01: The May issue of Harper’s magazine devotes several articles to the Christian right, portraying the movement in clearly alarmist tones.
Lewis Lapham’s ediorial is written in the style of the secularist jeremiads issued by H.L. Mencken, as he expresses astonishment that the “problem of religious belief” and “superstition” have returned, this time in the form of “dominionists.” The “dominionist” label has recently become popular among critics of the religious right and is taken to mean those who are seek to take over the U.S. and make it a Christian nation run according to the Bible.
In a report on the National Religious Broadcasters, writer Chris Hedges notes that dominionists are a broad coalition of fundamentalists, conservative charismatics, Catholics, and other evangelicals who have gained political power (and have their base in Orange Country, Calif., and Colorado Springs). There is little acknowledgement that “dominionism is actually a minority movement among evangelicals that is influential mainly among its more politicized leaders.
Another article by Jeff Sharlet focuses on “America’s most powerful megachurch,” the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. More than the others, Sharlet’s article is based on in-depth reporting, as he notes how free-market fervor, “ex-urban” angst and “spiritual warfare” concepts have shaped this charismatic church (which he repeatedly calls “fundamentalist”). The church’s pastor, Ted Haggard, also president of the National Association of Evangelicals, may be influential, but Sharlet provides little evidence that New Life Church is in the mainstream of evangelical or fundamentalist church life, aside from its use of cell groups, contemporary music, and “family values” language.
This issue of Harper’s may well demonstrate the growing anger and suspicion towards Christian right among a segment of liberal intellectuals, but it fails to provide a very convincing portrait of this complex and diverse movement.
02: Will Herberg’s classic book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which 50 years ago laid the groundwork for the idea of the triple melting pot of the three major American faiths, is commemorated and discussed in relation to current trends in the winter issue of the U.S. Catholic Historian.
Herberg argued that Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism functioned as agents of assimilation for immigrants, making religion rather than ethnicity the main bearer of identity for Americans. The easiest task for the contributors to this issue is in using their hindsight to account for Herberg’s shortcomings: non-Europeans, evangelicals, women, and black churches are largely absent from the book, and there are few hints of the ethnic and religious pluralism–both within and between religions– that would grip the country two decades later.
An article by sociologist John Schmalzbauer is especially noteworthy in showing how Herberg got it wrong in predicting the decline of such “sects” as the Pentecostals, as well as in his view that the “American way of life” would be the uniting force between religions. Rather, it is “family values” and culture war issues that have brought many Jews, Catholics and Protestants together.
Schmalzbauer does credit Herberg for showing how particular religious identities are lost during assimilation and the importance of forming subcultures in understanding how religions endure.
The issue costs $9 and is available from: U.S. Catholic Historian, P.O. Box 16229, Baltimore, MD 21210
03: While there have been several books on homosexuality and theology and the many divisions over this issue in congregations and denominations, Gay Religion (Alta Mira Press, $28.95), uniquely gathers together a broad range of articles and essays on gay religious groups and practices.
Editors Scott Thumma and Edward Gray note that gay religious expressions mirror the flexible structures and individualistic nature of American religion. The book is divided into three parts: homosexual religious groups that minister within the confines of denominational heritage; those “subaltern” religious communities and groups that privilege gay identity over preexisting religious tradition, seeking a spirituality that flows from gay experiences and lifestyles; and popular cultural expressions that express individual or shared spiritual expressions.
There seems to be a blurring of the lines between these various categories. For instance, it is not unusual for the denominational groups to reinterpret their respective traditions (in use of language, worship styles) in often unorthodox directions, even apart from sexual and gender issues; for instance, the Catholic gay group Dignity includes non-Catholics in leadership positions.
Another characteristic of the denominational groups is that they are sometimes temporary way stations for gays leaving their religions or switching to another denomination. A study of an independent gay synagogue finds that many members eventually leave after acquiring a gay identity and dealing with crisis situations and move on to mainstream or even Orthodox synagogues.
Some of the chapters do not pretend to be disinterested and readers may object to their bias, yet there are many noteworthy contributions, including: an examination of the gender conflicts in gay churches (with the makeup of congregations often determined by the gender of the leadership); a look at how gays often have a prominent role in syncretistic Santeria, while they have had little visible role in developing their own spiritual practices in Buddhist groups in the U,S; a study of the gay male devotion to Catholic St. Gerard Maiella; and how the various gay subcultures (i.e., those frequenting leather bars) derive a “spirituality” from their lifestyles.
04: Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Umma (Columbia University Press, $29.50), by French Islamic expert Olivier Roy, examines the way contemporary Muslims are looking beyond the secular nation-state and their own traditional cultures to find a more radicalized Islamic community.
Roy sees Islamism–the attempt to create a Muslim state–as a failed enterprise and even views forecasts of the growth of powerful Islamic communities in Europe and in other Western countries with a skeptical eye. This is because Muslims in the West are undergoing the same trends as their non-Islamic neighbors–slowing birth rates, individualism and the general loss of traditional ties.
But it is the loss of these ties that ironically feed neofundamentalist Islam, leading younger Muslims to seek a “virtual” and global “umma” or religious community shorn of national customs and traditions. Roy makes an interesting comparison between Muslim neofundamentalists and those in New Age, Sufi and Christian movements in their common distrust of external religious authority and elevation of personal experience. A concluding section of Islamic extremism and terrorism looks at the way the second generation of Al Queda is drawn largely from converts and disaffected Muslims living in the West.
05: On first impression, a reader may place Remaking Muslim Politics(Princeton University Press, $19.95), edited by Robert W. Hefner, on the mounting stack of high-minded books demanding liberal and Western-based reforms in Islam.
Yet the book is unique in that it provides actual case studies from around the world showing how many Muslims are changing their political strategies and related theological positions to deal constructively with pluralism and democracy. The book, a product of a Boston University initiative on Islam, pluralism and democracy, carries contributions on Islamic political movements in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt and how they point to a “civic-pluralist reformation of Muslim politics.”
In the introduction, Hefner notes how many of these reform movements start out as non-political–such as offering education and social services or making their presence known largely through burgeoning Internet sites (to which a chapter is devoted). But gradually they take on a public nature, possibly conflicting with militants in leadership, but also building coalitions across state/society lines– a trend most visible in Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
A concluding chapter on transnational Islam by political scientist Peter Mandaville, does an interesting job of profiling the various globalized Muslim groups and networks–from the extremists and jihaddists, such as Hizb u-Tahrir, to “cosmopolitans,” including the Turkish Fetullah Gulen. Mandeville concludes that the radical transnational groups are far fewer than the moderates, even if the former gets more publicity.
06: With two volumes, more than 1,200 pages, and an array of scholars, one understands why the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (Brill, $289), edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, took a lot of work and several years to complete.
Contributors come from various countries, which results in a good balance between information on American-based and European-based currents. While the approach is historical and articles cover about two millenia (including ancient gnosis), a number of entries also deal with recent and still existing movements.
Beyond the wealth of information prepared by qualified scholars, these two volumes can also be seen as an indication of a growing interest in the study of esotericism as a legitimate field of academic research. As Hanegraaf writes in the introduction, “due to ingrained ideological biases,” this field had been severely neglected “until far into the 20th century.”
Hanegraad himself is the head of a chair for the study of Western esotericism which was established in 1999 at the University of Amsterdam (http://www.amsterdamhermetica.com) with a complete subdepartment and teaching program.
Such impulses also contribute to the growing presence of scholars specializing in research on esotericism at international conferences of religious studies.
— By Jean-François Mayer