Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review of The Theology of Battlestar Galactica at Colloquium

My review of Kevin Wetmore's The Theology of Battlestar Galactica: American Christianity in the 2004-2009 Television Series (McFarland, 2012) has been accepted for publication in Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review. The review will be published in issue 45, no. 2 in November 2013. A copy is available on my page.

Friday, December 14, 2012

These Aren’t the Religions You’re Looking For: Jedi Church, Postmodern Spirituality and the Christian Response

The UK census recently made a splash in the international media, but it was largely sensationalistic, focusing on the identification of many with the religion of Jedi Knight. In a guest post at Timothy Dairymple's blog at the Evangelical Channel of Patheos, I argue that Evangelicals should put this phenomenon in its broader cultural and religious context, and then offer several points for consideration.
An excerpt from the essay:
According to the Office for National Statistics in the UK, 59 percent of the population in England and Wales identified themselves as Christian, 25 percent as “No religion,’ followed by very small percentages representing Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism. Those identified as “Jedi Knight” ranked fifth on the survey, and Spiritualist, Pagan, Atheist, and various Pagan spiritualities are represented as well. Significant shifts are present in this data, with Christianity dropping from 71 percent of the population in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011. In addition, there has been a rise in those reporting no religious affiliation, moving from almost 15 percent to 25 percent. The number of Muslims also saw an increase, as did the number of those identifying as Pagans.

Given this data, it is curious as to why the media chose to focus on those identifying with Jediism, particularly since this self-identification has decreased, and there are critical questions about whether this represents a spiritual self-identification for many, or an attempt at toying with the census results.  The emphasis on the exotic spirituality of Jediism to the neglect of other elements of the survey and its broader context obscures the significance of the changing religious landscape, not only in the UK, but in the West as well.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The BLOOM series explores Transformational Festivals

Previously I have mentioned the work of Jeet-Kei Leung on Transformational Festivals. He has recently completed a film series on this with Akira Chan called The Bloom: A Journey Through Transformational Festivals. The description on the website reads "THE BLOOM, a ground-breaking new documentary webseries, illuminates the blossoming phenomenon of Transformational Festivals, immersive participatory realities that are having profound life-changing effects on hundreds of thousands of lives."

In addition:
Amidst the global crisis of a dysfunctional old paradigm, a new renaissance of human culture is underway. Over the course of 4 episodes and 23 transformational festivals around the globe, THE BLOOM: A JOURNEY THROUGH TRANSFORMATIONAL FESTIVALS explores the alchemy of themes that weave a true story of genuine hope and inspiration for our times: A new blooming of human consciousness emerging through creativity, love and joy & an emerging culture pointing the way to a bright and promising future. THE BLOOM tells the vibrant, compelling and colorful story of a cultural renaissance in progress with the artistic sensibility and inspired creativity from which the culture has been birthed.
THE BLOOM promotes the sustainability and evolution of transformational festival culture by creating a shared vocabulary & understanding of essential issues, empowering participants to contribute towards the integrity of the culture and be a part of collectively navigating its course.
THE BLOOM builds a bridge of understanding and creates an invitation to communities and allies with similar values who may find resonance with the transformational aspects of festival culture.
THE BLOOM contributes to the creation of a better world by disseminating the model created in transformational festivals to communities and audiences in many contexts.
Transformational Festivals includes things like Burning Man Festival, so I am pleased to see this research expanded and its significance explored. I would add that Transformational Festivals should also incorporate science fiction and fantasy conventions given that their participants often adopt a sense of sacred mythos, involve themselves in pilgrimage, and many times find an ethic and personal transformation through such gathers. See my previous reflections on this here.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Patheos Book Club: Do Jews, Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

There is a new volume out that is leading to some interesting discussions on an old topic. The book is Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? (Abingdon Press), with contributions with contributions by Jacob Neusner, Baruch A. Levine, Bruce D. Chilton, and Vincent J. Cornell. Martin Marty wrote an epilogue for the volume. The book's description:
Most Jews, Muslims, and Christians are devoted and faithful. Still, on any given day, it’s difficult to avoid the vigorous and heated disputes between them, whether over the “Ground Zero” mosque, lobbying state legislatures against Sharia law, sharing worship space, dissecting the fallout of the Arab Spring, protecting civil rights, or challenging the authority of sacred texts. With so much rancor, can there be any common ground? Do they even worship the same God? And can religion, which often is so divisive, be any help at all? Four internationally known scholars set out to tackle these deceptively simple questions in an accessible way. Some scholars argue that while beliefs about God may differ, the object of worship is ultimately the same. However, these authors take a more pragmatic view. While they may disagree, they nevertheless assert that whatever they answers to these questions, the three faiths must find the will (politically, socially, and personally) to tolerate differences. Perhaps what can help us move forward as pluralistic people is ia focus on the goal – peace with justice for all.
This book is presently part of a review and discussion at Patheos, with contributions thus far from Robert Hunt, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, and Bruce Epperly. One aspect of the volume has generated some interesting discussion, a paragraph by Jacob Neusner in the volume, where he writes:
“Interfaith dialogue is made possible by monotheism, which defines the common ground on the foundations of which debate can take place. Polytheism defines dialogue out of existence, making provision, rather, for an exchange of opinions in a spirit of tolerance.”
Hunt seems to agree with Neusner, whereas Herschfield disagrees. In my experience in interreligious dialogue with adherents of many different religious traditions, including Pagans, monotheism is not a necessary foundation. What is needed is the willingness of the participants to dialogue and to be in agreement as to the type and format of dialogue through which the conversation will develop. Hunt responds in the comments to Herschfield that
For conversation to be fruitful we do need to know what we are talking about. Let’s take “faith” as in “interfaith.” The hidden assumption in interfaith dialogue is the modern, Schleiermachian, assumption of a universal human faith in something. That faith is understood to be refracted through various religious (and sects, and personal beliefs) which, with varying degrees of adequacy (or complete equality if you wish) point toward that “Something” that is (however obscured) the universal object of faith. What Neusner’s comment points us toward is the possibility that no such universal “faith” exists. Put another way he is asserting that dialogue depends on having a common object of investigation and discussion. And he is suggesting that at least with regard to faith polytheists don’t believe that there exists a common faith to be the object of investigation and discussion and therefore can’t enter into real inter-faith dialogue. Of course polytheists will need to speak for themselves about whether that is true.
Again I disagree with Hunt, and if he understands Neusner correctly, then I disagree with him as well. Human beings have profound disagreement about what "faith in something" entails, and broad based assumptions or agreements about the nature of the transcendent as "an object of investigation and discussion" are not necessary before dialogue can begin. Indeed, these are some of the pressing disagreements that must be worked through by the dialogue process, not as a prior commitment before dialogue takes place. I hope this review and discussion at Patheos invites lots of input and commentary. I'd especially like to see my fellow FRD members, and my Pagan colleagues, provide comments on Hirschfeld's and Hunt's review essays.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Bob Roberts's "Bold as Love" Debuts

Pastor Bob Roberts's new book debuts today, Bold as Love (Thomas Nelson). Bob is one of the leading Evangelical pastors in the nation who has been involved not only in growing his Northwood Church in Texas, but also in international missions, and interreligious dialogue. When I began putting together the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Bob was one of the first Evangelicals I encountered, and he was very helpful in steering me towards others and in modeling dialogue himself. The Amazon page for Bold as Love describes it this way:
People often think of their neighbors as those already belonging to their “tribe” or community. It’s safe, it’s easy, and it doesn’t often cause conflict—politically or religiously. But in today’s world, everyone and everything is interconnected globally in an ever-changing cultural landscape, while religious strife runs rampant. Is it feasible for Christians to live their faith boldly and lovingly while entering into a true relationship with “neighbors” of other faiths, both locally and globally? In Bold as Love, Pastor Bob Roberts shows you what it looks like to live out your faith daily in the global public square among people of other faiths—Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists. While he admits that it can be challenging to engage people of other faiths whose beliefs are as strong as yours, he demonstrates how to enter into this critical dialogue in a radical yet loving way. “We have to learn to speak with one conversation and give the same message everywhere to everyone,” he says. “We are commanded to love God and love others. And sometimes that requires risky boldness.” Roberts invites you to respond to this call to live a life of fearless and loving engagement with the world. So take the risk! Your faith wasn’t made to live in isolation. It’s something you do face-to-face, heart-to-heart, hand-to-hand. Whether you are in a suburb of Houston or a village in India, put away the fear and suspicion and, instead, answer the call to radically love others the way God loves. And get ready to see your life and the lives of those you touch—your family, your community, even your enemies—transformed!
I encourage Evangelicals and those of other religious traditions to read Bob's book. In addition to the listing at Amazon you can learn more at Bob's Facebook page, and you can see Bob discuss his book at his website at

Friday, November 30, 2012

Interview with Bob Robinson at Patheos

My interview with Bob Robinson is now up at the Evangelical Channel at Patheos. My thanks to Bob and Timothy Diarymple at Patheos for this.

How Would Jesus Interact with a Muslim? An Interview with Bob Robinson In Jesus' time, relations between Samaritans and Jews were uncannily parallel to that between Muslims and Christians now. 

Bob Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Theology at Laidlaw College in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is also a charter member of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religions Diplomacy. He is the author of Christians Meeting Hindus (2004), and the new volume Jesus and the Religions. He and I had the following discussion of the ideas surrounding his new book.

An excerpt from the interview:

If Evangelicals will pause for a moment of critical self-reflection, how does some of the way of Jesus in interreligious encounter provide a rebuke for contemporary Christians?

In my experience, Evangelicals often or even usually react to the presence of other religions with either indifference or suspicion and anxiety; or fear, denigration, and triumphalistic confrontation. Liberals typically react with romanticized naïveté or even guilt—and I'm opposed to those attitudes too! But when Jesus meets the "aliens" of his day—Gentiles and Samaritans—he engages them with love, sympathy, help, and even appreciation at times. In our Christian denominations we greatly resent it when we're subject to misrepresentation by other churches. Well, Muslims feel the same about many of our attitudes to them.

Loving Our Religious Neighbors Program

Joshua Daneshforooz is one of the board members for the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He is finalizing the text for the leader's guide and participant workbook for the Loving Our Religious Neighbors program. Josh describes the material by saying "Loving Our Religious Neighbors will equip you with the biblical foundation and practical skills to faithfully and respectfully build relationships with people from different faiths through the fruit of the Spirit." This will be a major educational component for our chapter in both college and university campuses, as well as local churches. Visit the website for more information.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Driscoll Takes a Bite Out of Twilight: Porn for Girls?

In years past Evangelicals expressed fears about Harry Potter, alleging that the widespread interest in the literary and cinematic phenomenon opened the doors to Witchcraft and Paganism among children, youth, and adults alike. With Harry Potter now in the past, a new boogeyman has arisen.

The new threat comes in the form of vampires and the occult. This is the opinion of Mark Driscoll in his blog post titled "A Father's Fright of Twilight." The byline reads "Twilight is for teenage girls what porn is to teenage boys: sick, twisted, evil, dangerous, deceptive, and popular." Driscoll is an Evangelical and the founding pastor of Mars Hill church. This is something of a mismatch in that the name of the church is taken from the Apostle Paul's sermon at the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17, and while Paul's message represents a great lesson in a Christian cross-cultural understanding and communication, Driscoll's latest blog post on Twilight is, by contrast, an example of poor theology and cultural interaction.

In his blog post, Driscoll connects the books and films to teenage acts of self-destruction, vampirism, and the occult. He writes:

"I have ranted on this garbage-tastic phenomenon before, and find the whole genre profoundly troubling. The popularity of supernatural soap operas has inspired some real-life demonic trends. Overreaction? Tell that to the kids biting, cutting, drinking blood – sometimes while having sex – and sinking deeper into the occult."

Driscoll then includes quotes from various sources with teens who describe their interest in cutting and blood drinking, as well as the "growing vampire subculture" as documentation and confirmation of his concerns. For Driscoll, this is all "entirely pagan," and opens the door to "demonic deception." He then concludes with his hopes by way of response that includes a biblical reference:

As a pastor and a father, I am particularly concerned for Christian parents who are naively allowing this filth into their children’s lives, buying these books and driving kids to see these movies. To such parents, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment...

While I appreciate the concerns that a father and pastor has for children,  his congregation, and the broader Christian community, the irony for me is that Driscoll's analysis does not include the knowledge and discernment he wants to see in others. In fact, he exemplifies some of the worst sensationalism and alarmism that Evangelicals are unfortunately known for when it comes to minority religions such as paganism, social identities like vampires, and popular culture.

How is this the case? First, Driscoll has confused the literary and cinematic expressions of the horror vampire with real-world vampirism. The two are very different. One derives from folklore and horror, and in the case of Twilight, from teen paranormal romance, and the other is a social identity found in the real world. This is not to say that there may not be overlaps at times in certain cases, but Evangelicals all too readily make the worst kinds of assumptions and connections that many times aren't there.

Second, Driscoll draws a cause and effect relationship between reading books or watching films related to paranormal fantasy vampires and teens who cut themselves and identify in some way with blood letting and consumption. This relationship is assumed, not proven, and none of the sources he quotes in the post demonstrate what he thinks he is proving.

Third, Driscoll does not understand the vampire subculture he finds so objectionable. He paints a picture of sexual deviancy and blood drinking, likely without any attempt at engaging the diversity of self-identified vampires, or good resources on the subject like the Atlanta Vampire Alliance or Joseph Laycock's fine book Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009). The result is a case of continued ignorance, misrepresentation, and bearing false witness about our neighbors.

Fourth, Driscoll connects all of this to paganism and the occult. Where is his evidence of this? He provides no evidence that contemporary pagans are somehow connected to the Twilight phenomenon, or that those who identify with esotericism are conspiring to consume the blood of young innocents. In the absence of evidence Driscoll argues by sheer assertion, and unfortunately perpetuates the ignorance and fears of the Western esoteric tradition, usually known by the more pejorative term "the occult" among Evangelicals, and associates it with forms of cultural deviancy such as blood drinking and sexual perversion. Not only is this inaccurate, but Driscoll might recall that the earliest Christians were also viewed with suspicion as the members of a Jewish cult who were said to engage in sexual deviancy, while also eating their founder's flesh and drinking his blood. Just as those in first century Palestine passed along the worst rumors and allegations about the Christian sect, so too has Driscoll, now a member of Christianity that has shifted from the margins to a position of power, passes along rumors about other minority groups. 

As an aside, perhaps Driscoll is unaware that the author of the Twilight series is a Mormon, and that the film incorporates aspects of the author's religious ethics, such as sexual chastity before marriage. (See my past review on the initial film in the series for more on this topic.) Why would a member of a religious group that values families write a series of books that allegedly incorporates "the occult" and leads to blood drinking? Regardless of such considerations, it is unlikely that such reflections would factor into a reappraisal of the Twilight material since Mormons remain high on the list of "dangerous cult groups" for many Evangelicals.

Remember at this juncture that Driscoll wants Evangelical parents to respond with knowledge and discernment. But the unfortunate end result of his problematic pop cultural and theological analysis is that Driscoll ends up passing along misinformation, perpetuating fears, and modeling poor cultural engagement for Christian parents, their children, and Evangelicals in congregations who take him as a credible voice on such matters. In addition, by focusing on staying away from or stamping out such pseudo-issues we waste valuable time and energy that could be spent on very real and important matters such as identifying with the poor and marginalized, world hunger, and religiously-fueled violence.

For those interested in a more fair, balanced, and sophisticated understanding of these topics I recommend the resources linked to above in the AVA and Laycock on vampires, the book Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega (Lion, 2008) for an example of a more helpful and responsible interaction between Christianity and paganism, and my chapter in The Undead and Theology (Pickwick, 2012) for an example of an informed and balanced theological interaction with horror in popular culture.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Patheos: A Biblical Foundation for Interreligious Engagement

My latest essay for the Evangelical Channel of Patheos is now available. It is titled A Biblical Foundation for Interreligious Engagement: Christological hermeneutics, the way of Jesus, love for neighbor, and the art of hospitality. The essay calls into question the popular texts cited by many Evangelicals as the appropriate foundation for interreligious engagement, and then suggests another set of texts and related beliefs and practices as the better way forward. An excerpt from the introduction:
Evangelicals are a “people of the Book,” and any approach to how we live our religion among those of other religious traditions must take this into account. But is it possible that our biblical foundation for intereligious engagement is off kilter? I suggest that it is, and as an alternative I present a more appropriate biblical foundation for interreligious encounters.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Evangelicals and Religious Monstrosity

My latest essay is now available at Patheos, a co-authored piece with Paul Louis Metzger titled "From Religious Threats and Tricks to Treats: A Halloween Homily on Faith Identity Construction." The essay looks at the problem of Evangelical faith identity frequently by way of the creation of "monstrous others" in various religions. From the piece:
What are some examples of the “religious other” monster that we often create? The examples we have in mind do not crave human blood, rise from the grave to consume human flesh, or require a jolt of electricity to return to life as they do in literature and cinema, but they are still threatening, lurking about in the dark shadows of our imaginations.  In years past Evangelicals held to a strong sense of anti-Catholicism, the vestiges of which are still with us. In more recent times our monstrous religious others have been Mormons, Pagans, and Wiccans, and since 9/11 the Muslim community. 
 The essay can be read here.

JFA Review of Supernatural America: A Cultural History

My review of Supernatural America: A Cultural History (Praeger, 2011) by Lawrence R. Samuel will be published soon in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. I have uploaded the review on my page.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review of Eboo Patel's Sacred Ground at Patheos

My latest essay has been published at the Evangelical Channel of Patheos, a combined book review of Brian McLaren's book on Christian faith identities, and Eboo Patel's Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon, 2012). That review can be read here. My more extensive review of McLaren's volume can be read here.

In addition, Nicholas Price, board member for the Evangelical FRD chapter, recently wrote a good essay on Evangelicals and peacemaking through interfaith work that included a mention of me. You can read Nick's essay at RELEVANT.

Unresolvable? documentary screening at UVU

There will be a free screening of the new FRD documentary Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth next Tuesday night, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. on the campus of Utah Valley University at the Library. There will be a panel that includes FRD Chapter Custodians, including myself, who share their thoughts on the film.

Friday, October 19, 2012

McLaren Review at Englewood Books

My review of Brian McLaren's book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books, 2012) is now available online at The Englewood Review of Books. (A shorter review combined with my review of Eboo Patel's book Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America will be published later at the Evangelical Channel at Patheos.) My thanks goes to Brian and Jericho for making a review copy of this book available and for the opportunity to begin a conversation over its ideas, and to Chris Smith at Englewood for the publishing and allowing me an extended word limit to engage the subject matter.

The review brings my background in theology, missiology, and dialogue to bear on the subject matter. This involves a summary of McLaren's thesis on hope for a reformulation of Christian faith identity related to other religions, and an interaction with the major elements of the book including evangelicalism and critical self-reflection, Christological hermeneutics, pnuematological considerations, liturgy and Christ's resurrection, missions and the commonwealth of God, competitive superiority and religious supremacy, and a new way forward for Evangelicals.

Here is a sample from the review that I hope will stimulate conversation in the Evangelical community:
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? purposefully draws upon the fact that the title sounds like the introduction to familiar jokes. But McLaren uses this a rhetorical strategy in order to provide a thought provoking discussion related to his agenda for the church’s reformulation of various areas of theology and praxis. The subject matter should not be understood as a treatise on interreligious dialogue, but instead as addressing pre-dialogue considerations. The central thesis McLaren advances relates to what he labels “Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome,” which he defines as a part of the Christian’s faith identity that involves the extension of hostility or opposition to the other as enemy in regards to those in other religions (19). He expands on this idea with these words:
"Our root problem is neither religious difference nor religious identity nor even strong religious identity. Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong – whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious." (emphasis in original) (63)
McLaren hopes that Christians will consider a change of their identity, moving away from the extension of hostility to one that is ”strongly benevolent toward people of other faiths, accepting them not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love” (emphasis in original) (32).

Monday, October 08, 2012

Fall 2012 Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal

The Fall 2012 issue of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal is now available online. It is a special format which takes a dialogical approach as it looks at Evangelical-Mormon interactions. I have a contribution by way of a review of Richard Mouw's book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Eerdmans, 2012). The format and length limitations precluded more than a cursory suggestion of critical comments, but opens the door for further discussion among Evangelicals as an option beyond apologetic and uncritical dialogical approaches.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Guest at Mormon Matters podcast 127: Grace

I was one of the guests in a new edition of Mormon Matters podcast 127: Grace.
Grace is one of the central concepts in all of Christianity, yet also one of its most contested. What is it? How does it work? Do we as human beings have to do something first for it to perform its healing work? Can we even turn from sin without Grace first being extended to us? What, exactly happened in the Garden of Eden (literally or metaphorically) that caused separation from God (a Fall), and what are its effects on (or the state of) our souls that requires the transformative action of Grace?
Certainly, the concept of Grace is no less debated in Mormonism–or at least, as is suggested in this podcast, it is beginning to now enjoy more focused attention. Is Grace a substance/thing that fills in the “gap” between a standard of perfection that God sets forth and everything we can do on our own in showing our desires and faith? Is it the suffering in the Garden and on the Cross that satisfies the demands of an eternal law of Justice? Is it more like an event–our “getting it” regarding God’s love and our worth that leads us to transformation and a new life in Christ, one in which we yield ever and ever more fully to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, becoming godlike in our compassion for all?

And what about all the Grace vs. Works passages we find in both in the Bible and Mormon scriptures? Is Paul’s meditations in Romans about his own sinful nature and the need for Grace the key text for viewing Grace and our own human abilities to respond to God? What are alternative readings of those passages or others within wider Christianity? And, for Mormons, how might one read what seems to be the key passage in the Book of Mormon that declares we are saved by grace “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23) in different ways? Is it really a temporal “after” (feeding into the God filling the “gaps” model)? Is this really what Nephi is saying? And does this interpretation even jive with other Book of Mormon passages on Grace?

All these ideas and many more are discussed in this terrific discussion among Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists John Morehead, Katie Langston, and Joe Spencer. We hope you’ll listen and then join in the discussion.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Essay at Patheos: Evangelical Reflections on a Muslim World Aflame

My first essay with the Evangelical portal of Patheos has been published. It is a piece that looks at Evangelical responses to religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue. From the piece:
If we're willing to engage in critical self-reflection, evangelicals will acknowledge that in the years since 9/11 few of us have done much to improve interreligious understanding.
To their credit, some evangelicals did get involved in sending well wishes to the Sikhs who lost loved ones in August's gurdwara shooting in Wisconsin. And other evangelicals showed support for Muslims whose mosque was torched in Missouri. But where have large segments of evangelicalism been in response to these recent events, or in interreligious engagement as a result of 9/11? Given the work of evangelicalism in pressing cultural issues, why isn't interreligious engagement on our social agenda? And why, for the most part, have evangelical leaders been conspicuously absent in regards to interreligious engagement? Perhaps it is a combination of indifference plus fear of the fallout when they do try to get involved. When Rick Warren worked alongside the Muslim community in Southern California, evangelicals attacked him for advancing "Chrislam," a syncretistic hybrid of Christianity and Islam.
The whole entry can be read here. Look for my regular contributions to Patheos in the future, as well as others who are part of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

FRD Documentary: Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth

The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy has finished its documentary and is beginning the promotion for the film titled Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth. From the film's website:
Angered by the barrage of attacks on his faith and desperate for answers, Bryan Hall, a devout Mormon, travels into the heart of the Bible Belt to discover for himself what it means to be a “Christian.”

The world he discovers is more terrifying and heartwarming than he ever could have imagined. Somewhere between the growing movement to establish a Christian Nation and those who believe Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, the lines between fanaticism and devotion are easily blurred.

Ultimately, Hall is forced to face the same questions that he is lancing at his religious rivals. UNRESOLVABLE? challenges viewers to ask themselves the most difficult and revealing question in all of Christianity: Must you - really - love your enemies to be a true disciple of Christ? 
The website includes various video clips, and it will be available for rental or purchase in various venues including starting next week.

"Every good Christian should see this film." 
Richard Land President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
Southern Baptist Commission

“A must see.” 
Mike Allen Politico Playbook

“Moving and inspiring...a brilliant film every American should see."
Ralph Reed Former President of the Christian Coalition

“It touches the heart and stimulates the mind...a must see!" 
Robert Millet Dean of Religious Education, Emeritus Brigham Young University

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Non-Christian Religions as “Seeping” is Septic: A Better Way Forward

The 11th anniversary of 9/11 last week provided us with an opportunity to remember, reflect, and also ask ourselves what we will do in response to make this a better country and world following that event. Some of that reflection should involve Evangelical consideration of our country’s pluralistic religious makeup.

America is religiously diverse, including is our political process, and many Evangelicals aren’t happy about it. In fact, it is bringing the fears of many to the surface, including some of our most influential Evangelical media figures. In the process, we are embarrassing ourselves and doing the Evangelical community, and others in the public square, a disservice. We can and should do better in the way of Christ.

An example of this Evangelical fear came in connection with the Republican National Convention meeting at the end of August. The RNC took the bold step of inviting Ishwar Singh, president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, to provide the prayer of invocation for the gathering. The Republicans took this step in the wake of the recent Wisconsin shootings by a white supremacist at a Sikh gurdwara, a place of worship and community gathering. Happy to be a part of this event and to contribute beyond it to the nation, Singh was quoted as saying that, “I hope that my presence Wednesday on the national stage will play a small part in helping Sikhs – and people of all races, faiths and orientations – be seen as part of a great American family.”

But some Evangelicals aren’t ready for those of non-Christian religious groups to be part of the country’s kin. This includes those like Janet Mefferd, host of a syndicated radio program that bears her name, and which includes 110 affiliates across the nation. She is not only unhappy with a Sikh providing a prayer on the national stage of America’s political process, but she also echoed earlier Evangelical protests over Romney’s Mormon background. She said,
“This adds new spin to my view of what’s going on at the RNC right now because you still hear a little bit of talk of God here and there, but it’s different. When Mitt Romney talks about God, he’s not talking about our God and he has yet to give his speech yet. But we now have a party that is allowing people to pray at the Republican National Convention who don’t have the slightest similarity to us, when it comes to our view of God, at all. At all."
Mefferd’s concern over non-Christian religious adherents actively participating in our political process, or at least that of the Republican party, were evident and worthy of discussion, but with the comments that followed she took it to an even darker place:
“And look how far we’ve come. Now, 2012 we have somebody from an Eastern religion offering the invocation at the Republican National Convention. I’m not saying people from different religions can’t vote Republican, but what this really is is a syncretism that is kind of seeping under the door like a gas” (emphasis mine). 
Mefferd’s statements, which likely resonate with many in her large Evangelical audience, are alarming on a number of levels. In his book Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism, Jason Bivins analyzes conservative evangelicalism, which he describes as having a political orientation that is “shaped and spread by pop cultural narratives of fear and horror.” Mefferd’s political and religious rhetoric of fear fits within Bivins’ analysis. The language of other religions seeping like a gas brings to mind an invisible and likely toxic danger. Such concepts poison not only our understanding of other religions within Evangelicalism, but they also taint the perception of us by those in other religious communities. As a case in point, I learned about Mefferd’s comments from a Pagan friend of mine who writes for a blog that is prominent within his religious community. He understands the state of affairs better than many Evangelicals. In response to Mefferd’s comments he correctly observed, “The truth is that non-Christians have been ‘seeping under the door’ for generations, it’s just that we can no longer ignore them, their issues, and their desires. We don’t live in a monoculture where it’s acceptable to ignore voices or views that ‘don’t fit.’”

In centuries past the Jewish people learned how to live as God’s people when they were a minority population due to periods of captivity. Years later the earliest Christians learned how to be love their neighbors as a small and oppressed religious community in the Roman Empire. Somehow, along the way to a Christendom culture in America where the church was dominant and many times influenced the national agenda, Christians developed monopolistic and exclusionary mindsets. Those things that had once been forced upon their spiritual ancestors they are now all too eager to foist upon others.

 But we live in a post-Christendom America. Surveys indicate that while Evangelicalism is still numerically large and influential, it has lost ground, both in terms of membership, and in terms of credibility within among young people, and on the outside as well, where both groups see it as judgmental and oppressive. Engaging others in a post-Christendom environment means that we can no longer assume either a monoculture, or a pluralistic culture with non-Christians who will sit quietly on the sidelines while we hope to exclude them and describe them as a toxic fume creeping under the door of America’s political process.

There is a better way forward among Evangelicals. In the wake of such troubling attitudes, coupled with recent news stories documenting the Sikh shooting and ongoing vandalism and violence against Muslims and their mosques, Evangelicals must involve themselves in relationship-based forms of education and service that combines understanding of those of other religions with the context of personal relationships. This relational context enables us to overcome our misunderstandings, our biases, and our prejudices so that we might be better prepared to live our faith as a part of the great American experiment in pluralism.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Courageous Christians" and a Film That Sparked a Muslim Flame

As the unrest in the Middle East spills over into other Muslim countries, the debate about the controversial film trailer for Innocence of Muslims said to have sparked the protests continues as well. Print and video media have recently linked it to Steve Klein, an individual connected to an evangelical "counter-cult" ministry called Courageous Christians United. This ministry utilizes confrontational approaches with adherents of various religions, including Mormonism and Islam. In the latter they have an affiliated ministry called The photo above demonstrates the kinds of approaches they use, pointing people to a website in ways that are sure to outrage Muslims.

When news broke about the Courageous Christians' connection to the film trailer the organization's president, Rob Sivulka, posted the following on their website:
We at Courageous Christians United (CCU) had no knowledge of the film "The Innocence of Muslims" or Steve Klein's involvement in it until September 12, 2012. Steve was removed from the board of CCU as of September 14, 2012 because of his involvement in this film. As the founder of CCU, Steve was an honorary board member, but he has never been to any of our board meetings. In 2006, when I wanted to form my own non-profit corporation, Steve gave me CCU, which he was no longer using.

Steve was in no way acting on behalf of our mission organization in the production of the video. While both Steve and the film maker have a right to express their views, that doesn't mean that we here at CCU endorse this movie as a good means to convey the truth about Islam. In fact, we find this film reprehensible and irresponsible, and serving primarily to provoke a violent response. (emphasis mine)
I appreciate the lack of direct involvement that Klein may have had with the film, and Courageous Christians' desire to distance themselves from it. But this statement from Sivulka and his organization has me confused. It also appears disingenuous. As demonstrated above in the photo, the organization has engaged in forms of "outreach" to Muslims at mosques by holding up signs that insult Muhammed, the prophet of Islam. They do similar things in Mormon contexts, holding up signs that insult the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. In each religio-cultural context their has been anger and resistance on the part of Muslims and Mormons. I submit that holding up signs in front of a mosque demeaning the Muslim prophet should be construed as a parallel to the Arabic-dubbed film trailer for Innocence of Muslims which may have at least partially inflamed large segments of the Muslim world. Therefore, how can Courageous Christians pursue the types of activities they do before American Muslims and at the same time condemn a film that functions in the same way among Muslims overseas? Must not the film and the questionable approaches of Courageous Christians be considered "reprehensible and irresponsible, and serving primarily to provoke a violent response?"

In a recent essay at Aslan Media co-authored with Paul Louis Metzger in response to the recent Islamic uprisings we wrote, "What lessons might be learned by Evangelicals as they seek to respond to and interact with the broader religious world, including Islam, in a context that all too easily leads to violence?" As the article continues, among other things, we suggest the following:
Much of the conservative commentary on this event, within and outside Evangelicalism, has emphasized American freedoms of speech concerning the right to share whatever views one might have about Islam. While it is certainly true that Americans have the right to express our convictions, from a Christian perspective our freedoms are informed by love for others; at times, we must be willing to restrict our freedoms for the brethren (1 Corinthians 8) and the world at large. In this instance, it may very well entail restricting our use of our constitutional freedoms for the greater good in the public square here and abroad. With this in mind, we would do well to remember that with the Internet we live in a global village, and the rhetoric, tactics and approval of a controversial pastor or filmmakers can contribute to an international climate of tension that may lead to violence and death in other parts of the world. Simply because we have such freedoms does not mean we must always exercise them; when we do exercise such freedoms, they should be exercised in ways that come down on the side of caution, seeking to contribute to the way of peace for the sake of Americans living and serving overseas, including our fellow Christians living in Muslim lands.
The events connected with the 11th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil provide evangelicals with an opportunity to reflect on our religious identity often formed in hostile relation to those in other religions, and how our attempts at persuading others of our religious convictions might be dramatically less than persuasive, if not offensive and downright counter-productive. For those interesting in considering an alternative vision, see the website of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and our previous essays touching on this at Aslan Media:

"On the Dearborn Drama: Pig-Headed Engagement of Islam"

"Sikhs and Muslims, Shootings and Burnings: A Call to Peaceful Contestation"

Friday, September 14, 2012

Brian McLaren Book Tour in Salt Lake City

October 2 Update: Due to low pre-event registration/ticket sales, McLaren's organization decided to cancel this event. My thanks goes to everyone who got behind this presentation, including Wasatch Presbyterian Church for the venue, First Presbyterian Church for covering travel costs, and all those who were planning on attend. I highly recommend McLaren's book, particularly for conservative evangelicals who many times have dismissed the author for his controversial views and actions. There is much in this volume to consider, discuss, and put into practice, which I will discuss in a forthcoming book review for the Evangelical Channel at Patheos.

Brian McLaren will be speaking in Salt Lake City to promote his new book Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books). The event is sponsored by the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and will be held Saturday, October 6 at 6:00 p.m. at and in partnership with Wasatch Presbyterian Church, 1626 South 1700 East in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. This event will include an engaging multimedia presentation on the major themes of the book plus 20 minutes for questions and dialogue, followed by 30 minutes for book signing. Members of all faiths are invited.

About the Book:

When four religious leaders walk across the road, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the start of one of the most important conversations in today’s world. 

Since 9/11 the question has become more and more urgent: How should Christians - members of the world’s largest religion - treat members of other religions? If we maintain an “Us vs. Them” attitude or make conversion the price of love and fellowship, we fuel mutual misunderstanding and hostility. But if we buy tolerance for other faiths at the cost of commitment to our own, we undermine our own faith.

 In his best book yet, widely acclaimed author and speaker Brian McLaren proposes a third alternative to these unsatisfactory options, one built on “benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility.” This way of being Christian is strong but it doesn’t strong-arm anyone. It goes far beyond mere tolerance to vigorous hospitality toward, interest in, and collaboration with the other. It is more necessary than ever before.

Simple yet profound, this groundbreaking book shows readers step-by-step how to reclaim this strong-benevolent faith, revealing:

 • How a new understanding of key Christian doctrines can end religious rivalry and foster new relationships,
• How a fresh perspective of Christian and colonial history can replace our lingering “superior” attitudes with empathy and humility, and
• How by standing in solidarity with “the other” as Jesus did, we can become a force against injustice and inhumanity – fulfilling the Christian mission like never before

Blending history, narrative, and brilliant insight, McLaren challenges us to stop creating barriers in the name of God – and in doing so, he invites Christians to become more Christ-like.

About the Author:

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. After teaching college English, Brian pastored Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Baltimore-Washington DC area. Brian has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors for over 20 years. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings in the U.S. and internationally.

Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including his acclaimed A New Kind of Christian trilogy, A Generous Orthodoxy, and his most recent title, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words (2011). A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, Brian is also an active and popular blogger, a musician, and an avid outdoor enthusiast. Learn more at his website, Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children.

Essay on Egyptian Uprising at Aslan Media

My latest essay has been published, co-authored with Paul Louis Metzger titled "Urgent Need: Face-to-Face Encounters, Not Face-offs." The essay looks at the connections of a controversial film trailer and the protests in Egypt, Libya and beyond, and how these events provide for Evangelical reflection. The essay may be found at Aslan Media.

Readers might also be interested in my previous work with Aslan found at these links:

"Sikhs and Muslims, Shootings and Burnings: A Call to Peaceful Contestation"

"On the Dearborn Drama: Pig-Headed Engagement of Islam"

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Podcast: Mike Stygal on Pagan-Christian Relationships and Dialogue

A new podcast by New Wine, New Wineskins is now available, where that organization's Director, Paul Louis Metzger, brought together Mike Stygal, a Pagan from the UK with myself to discuss Pagan-Christian relationships and dialogue. That podcast can be downloaded here. My thanks to Paul, Mike, and new Wineskins for this opportunity. I hope that Christians and Pagans find our thoughts helpful.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Religion Dispatches - Burning Man: Fear of an Alternative Pagan Social Order

Steve Matthews, an evangelical "cult and new religious movement and investigative journalist" with The Worldview Center, has written an essay on Burning Man Festival for SCP Journal. The first of two installments is out in the current edition of the journal, and in light of my past research and writing on this alternative cultural event, and that this week Burners gather from across the country and around the world, I wrote an essay in Religion Dispatches critiquing Matthews' analysis. In my essay I offer the view that Burning Man functions much like a Rorschach test in that individuals see in the cultural phenomenon either their highest aspirations, or their deepest fears. For Burners, it is the former, and for many evangelicals it is the latter, as revealed by Matthews' essay title "Burning Man: Preview to an Alternative Pagan Social Order."

After reading the first installment of Matthews' essay, reading another form of this essay on The Worldview Center website, and listening to his two radio interviews on the topic on the Frank Pastore and Janet Parshall radio programs, I provide my critique of his analysis, which as he told me recently by phone, is the "most fair and balanced treatment of Burning Man" in print. As the reader will see, I beg to differ, as I take issue with several instances of Matthews' analysis, including his understanding of Burning Man participant demographics, the theoretical lens that undergirds his approach, and his misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Paganism.

Matthews' analysis is common within evangelicalism, not only in terms of an understanding of Burning Man, but also the fears associated with Paganism and the New Spirituality in general. This dovetails with the analysis of Jason C. Bivins in his book Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2008). In this volume Bivins describes evangelicalism as involving "a form of religious social criticism produced and sustained in evangelical engagements with pop culture." In his view, this results in 'political orientations [that] are shaped and spread by pop cultural narratives of fear and horror."

Interested readers can find my essay at Religion Dispatches here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Forthcoming Volume: Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism

My Australian colleague, Philip Johnson, made me aware of an intriguing forthcoming volume in the study of the Western esoteric tradition. It is an edited, multi-contributor volume titled Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism (Oxford University Press, September 2012). The volume brings together a number of scholars who look at various facets of the influence of Crowley on religion from Mormonism to Scientology to Wicca.


This volume is the first comprehensive examination of one of the twentieth century's most distinctive iconoclasts. Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a study in contradictions. Born into a fundamentalist Christian family and educated at Cambridge, he was vilified as a traitor, drug addict, and debaucher, yet revered as perhaps the most influential thinker in contemporary esotericism. Moving beyond the influence of contemporary psychology and the modernist understanding of the occult, Crowley declared himself the revelator of a new age of individualism. Crowley's occult bricolage, Magick, was an eclectic combination of spiritual exercises drawn from Western European magical ceremonies and Indic sources for meditation and yoga. This journey of self-liberation culminated in harnessing sexual power as a magical discipline, a "sacrilization of the self" as practiced in Crowley's mixed masonic group, the Ordo Templi Orientis. The religion Crowley created, Thelema, legitimated his role as a charismatic revelator and herald of a new age of freedom. Aleister Crowley's lasting influence can be seen in the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and in many forms of alternative spirituality and popular culture. The essays in this volume offer crucial insight into Crowley's foundational role in the study of Western esotericism, new religious movements, and sexuality.

Table of Contents

ContributorsList of Figures
List of Tables

Foreword - Wouter J. Hanegraaff
1. Introduction - Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr
2. The Sorcerer and His Apprentice: Aleister Crowley and the Magical Exploration of Edwardian Subjectivity - Alex Owen
3. Varieties of Magical Experience: Aleister Crowley's Views on Occult Practice - Marco Pasi
4. Envisioning the Birth of a New Aeon: Dispensationalism and Millenarianism in the Thelemic Tradition - Henrik Bogdan
5. The Great Beast as a Tantric hero: The Role of Yoga and Tantra in Aleister Crowley's Magick - Gordan Djurdjevic
6. Continuing Knowledge from Generation unto Generation: The Social and Literary Background of Aleister Crowley's Magick - Richard Kaczynski
7. Aleister Crowley and the Yezidis - Tobias Churton
8. The Frenzied Beast: The Phaedran Furores in the Rites and Writings of Aleister Crowley - Matthew D. Rogers
9. Aleister Crowley: Freemason! - Martin P. Starr
10. ''The One Thought that was not Untrue'': Aleister Crowley and A. E. Waite - Robert R. Gilbert
11. The Beast and the Prophet: Aleister Crowley's Fascination with Joseph Smith - Massimo Introvigne
12. Crowley and Wicca - Ronald Hutton
13. Through the Witch's Looking Glass: The Magick of Aleister Crowley and the Witchcraft of Rosaleen Norton - Keith Richmond
14. The Occult Roots of Scientology? L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley and the Origins of the World's Most Controversial New Religion - Hugh Urban
15. Satan and the Beast. The Influence of Aleister Crowley on Modern Satanism - Asbjørn Dyrendal

"One would be hard-pressed to put together an assemblage of people to equal the scholars included in this collection-the cream of the crop of those esoteric scholars who have studied Crowley. The volume makes a significant contribution to esoteric studies and will set future debates about Crowley. It will be a must-read text for all esoteric scholars in the next generation."
--J. Gordon Melton, Distinguished Professor of American Religious History, Baylor University 

Sections of the book can be previewed at

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Franklin Spencer Spalding: "Stupid forms of argument"

I am currently providing editing commentary for a doctoral dissertation by Charles Randall Paul of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy to be submitted for consideration as an academic volume on 19th century missionary conflicts in Utah. This book provides lessons for contemporary religious disputations which advocates peaceful contestation in religion. One of the chapters is on Franklin Spencer Spalding, an Episcopalian minister and missionary to Mormons. He differed from others during his time in the state and wrote the following:

"The theologian is a kind of philosopher who cannot avoid a sense of duty to proselytize. Yea, surely it is clear that sarcasm and ridicule are not only discourteous but stupid forms of argument. . . .  the universal flood of derision which has been poured out upon Mormonism has only made Mormons more loyal." 

These are important historical words for reflection and my hope is that other elements like this, as well as the entire volume, provides food for thought by evangelicals and Mormons alike.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

JAM Review: All You Want to Know About Religions, Cults and Popular Beliefs

My review to appear in the October 2012 edition of the Journal of Asian Mission.

Jessica L. T. Devega and Christine Ortega Gaurkee, All You Want to Know But Didn’t Think You Could Ask: Religions, Cults, and Popular Beliefs (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012). Paper, 316 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4185-4917-6, US$19.99. The contemporary evangelical way of understanding various new religious movements came out of the late 1960s with the counterculture movement, and the increased awareness of these religious groups that came as a result. Two major responses arose, one by the secular world that took issue with allegations of mind control and coercion, forming what came to be known as the anti-cult movement. Another approach arose within evangelicalism that was concerned more with doctrinal issues, and with heretical deviations from conceptions of orthodoxy. This approach came to be known as the counter-cult movement.

The most influential figure to arise out of the counter-cult movement was Walter Martin, who founded one of the largest and oldest organizations devoted to an evangelical analysis and refutation of “the cults.” He is best known for his book The Kingdom of the Cults, which was first published in 1965 and which is still in print, having gone through various publication versions. Martin’s framework was theologically comparative and apologetic, drawing a contrast with certain doctrines in Christianity and corresponding concerns in the new religions, coupled with an apologetic refutation of doctrines and worldviews viewed as heretical. This volume continues to exert enormous influence not only on the counter-cult community’s understanding of new religions, but also that of larger evangelicalism as well.

Although the counter-cult community is not as influential in shaping evangelical attitudes toward new religions and world religions as in the past, perhaps reaching its peak in the 1980s, it continues to make its presence felt in the evangelical subculture. It is against this religio-cultural backdrop that contemporary analyses of religion for popular evangelicalism must be evaluated.  

All You Want to Know But Didn’t Think You Could Ask: Religions, Cults, and Popular Beliefs, attempts to provide an introduction to various expressions of religion for an evangelical audience. It is organized by World Traditions (those religions with larger populations and influence in the world, usually referred to as world religions), Religions of Place (defined as nature-based or indigenous religions), Uniquely American Religions, Pop-Culture Based Religions and Beliefs (such as those which draw inspiration from horror, fantasy, and science fiction in entertainment), Nonreligious Beliefs (such as atheism and agnosticism), and Extremism (which includes an exploration of various forms of fundamentalism and violence inspired by religion). The authors of this book describe their aim as attempting to provide a “concise, general, introductory overview of a wide range of belief systems” that also takes into account “common stereotypes and misconceptions” (8). Their approach that discusses not only the world religions and new religions, but also those new spiritualities and social identities that have arisen out of popular culture, is an admirable one, but one that is not without its difficulties. Categorizing religions is always difficult, and while the authors are aware of tensions within their classification system, it is curious to see certain religions classified by place (whether indigenous or uniquely American) when many of these are now found throughout the world, even if not in numbers as large as the world religions. In addition, many have had strong influences in popular culture even without significant numbers of adherents.

The author’s approach to each group or belief begins with an introduction, followed by a brief history, and then a discussion of beliefs, sacred texts, rituals, and demographic considerations. While this approach is very common, particularly in popular evangelical treatments of religion, it is also a very Western and Protestant way of approaching the topic where priority is given to beliefs as the major defining characteristic. Many religions begin with praxis rather than belief, and while the two are certainly related, an emphasis on belief in a religious tradition where such considerations are not primary can result in misunderstanding and reification of religion. Following the analysis of a given group this book also includes recommendations for further reading for many of the entries. But curiously, while some entries include bibliographical recommendations, many do not (e.g., Hinduism), and some of the suggestions demonstrate a lack of familiarity with some of the best academic treatments available. As the final element of their analytical approach, each chapter also includes comparative charts that involve contrast with Christianity.

This book demonstrates a more positive tone than many works designed for an evangelical audience on religion. As mentioned above, it also casts a wider net in terms of the number and types of religious and spiritual phenomena that the authors are willing to take seriously, and describe for their readers. In particular, this volume is an improvement over much of the material produced with reference to counter-cult frames of reference. Even so, the volume is not without its shortcomings.

As an initial example, in the discussion of terminology, the authors recognize the problems associated with the pejorative label “cult,” and the tendency in academic circles to substitute the more neutral term “new religious movement.” Even so, they draw upon cult nomenclature and concepts informed by problematic popular media definitions and stereotype of “cults.” In so doing they accept “cultic” definitional concepts related to charismatic leadership, and high levels of commitment in certain groups that could be applied to many mainstream religious groups, including Christianity (10).

Other shortcomings of this volume can be cited. In the chapter on Neopaganism, Wicca, and Druidism, the history section connects these traditions to antiquity and early pre-modern expressions of paganism, but no discussion is given to the modern origins of Neopaganism through influential writers like Gerald Gardner. Viewing Neopaganism through an evangelical lens also demonstrates problems here as this chapter begins its discussion by way of beliefs, whereas Neopaganism is better understood as praxis-oriented. The demographic considerations of this section are also lacking in that they do not take into consideration the recent Pew Survey or American Religious Identification Survey data. Despite this omission, thankfully this book does not include alarmist statistics of growth frequently found in evangelical treatments of Neopaganism.

 In the chapter on Mormonism there is a reference to Joseph Smith starting the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints movement.” Historically, Smith gave rise to what would later splinter into a broader Restorationist movement, originally founding a group referred to as the Church of Christ, but later by the name of the church now familiar to Mormonism. This misspelling of the official name of the church (perhaps a typo), “Latter Day Saints” as opposed to “Latter-day Saints,” is found in two places in this entry. In the analysis of Mormonism it too begins with belief, but again, a case can be made that Mormonism has other priorities and emphases, including ethics (“choose the right”), sacred narrative (The Plan of Salvation, and First Vision), and ritual over doctrine (in local ward and temple). In addition, this chapter makes the mistaken claim that Mormons “view themselves as Protestant Christians” (193). In fact, while they self-identify as Christian, they do so in ways that are not Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, but in a sense of a restored Christianity free of creedal influence and apostasy. Other problems in this chapter are also evident, including confusion of the Mormon priesthood with the “community of Mormons” (194), a curious use of lowercase “g” in reference to Mormon conceptions of deity (again, perhaps a typo), and the claim that within Mormonism a priesthood of believers may be found (which downplays the significance of priesthood authority within this tradition). Finally, this entry concludes with mention of the controversial views of blacks and the priesthood prior to 1978, which would have been more appropriate in the history section of analysis. Its presence in this section hints at sensationalism.

Many entries in this volume are very brief, in fact, so brief that it would have been better not to have included them at all. The limited discussion on some groups makes it difficult to accurately represent the groups under consideration. In addition, there is a question as to why certain groups were included in this volume, and chosen in the category of indigenous beliefs. These include Scientology, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (popularly known and included in this volume as “Hare Krishnas”), and the Nation of Islam. These new religions are not large or influential, but have been of concern to evangelicals since the early years of the “cult controversy” of the late 1960s. Their inclusion in this volume raises the possibility that this book incorporates the lingering influence of evangelical concerns over “the cults,” and the focus of the evangelical counter-cult.

As mentioned previously, the authors of this volume are to be commended for including a section on popular culture. This segment of the book would have made more sense to readers, and would have been strengthened, with an introduction on the significance of popular culture and imaginative narratives in entertainment from which so many are forming personal identities and finding inspiration in the formation of new concepts of the sacred.

One of the segments on popular culture includes a consideration of vampirism. Here the authors refer to it as new religious movement, but recent scholarship has argued that a more accurate conception of vampirism is that of a social identity, which may or may not include reference to the sacred. The authors also correctly describe pranic vampires who feed on energy, but then include them in the sanguinarian typology (those who feed on blood) rather than the psychic category where they are appropriately classified. Here familiarity with additional research sources would have strengthened the section, including bibliographic recommendations such as Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today, and the research archives of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance.

 Another group considered in this section is Jediism, the hyper-real or fiction-based spirituality informed by the Star Wars mythology. This entry helps raise awareness of the new forms of spirituality that are arising out of popular culture, but it would have been strengthened by interaction with Adam Possamai’s work in this area, and inclusion of it in the bibliographic recommendations.

This volume also includes a section on divining, astrology, tarot cards, and New Age. Unfortunately, this chapter is far too brief, it folds multiple items together without sufficient consideration of any of them, and in particular, the cultural and religious significance of the New Age or the New Spirituality. No mention is made of Western esotericism as a significant tradition in this regard, an unfortunate omission given that scholars like J. Gordon Melton consider it to be the third largest religious tradition in America. Finally, this entry also shows its bibliographical shortcomings, with a lack of any sampling of academic works on New Age.

This volume should also earn praise for its willingness to consider the paranormal, an area often missed in contemporary religious analyses. But again, this entry is too brief, and no mention is made of the most recent demographic surveys or the new academic treatments of the paranormal.

In the entry on Fandom, the authors recognize the religious or spiritual potential for these subcultures to draw upon aspects of the sacred. Future writers might broaden this discussion to mention various transformational festivals, such as science fiction and fantasy conventions, and the power of imaginative narratives in popular culture functioning as sacred narratives.

This volume also includes a segment on Apocalypticism. The chapter might have demonstrated some self-critical reflection for evangelical readers by way of thoughts on Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical Dispensational pre-tribulationism and its influence not only in these subcultures, but also broader popular culture as well.

I commend these authors for a different approach to religions, new religions, and popular beliefs. They use a tone and demonstrate an openness to a broader palette for consideration in contemporary religious expression. Although it is not completely free of the limitations of counter-cult volumes of the past, and can benefit from a greater interaction with the academic literature dealing with the subject matter, there is much to build on for future volumes for the evangelical subculture.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Parallelling the Enemy?: A Consideration of the Pagan Countercult

In past years I was a part of the evangelical countercult community. This segment of evangelicalism exists as a boundary maintenance and apologetic function for the borders of evangelicalism in terms of what it perceives as spiritual danger in terms of "cults" or new and minority religious movements. An examination of the websites of some of these groups reveals certain patterns which includes quotations from group leaders so as to warn the faithful of heresy. In countercult thinking, to the extent that certain evangelicals may get to close to "false prophets" in these groups these evangelical leaders are then viewed as dupes who are contributing to the problem of the false teachers who want to come in by stealth whenever possible to deceive the elect.

I find this interesting in that I just found a pagan parallel in a website titled egregores. Although it does not devote its complete energy to exposing non-pagan dangers, it has created posts that warn the pagan community about certain evangelicals, including little ol' me. Interested readers can click here, here, here, and most recently here, to find posts about me and my work in paganism and in other areas of new religions, missiology, and dialogue. As you read note how this parallels with the evangelical countercult organizations as I've sketched it in the paragraph above.

I contacted the website and asked that one misrepresentation be removed, and it was, an attribution of work to me that was not my own. This was an unfortunate error that should have been more carefully fact checked by the author. In addition, the tone is unfortunate in both the author's posts and some of the comments by fellow pagans. The worst possible motives are assumed on the part of myself, and fellow pagans who "work with" me are considered unfortunate dupes who don't realize that I am trying stealth evangelism. I recognize that many pagans are suspicious of evangelicals and dialogue. That's fine. Many evangelicals are just as suspicious. But let's be fair about it.

As I said in a comment which may or may not be approved on the site, let me clarify. I am not involved in stealth evangelism. Christianity is a missionary religion, and as a disciple of Christ I take just as seriously his command to love my neighbor as myself as I do to share the gospel. However, this is not done in every instance in pagan contexts or otherwise. If the context is inappropriate, or there is no interest, and most of the time there isn't, then there is no sharing. My relationships with pagans and my dialogue work are authentic and stand by themselves and are not pragmatic uses of individuals and relationships as the means to the end of evangelism. (See the interview with me at the Alternative Religions Educational Network for more thoughts from me on this.) Had egregores not assumed the worst in my ethics and motives, and been willing to more fairly assess my work in pagan studies and dialogue, perhaps at least the form of these posts would have been different.

Unfortunately, no mention was made about my critical reviews of evangelical books and approaches to paganism. Neither was there any commentary on the many pagans who have been interviewed at this blog and allowed to express themselves freely on the subject matter under discussion, including the difficult topic of Christian mission. The egregores selection and portrayal of material in representing my views thus exhibits the "pagan countercult" perspective that underlies them.

At any rate, I find it interesting that there is a pagan version of the evangelical countercult. Pagans have unfortunately been misrepresented by countercult apologists over the years (see my reviews of various evangelical books on Paganism as in this example) so it is a pity to see the pagan version of this surface within this fine religious community.