01: Habitat for Humanity is among the most well-known and respected of Christian charitable organizations in the U.S. But in his new book, Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion (Temple University Press, $24.95), Jerome Baggett investigates how the organization reflects and often encourages the tendency toward individualized religion divorced from denominational and congregational attachments.
Baggett, a sociologist, interviewed close to 100 leaders, staffers and volunteers with Habitat, a ministry that draws together Christians from a wide variety of churches to build homes for the poor. The first part of the book looks at how Habitat has become professionalized with its own bureaucracy, and is less community and grass-roots oriented.
In the more controversial second part, Baggett finds that participants and staffers downplay denominational differences and doctrine — including discussions of such matters — stressing an inclusive, non-dogmatic and practical faith that follows Christ as example. Participants tend to separate being spiritual from being religious. Alienation from and criticism of their congregations (for hypocrisy, for example) was also prevalent among volunteers and even some staffers.
The author concludes that the leadership is caught in the bind of having to find support from non-religious foundations and donors and also maintain the Christian base of the movement in order to draw volunteers, support and a sense of community and values.
02: Contemporary Debates in American Reform Judaism: Conflicting Visions, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan (Routledge, $22.95) chronicles the fascinating changes this liberal Jewish denomination has undergone in the past few years.
The book deals with how Reform Judaism has adopted more traditional worship and observance patterns (wearing the yarmulke, more use of Hebrew during services, following a kosher diet) while also pushing the envelope on moral issues, such as recently approving gay marriage. The contributors make it clear that Reform’s new interest in spirituality and tradition does not necessarily mean a move toward Orthodox Judaism. Rather, Reform is expanding its repertoire of resources to include traditional elements that meet the needs of Jews seeking spirituality and community.
RW’s editor contributed a chapter on reform Judaism in today’s spiritual marketplace) Noteworthy chapters include a defense of “classical Reform” — the less ceremonial style of worship that emphasizes the ethical and universalist rather than the ritual dimensions of Judaism; and a study of the post-denominational trait of Jews moving to the sunbelt.