me to honor the Muslim, to honor the Mormon, to honor people of unbelief who are hostile toward Christianity? What does it mean to honor them? And then I think we need to work at the theology there, you know. How do we view other people?
The transcript of this interview is worth considering, as are the merits of The Civil Conversations Project, which has implications beyond interreligious conversations and relationships.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sacred Tribes Journal, Stephen Webb, Mormonism, and Christian Materialism

The next issue of Sacred Tribes Journal due out later this year will focus on neglected issues of dialogue between Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians. A major facet of this issue will interact with Stephen H. Webb.Webb's forthcoming book on divine embodiment. Webb did his PhD at the University of Chicago, and he teaches in religion and philosophy at Wabash College. He has written on various topics, including Mormonism, where he came across Robert Millet and Gerald McDermott's dialogue book Claiming Christ, found the interaction and subject matter intriguing, and wrote a piece for Reviews in Religion and Theology.

As an outgrowth of this, Webb has written Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, November 2011), where he argues that traditional Christians can learn from Mormonism regarding the notion of divine embodiment. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue for a traditional Christian notion of God's materiality, and that orthodox Christian theology needs to reflect further on this topic. Here is a description of the book provided by Webb:

If modern physics teaches us that matter is more mysterious than people used to think, could the spiritual be more material than theologians ever imagined? This book conceptualizes matter and spirit not as opposites or even contraries but as the very stuff of the eternal Jesus Christ. The result is a Christian materialism based on a new metaphysical interpretation of the incarnation. Webb provides an audacious revision of some of the deepest layers of Christian common sense with the goal of constructing a more metaphysically sound orthodoxy. Taking matter as a perfection (or predicate) of the divine requires a rethinking of the immateriality of God, the doctrine of creation out of nothing, the Chalcedonian formula of the person of Christ, and the analogical nature of religious language. It also requires a careful reconsideration of Augustine’s appropriation of the Neo-Platonic understanding of divine incorporeality as well as Origen’s rejection of anthropomorphism. Webb locates his position in contrast to evolutionary theories of emergent materialism and the popular idea that the world is God’s body. He draws on a little known theological position known as the “heavenly flesh” Christology, investigates the many misunderstandings of its origins and its relation to the Monophysite movement, and supplements it with retrievals of Duns Scotus, Caspar Scwenckfeld and Eastern Orthodox reflections on the transfiguration. Also included are discussions of classical figures like Barth and Aquinas as well as more recent theological proposals from Bruce McCormack, David Hart, and Colin Gunton. Perhaps most provocatively, the book argues that Mormonism provides the most challenging, urgent, and potentially rewarding source for metaphysical renewal today.
Francis Beckwith at Baylor University, a Roman Catholic scholar, and Charles Randall Paul of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, a Mormon scholar, have agreed to review Webb's book and responsive and interactive essays. Other essays, and a book review of Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition (Ashgate, 2010), will also be included in this exploration of neglected issues in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

I have just begun working through an advance copy of the uncorrected proof for Webb's Jesus Christ, Eternal God in preparation for my editing of this edition of STJ. I think readers will find the book, and the interactions at STJ of great interest, and some level of controversy (as Webb himself acknowledges), particularly where Webb interacts with Mormon metaphysics. From Webb's Introduction:
Chapter 9 might be the most controversial of my book, because I am convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has much to contribute to contemporary theology, especially on the topic of Christian materialism. Unfortunately, creedal Christians rarely take Mormonism seriously. Perhaps the main reason for this neglect is the Mormon rejection of creation out of nothing, which puts it at odds with most of Western meta- physics and Christian theology. None of its philosophical positions has made it more prone to scholarly condescension than this one. Moreover, any attempt to articulate the perfectibility of matter runs the risk of being accused of a con- spiratorial alliance with the hermetic tradition, a confluence of magical, religious, and philosophical teachings that made every effort to infuse spirit into matter. Hermeticism is the opposite of Gnosticism; it seeks to enable matter to reach its potential by discerning the seeds of creativity planted therein (and thus is the father of emergent materialism), while Gnosticism sees matter as the evil product of an evil creator. I defend the Mormon tradition from the charge of esotericism, though admittedly its metaphysical presuppositions can be reconstructed in a variety of ways, given the informality of much Mormon the- ology. I think that traditional or creedal theologians have more to learn from Mormonism than any other religious tradition today, and that the Mormon position on matter can be reasonably defended, though I offer some suggestions on how to revise it in the light of the teaching of heavenly flesh.
We are planning on this issue of the journal being published by year's end. I highly recommend Jesus Christ, Eternal God for those interested in pursuing significant theological topics, particularly those that intersect with Mormon theology. The book can be ordered through Oxford University Press.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

John Stott: RAndall Balmer's Memorial at Religion Dispatches

John Stott, the great evangelical statesman, recently passed away. He has long been a role model for me as he combined his faith with not only a commitment to sharing that faith with gentleness and respect, but also in his holistic approach to his faith and his willingness to reassess aspects of it (such as in his leanings toward annihilationism in contrast with eternal punishment, a point worth considering in light of the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy).

Randall Balmer recently wrote a piece in Stott's memory for Religion Dispatches that is worth reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guest Post at Flunking Sainthood: The Younger Evangelicals and 'Embodied Ministry'

As an outgrowth of my recent guest appearance on a panel at the Mormon Matters podcast, Jana Riess invited me to write a guest post at her blog Flunking Sainthood. You can find the post titled "Are Younger Evangelicals More Respectful of Mormonism Than the Old Guard?". If you're an evangelical, please reserve judgment until you read the piece before rejecting it simply by the title. Here's my introductory paragraph:

In his book The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Baker, 2002), the late Robert E. Webber discussed the diversity of Protestant evangelicalism, and developments in this subculture’s religious landscape. He defined “younger evangelicals” to include anyone “who deals thoughtfully with the shift from 20th- to 21st-century culture.” These shifts involve different attitudes to theology, culture, and other religions. I include myself in this demographic (perhaps more by like-mindedness than age), and offer my thoughts on what this involves for evangelicals engaging Mormon culture.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders and Religious Conflict

The Pew Form on Religion and Public Life has an interesting report out titled "Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders." One section addresses this group's opinion of religious conflict and other religions:

Conflict between religious groups, by contrast, does not loom as a particularly large concern for most of the evangelical leaders surveyed. A majority says that conflict between religious groups is either a small problem (41%) or not a problem at all (14%) in their countries – though a sizeable minority considers it either a moderately big problem (27%) or a very big problem (17%). Those who live in the Middle East and North Africa are especially inclined to see inter-religious conflict as a moderately big (37%) or very big problem (35%). Nine-in-ten evangelical leaders (90%) who live in Muslim-majority countries say the influence of Islam is a major threat, compared with 41% of leaders who live elsewhere.

On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.

Later the report discusses tensions between religious traditions:
Overall, most of the evangelical leaders report that conflict between religious groups is not a big problem in their home countries. Leaders in the Middle East and North Africa are most likely to say religious conflict is a moderately big (37%) or very big (35%) problem. About half of those in the Asia-Pacific region (55%) and sub-Saharan Africa (49%) also see inter-religious conflict as a moderately or very big problem. By contrast, in North America, Latin America and Europe, majorities say it is either a small problem or not a problem at all.

Still, the survey finds some signs of tension with non-Christian religions, particularly Islam. Nearly seven-in-ten of the evangelical leaders (69%) name Islam as more prone to violence than other religions.7 Far more leaders say Islam and Christianity are “very different” (69%) than say the two faiths have “a lot in common” (25%). And a solid majority of the leaders who express an opinion (69%) feel that Muslims are generally unfriendly toward evangelicals in their country. Sizeable minorities also see Hindus (41%) and Buddhists (39%) as unfriendly toward evangelicals. Of the evangelical leaders who express opinions on other religious groups, most say they hold generally unfavorable views of Hindus (65%), Buddhists (65%) and Muslims (67%).

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I'm a Guest at Mormon Matters Podcast

Yesterday I was asked to be a guest as an evangelical on the Mormon Matters podcast. I will be appearing and discussing a variety of issues with host Dan Wotherspoon, and fellow guests Joanna Brooks, and Jana Reiss. We will be recording our conversation this coming Monday, June 13.

The discussion will surround an article by Warren Smith in Patheos which argued that evangelicals should not vote for Mitt Romney since a vote for him is, in his words, "a vote for the LDS Church."

You can also read a follow up interview with him at Patheos, and an interview with him by Joanna Brooks at Religion Dispatches.

Update: A written introduction and the podcast, "Why Are Mormons Seen as 'Dangerous by Some Evangelical Christians," can be read and listened to here at Mormon Matters.

In addition, Jana Riess has written an article in follow up to our conversation titled "When Theological Disagreement Spills Over into Anti-Mormonism" at her blog Flunking Sainthood.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

New Volume on Heaven's Gate

I recently learned of a new academic exploration of the Heaven's Gate UFO religious group.

Heaven's Gate:
Postmodernity and Popular Culture in a Suicide Group

Edited by George D. Chryssides, University of Birmingham, UK

On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 men and women were found in an opulent mansion outside San Diego, all victims of a mass suicide. Messages left by the Heaven's Gate group indicate that they believed they were stepping out of their 'physical containers' in order to ascend to a UFO that was arriving in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. The Heaven's Gate suicides were part of a series of major incidents involving New Religions in the 1990s, as the new millennium approached. Despite the major attention that Heaven's Gate attracted at the time of the suicides, there have been relatively few scholarly studies. This anthology on Heaven's Gate includes a combination of articles previously published in academic journals, some new writings from experts in the field, and some original Heaven's Gate documents. All the material is expertly brought together under the editorship of George D. Chryssides.

Contents: Foreword; Approaching Heaven's Gate, George D. Chryssides; '88 update – the UFO Two and their crew: a brief synopsis, Marshall Herff Applewhite; Seekers and saucers: the role of the cultic milieu in joining a UFO cult, Robert W. Balch and David Taylor; Religious studies and 'heaven's gate': making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, Mark W. Muesse; Heaven's Gate: the dawning of a new religious movement, Patricia L. Goerman; Heaven's Gate: a study of religious obedience, Winston Davis; The Devil at Heaven's Gate: rethinking the study of religion in the age of cyberspace, Hugh B. Urban; 'A sometimes mysterious place': Heaven's Gate and the manufactured crisis of the internet, Douglas E. Cowan; Scaling Heaven's Gate individualism and salvation in a new religious movement, Benjamin Ethan Zeller; 'Come on up and I will show thee': Heaven's Gate as a post-modern group, George D. Chryssides; Postscript; Appendix; Bibliography; Index.

About the Editor: George D. Chryssides is Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He has written extensively on new religious movements: his books include The Advent of Sun Myung Moon (Macmillan, 1991), Exploring New Religions (Cassell, 1999), Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements (Scarecrow Press, 2001) and A Reader in New Religious Movements (with Margaret Z. Wilkins, Continuum, 2006). He has contributed to numerous academic journals and edited collections.

Reviews: 'Heaven's Gate is one of the most interesting new religious groups to emerge in the twentieth century. Virtually unknown to scholars prior to its communal suicide in 1997, it has become the focus of significant research and important analysis. This worthwhile collection of studies is the most comprehensive to date. I enthusiastically commend it to anyone interested in understanding, not just UFO religions, but also the emergence and significance of new religions and alternative spiritualities more generally.'
-- Christopher Partridge, Lancaster University, UK

For further information, or to order a copy visit the Ashgate website.