01: Vital Theology is an ambitious new newsletter that attempts to apply a broadly Christian theological critique to contemporary society and culture.
The newsletter, published 20 times a year, seeks to provide theological insights on current events and bridge the conservative/liberal divide by moving beyond contentious “culture war” issues to larger themes. The first issue of the newsletter (February 15), edited and published by United Methodist journalist David W. Reid, casts a critical eye on research into the health benefits of religion, and provides commentary on the state of college football and its loss of a “theological aesthetic” sense to the “cultural idolatry” represented by Michael Jackson.
A subscription costs $39 and is available from: Vital Theology, 2538 Tucker Court, Ft. Collins, CO 80526; http://www.vitaltheology.com
02: The American Religion Data Archive (ARDA), an extensive collection of survey data on religious attitudes and behavior (http://www.TheARDA.com), has recently completed a major upgrade.
Bar charts and pie charts are now available through an on-line analysis feature. Mapping upgrades allow users to compare two maps of a state or nation and receive correlations using congregational membership, census, crime, voting, and other kinds of data. All files can now be browsed categorically or alphabetically.
03: Most of the 19 contributors to the book Predicting Religion (Ashgate, $29.95) focus on the situation in the United Kingdom.
Editors Grace Davie, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead have managed to bring together a variety of authors to focus on future developments and other observations regarding likely trends. Since contributors are primarily European, several of them emphasize the continuous decline of Christian churches.
Steve Bruce offers a long list: decline in church attendance and in membership, erosion of Christian beliefs, indifference, little influence on major debates, etc.: “Three decades from now, Christianity in Britain will have largely disappeared”, with Christian membership and church attendance falling below five percent (Rob Hirst sees the same scenario, but less rapid: by year 2050).
Liberal Christianity will vanish first, according to Bruce, due to its inability to transmit its legacy to future generations, but conservative churches will liberalize and consequently follow them on the way to decline. Martyn Percy considers the future of Charismatic Christianity as less bright than many tend to believe: it has reached its peak and its future is troublesome, since – says Percy – it lacks a “real theology”.
In a somewhat less affirmative way than Bruce, Bryan Wilson also thinks that current secularizing trends are likley to persist : the electronic revolution might even have more profound secularizing effects in the 21st century. However, other articles either nuance or partly dispute the expected consequences of secularization. Helen Cameron has no doubt that the Church of England will continue to decline (which, among other things, will make it always more difficult for it to fulfill many unpaid tasks in parishes), but one might see more of other forms of affiliation with specific purposes (parachurch and other informal groups).
In a chapter about Wicca, Jo Pearson does not think that liberal Christianity will collapse: its reluctance toward institutional dogma is “wholly in line with the Zeitgeist,” and it is exactly what has allowed Wicca to proliferate. Consequently, rather than disappear, Christianity in Britain will be transformed. And if Christianity is to become “the ultimate victim of the democratic spirit,” suggests S.J.D. Green, it won’t lead to a “rule of reason,” but to a “different kind of religion.” (In this multifaceted book, readers will also find chapters on Quakers, astrology, New Age, cyberspace, gay and lesbian Christians — among other topics.)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
04: Hare Krishna ($12.95) is the latest book in the Studies in Contemporary Religion series from Signature Books.
The 100-page book (with photos), by Federico Squarcini and Eugenio Fizzotti, provides a concise history and overview of current trends in the ISKCON (or International Society for Krishna Consciousness) — from the early foundations of the movement in Hindu India to its launch in the U.S. in the 1960s to the numerous dilemmas and declines (from child and sex abuse charges to financial mismanagement) that Hare Krishnas have faced in the last decade.
The authors write that the group is still struggling with the change from a religious order of full-time devotees to a more typical denomination with congregations and lay members, mainly of the second generation.
Other pressing issues facing ISKCON include: the legitimacy of successors to the founder Bhaktivedanta and the resulting power struggles, interfaith involvement, and the need for education. The many schools the movement ran were shut down due to scandals and a population shift among members. To remedy the situation, several accredited institutes of higher education have been founded, such as the Institute for Vaisnava Studies in Berkeley, Calif. and the Oxford (UK) Centre for Vaisnava and Hindu Studies.