01: The relation of new religious movements (NRM’s) to society is now a concern in most parts of the world — from Africa to Japan.
The current issue of Nova Religio (Spring), a journal on NRM’s, looks at this phenomenon in 14 nations, particularly focusing on the legal contexts of the interaction between minority religions and governments. An in-depth article on Africa by Rosalind I.J. Hackett suggests that the pluralism of religious groups on that continent is leading to more government monitoring and, in some cases, control of minority religions, even though countries such as Russia, China and now France lead the way in “cult control.”
An article by sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger on the latter country notes that the growth of so many new religious movements — including Islam — is challenging the traditional secular-Roman Catholic church-state arrangement, leading to a stringent system of control. Ian Reader finds that Japan’s new mood of intolerance and vigilance toward NRMs (approved by the public) stems directly from the trauma over the Aum Shinrikyo affair.
Meanwhile, the flurry of protests and alarms surrounding Germany’s treatment of “cults,” such as Scientology, has drifted to other targets, namely France and China. Writer Brigitte Schoen finds that the German approach has proven to be relatively moderate in that there have been few restrictions against NRMs and little influence from anti-cultist groups on the government. Italy also has witnessed few attempts at government restriction of NRMs, as Massimo Introvigne writes that traditional Italian academic and political sympathy with underdogs prevents a strong anti-cultist position.
An article on Hungary is among the most comprehensive, dealing with the unique proliferation of NRMs in the country. Laszlo Kurti writes that a “cultic milieu” has developed in Hungary, with occult, New Age, and other alternatives (such as “neoshamanism” and UFO cults) gaining a popular following as well as substantial coverage in the media.
For more information on this issue, write: Nova Religio, 135 Fifth Ave., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10010-7101)
02: The summer issue of Public Eye, a newsletter of the liberal Political Research Associates, provides an in-depth listing of religious right, left and civil liberties groups that are involved with religion in the public square.
The labels and descriptions the newsletter uses to categorize the different groups may lack nuance and objectivity. For instance, The charismatic magazine Charisma is described as a “glossy monthly of the Christian Right,” while left-of-center organizations are described as “Groups Defending Democracy and Diversity from Right-Wing Attack.”
Still, this issue provides contact information for each entry and its listings cover the many kinds of conservatives and liberals dealing with religion and politics today.
For more information on this issue, write: PRA, 130 Broadway, Suite 201, Somerville, MA 02144-1731; http://www.publiceye.org
03: Two new books Excellent Protestant Congregations (and Excellent Catholic Parishes (published by Westminster/John Knox and Paulist presses, respectively), by Paul Wilkes, represent a novel attempt to write a Michelin Guide-style handbook of “above average” churches throughout the U.S.
Wilkes, a journalist, found 600 Catholic and Protestant churches that fit the bill and in these books he profiles 18 of them as well as outlines the common traits that explain their effectiveness. These qualities are what one might expect: Each church has vision and a high rate of lay participation, a strong sense of community, and a vibrant social outreach program.
In the book on Catholic parishes, Wilkes focuses on the churches that are not driven by “hierarchy” or “dogma,” and give a large role to women’s leadership (while Wilkes avoids polarizing “conservative” versus “liberal” terminology, he doesn’t cite more conservative parishes as very innovative, even though many priests and bishops appear to be moving in that direction).
The Protestant book covers more diverse ground–from charismatic Vineyard churches to mainline social activist landmarks–although the accent is on big churches. The main profiles are detailed and engrossing, and Wilkes’ list of all his selections in the back of the books carry interesting thumbnail descriptions.
04: Diana Eck’s book A New Religious America (Harper-Collins, $27) is a thorough survey of the new religious pluralism in the U.S. and its implications both for American society and the transplanted religions themselves.
The book, the result of an extensive Harvard University project mapping the world religions in the U.S., is especially good at giving the reader a feel for the rituals, community life and teachings of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in new transplanted surroundings–from North Dakota to Texas. Eck sketches out the new religious dynamics that are transpiring as mosques and temples find a place on American soil: Hindus are creating a more unified religion — with different traditions coexist and cooperating as minorities in the U.S. — than was ever the case in India; American Buddhists have a strong lay base as the religion has shed much of its monastic hierarchy in the move from Asia.
Eck’s thesis is that the growth of world religions is creating a new multicultural reality in place of an older Christian America. As most of her case studies focus on interfaith cooperation, especially in the book’s final chapters, Eck tends to brush over internal conflicts and more militant minority expressions within each tradition.