01: While it rarely makes the headlines, the old Indian religion of Jainism is quietly becoming acknowledged in the West.
Last December, the Religion & Ethics section at the BBC launched a new website on Jainism, reports the quarterly magazine Jain Spirit in its March-May issue. Jainism now takes its place on this reference website along with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other major religions. The website is expected to answer many questions which people might have about Jainism, and also to increase awareness of Jain life and culture.
It is interesting to notice that Jain Spirit — which describes itself as “the only media office for Jainism in the Western world” — has cooperated actively with the BBC for preparing that website. Jain Spirit was launched in 1999. Some of its first issues somewhat reminded readers of the format of Hinduism Today, but it has recently been very nicely redesigned and intends not only to serve the Jain community, but also to appeal to people of other cultural backgrounds and those curious to know more about things Indian.
Beside making Jainism better known, it promotes values of non-violence, vegetarianism and environmental awareness.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
02: Religion and violence have become increasingly linked in the minds of many over the past few years, which is also reflected in new literature. Such is the case with the new book by Dawn Perlmutter, Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes (CRC Press, 2004, $69.95).
The author has organized her book in a clear manner, with many inboxed summaries throughout the chapters, and she has made an effort to define each concept. She has many years of experience in training law enforcement agents on issues such as ritualistic crimes; obviously, the book was written with such an audience in mind. Herself an academic, Perlmutter is familiar with the work of leading scholars working on new religious movements and quotes from their works, although she is critical of what she considers their tendency to downplay the criminal tendencies in some groups.
In contrast with many of those scholars, Perlmutter is convinced that Satanic ritual abuse is a real issue. The book provides information on a variety of fringe groups, and some good advice, for instance, on attempting to understand the state of mind of believers in religious criminal groups under investigation, whatever one’s personal feelings toward them.
The book also contains some original information which had probably not been published anywhere earlier, for instance how Satanists in America reacted to 9/11. However, one wonders if it is advisable to lump together under one cover Aum Shinrikyo, Christian Identity, Jihad, Al Qaeda, Satanism, vampirism, and syncretic Afro-Carribean religions, although the author takes care to differentiate between various subgroups. In all the cases, some types of beliefs have been associated with violence; but there are huge differences between these groups.
Perhaps Perlmutter’s book illustrates how some people originally critical of cults or specializing in issues of ritualistic crimes have come to broaden their focus to include even terrorism, thus addressing a wide range of fears related to what is perceived as the dark side of belief.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
03: The Ecumenical Future (Eerdmans, $24), edited by Carl Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, seeks to counter the notion that the ecumenical movement is in inevitable decline, failing to capture the interest and imagination of most Christians or achieve many concrete results.
The book is based on a document known as the “Princeton Proposal,” which calls for a return to the original goal of visible unity — or “full communion” and is sharply critical of the official structures of the National and World Council of Churches and their stress on social action. Not surprisingly, the essays are all heavily theological, but most of the authors are of the view that traditional denominational structures need to be transcended while retaining historic confessions and traditions.
Readers may find particularly noteworthy the chapters on the divisions in Eastern Orthodoxy in the U.S., and the new role that parachurch (or groups outside denominations) and renewal groups are playing in an “unofficial” ecumenism (including the “post-denominational” Vineyard Fellowship.