Tuesday, January 28, 2014

US and THEM: Religious Rivalry in America Screening in Salt Lake City

Experience a Change of Heart
Learn how to feel differently towards people of another faith
Free Religious Film Screening
Film: US and THEM: Religious Rivalry in America

When: Saturday, February 8th at 7:00 p.m.
Where: First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City
12 C St, Salt Lake City, UT 84103
(801) 363-3889
There will be a Q&A and discussion after the film.
Come participate in this great opportunity
to resolve religious misunderstandings.

Perry's 'Dark Horse', Evangelicals, and Pop Culture Demonic

Update: One reader pointed out that the previous edition for this essay mistakenly attributed one of the sources to Christianity Today online in the US, but should have listed this as Christian Today in the UK. This post has been revised to correct the error.

At the recent Grammy Awards Katy Perry performed her song "Dark Horse" which has fueled a controversy in some circles. For them all hell has broken loose (literally). On Glenn Beck's radio program today he labeled the performance demonic, and a writer for Christian Today online agreed. Jennifer Jones' views are summed up in the title of her piece on the event: "Katy Perry Grammy Awards 'Dark Horse' performance had witchcraft and satanic symbolism; Show's singer's rejection of childhood Christian values." Jones' opening sentence reinforces the title as she describes Perry's performance that is said to have "shocked some fans as it displayed dark satanic imagery, including witchcraft and demons."

These interpretations were echoed in reactions shared in social media. Christian gospel singer Natalie Grant walked out of the performance and sent two tweets expressing her concerns. Even E! News raised the possibility of sinister activities with the tweet, "Um, did we just witness actual witchcraft during Katy Perry's #Grammys performance?"

Others characterized Perry's performance as a Satanic ritual. Thegailygrind.com makes this claim and references several tweets by those who share the viewpoint, including one that states "I'm like 99% sure Katy Perry just summoned satan during her performance."

For those who missed the performance Sunday night, or for those who want to revisit it for the purposes of discussion, in the video Perry begins singing inside a sphere reminiscent of a crystal ball. The stage is dark with trappings and symbolism familiar from horror films. As she performs the song dancers move about her dressed in dark costumes, some have horns, and broomsticks are featured as props. The performance ends as flames seemingly consume Perry, perhaps as a witch and reminiscent of witch burnings in times past.

But are the negative interpretations accurate? Was Perry incorporating the symbolism of witchcraft and satanism as real Pagans and esoteric practitioners understand and practice their spiritual pathways and philosophies? My answer is "No." Instead, this performance is better understood as drawing upon the concepts and symbols of witchcraft as expressed in horror films that have informed the collective cultural imagination (particularly the trope of the satanic witch said to be devoted to the service of the devil), and this is then combined with Judeo-Christian ideas about Satan and the demonic. This use of horror symbolism from popular occulture is not new. Recall the fears in previous decades when Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and other rock stars and groups were said to be drawing upon Satanism in order to spiritually enslave a generation of teenagers. (See my article "Devil's Music: Rock N' Roll, Heavy Metal, and the Danger of Satanic Panics" from Diabolique magazine on this issue.)

In light of the strong and negative reactions to Perry's performance several thoughts come to mind by way of critical reflection.

First, many Christians in America must grapple with religious illiteracy and privilege in regards to some forms of esotericism. Horror film symbolism appropriated by a musician for sensationalism, attention, and music sales is mistakenly assumed to be either witchcraft or satanic ritual, demonstrating that many Christians know little to nothing about witchcraft or satanism, and our fears of such things fuel our stereotypes even further. And even if this were the incorporation and expression of these, the assumption on the part of some conservative religious people is that this apparently has no legitimate place in popular culture. Suppose Perry were a witch or a satanist (in interviews she has expressed her spirituality in terms that sounds like the growing religiously-unaffiliated "Nones" from the Pew Survey), and incorporated that into a public performance. Is that out of bounds in American popular culture? Doesn't the support of religious freedoms for all mean that we must extend such opportunities to everyone, including those who practice and believe things Evangelicals find distasteful?

Second, satanic and demonic fear has a large footprint in American culture at the present time. From horror films on demonic pregnancies such as Devi's Due, to Bob Larson performing an exorcism via Skype, to an alleged possession of the Ammons family in Indiana described in ways that are reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, Americans have Satan on their minds. This is particularly the case for Evangelicals. In the opinion of Scott Poole, author of Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), the influence of Evangelical demonology has helped the country become "a kind of demonic echo chamber of rumor, panic, conspiracy theories, and deep cultural unease." Are we really witnessing an increase in demonic activity, as many Evangelicals may believe, or is there some other social and cultural dynamic going on that causes us to look to Satan and the demonic as a way of expressing our fears?

Third and finally, I fear that in relation to many Evangelicals, as J.B. Phillips put it in the title of his book, Your God Is Too Small. Conversely, our Devil is too big. When Evangelicals fear that demons are seemingly everywhere in popular culture I think we need a larger concept of God, a balanced understanding of principalities and powers, and a reminder that evil is already defeated through the work of Christ. He calls us to join him through sacrifice and service to others in the divine work of reconciliation. As N.T. Wright has summarized it:
"We celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ in a way which, by the power of its symbolic action, resonates out, into the city, into the country, into the world . . . that God is God, that Jesus is his visible image, and that this God has defeated the powers of evil that still enslave and crush human beings today."
Readers who want to explore some of these ideas in greater depth can do so at my other blog in these posts.

Scott Poole: Satan in America

Satanism, Exorcism and Social Horror Trends

Satanic Cinema

Carrol L. Fry - Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca, and Spiritualism in Film

Metaphysical Media and a Typology of Media Portraits of the Witch

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'Loving Our Religious Neighbors' National Launch in Fall 2014

The Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy as as one of its goals the education and equipping of college and university students on interreligious engagement. Our primary resource for this is called Loving Our Religious Neighbors. This was designed by Josh Daneshforooz, who was previously on staff at Northwood Church under the leadership of Pastor Bob Roberts. Josh comes from a bi-religious family. His dad was Muslim and his mom is a Christian. As a result he's had a passion for helping Christians engage other religions in more positive ways than we have tended to in the past. Josh sits on the advisory board for our FRD chapter.

Josh wrote a book on the subject and more recently has transformed that into a study series. I was privileged to provide some feedback on revisions as the material came together, and our Evangelical FRD chapter is partnering with Josh to promote LORN as a major tool for churches and also Christian universities and colleges. Here's a link to a story on how this program helped students at Gordon College.

We are working toward a national launch for LORN in the fall of 2014. We need to find 10 churches and schools that will commit to being a part of this that will include major social media promotion.

If you're a pastor, Christian educator, or Evangelical student, please take a few moments and look at the description and sample video of LORN at the its website. And then let me know if you'd like to discuss the formation of a LORN study as part of our national launch of the program later this year.

Review of 'Mormon Christianity' coming in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

I was asked to submit a review of Stephen Webb's Mormon Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2013) to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I was pleased to hear earlier this week that the review has gone through the initial phase of editorial review and was very well received. Dialogue editor Kristine Haglund will have a look at it and it should be published in the near future. I hope it can be posted elsewhere at places like By Common Consent, at least an excerpt, as a conversation starter between Mormons and Evangelicals. I'll post an update when the review is published.

Here's an excerpt from draft's the introductory paragraphs:

Webb recognizes the serious implications of this for traditional Christianity, if true, in that it “calls for the revision of nearly every Christian belief” (124). For this reason a thoughtful analysis from the perspective of traditional Christianity is in order. At several points Webb calls for civil and respectful engagement of Mormonism (23, 113-4, 159), and unfortunately notes that “skeptics can be tempted to reduce it to a simple set of claims for quick criticism and polemical rebuttal” (23). This reviewer eschews such approaches, and what follows is a respectful and thoughtful critique of Webb’s thesis incorporating Mormon ideas. In the review that follows I bring the perspective of an Evangelical scholar with a background in Mormon studies, appreciation for interreligious engagement, and a desire for religious traditions to critically engage each other in civility. The following areas of critique are especially significant to traditional Christianity both Protestant and Catholic, in the mind of this reviewer. 

Douglas Johnston at Westminster on Religion, Terror, and Error

Last night I had the pleasure of attending this lecture by Dr. Douglas Johnston, Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. The event was put together by the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy.

This presentation was a summary of his book with the same title as his lecture. The book description provides a better feel for last night's presentation:
How should the United States deal with the jihadist challenge and other religious imperatives that permeate today's geopolitical landscape? Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement argues that what's required is a longer-term strategy of cultural engagement, backed by a deeper understanding of how others view the world and what is important to them. The means by which that can be accomplished are the subject of this book.

The work realizes three important tasks. It shows how the United States can reposition itself to deal more effectively with the causal factors that underlie religious extremism; offers a successor to the rational-actor model of decision-making that has heretofore excluded "irrational" factors like religion; and suggests a new paradigm for U.S. leadership in anticipation of tomorrow's multipolar world. Describing how the United States should realign itself to deal more effectively with the factors underlying religious extremism, this innovative treatise explains how existing capabilities can be redirected to respond to the challenge and identifies additional capabilities that will be needed to complete the task.
 You can order the book through Amazon.com.