01: The pioneering holistic health magazine Body & Soul, formerly called New Age, looks back on major issues and topics covered in its pages for its 30th anniversary and, in the process, provides a useful, if brief, glossary on New Age/alternative spirituality.
The special section in the issue provides historical sketches and definitions for everything from the different forms of “body psychotherapy” and Hatha Yoga to life coaches. The obvious conclusion is that the alternative has become mainstream, but it also seems that the New Age has become secularized, gradually moving from mysticism to health concerns (thus following the life stages of the aging baby boomers who founded the movement).
For more information on this issue, write: Body & Soul, 42 Pleasant St., Watertown, MA 02472
02: The frequent, almost incessant, references to “red” and “blue” states and how they show the new religio-culltural faultlines in the U.S. leaves something to be desired in explaining either American religion or culture. Readers weary of such categorizations in this post-election season should catch up with the Alta Mira Press series “Religion By Region,” particularly its most recent offerings on the Midwest, Southern Crossroads, and New England regions. Midwest: America’s Common Denominator ($24.95), edited by Philip Barlow and Mark Silk, is similar to previous volumes (on the Pacific Northwest and the West) in showing how broad regions are made up of subregions with very different religious environments.
Far from representing “true” America or even having its own essence Midwestern religion is more like a patchwork of religious cultures which tends to “combine the pluralist religious ethos of the Mid-Atlantic with the churchgoing habits of the South,” writes Peter W. Williams.
Unlike the South, the mainline ethos, especially through Methodism and Lutheranism, is still in force in many areas along with Catholicism, new immigrant religions and a longtime evangelical presence. This can be expressed in the upper Midwest’s Catholic and Lutheran communal tendencies against the more evangelical individualism found in the central states, writes sociologist Rhys Williams in another chapter.
Other chapters include a study of how religious pluralism affects the urban space of Chicago, the distinct form of Catholicism (more lay-oriented and democratic) in much of the Midwest and interesting profiles of Lutheranism and Methodism. On the latter tradition, Mark Noll offers the intriguing speculation that today ‘s megachurch strength in the Midwest may be expressing a Methodist-like “impulse to subordinate partisan politics to community building.”
If there is a region where the designation of “red states” makes sense it is in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Louisiana, the subject of the second book Southern Crossroads: Showdown States ($19.95), edited by William Lindsey and Mark Silk. This region of border states is highly evangelical and politically activated. Historian Andrew Manis argues that in the last century this region has been the arena for both fierce theological and denominational battles — taking on issues ranging from Baptist identity to theological modernism — and now occupies center stage in the culture wars.
Even today these states make up much more of a religious frontier than the traditional South, as new style megachurches and Pentecostal and Holiness groups thrive. Even Catholics, Episcopalians and black and Hispanic churches are influenced by the conservative evangelical atmosphere, through the various chapters on these subcultures suggest that they serve as a counterweight to the strong Republican and individualist tone of the region.
New England: Steady Habits, Changing Slowly ($19.95), edited by Andrew Walsh and Mark Silk, reveals a region less outspokenly religious (often to avoid historic tensions between Protestant and Catholic) but no less distinctive than other areas. New England is the most densely Catholic region in the country (although there is some slippage in this area) and there are more mainline Protestants than evangelicals, as well as a good deal of “nones, or unaffiliated individuals.
Sociologist Michelle Dillon writes that Catholicism in the region is changing due to the sex abuse crisis (with some sharp decreases in parish attendance) and demographics, although she does not see a major shift away from a relatively liberal political identity [she was writing before the 2004 elections; see page 1]. Other chapters include an examination of mainline Protestantism, where a strong tradition of civic involvement and interfaith cooperation survives, although the tradition faces shrinking and aging memberships, particularly in the northern reaches of the region. Evangelicals may be more of a minority in the region but are showing fast growth rates as well as new cooperation with each other and, just as important, with Roman Catholics against the secular tide.
03: The Children of God ($13.95) is the most recent book in Signature Books’ series on the Studies in Contemporary Religion.
Written by J. Gordon Melton, the 100-page book provides a brief historical sketch of the group, now known as “The Family,” from its roots in the Jesus movement of the 1960s to its many legal troubles and controversies in the 1980s and 90s, involving its sexual practices (such as flirty fishing, which used sex as a recruitment tool, and permissive sexual relations among youth and adults).
Melton discounts the charges of widespread sexual abuse by the Family, and argues that their sexual practices have been modified if not rescinded (still practicing open marriage as well as a new teaching that views Christ as a sexual lover). Melton also finds that the Family’s North American and European presence has fallen drastically as it has expanded into the Third World in the late 1990s.